William Jowitt, 1st Earl Jowitt
|The Right Honourable
The Earl Jowitt
|Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain|
27 July 1945 – 26 October 1951
|Prime Minister||Clement Attlee|
|Preceded by||The Viscount Simon|
|Succeeded by||The Lord Simonds|
|Born||15 April 1885
|Died||16 August 1957
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
|Alma mater||New College, Oxford|
William Allen Jowitt, 1st Earl Jowitt PC, KC (15 April 1885 – 16 August 1957), was a British Labour politician and lawyer, who served as Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain under Clement Attlee from 1945 to 1951.
Background and education
Jowitt was born in Stevenage, the son of Reverend William Jowitt, the village rector, by his wife Louisa Margaret (née Allen). At the age of nine he was sent to Northaw Place, a preparatory school in Potters Bar, where he first met and was looked after by Clement Attlee. From Northaw he went to Marlborough, and then to New College, Oxford. He studied law and was called to the Bar in 1909.
Legal and political career
Jowitt became a member of chambers in Brick Court in London. He proved himself a skilled advocate, attracting attention for his subdued and charming manner, at a time when barristers were more inclined to browbeat witnesses. He became a King's Counsel the day before the 1922 general election, in which he was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for The Hartlepools. Jowitt was a member of the faction of the Liberal Party led by H.H. Asquith, and somewhat radical in his beliefs. He continued to practise law whilst a backbench MP, and was not considered a great orator in the House of Commons.
Jowitt was re-elected, now part of the re-united Liberal Party, at the 1923 general election, and in 1924 was a member of the Royal Commission on Lunacy. He lost his seat in General Election later that year. Jowitt stood successfully in Preston in the 1929 general election, again being elected as a Liberal. Following the formation of a minority Labour's government, he was offered the position of Attorney General by the new Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. Labour had few experienced lawyers amongst its ranks in Parliament, and had experienced problems filling the positions of legal officers in its first government. Jowitt agreed, but resigned his seat and stood again as a candidate of the Labour Party. At the by-election in July 1929 Preston re-elected him with an increased majority. As was customary, Jowitt received a knighthood upon becoming Attorney General. His work mainly concerned the drafting of government Bills, and in particular the reversal of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927. As was still the custom for the Attorney General, he occasionally prosecuted in high-profile cases, notably Sidney Harry Fox, charged with murdering his mother by suffocating her then setting fire to her hotel room. It was said that a single question from Jowitt " explain to me why you shut the door?" sealed Fox's fate since he could think of no convincing answer.
When the Labour government split over the financial crisis in 1931, Jowitt was one of only a handful of Labour MPs to follow MacDonald into the National Government. He was uncomfortable in a coalition with the Conservatives, but believed that the proposed spending cuts which caused the split were necessary, and the coalition was necessary to force them through. Like others who joined the National Government, he was expelled from the Labour Party. He was made a Privy Councillor. However, he found himself in a difficult electoral position when he could not secure the withdrawal of the Conservative candidate in Preston in the 1931 General Election. He thus stood instead as the National Labour candidate for the English Universities, but here too was competing with other candidates supporting the National Government and was defeated. MacDonald persuaded Jowitt to remain as Attorney General in the hope that a new seat could be found, in order to maintain the handful of National Labour positions in the government, but this proved impossible and Jowitt stepped down. He was replaced as Attorney General in January 1932, and returned to the Bar. Though relatively new to the party, Jowitt greatly regretted the split with Labour. He remained close to MacDonald, but after Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister in 1935, Jowitt began campaigning for Labour. A number of Constituency Labour Parties attempted to nominate him as their candidate for the General Election that year, but he was still under expulsion. Unable to stand for Labour, he refused to stand for any other party or as an independent.
Jowitt was re-admitted to the Labour Party in November 1936. Still a public figure, he was a critical of the National Government's policy of appeasement and in 1937 he called for the state control of the arms industry and rapid rearmament to face the growing threat of fascism on the continent. In February 1939 he called for the recreation of the Ministry of Munitions. In October, he was adopted as Labour's candidate at a by-election in Ashton-under-Lyne and duly elected, unusually, unopposed. Eight months later, Winston Churchill appointed Jowitt as Solicitor General in his coalition government, in this capacity he dispensed legal advice to the government for two years of the war before being placed in charge of planning for reconstruction. He also held Cabinet positions that were mostly sinecures such as Paymaster General and then Minister without Portfolio while in this role. In 1944 he became Minister of National Insurance at the head of a new government department. He resigned from the government when Labour left the coalition in May 1945, following victory in Europe, and was re-elected for Ashton-under-Lyne in the General Election in July.
Labour now formed its first majority government and the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, appointed Jowitt as Lord Chancellor. As soon as he was appointed, Jowitt met with Robert Jackson to resolve outstanding points of contention over the draft London Charter, which would govern the procedures of the Nuremberg Trials. He retained the Conservative MP and out-going Attorney General, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, as the official liaison, but indicated that the new Attorney General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, would serve as Britain's Chief Prosecutor in the trials themselves. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Jowitt, of Stevenage in the County of Hertford, on 2 August, and entered the House of Lords. He led much important judicial legislation during the life of the Labour government, including an Act which granted full legal sovereignty to Canada and a number of other Commonwealth countries. He was also responsible for some key changes to the legal culture in Britain. He attempted to end political and social imbalances in the Magistrates Courts and is considered to have been the first Lord Chancellor to adopt a policy of appointing Judges purely on the basis of merit.
As Lord Chancellor he also served as Speaker of the House of Lords - a delicate job given the Conservative majority in the Lords. Christopher Addison, Labour's leader in the Lords, died shortly after the party's defeat in the 1951 General Election. Labour was now in Opposition, and Jowitt took over as leader of the Labour peers. He was created Viscount Jowitt, of Stevenage in the County of Hertford, in 1947, and was awarded an earldom as Earl Jowitt by Attlee in the 1951 Prime Minister's Resignation Honours. A senior figure in the party, and a member of the Shadow Cabinet, Jowitt was careful to keep the Labour peers out of the conflict between the Bevanites and Gaitskellites during the early 1950s. The opposition to the Conservative government in the Lords was meagre, but sometimes successfully rallied support from government backbenchers: in 1955, for instance, Jowitt led a successful rebellion in the Lords over a government Bill to criminalise the medical use of marijuana. Jowitt was a prominent spokesperson against human right abuses during the suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, teaming up with the Archbishop of Canterbury to launch a review of the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Colonel Arthur Young as Commissioner of Police in the colony. He stood down as leader in November of that year, at the age of seventy.
Jowitt married Lesley, daughter of James Patrick McIntyre, in 1913. He died at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in August 1957, aged 72. His Dictionary of English Law was published posthumously. His peerages, however, did not survive his death, as he had no male heirs.
- Kay Halle, The Irrepressible Churchill, (Robson Books, 1966), 44
- The Times, Friday, November 30, 1951; pg. 6; Issue 52172; col G: "The Resignation Honours: Earldom For Lord Jowitt".
- Elkins, C. (2005) Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, Pimlico: London
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by William Jowitt