Lawson Neil


Neil Lawson 



Born on April 8th 1907 (or 1908), Lawson was a member of the Communist Party member from about 1931, probably formally for a decade, possibly secretly or informally for another thirty years. But, in the post-war era, his Party role becomes more shadowy and almost all that is known about him arises from surveillance on him by MI5, which first began recording details on him in 1932.


In 1933, he was closely involved with D N Pritt in the legal arguments about those falsely accused by the Nazis of setting the Reichstag on fire. (MI5’s lack of sophistication in recording this has led to erroneous suggestions that Lawson defended Dimitrov in court, when the great Communist leader ably defending himself.

However, Lawson did help D N Pritt, who acted as the Chairman of a high profile international counter-trial of renowed judicial persons in a “Commission of Inquiry” in London from 21st-28th September 1933.


By 1938 he was Treasurer of the Legal Group of the Communist Party, which kept much of its activities discreet due to the sensitivity of the client base of many solicitors and barristers engaged in normal legal work. Lawson was also Secretary of the Communist group within the National Council of Civil Liberties (today’s Liberty).


As effectively now the Party’s main lawyer, Lawson acted for the 'Daily Worker' in a contempt of court case after it had criticised TUC general secretary, Sir Walter Citrine, when he had met the French Labour Minister in December, 1939 in Paris, amidst much talk of cutting workers wages in both countries as part of the war effort against Germany. Citrine sued the paper after Ben Francis, the paper’s industrial correspondent, accused him and his associates of "plotting with the French Citrines to bring millions of Anglo-French Trade Unionists behind the Anglo-French imperialist war machine".


Ernie Pountney (see separate entry), officially the publisher, pleaded the British press equivalent of 'fair comment'. Citrine alleged, in response to his lawyer's questioning, that the Daily Worker received £2,000 pounds per month from "Moscow", and that Moscow directed the paper to print anti-war stories. Citrine was awarded £300 damages, a sum the paper could ill-afford.


It is probable that Lawson’s contact with the Party diminished simply for practical reasons during the Second World War but MI5 were aware “from top secret and delicate sources” (in other words a combination of a mole inside the Party and surveillance) that after the war he renewed his contact with the Communist Party. His connections deepened in the cold war but Lawson’s legal career began to take off when he became a QC in 1955.


He had begun to let his overt connection with the Party fade, almost certainly for professional reasons. But Lawson continued to make financial contributions on the quiet until 1957 and may have been a secret member until then. The sums he gave were considered by the security forces to be considerable and not to be affected by either Krushchev’s revelations about Stalin, or by the events in Hungary, which MI5 noted was “a subject on which he entirely accepts the Communist Party line”.


The turning point for him in terms of his leaving the Party behind, which he did so in such a quiet manner that few realised he had ever been involved in the first place, seems to be so as to be freer in his legal career. The trigger seems to have been when he was appointed legal adviser to the “Rulers” of the Malay States on constitutional matters, in 1957, in the run up to independence. It is difficult to judge whether this arose as a vetting mistake in the first place, later turned to advantage by enticing Lawson into other lucrative and interesting work, or was simply a clever device to do that all along.


When he began providing legal advice to the rulers of Malaya, MI5 intensified surveillance on him. Lawson, who lived in Heath Drive, Hampstead, was followed through the streets of Hampstead and had his telephone calls tapped at an exchange in Swiss Cottage. He was followed to the barber, checked on during lunchtime drinks in pubs, and walks across Hampstead Heath. His reliability was seriously in doubt – Communist Party member Isobel Brown (see separate entry), who lived in Hampstead, visited him in chambers and Lawson mingled in social engagements with the left. But no hint of a link with a Soviet or Chinese source could be found despite the most intrusive of surveillance. Even so, he was self-evidently strongly linked to the British Party. 


For several days in a row in September 1957 his every move was tracked and recorded with comments such as: “After purchasing sweets he waited outside Hampstead tube station where at 6.55pm he was joined by a woman whom we presumed to be his wife. Both entered the Everyman cinema.” There were also several after-work visits to a French woman in Ivor Place, near Baker Street, who was deemed to be his mistress.


What seems to have clinched a decision to run with Lawson as the legal advisor to the Malay team, and not tell them of his links, was the growing conclusion (oddly normal to be a standard MI5 response) that Lawson was likely to do an excellent job for his clients. Sources in London’s legal world provided information, which led to details about other well-known lawyers who might be crypto-communists, including several senior Labour figures. But MI5’s problem was that Lawson was widely regarded as being simply brilliant – “one of the ablest and most astute lawyers at the bar”.


Suspicions of how Mr Lawson had secured such a key role in the negotiations in Malaya turned out to be much allayed when the accidental nature of the allocation of the brief to him was identified in that he had simply known one of the country’s rulers during his university days, who decided to call on an old friend. Little adverse comment stuck to Lawson; one report on him for MI5 concluded that he must be “the most consummate dissembler we have ever encountered”.


Once engaged on his constitutional brief, his work had supposedly much impressed both his clients and, in turn, the Colonial Office.  But, interestingly, the British government in the end concluded it would not tell the Malay Rulers of his Communist affiliations. Given that what was effectively been a civil war only a few years before had destroyed the Malayan Communist Party and handed the country to the Rulers, this was a remarkable thing to do. It was either an inspired case of deliberately giving the poacher a game keeper’s job, or it had somehow turned into that by serendipitous (for the UK government) error. Certainly, many professionals who had been black-balled during the cold war now found themselves allowed into the fold so long as they mentioned something like Hungary. Lawson didn’t even have to do that.


From having been suspected as a key figure for British Communists, should they have ever gained a whiff of state power, the establishment now began to welcome Lawson back into the fold. By 1958, when MI5 was closing the intensive surveillance on him, an assessment file concluded: “Everything on file indicates that Lawson is at least a convinced Communist sympathiser. It is almost impossible that, a subscriber to Party funds, he could not be a sympathiser and a very strong one at that. On the other hand it would not seem that his convictions rule him to the extent that he would jeopardise his successful and highly profitable career on behalf of the Communist Party. An astute barrister earning several thousand pounds a year has not, I suggest, the stuff of martyrs in him. Lawson is now a man of means and some maturity. It is unlikely that at this stage of his life he would begin to allow his heart to rule his head.” This was a remarkably prescient judgement; perhaps there was some incentive suggested as a result?


Several thousand pounds a year was clearly a gross under-estimate by MI5 of the sums he began to command after the Malayan case. Lawson surely did not allow worry about payment to hold him back when he represented the ETU in 1961, acting as its defence against a number of right-wingers openly backed by powerful and wealthy forces, including media empires. The union’s leaders were accused by John Byrne and Frank Chapple, a later rather more well-known figure, of fraud in an election that Bryne had lost. No less than 16 defendants, mostly Communist Party members, were before Lord Justice Rodger Winn in the private prosecution. [See separate entries for Jack Frazer, Jack Hendy, Frank Chapple, and Les Cannon.]  Lawson’s fee was 2,000 guineas up front and “refreshers” of 150 guineas a day for a three week case.  That’s about three hundred times the rate of pay that his clients, the electricians of the ETU, got paid back then.


Almost fifty years after the event, MI5’s official historian admitted that the judge was provided with a tape recording of surveillance from a bug in the ETU headquarters that supposedly confirmed the guilt of the leading persons. But the public has, even now, no access to such a recording to judge for themselves and neither should the judge had such an access without providing it to both sides in the case. Overall, the evidence was thin and some defendants were even declared not guilty, a fact posterity has been very shy at noting. A re-reading of the trial transcripts suggests to this author at any rate that all that was proved was just how inefficient union were at this point in history. Moreover, whilst Lawson’s performance was competent, no real body blows were landed by him in court. Despite the weakness of actual evidence to prove fraud, Lawson did not at any point challenge the judge’s obvious bias, clearly running throughout the case.  


Not only was Rodger Winn, the judge, well connected to British intelligence circles, his brother, Godfrey Winn, was rather better known as a Fleet Street correspondent, at a time when such columnists were very influential. Britain’s media went had gone into overdrive about the `ballot-rigging’ case. Was Lawson finally nobbled? Who knows! He had already embarked on an establishment trajectory when Communist solicitors looked for a barrister they could rely on for their union comrades. But then as few knew he had been still with the Party prior to the Malayan case, as perhaps aware of where he was headed when he took the ETU brief. Certainly, his subsequent legal career becomes staid and establishment focused. Whilst no-one, at the time, or since, has linked the defence in the ETU ballot-rigging case to Lawson.


As his eminence grew, and his Party affiliations seemed far behind him, Lawson was destined to become a High Court judge and even knighted by the Queen, as Sir Neil Lawson! He spent the last 35 years of his life distanced from left-wing circles, to the extent that outside of the security forces few knew of his former staunch allegiance.

Lawson worked well beyond the normal retirement age after being made a High Court judge in 1971, following six years as a Law Commissioner. He died in January 1996, aged 88, as one of the country’s most respected silks.


Sources: Time magazine May 13th 1940; National Archives – MI5 files; Camden New Journal September 1st 2011; The Times – Law Report June 29th 1961; Seifert, Sedley & Co correspondence 22nd November 1961;


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