Professor Lord Wedderburn of Charlton, QC

4 Apr 2012| News

30 March 2012

The great labour lawyer, Bill Wedderburn, committed his life’s work to the advancement of the interests of the working class. His towering intellect, his brilliance as an academic lawyer, his profound knowledge of labour law (both here and abroad), his elegance as a writer, his inspirational teaching and his immense enthusiasm and energy were devoted to this end. But these immense gifts never masked his warmth, generosity and impish wit.

Bill’s partisanship could never be used against him because of the faultlessness of his legal analysis. His insight and breadth of vision as to the context, function and purpose of labour law was matched only by his immense command of the detail of it. Like Kahn Freund before him, his exposition of the comparable law of other countries provided a tool for highlighting – at the same time – the universality of the role of labour law in moderating the endless struggle between capital and labour but also its national characteristics, moulded by history, economics and culture.

As an academic he produced an endless flow of some of the most insightful writings in the field of labour law. His lecture given at the age of 80 and published in the Industrial Law Journal, “Labour Law 40 Years On,” is a brilliant example of both the breadth and the depth of his analysis of labour law and its interplay with the events and forces of the world outside the courts.

Of course, it was “The Worker and the Law,” first published in 1965 and in many editions thereafter, that made his name throughout the labour movement. The book, in language accessible to all, is a masterpiece of exposition of a hideously complex legal subject. Eventually the law at work became too big for a single volume. Bill was never prepared to reduce its scope from ‘labour law’ to ‘employment law’ which meant disregarding collective aspects. In fact, he disparaged those who suggested that the law at work need no longer concern itself with collective labour relations.

Bill Wedderburn was born in Deptford (his team was Charlton FC), to parents who ran a scale-makers in New Cross. Educated at a local grammar school he got a scholarship to Cambridge. After national service in the RAF he taught at Clare College, Cambridge from 1952 to 1964 when he joined the LSE as Cassel Professor of Commercial Law. There, over some 30 years, he established an academic base for labour law renowned throughout the world. He served on the editorial boards of a multitude of labour law publications and was the editor of the Modern Law Review for 17 years. He was appointed a life peer in 1977, having been the chief architect of the Labour government’s trade union legislation of the 1970s. His principal role in the House of Lords was, as he saw it, to defend workers’ and trade union rights, a task which he consistently sought to fulfil until illness prevented him late last year. He had resigned the Labour whip (but not the Party) in disgust at the worst excesses of New Labour but rejoined when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister.

Though called to the Bar in 1953 and made an honorary QC in 1990, he rarely appeared in court. However, he was junior counsel in some of the textbook strike cases of the 1960s. I had the honour to lead him on behalf of the NUM in some of the crucial civil litigation of the strike of 1984-5. For both of us I think the high point of our court-room collaboration must be the case of Wilson and Palmer v UK in 2002, the first successful trade union case before the European court of Human Rights. He and I also collaborated in establishing the Institute of Employment Rights (‘a think-tank for the Labour Movement’) in 1989 – of which he was the first President.

Bill leaves four children. His third wife, Frances to whom he had been married since 1969, was with him at the end.

John Hendy QC

Other obituaries appeared in The Guardian, The Independent,and The British Humanist Association