John Griffith 1918-2010

John Griffith died in May 2010. This was his obituary in The Guardian:

John Griffith, who has died aged 91, was one of the leading public law scholars of the 20th century. Central to his work was his association with the London School of Economics, lasting almost all his academic life, from his arrival as an undergraduate in 1937 till his retirement as professor of public law in 1984. He took forward the method in public law developed there during the 1920s by Harold Laski, Ivor Jennings and William Robson, to the extent that the former director of the LSE, Lord Dahrendorf, described him as “the conscience of the school and guardian of its tradition in critical times”.

However, though Griffith represented the last personal link with the radical socialist tradition that shaped the LSE in its founding years and exerted such influence over postwar politics, his was a singular, often eloquent, voice. In addition to writing many of the leading public law texts of the period, he produced occasional press articles, and was a consistent advocate of academic freedom.

In his accounts of public law, Griffith subverted the self-satisfied liberal-democratic view about the nature and functioning of the constitution, replacing it with a more realistic “what actually happens” account. This led to Principles of Administrative Law (1952, with Harry Street), the first textbook to be written on the subject, and to major studies of the workings of political institutions: Central Departments and Local Authorities (1966), Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government Bills (1974) and Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures (1989, with Michael Ryle). This type of cross-disciplinary, empirically informed legal study was far ahead of its time. In addition to offering new information to political scientists about the functioning of political institutions, it demanded that lawyers should question their standard accounts of the British constitution.

In common with his friend Ralph Miliband, Griffith had absorbed much of Laski’s socialist radicalism, and his more explicitly political analyses tended to highlight the authoritarian nature of government and in particular the close political, social and class linkages of the elites in power. It was therefore hardly surprising that he advanced a radical critique of the role of the judiciary, especially when it strayed into the field of politics.

Griffith was condemned in certain circles for his criticism that the judiciary, drawn from the narrowest of social elites, was incapable of responding adequately to the challenge of social justice that underpinned the disputes they were being asked to resolve. But such censure often failed to recognise the historical and institutional frame of his analysis, which included the common law’s traditional bias towards property rights protection and the fact that access to the courts has been restricted to all but a handful of wealthy people.

These views went into The Politics of the Judiciary (1977). Since it contained nothing that John had not been arguing over the previous 30 years, reaction to the book must have astonished him. It achieved immediate notoriety after the TLS review asserted that Griffith’s line “ends up aligned with the Baader-Meinhof gang in believing that every criminal trial is categorically unjust”. The review ensured maximum publicity for the book, which became a runaway bestseller, going through five editions and becoming standard reading for law students. It also caused Lord Denning in one of his public lectures in the 1980s to complain about “that man Griffith”. John accepted the Denning tag as a badge of honour and was delighted when his students in Toronto during the 1980s rewarded him with a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo.

Griffith’s nonconformist strain also came to attention in the troubles at the LSE in the late 1960s, when he acted as counsel for students in disciplinary proceedings. It was less a matter of being on the students’ side, he said, than of being against the high-handedness of the administration. His anti-authoritarianism was similarly evident in the role he played in founding the Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy.

Born in Cardiff into a Baptist family, John moved with his family at an early age to London, when his father, the Rev B Grey Griffith, became home secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society. He was educated at Taunton school in Somerset.

At the wartime LSE, which had been evacuated to Cambridge, Griffith met his wife, Barbara Garnet, a student of economic history and disciple of Eileen Power. They married after graduation in 1941. Influenced by Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means (1937), Griffith registered as a conscientious objector, serving as a field ambulanceman in the Middle East. But nagging doubts over the seriousness of the fascist threat and of the sacrifices being made by his comrades led him to apply for deregistration, after which he obtained a commission. He ended the war as a major in the Indian army.

After demobilisation, he was appointed lecturer at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, but returned to the LSE in 1948 as a lecturer in law. He was appointed to the chair in English law in 1959 and then, in 1970, to that of public law.

Shortly after his retirement from the LSE in 1984, Griffith was approached by academics at Manchester University to ask whether he would stand in an election for chancellor. The incumbent, the Duke of Devonshire, had just stepped down, and the authorities proposed to replace him with the Marchioness of Anglesey. But the Association of University Teachers noticed that there was provision for an election. Reassured that his chances of success were minimal, Griffith allowed his name to go forward. To his great surprise, he won and went on to serve a seven-year term with great dignity and propriety.

Griffith was a highly charismatic teacher, who genuinely liked the company of young adults, and inspired loyalty in many friends and colleagues. Above all, he was a ferociously independent character who loathed pomp and took a kind of pride in his modesty. Although he was awarded honorary doctorates by Edinburgh, York (in Toronto) and Manchester universities, and was elected fellow of the British Academy in 1977, he quashed attempts to produce a festschrift in his honour on retirement.

He unerringly maintained his political and intellectual stance in the face of changes that saw many on the left embrace rights discourse as a remedy to political issues. For Griffith, conflict remained at the heart of modern society and, since laws could be nothing other than statements of power relations, law could never provide a substitute for politics. The struggle for rights, he argued, remains political throughout, and legislation such as the Human Rights Act is merely “the statement of a political conflict pretending to be a resolution of it”.

Like the legal scholar and philosopher Jeremy Bentham, highly influential in the 19th century, Griffith was scathing of attempts to refashion law as a metaphysical entity. The idea of “the rule of law”, when extended beyond the need to ensure that government operates in accordance with the laws, is, he suggested, “a fantasy invented by Liberals of the old school in the late-19th century and patented by the Tories to throw a protective sanctity around certain legal and political institutions and principles which they wish to preserve at any cost”. He despaired of the range of proposals for “radical constitutional change being advanced by a number of rather improbable people”.

His healthy longevity owed much to the strength of his bond with Barbara, to whom he referred as “the centre that holds”. She survives him, as do his children, Sarah, Adam and Ben, his five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Pete Cresswell wrote this response:

In 1970 I was expelled from Liverpool University for taking part in the occupation of the Senate House; nine other students were suspended. We were protesting against the then Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, and the university’s investments in South Africa.

Five of us went to LSE to ask Professor Griffith for his advice. He startled us by saying that if we wanted him to represent us at the appeals he would be happy to do so. The thought hadn’t even occurred to us but needless to say we were more than happy to accept. So, one of the most distinguished academics in Britain came to Liverpool, crashed in a student flat in Liverpool 8 for a couple of weeks and took on the University of Liverpool on our behalf. The university in those days (happily much changed since) was so reactionary that I doubt if Clarence Darrow and Rumpole of the Bailey combined could have got us off, and the sentences were upheld.

However, much has since changed for the better, and our celebration last March of the 40th anniversary of the occupation led to an exchange of amicable letters with the current vice-chancellor, Sir Howard Newby. Professor Griffith – I never had the nerve to call him John – spoke to me on the phone, and was very fondly remembered at our reunion. What a great man.

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1 thought on “John Griffith 1918-2010”

  1. I’ve received the following message from Martin Loughlin at the LSE:

    “I can now confirm that we will be holding a gathering to commemorate the
    life and work of John Griffith in the Shaw Library at the LSE on Wednesday 22nd September, 6-8pm.

    A notice will be posted on the Law Department website. But since I can’t hope to reach the range of people who John touched in important ways, I’d be grateful if you could pass on the message to any who you think might care to know.

    We will have some (short) speeches and I may therefore be calling on some of you to say a few words (and if anyone specifically wishes to do so, let me know) … And we’ll have some refreshments.”

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