Arthur Davidson obituary

Veteran media lawyer and Labour MP who served as shadow attorney general in the 1980s

The former Labour MP Arthur Davidson, who has died aged 91, was one of the most experienced – and certainly the longest-serving – media lawyers of his generation. He was called to the bar in 1953 and was still working regularly within weeks of his death more than 60 years later. His defining characteristic was a gift for friendship which transcended all barriers.

After winning the Lancashire seat of Accrington in the 1966 general election, Davidson began his long association with Fleet Street as the backbench libel lawyer on the old London Evening News. Later he was legal director of Associated Newspapers (1985–91) and after that for the Daily Mirror (1991–93). He was subsequently a legal consultant at Express Newspapers, and until he became ill in December was working for the listings magazine Time Out.

His professional expertise covered issues of legal complexity in sport and politics, as well as publications, and he was a respected authority consulted by leading sporting figures and politicians. He had a contacts book that was the envy of the business and reflected his gregarious habits, his huge range of interests and his immense popularity.

By 1983 he was shadow attorney general, but his promising political career was cut short at that year’s general election. His parliamentary constituency, redrawn with new boundaries as Hyndburn, became more of a marginal and, in what was in any case a difficult year for the Labour party, he lost the seat to the Conservative challenger, Ken Hargreaves, after six counts.

The first count and three subsequent recounts on the night of the election had given Davidson a narrow majority, but after the ballot boxes were locked away overnight, two more recounts gave victory to the Conservative. The result was the last in the country to be announced and Davidson lost by 21 votes.

He was born in Liverpool, raised in Southport and fought his first parliamentary elections in Blackpool South in 1955 and in Preston North in 1959. He was the second of three children, born to Abraham (Abe), who ran a carpet manufacturing business and Rose (nee Spieler). His father was born in Russia and came to the UK as a child.

The family moved to Southport on the outbreak of the second world war, fortuitously as their previous family home was bombed shortly afterwards. Arthur joined the merchant navy towards the end of the war and celebrated VE Day in May 1945 in Times Square, New York, aged 18. Although born in 1926, he took two years off his age when he was 40, just after reaching Westminster.

He had attended Liverpool college, and King George V school in Southport, and resumed his education after his wartime service, reading law at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was a lifelong sporting enthusiast, winning his Blue as a member of the Cambridge athletics team, and he was captain of athletics at Trinity. His later sports were rugby, skiing and tennis – the latter of which he continued playing into his 80s.

He also developed a love of theatre and jazz as a student and had a keen interest in horse racing, with a knowledge of racing form which he deployed to considerable effect at the bookmakers. He was a lifelong supporter of Liverpool FC.

He was picked for promotion early on at Westminster, as parliamentary private secretary to the solicitor general, Arthur Irvine (1968-70). When Harold Wilson returned to office as prime minister in 1974, he appointed Davidson parliamentary secretary to the law officers’ department, a frontbench job he held throughout that parliament.

He took silk in 1978. Thereafter he remained on the frontbench as a defence spokesman (1980-81) and on legal affairs as shadow attorney general from 1981. In one notable parliamentary incident he moved an amendment to the armed forces bill which was intended to end the then criminality of homosexual acts by members of the services. The amendment was defeated by the Conservative government and it was later quietly pointed out that this was probably just as well; a mistaken wording in the amendment would have made homosexuality in the forces compulsory, rather than permissible.

Davidson was a reforming, sensible member of the soft left in the parliamentary party, but managed to combine membership of the Tribune group with that of the more gradualist Fabian Society. He was also a member of the influential Society of Labour Lawyers, chaired the home affairs group within the parliamentary Labour party before he joined the government and chaired the House of Commons jazz club. He was a man who liked to be liked, and succeeded at it, but although he had a sizeable personal vote in his constituency, he failed sufficiently to contain the radical Militant left in Accrington, which weakened him politically.

His life was also characterised by a chaotic personal life. When practising as a barrister in Manchester shortly after qualifying, he was married for two years to Honoria “Stevie” Nugent, and in 1983 he married Joan Ferguson, by whom he already had a son, Joel. He adopted Joan’s daughter, Moon, but became estranged from Joan more than 20 years ago.

He is survived by Joel and Moon, by his grandchildren, Shoshanna and Esme, by his sister, Harriet, and his brother, John.

• Arthur Davidson, lawyer and politician, born 7 November 1926, died 16 January 2018


Julia Langdon

The GuardianTramp

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