Sir Ian Sinclair: Lawyer who helped ease Britain’s entry into the EEC


Apart from Edward Heath himself, his negotiator-in-chief Geoffrey Ripon and the pivotal civil servant Sir Con O’Neill, no individual did more to facilitate the UK’s entry into the EEC than the Chief Legal Adviser to the Government, Sir Ian Sinclair.

 In the best sense he was a heavyweight lawyers’ lawyer. Discretion prevailed. Small talk apart, the only sliver of substance he ever confided in me about matters of state was in his quiet, precise way: “Let us leave it at that – that I was deeply grateful as a British citizen that you and 68 Labour colleagues defied a three-line whip on 21 October 1971 to vote in favour of British entry [to the EEC].” Publicly he was an objective adviser on legal complexities. Privately he was a convinced European.

Ian McTaggart Sinclair was the son of a successful Glasgow businessman. He went to Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, where he excelled in Classics, winning the Scott Essay Prize, leading to a place at King’s College, Cambridge in 1943. After a year of Part One of the Classics Tripos, intermittently supervised by Frank Adcock and Patrick Wilkinson – both heavily engaged at Bletchley Park – he volunteered for military service.

On Wilkinson’s recommendation he was posted to the Intelligence Corps and spent two years with the Field Security Service in India and Malaya. This hazardous late-teenage experience had a profound effect, in that in later life he would do everything to avoid messy military action. “The trouble in Malaya,” he told me, “was that it was difficult to ascertain who were friends and who the enemy ...Politicians who have experienced fighting are less likely to be casual about sending other people’s fathers, brothers and sons to war.”

Returning to King’s in 1947, Sinclair persuaded the college, in the light of his Far East experience, to allow him to read Law, specialising in international Law. This showed determination, since King’s, under the provostship of Sir John Shepard, considered that Law was not a university subject. He completed a BA in 1948, benefiting from what he thought were the inspiring lectures of Hersch Lauterpacht, Whewell Professor of International Law. After graduating LLB with honours in 1949, Sinclair was to spend the next third of a century climbing the ladder of the Legal Department of the Foreign Office.

As a junior member of the legal team Sinclair thought of resigning over Selwyn Lloyd’s deceptions at Rambouillet during the Suez Crisis. But he and his wife, Barbara Lenton, whom he had married in 1954 – and who, having been a wonderful support, died six weeks before Sinclair – decided it would be pointless to “throw up” his career to little or no effect. Gestures and grandstanding were not in Sinclair’s nature.

His years (1957-60) as Legal Adviser to the British Embassy in Bonn confirmed his European commitment. It also introduced him to the big stage, involving contact at meetings with the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his Economics Minister (and successor as Chancellor) Ludwig Erhard. From 1960 until 1963 he was immersed in Macmillan’s forlorn attempt to gain British entry to the Common Market, which was vetoed by De Gaulle.

In 1964 Sinclair was sent to New York as Legal Adviser to the UK Mission to the UN. Because he came to respect UN procedures he was one of those who persuaded Margaret Thatcher to adhere to UN resolutions in the Falklands conflict. He spent another formative period as Legal Counsellor to the British Embassy in Washington until returning to London as Deputy Legal Adviser to the government. He was promoted in 1973 to Second Legal Adviser and in 1976 given the top job.

He had the satisfaction of achieving under Heath what he and others had failed to achieve under Macmillan. He was a master of the small print of treaties – though he pleaded with friends not to be thought of as the ultimate pedant. In particular he mastered the intricacies of the Common Agricultural Policy and formed a good working relationship with Sicco Mansholt and Pierre Lardinois, the powerful Agriculture Commissioners.

In  1982 Sinclair devised the plan for a military exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands. Had he been consulted about the decision to sink the Belgrano, and had his legal advice been taken, the bitter fighting and the loss of life might have been avoided. At the crucial moment he was flying south; had the Cabinet wished they could probably have contacted him on Ascension Island or in the air. The fact that they chose not to make the effort suggests that they knew that his advice would have been unpalatable.

In 1984, out of tune with Thatcher, Sinclair took early retirement and returned to the Bar. A Visiting Professor of International Law at King’s College, London, he did a five-year stint on the UN’s International Law Commission. Away from work, Sinclair was an acknowledged authority on seabirds and waders.

Ian McTaggart Sinclair, lawyer: born Glasgow 14 January 1926; legal adviser, Foreign Office, 1950-84; barrister practising public international law 1984–2005; Visiting Professor of International Law, King’s College, London 1989–93; CMG 1972, KCMG 1977; married 1954 Barbara Elizabeth Lenton (two sons, one daughter); died 8 July 2013.