John Barnes, Historian

Hobson, Rt.Hon. Sir John (1912-67)

Hobson's death at the early age of 55 robbed Heath's front bench of its chief spokesman on law matters. Had he lived, he might well have played a considerable part in the Government that took office in 1970, although in all probability he would have sought a judicial appointment. As it is, he is mainly, and almost certainly unfairly, remembered for the part he played in the Profumo affair and still more for his part in the prosecutions of William Vassall and Chief Enahoro.

John Gardiner Sumner Hobson was born on 18 April 1912, the son of Colonel G.W. Hobson, a veteran of the Boer War and First World War. He was educated at harrow, where he was head of school, and at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he read history. On going down, he worked for Imperial Tobacco for a year and was subsequently elected to an entrance scholarship to the Inner Temple. He was called to the Bar in 1938.

During the early years of the Second World War Hobson served with the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, fought in France in 1940 and came through Dunkirk. In 1942 he went with the First Army to North Africa and from 1943 until the end of the war was a member of HQ, 21st Army Group, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

On his return to civilian life, Hobson resumed his legal career and served six years on the Bar Council. He specialised in common law and in criminal proceedings. He took silk in 1957, but had already determined on a political career. He was selected to fight the by-election that followed Sir Anthony Eden's decision to resign his safe Warwick and Leamington seat, and in the aftermath of Suez, held it only narrowly. At the General Election in 1959, however, he raised his majority from just over 2,000 to 13,000. In 1960 the Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations, Cub Alport appointed him his PPS, but in 1961 he was promoted to be Solicitor General and received the customary knighthood. Only five months later amidst the sweeping changes that became known as Macmillan's "Night of the Long Knives", he was appointed Attorney General.

In that short period he had delivered some sharp remarks to the Conservative Party Conference that indicated his generally liberal attitude. "If flogging doesn't reform the criminal, and if it doesn't reduce crime, it can only be justified on the basis that you want an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", he told the party faithful. "And if you want to go back to that pre-Christian, condemned doctrine, by all means do so."

It fell to Hobson to conduct the prosecution of Vassall, a civil servant in the Admiralty, who had spied for the Soviet Union. He told the court that Vassall had for six years sold "some part of the safety and security of the people of this country for cash." Vassall pleaded guilty and was jailed for 18 years. After the trial there was a violent campaign against the First Lord, Lord Carrington, and the Civil Lord, Tam Galbraith. The latter had written several letters to Vassall, who was in his private office, and although the letters concerned mundane matters, had addressed him as "My dear Vassall". The recipient turned out to be not merely a spy but a homosexual. Macmillan had been advised that there should be a civil service enquiry into any breaches of security, but the press and the Opposition sought a full blown public enquiry. At first the Prime Minister rejected the demand, but the pressure continued. On 7 November Hobson and the Solicitor General, Sir Peter Rawlinson were summoned to Admiralty House to see Macmillan and as a result of their deliberations, Macmillan decided to concede an enquiry. "Very well, we shall retire. But we shall retire to the thunder of the guns." A week later he proposed the setting up of an enquiry whose remit was not confined to the Vassall case, but was extended to deal with the allegations that were flying around about a second spy in the Admiralty and about ministers, civil servants and naval staff. The tribunal under Lord Radcliffe began its hearings on 21 November 1962 and after hearing 142 witnesses and sitting for sixteen days and six half days in secret and for seven days and seven half days in public, it finally reported on 5 April 1963. It totally exonerated Tam Galbraith, but unfortunately in the course of the hearings two journalists refused to reveal the sources behind their highly charged picture of Vassal and were despatched to jail. The press promptly declared war on the Macmillan administration.

Hobson played a leading role in the tribunal proceedings, something for which he was criticised, presenting witnesses, making submissions and cross examining. And it was while he was still engaged on this task that the Conservative MP, Billy Rees-Davies, alerted Rawlinson on 28 January 1963 to the rumours about the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo. The rumours about Carrington and Galbraith were daily being proved to be false and here were a fresh set of allegations about a different minister. Rawlinson alerted Hobson later that day and the two me met later to decide the way forward. It was agreed that Hobson should see Profumo that night. Profumo was vehement in denial, but Hobson determined to bring in a second opinion. He and Rawlinson saw Profumo again a few days later and the latter argued convincingly that this was an attempt at blackmail. What finally convinced the law officers that Profumo was telling the truth was his appointment of a solicitor, Derek Clogg, the identification of a barrister to represent him in court and his willingness not only to sue for libel, but appear as a witness if the police went down the attempted blackmail route. A solicitor acting on behalf of Christine Keeler had apparently made an approach seeking cash for her to disappear and Clogg took the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions on 5 February.

Hobson briefed the Chief Whip, Martin Redmayne, and there were discussions between Redmayne, the Prime Minister's principal private secretary, Sir Timothy Bligh and the Prime Minister himself. Rawlinson still had doubts, but when he broached the matter with Hobson, the latter said there had to be trust between colleagues and this was between him and a life-long friend.

