Obituary: Lord Wilson of Langside

Henry Stephen Wilson, lawyer and politician: born Glasgow 21 March 1916; called to the Scottish Bar 1946; Advocate-Depute 1948-51; Sheriff Substitute for Greenock 1955-56, for Glasgow 1956-65; QC Scotland 1965; Solicitor General for Scotland 1965-67; Lord Advocate 1967-70; PC 1967; created 1969 Baron Wilson of Langside; Director, Scottish Courts Administration 1971-74; Sheriff Principal of Glasgow and Strathkelvin 1975-77; married 1942 Jay Waters (died 1996); died Glasgow 23 November 1997.

"When you have given yourself up for dead on the beach at Anzio as I did, thinking there was no hope after I had been wounded, you do not succumb easily to pressure. If you live on borrowed time it toughens you up." And Harry Wilson was very tough indeed, physically and mentally and in his relations with people who he thought were not doing what he conceived to be the right thing.

At the Perth conference of the Scottish Conservative Party in 1968, Ted Heath decided to set up a committee to consider Tory proposals for a Scottish assembly. Devolution had become fashionable. The Tory high command announced that Lord Avonside, a court of session judge - as a former Lord Advocate, Ian Shearer - had agreed to serve on the committee set up by the Tories on the nomination of the formidable Lord President, the head of the Scottish justice system Lord Clyde.

Wilson, who was not at that time a member of the House of Lords but was Lord Advocate, took it upon himself to say that this appointment of Avonside was consitutionally unacceptable. Wilson believed it drove a coach and horses through the long-standing convention that judges should not meddle in party politics. Further, he took it on himself to bring this decision formally to the House of Lords.

Mayhem broke out. Legal Edinburgh was entranced by his effrontery, the Scottish tabloids loved it - and so did the Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman, even if they showed more decorum. After a fortnight Lord Avonside resigned. Harry Wilson had shown that he was no respecter of persons if he believed that they had acted wrongly, albeit that he regarded Ian Shearer, Lord Avonside, as a very considerable lawyer.

Years later Wilson was to display the same relentless obstinacy in 1978-79 when he opposed the setting up of a Scottish assembly. He referred to "the influence of the fanatic Left and the blatant dishonesty of the Labour Party's devolution campaign" as the main reasons for his decision to support the Conservatives at the 1979 general election, which he did, seated between Teddy Taylor, the then Shadow of State Secretary for Scotland, and the late Lord Goold, then head of the Tory party's main Scottish policymaking body.

His action immediately produced a scornful response from the Labour Party. "Who is Lord Wilson of Langside?" demanded Mrs Helen Liddell, now Economic Secretary to the Treasury, then Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, when told of his decision. In a reference to Wilson's chairmanship of the "Scotland Says No" campaign in the devolution referendum of 1979, Liddell added, "He seems to have been keeping bad company of late."

The point about Wilson is that he would judge everything on the basis of what he saw as its merits, and after Anzio he couldn't give a proverbial damn what company he kept.

Henry Stephen Wilson was the second of the four children of James Wilson, Solicitor Scotland for the Old London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company. He went to school at one of the most rigorous secondary schools in Britain, the High School of Glasgow, with its tradition of Latin, Greek and mathematics.

His studies were just completed at Glasgow University's Law School when the Second World War broke out, and he volunteered as a private. He met another private who had also volunteered, the son of an Ayrshire railwayman by the name of Willie Ross; the friends were commissioned at the same time into the Highland Light Infantry. More than a quarter of a century later it was Willie Ross who made the outwardly surprising choice of Wilson as Solicitor General for Scotland, and it was he who persuaded Harold Wilson to make his army friend the first Lord Advocate to sit in the House of Lords since the 1707 Act of Union.

On leaving the Army, Wilson was called to the Scottish Bar in 1946. In 1948 he got his first foot on the ladder becoming Advocate Depute at the Crown Office until 1951 when he left the practice of the Bar, specialising in employers' liability.

This was a recommendation for the Dumfriesshire Constituency Labour Party to choose him as their candidate in 1950 (it was an unwinnable seat) and for the West Edinburgh Labour Party, which was not a hopeless seat, to choose him in 1951. Out of loyalty to the party, knowing that there was again no chance of beating the popular Conservative minister Niall McPherson in Dumfriesshire in 1955, he agreed to be the token standard-bearer.

Assuming that politics had passed him by, he accepted the post of Sheriff in Greenock and then for a decade in Glasgow. He was genuinely astonished when his old friend Willie Ross, a man of incorruptible judgment, asked him to be Solicitor General on Lord Stott's going to the bench. Wilson was promoted and became Lord Advocate in 1967. Created a life peer in March 1969, Wilson made his maiden speech to the Lords on his old subject of expertise, employers' liability, on 1 May 1969.

His pawky sense of humour went down well and was incapsulated in his maiden speech. "I can think of three reasons for supporting the Employers' Liability Bill. First, because of the advances and developments in the fields of law, known in England as tort and in Scotland as reparation, have emerged from notable decisions of your Lordships' House in Scottish appeals."

Because Wilson was a friend of mine and was going to make his maiden speech I was present and saw the twinkle in his eye:

There was, of course, the classic case of the decomposed snail which floated out from the dark, opaque glass bottle of ginger beer where it had been lurking unseen. This incident all started simply enough of a peaceful summer's night in the Scottish town of Paisley, when a simple Scottish housewife sought a modest refreshment in a little cafe, and ended in your Lordships' house as a historic landmark in the law reports, as Donoghue v Stevenson.

History does not relate whether

this circumstance mitigated the distress which had been caused to Mrs Donoghue by her experience, but it may well be that it did, particularly since at the end of the day, thanks to the wisdom of your lordships, she won her case.

Wilson was regarded as a learned and heavyweight lawyer with a light touch. It was perhaps typical of rectitude that he refused - as his predecessor in the Attlee government, Lord Wheatley, had done - to profit from the opportunity of personal patronage that by tradition had accompanied the post of Lord Advocate. Wilson, like Wheatley, declined to appoint himself to the bench. His decision induced Dr Dickson Mabon, then Minister of State at the Scottish Office, to tell him that he must be out of his mind. Sure enough the Conservatives, infuriated by what he had done to Lord Avonside, did not make him a judge. However he was appointed the first director of the Scottish Courts Administration, and then in 1975 he became Sheriff Principal of Glasgow and Strathkelvin, the busiest local Sheriff Court in Britain and actually a more influential post than that of most judges.

Harry Wilson was the first to conduct a serious argument that the Shrieval Bench should be a preparation for becoming a judge of the Court of Session, which, until recently, drew all its members from the Faculty of Advocates. My last contact with him was some months ago when he expressed the greatest gloom about relations between Scotland and England following the referendum result. He wondered sadly where an English backlash would lead.

scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Market Administrator (1st line Support, Bloomberg, Broker)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Market Administrator (1st line Support, Trade Fl...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

Data Support Analyst (Linux, Solaris, Windows Server, Reuters)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Data Support Analyst (Linux, Solaris, Windows Se...

Helpdesk Support Engineer (Windows, MS Office, Exchange)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Helpdesk Support Engineer (Windows, MS Office, E...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition