The former Labour attorney general John Morris, who has died aged 91 after a short illness, clocked up an extraordinary series of records during 64 years in the Commons and Lords. At the time of his death he was the longest-serving member of the privy council, to which he was appointed in 1970, and had sat in cabinet under three prime ministers, the last of whom, Tony Blair, was six years old when Morris was first elected as MP for Aberavon, south Wales, in 1959.
In one of his earliest posts, as a junior transport minister, he helped pilot the 1967 Road Safety Act, introducing the breathalyser, through the Commons under the aegis of the then transport secretary, Barbara Castle. He was secretary of state for Wales for the entirety of the 1974-79 Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, and after the ensuing years in opposition was appointed by Blair in 1997 as the senior law officer in his new Labour government.
Morris was the only member of Blair’s top team to have had previous cabinet experience.
He was the longest-serving Welsh MP until his retirement from the Commons in 2001, the last former Labour MP elected in the 1950s and the last surviving member of Wilson’s cabinet of 1974-76. From his first ministerial appointment in 1964 as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Power he spent 33 years on the frontbenches, a period that would have been continuous but for his absence between 1981 and 1983 when he was dropped from the shadow team by Michael Foot.
His most difficult term in office came during Labour’s first ill-fated attempt in the 70s to recognise the upsurge of nationalism in Scotland by introducing devolution, while at the same time mistakenly proposing a similar measure for Wales despite the absence of any equivalent demand.
The issue was unpopular with the Welsh electorate, highly divisive within the Labour party – Neil Kinnock was against it – and ended with a thumping 80% of voters in Wales rejecting the idea in a referendum held on St David’s day in 1979. It was a considerable humiliation for Morris, who had been appointed to the post of Welsh secretary by Wilson for this specific task, succeeding George Thomas (later Lord Tonypandy), who had fervently opposed devolution.
“The truth had to be faced. We had failed abysmally,” Morris ruefully acknowledged. “When you see an elephant on your doorstep, you recognise it.”
The eventual establishment in 1998 of the Welsh assembly, now the Senedd Cymru, under the Blair government, was “very little different”, he would later claim defensively, from the proposals for a Welsh “powerhouse” such as he had advocated so unsuccessfully two decades earlier. After he left government, by which time devolution was seen as a proven success, he said: “My fingers were on the strings of that harp from beginning to end.”
He was a skilful and capable humanitarian with a strong commitment to public service and he energetically pursued the interests of his constituents throughout his long years as an MP. His 1959 maiden speech was about the need for a bypass for the steelworks of Port Talbot, and the eventual south Wales extension of the M4 was one of the significant improvements in the Aberavon infrastructure during a period of considerable industrial change. His main constituency focus was on industrial investment, port development and the NHS.
As Welsh secretary in 1976 he established the Welsh Development Agency which pursued such advancement nationwide until it was merged into the Welsh government in 2006. He was also responsible for securing special development status for north west Wales.
He had been unexpectedly chosen as the Labour candidate for Aberavon, aged 28, when he was practising in Swansea as a barrister, pursuing personal injury claims on behalf of miners and steelworkers. He was also assistant general secretary and legal adviser to the Farmers’ Union of Wales from 1956 to 1958, reflecting the agricultural interest of his family background. He had joined the Labour party in 1951.
Born in Capel Bangor, near Aberystwyth, Ceredigion (then Cardiganshire), he was the son of Olwen (nee Edwards), a district nurse and midwife, and DW (David) Morris. His father, who had been a magistrate and farmer, died when he was six and his mother married another local farmer, Evan Lewis. John was one of six sons born to Olwen, and all five of his brothers became farmers.
His brother DW (Dai) Morris became first principal of the Welsh Agricultural College. John – who joked that he was the “black sheep” of the family – went to Ardwyn grammar school and the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, before studying law at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and the Academy of International Law in The Hague.
He did his national service partly in Germany, commissioned into the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Welch Regiment, and was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in 1954. In his memoir Fifty Years in Politics and the Law (2011) he would describe himself thereafter as “a circus artist riding two horses” as he subsequently pursued parallel careers in the courts and at Westminster.
He took silk in 1973, and sat as deputy circuit judge in 1979 and as a recorder from 1982 to 1997. He practised from 2 Bedford Row chambers in London, which he shared with several other political lawyers, including Sir Michael (later Lord) Havers, whom he would shadow when the latter became attorney general in the government of Margaret Thatcher.
Morris spent two years at the Ministry of Power until 1966, chairing a committee dealing with pneumoconiosis during that time, and a further two years thereafter at the Ministry of Transport. Wilson promoted him to minister of state at the Ministry of Defence, with responsibility for equipment, in 1968 and he became a junior defence spokesman in opposition between 1970 and 1974. After the fall of the Callaghan government in 1979, he began his long stint as Labour’s senior law officer.
He was on the centre-right of the party, and during its internal struggles of the late 70s and early 80s chaired the multilateral Labour defence and disarmament group aimed at reversing the party’s then unilateral policy. He nominated Roy Hattersley as party leader and deputy in 1983 in the leadership election won by Kinnock and was restored to the frontbench after his two-year absence.
His significant contribution as attorney general in the Blair government was to set up a review of the Crown Prosecution Service. He was also responsible for authorising the legitimacy of the targets during Nato’s air attacks on Kosovo, something he considered of the utmost seriousness. He stood down voluntarily in 1999, announcing at the same time that he would stand down as an MP at the next election, and was rewarded with a knighthood.
He became a life peer in 2001 and two years later was appointed to the Order of the Garter. In the Lords he remained active until within weeks of his death.
In 1959 he married Margaret Lewis, a nursery school teacher and magistrate. She and their three daughters, Nia, Non and Elinor, survive him.
John Morris, Lord Morris of Aberavon, politician and lawyer, born 5 November 1931; died 5 June 2023