During the debate on the two imprisoned journalists on 21 March a number of Labour MPs began to refer to the rumours and Hobson realised that this was Profumo's chance to scotch the matter. Bill Deedes, who had been on the front bench, Redmayne, Hobson and Rawlinson had a quick discussion, drafted a few words for the Home Secretary, who was to wind up, and promptly go to work on a rebuttal by Profumo to be made the following morning. The Prime Minister cleared the idea and the four were joined by the leader of the House, Iain Macleod, by Clogg and by Profumo himself. The lawyers drafted a comprehensive rebuttal, which was then read to the other three. Profumo only demurred to the phrase, "Miss Keeler and I were on friendly terms" - "it sounds so awful". But eventually he accepted that he must acknowledge the acquaintance and that there were no more acceptable words to be found. Later that morning Profumo made his statement to the House denying any impropriety with Christine Keeler. He was subsequently to admit that he had lied and resigned his office.

Inevitably some of the blame attached itself to the five responsible for Profumo's statement, the suggestion being that if they were not themselves deceitful, they should somehow have got at the truth. In fact they had not conducted an inquisitorial process, but taken part in what Rawlinson describes as a "council of war". Hobson made that clear to the Cabinet, which he and Rawlinson attended on 13 June, but the charge rankled. If he was to blame, it was for his earlier failure to detect that Profumo was lying - he was certainly less suspicious than his junior, but the latter too, after pressing harder, was also taken in. Hobson tended to look back on the whole episode as the beginning of the end for the Macmillan Government, but in that he was mistaken. The Government was in deep electoral trouble before it was overtaken by the Vassal case and the Profumo scandal, and, ironically, both the Government's fortunes and those of the Prime Minister markedly improved in the months which followed. Macmillan's successor was indeed to edge the party close to victory in the following year. In his own defence, it could be said that he was influenced by the unjust rumours that had circulated the previous year about Carrington and Galbraith, and by the fact that Profumo was ready not merely to sue for libel but to take the matter to the police.

He had also to deal with a particularly controversial case in the following year. Chief Enahoro had applied for a writ of habeas corpus in an effort to prevent his deportation to face charges of treason in Nigeria. Reginald Paget, a fellow bencher and Labour Member of Parliament subsequently complained to the Inner Temple about Hobson's "professional misconduct" in allowing the Chief to be deported from Britain after a long legal battle. The allegation was that he had allowed an affidavit from the Home Secretary to be presented to the court, knowing it to be false, and that he was aware that Enahoro's counsel would be barred from Nigeria. The Masters of the Bench found the charges unfounded and stated that there were no grounds for criticising the Attorney's conduct.

Hobson cared deeply about reforming the law, but he was always suspicious of idealistic enthusiasm and that may have made him unduly sceptical about his own ideas. But during his period of office the measures that the Government put forward in the field of law reform had his warm support and skilled guidance.

Wrongly he felt a quite disproportionate burden of guilt for his part in bringing about the fall of the Conservative Government and that may have fuelled his determination to do what he could to bring the Wilson Government down in its turn. He had held his own seat comfortably enough, but did not anticipate a speedy return to office and he advised Rawlinson to return to the Bar. For a time Rawlinson tried to make a dual role work, but when Home went, he concentrated on his legal career and Hobson single-handedly took on the task of advising the Shadow Cabinet on legal matters. There was scarcely a bill that did not pass under his eyes for legal analysis and he was tireless in drafting amendments and advising his colleagues. But he did not leave it at that: no Conservative member of a parliamentary committee ever sought his legal advice in vain.

Hobson's knowledge of the parliamentary draughtsman's art was the result of years of study both of the law and of parliamentary procedure and practice. But his extensive knowledge went far wider. In addition to speaking on law matters, he often assisted on things that pertained to the Home Office. During his parliamentary career he had been secretary of the Conservative home affairs committee, a member of the Royal Commission on the Police, a member of the executive committee of Justice and a member of the Home Secretary's advisory committee on the treatment of offenders.

Just before his death, Hobson had decided that he had had enough of politics and that he would seek a judicial appointment. He had been chairman of both the Rutland and Bedfordshire Quarter Sessions and Recorder of Northampton 1958-62. But the Lord Chancellor, in Rawlinson's trenchant phrase, "jibbed". He saw it as wrong that parliamentarians should proceed to the Bench. Rawlinson took the view that the "experience gained in serving as a Law Officer provides a unique and intensive legal education, and John in intellect and character was eminently qualified for the bench. But the offer did not come." In December 1967, tired, dispirited, and still haunted by the part he believed he had played in bringing about the fall of the Conservative Government, Hobson quite unexpectedly died.

He had never faltered in his faith in English justice even though he had given a good deal of attention to ways of improving the law and its procedures. In some ways he remained a traditionalist, holding very strongly that the bar should remain a separate branch of the legal profession. Reluctantly convinced by Hailsham that he should support majority verdicts in jury trials, he had voted for the change, only to renege, convinced by the arguments in committee that he had been wrong to do so.

As an advocate Hobson had been a clear and unpretentious advocate and he was always a capable speaker from the despatch box. Serious in manner, he rarely allowed himself to lapse any dramatic phraseology: it could be said that he was over cautious in the way he chose words and phrases to express his point of view. But if his words were never compelling, the content of his speeches commanded attention and respect. His personal integrity and good sense were unquestioned. A man of warm good nature existed behind the rather austere public figure, possessed of a lively sense of humour and the ability to enjoy as often as he was able what Baldwin called "the pleasures of the Inner Temple".