published 12/03/2012 at 17:37 GMT by Bill McCarthy
Politician, academic and pioneer of the study of labour law
Bill Wedderburn, who has died aged 84, was the golden boy of English labour law, with a scholarship to Queens' College, Cambridge, a first in classics, a double-starred first in law and an LLB result that won him the Chancellor's medal. After two years in the RAF (1949-51), he became a fellow of Clare College, where he persuaded Cambridge to put labour law into the rubric by disguising it as "industrial law". He was called to the bar at Middle Temple in 1953.
By the time the founder of the subject, Sir Otto Kahn-Freund, went to Oxford as professor of comparative law, Bill had become his natural heir, and in 1964 he was offered Otto's chair at the LSE. There, he established an outstanding school, with a string of distinguished alumni.
But the key to his long supremacy lay in the stream of books, articles and published lectures that appeared with what looked like effortless regularity. In terms of immediate impact the first was the most spectacular: The Worker and the Law (1965). It began with a typical Bill putdown: "Most workers want nothing more of the law than that it should leave them alone."
Having taught himself his subject, Bill set out to convey its essence, with comprehensiveness and lucidity, at a level that professionals respected and novices could follow. He also defined boundaries and explained the links with other aspects of jurisprudence. There was a profusion of diagrams and quite a few jokes. He found that he had written a bestseller. For the next 25 years successive reprints and new editions sold out. He then decided it was no longer possible to do justice to the weight of statutes and cases involved within two covers, however wide apart. Since that time there have been several attempts to prove him wrong, but none have approached his conciseness or readability.
By the early 80s his own interests had broadened. The underlying assumptions of the 1965 edition of The Worker had been the primacy of domestic labour law, as prescribed by the immunities – notably of trade unions from liability for damages arising from strike actions – of the 1906 Trade Disputes Act. Now it was essential to consider the impact of much wider developments, especially those rooted in Britain's membership of the EU.
Bill responded with a series of comparative studies, such as Labour Law and the Community (1983) and Employment Rights in Britain and Europe (1991). He also organised and attended countless international symposiums, making him the doyen of European labour law. From time to time there were also sorties into contract, tort and commercial law. For 17 years he was general editor of the Modern Law Review.
The only problem for those of us not sufficiently multilingual was that we frequently lost sight of his quarry. But the gift for simple explanation in plain English never left him in debate. And he also found time for one glorious general attack on a broad target: a bravura assault on the work of Friedrich Hayek, ideologically attractive to the Thatcherite right, who was accused of an almost total absence of empirical data.
Bill began advising the TUC during its campaign against the Conservatives' 1971 Industrial Relations bill, receiving a standing ovation after a speech at the Albert Hall. When Labour returned to power he virtually wrote the 1974 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, which was designed to replace the Tory measure. He became chair of the TUC's independent review committee, served on the Bullock committee on industrial democracy and was made a Labour peer in 1977. He also became an increasingly active advocate and was made a QC in 1990, two years before he became emeritus professor at the LSE.
During the Thatcher years, Bill opposed all eight of the anti-trade union bills that passed through the Lords, for most of the time from Labour's frontbench. He greatly enjoyed his jousts with Lord Hailsham, and the few others worthy of his powder.
In 1989 he helped to found the Institute of Employment Rights, as a "labour law thinktank supported by the unions". He served as its president for six years, hoping it might influence the legislation passed by a future Labour government. Long before 1997 he knew what to expect from New Labour in the field of trade union law reform; but he did his best to improve what was on offer by reasoned amendments that he never pressed to a division. He was mildly surprised by the inability to take on board his many technical points, which were designed to clarify the government's intentions rather than subvert them. He also despaired of the decline in the level of parliamentary draughtsmanship and advice. But he remained, to the last, a loyal supporter of his party, voting for them in countless late-night divisions.
Fellow academics sometimes alleged that Bill could be difficult. In retrospect one can see how his fantastic workload, and latterday pain and discomfort, might well have combined to limit his toleration for what he took to be self-evident error. I also think that he was never satisfied, though through examining his own thought processes rather than yours.
However, no one asked for help in vain. And he was always the epitome of courtesy and consideration when relating to the ordinary people he continued to identify with. He was born and brought up in Deptford, south-east London, the son of Herbert and Mabel Wedderburn, who ran a scale-makers in New Cross Road. Herbert started off Bill's love of Charlton Athletic FC by taking him to his first match when he was two. And Bill was proud to find out later that he was a descendant of the 18th-century anti-slavery campaigner Robert Wedderburn. Bill went to Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham school in nearby New Cross, then Whitgift school, Croydon.
His humour was a mix of wit and fun. He sent comic postcards when abroad containing libels of distinguished public figures in the news. An early and compulsive surfer of the internet, he bombarded his friends with his discoveries.
By his first marriage, to Nina Salaman in 1951, he had three children, Sarah, David and Lucy. His second marriage, in 1962, was to Dorothy Cole, who as Dorothy Wedderburn became a distinguished social scientist; like the first, it ended in divorce. By his third marriage, to Frances Knight in 1969, he had a son, Jonathan. She and his four children survive him.
Kenneth William Wedderburn, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton, politician, lawyer and academic, born 13 April 1927; died 9 March 2012
published 12/03/2012 at 17:37 GMT by Bill McCarthy