Willy Brown obituary

Other lives: Academic and expert in industrial relations

My friend and colleague of more than 50 years, Willy Brown, who has died aged 74, was an expert in industrial relations, holding chairs in the subject at both the University of Warwick and the University of Cambridge.

He was also an academic administrator who took up senior positions in scholarly associations, governmental bodies and at Cambridge, including being master of Darwin College. His research, policy formulation, and, perhaps above all, his humanity and decency, made him one of the most influential academics of his generation.

The concept of “fairness” was central to his research. He believed workplace representatives were motivated not by political militancy but by a desire to create stability in pay and other matters when management had abdicated responsibility, preferring to rely on payment systems that simply saw workers as there to maximise earnings. The result, in his view, was that employers got the unions they deserved.

He was a founding member of the Low Pay Commission, which introduced the national minimum wage in 1999. The success of the LPC in enhancing the NMW over the past 20 years, without producing either unemployment or inflation, largely stems from its structure of social partnership – in which Willy played an important role as a mediator – and its methodology of rigorous research, solid statistics and academic integrity, which he was instrumental in introducing.

His mediation skills were also often used by the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, on whose council he served. And, despite being a modest person, he could not conceal his delight at the implicit compliment when Acas asked him to mediate a dispute between its own management and staff.

Although much of his research was informed by fieldwork case studies, he was the driving force in launching large-scale, representative employment relations surveys in the UK, which led to the government’s flagship Workplace Employment Relations Study and to similar surveys in Australia and Canada.

Willy was born in Oxford, the son of the economist Arthur Brown, and Joan (nee Taylor), a linguist and teacher. After attending Leeds grammar school on a scholarship, he went to Wadham College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. He was on the staff of Warwick University between 1968 and 1985, and was Montague Burton professor of industrial relations at Cambridge University from 1985 until his retirement in 2012.

Willy’s research, communicated in clear and elegant prose, will have a lasting impact on the field of industrial relations.

So, too, will his academic generosity in sharing authorship, his collegiality that produced so many friends and his mentorship of numerous students in the UK and many other countries, including Canada, Australia and China.

Willy is survived by his second wife, Jackie Scott, a professor, whom he married in 2017, and her daughters, Sarah and Rachel; two stepdaughters, Rachel and Sarah, from his first marriage, to Kim Hewitt, which ended in divorce; six grandchildren; and his older brother Henry.

George Bain

The GuardianTramp

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