William Jowitt, 1st Earl Jowitt

William Jowitt, 1st Earl Jowitt

William Allen Jowitt, 1st Earl Jowitt, PC, (15 April 1885 – 16 August 1957), was a British lawyer and politician. He served as Lord Chancellor in the government of Clement Attlee.

Lawyer and MP

William Jowitt was born in Stevenage, the son of the village rector. 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, and was 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 Herbert 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 ran again as a candidate of the Labour Party. 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 Trades Dispute and Trade Unions Act 1927.

Divided loyalties

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. Eight months later, Winston Churchill appointed Jowitt as Solicitor General in his coalition government. He held this position for two years, before being placed in charge of planning for reconstruction. He held sinecure positions, as Paymaster General and then Minister without Portfolio, whilst 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.

Lord Chancellor

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 on 2 August (he became a Viscount in 1947), 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 awarded an Earldom by Attlee in the 1951 Prime Minister's Resignation Honours. ["The Times", Friday, November 30, 1951; pg. 6; Issue 52172; col G: "The Resignation Honours: Earldom For Lord Jowitt".]

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 lead a successful rebellion in the Lords over a government Bill to criminalise the medical use of marijuana. He stood down as leader in November of that year, at the age of seventy, dying two years later. His "Dictionary of English Law" was published posthumously. His peerage, however, did not survive his death, as he had no eligible heirs.


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