Times Obituary: Barrister Arthur Davidson

Arthur Davidson

Barrister and politician who championed consumer rights and press freedom, and once posed for the cover of Time Out

January 30 2018, 12:01am, 

The Times


                                     Davidson when MP for Accrington                Picture: Rex Features

Many a would-be politician has experienced the desultory feeling of a public meeting that falls flat. For Arthur Davidson, an idealistic 26-year-old barrister, it was while standing for Labour in Blackpool South in his first general election in 1955. His opponent was Roland Robinson, the incumbent Conservative MP. Davidson turned up on a rain-soaked day for a hustings, but his ardour was soon drenched. “The audience consisted of a solitary man,” he recalled, “and he walked off halfway through my speech.” Undeterred, he battled on and entered parliament 11 years later, and served as shadow attorney-general in the 1980s.

Davidson, who in private practice acted for sports personalities such as Alan Shearer, Jimmy Hill, Kenny Dalglish, Des Lynam and Roy Evans, was a champion of free speech. He raised questions in the Commons about trials held in secret, campaigned against the pernicious nature of the Official Secrets Act and highlighted the erosion of habeas corpus, the principle under which a person cannot be detained without a valid reason. “The effectiveness of habeas corpus has been so whittled down that it can no longer be regarded as an effective safeguard against arbitrary arrest,” he wrote in The Times in 1980, highlighting alleged illegal immigrants who were detained without charge.

He was a consumer champion and introduced a bill in the 1970s to stamp out “inertia selling”, where companies sent people goods that had not been ordered and then demanded payment, often with threatening letters. He also called for changes to the law of contempt, arguing that the police need the media to publicise criminal cases. The vagueness of the statute meant that journalists did not know “proceedings are imminent” and risked being in the dock themselves if their reporting was found to have jeopardised a trial, he said.

“I do not defend the press, if their quest for greater freedom is solely to publish tittle-tattle or sensationalism for its own — or circulation’s sake,” he wrote in the News of the World in 1980. “But I do defend its rights to ensure that the fraudulent businessman is stopped from exploiting the gullible; or the powerful and wealthy organisation prevented from continuing its unsavoury practices. And, above all, that the dangerous villain is speedily brought before the courts.”

Arthur Davidson was born in Liverpool in 1926 (and not 1928, as he told Who’s Who), the son of Abraham Davidson, a carpet salesman from Latvia, and his wife, Rose (née Spieler), who was from London. Young Arthur was educated at Liverpool College and King George V School, Southport.

He read law at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the university athletics team, captained his college’s team and edited The Granta, the university’s literary magazine. After serving in the merchant navy, he became a barrister and was called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1953. He took Silk in 1978. He worked for some years as northern legal manager for the Daily Express in Manchester.

At his first attempt to enter parliament Davidson managed to make a tiny dent in Robinson’s five-figure majority. Undeterred, he tried his hand at Preston North four years later, but lost again. It was third time lucky for Davidson in 1966, when he held the Accrington seat for Labour — Harry Hynd was retiring — with a majority of 6,822.

Unhappy with Maxwell’s working practices, he moved on quickly and joined Cloisters Chambers, a well-known set of liberal barristers

He served as a junior minister for Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s and was appointed defence spokesman for the army by Michael Foot before being promoted to legal affairs spokesman and finally shadow attorney-general in November 1982.

Boundary changes led to the abolition of his constituency and he stood in 1983 for the new seat of Hyndburn, but lost by 21 votes to Ken Hargreaves, the Conservative. He put his name forward again, but four left-wingers were chosen for the shortlist.

After a brief early marriage, Davidson married Joan Ferguson in 1983. She survives him, although they have long been estranged. Davidson is also survived by their son, Joel, who is an accountant and a Conservative councillor in Brent; their daughter, Mona, who is a homemaker; and his granddaughters, Esme and Shoshana.

Michael Havers, the Conservative attorney-general, offered Davidson the chance to be a judge after he lost his seat, but he declined and returned to legal practice. In 1987 he was hired by Lord Rothermere to be legal director for the Daily Mail. On one occasion he was summoned by Rothermere to explain his expenses. Davidson began the interview by apologising, but was silenced by the proprietor, who said: “The problem is you’re not using them. You have an account at the Savoy. You must use it.”

Four years later Robert Maxwell, the owner of Mirror Group Newspapers whom he had known as a fellow MP, made Davidson “an offer I couldn’t refuse” as legal director of the company. Unhappy with Maxwell’s working practices, he moved on quickly and joined Cloisters Chambers, a well-known set of liberal barristers.

He was a consultant to the legal department at Express Newspapers and later Time Out magazine. In 2009 he posed on the cover as a commissionaire flashing a torch into the camera for a piece on “secret museums”. John Lewis, a journalist who worked there, recalled how he seemed to have known everybody. “A stray query about a potentially libellous paragraph would often lead to a revelation that he’d stayed at Harry Nilsson’s house, or been offered a joint by the Grateful Dead, or recently had dinner with Frank Bruno.”

Davidson, who described his musical interests as “listening to good jazz and playing bad jazz”, was a founding member in 1973 of the Commons Jazz Society. He worshipped at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood and played tennis into his eighties.

Despite being a brilliant raconteur, he was a quiet man who enjoyed a flutter, watching a Test match at Lord’s and following Liverpool FC, where he often sat in the directors’ box. On one occasion, when the team reached the final of a European competition, he flew not in the players’ aircraft, but in the one carrying the wives and girlfriends. “That would have suited Arthur to a tee,” said a colleague, recalling his appreciation of female pulchritude.

Arthur Davidson, QC, MP and lawyer, was born on November 7, 1926. He died on January 16, 2018, aged 91

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre