Obituary: Lord Wilson of Langside
Thursday 18 December 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.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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