News Room

Time's Willy Brown obituary

Professor William Brown obituary

Academic whose work on industrial relations led to the minimum wage and who took Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader, to task

The drive for a national minimum wage in Britain owed much to Willy Brown’s childhood ability to talk his way out of trouble. Brown, who according to his brother Henry was “a social chameleon”, came from an academic family and in time turned his negotiating skills into an economics professorship that focused on how wages should be set.

The minimum wage first hit the statute book in 1604 when James I passed an Act Fixing a Minimum Wage for textile workers. It was scrapped in the 19th century, but Tony Blair seized on the idea when he became prime minister in 1997. He created the Low Pay Commission (LPC), of which Brown was a founder member.

In the 1960s Brown had worked for the Wilson government’s Prices and Incomes Board, an early attempt to regulate the economy. After being appointed to the University of Warwick he put a strong emphasis on case-study research, but found that policymakers were not much impressed with case studies because they thought there was only limited scope to generalise from them into political solutions. So he started the Workplace Employment Relations Study, a regular exercise that he eventually persuaded the government to fund and which continued until only a few years ago.

Brown used his survey techniques to research the effects of raising the minimum wage on employment, prices, inflation, exports and imports. “It was Willy who laid down the modus operandi of the LPC,” Sir George Bain, its first chairman, said, “treating the national minimum wage as an empirical rather than theoretical question.”

The balding and bespectacled Brown rejected theoretical economics in favour of a more practical approach. It may also have better suited his sociable temperament, which inclined him to linger over a pint or three in the pub after work. New acquaintances were often taken off guard when his soft tone of voice gave way to a sudden, loud laugh that lit up his crinkly eyes.

Yet he did not suffer fools. It was at one of the university’s regular management-union seminars in 1984, when Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, was in the throes of the miners’ strike, that Brown bared his intellectual teeth.

Bain, then the chairman of Warwick Business School, said: “I remember Willy cross-examining Scargill in a forensic way, exposing how shallow his tactics were. He thought he was just a fraud and a sham, leading the miners to disaster.” Brown, a Labour Party member since the 1950s, would have been naturally sympathetic to a well-argued union case. “He got along well with most people, including union leaders,” Bain said. “But he didn’t bother to get along with shits.”

William Arthur Brown was born in Oxford in 1945 to Joan (née Taylor) and Arthur Brown (obituary, April 9, 2003), an economist and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who soon after his son’s birth was appointed pro-vice chancellor at the University of Leeds.

The family had a large house in an acre of garden, much of it woodland, on the edge of the Meanwood valley north of Leeds. William (known as Willy) wrote: “The garden gave us considerable freedom from parental supervision. We were free to climb trees and dig dens — and later learn more constructive skills such as use of axes, bow saws and scythes. As they grew older, our parents beat a careful strategic retreat with the garden, allowing it to become ever more jungle-like.”

There was no television in the house, but the sound of The Goon Show and the American humourist Tom Lehrer floating out of the radio was acceptable. The family had an extensive family library, with Chambers’s Encyclopaedia to answer impossible questions from small boys. Holidays started on the Settle-to-Carlisle railway line, followed by two weeks in a hotel near Loweswater in the northwest Lake District near Crummock Water. However, Willy was pitchforked into adult reality aged 14 when his eldest brother, John, died in a climbing accident in the Swiss Alps.

“Willy was the brightest of us boys,” Henry said. “He could certainly think on his feet, and he had a real sense of mischief.” A scholarship boy, he breezed through Leeds Grammar School on his way to Wadham College, Oxford. There he read PPE and fell under the influence of Hugh Clegg, who taught Brown about real ale and took him to the National Board for Prices and Incomes. In 1968 Brown moved to the University of Warwick and then, in 1985, to Wolfson College, Cambridge, where he was the Montague Burton professor of industrial relations for 27 years. He was appointed to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) in 1998.

Yet even the knottiest problems Brown had to disentangle at Acas paled into insignificance compared with the potential pitfalls he faced at home: Brown had two pairs of stepdaughters with the same names.

He first married Kim, who had daughters Rachel and Sarah from her marriage to his friend Nick Hewitt at the University of Warwick. After his ten-year marriage to Kim ended in 2003 (it was not formally dissolved until ten years later) he partnered with Jackie Scott and they were married in 2017. She was a colleague at Cambridge, where she was head of the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences and is now retired. She had two daughters, also called Rachel and Sarah. “It was a bit tricky, but he always said he wanted four daughters,” Jackie said.

Rachel Hewitt is a writer who lectures in creative writing at the University of Newcastle. Her sister Sarah was until recently a housing officer in Lewes, East Sussex. Jackie’s daughter Sarah Goodwin was a financial officer for the National Trust. Rachel Scott has worked in non- government organisations helping refugees and asylum seekers in Canada and the UK.

From 2000 Brown was master of Darwin College, Cambridge, for 12 years, but he maintained his links with Yorkshire. Henry said: “Willy and I, and many family and friends, shared a strong attachment to a remote family cottage in Middlesmoor on a steep green hillside, anchored by a stocky church and a tall stand of sycamores, in the Yorkshire Dales.” The brothers laboured to renovate the cottage in the 1970s, turning it into a spiritual home and base for energetic moorland walks, in Willy’s case punctuated by reciting huge chunks of Wordsworth and Shakespeare from memory, with a varied stock of ribald verses and limericks that often ignited that explosive laugh.

In retirement Brown and Jackie moved to Hinxton in Cambridgeshire, where he would be entranced by the Red Arrows circling the Hinxton church spire before flying over the Duxford air show, with Lancasters, Spitfires and other aircraft that had been part of his childhood. He entered local politics, using his arbitration skills to take the rough edges off commercial property development plans.

While busy with a large garden, Brown still had time for writing. As well as dozens of academic papers, he wrote several significant books on the modern workplace and the changing face of industrial relations. To those he added, two years ago, The Emerging Industrial Relations of China.

“I can see a parallel in the intellectual stance of our father,” Henry said. “Sceptical of theories and models, and happy to struggle with awkward data to make sense of the world. They were both determined that policy based on that understanding can make the world a better place.”

William Brown, CBE, professor of industrial relations, was born on April 22, 1945. He died of acute aortic dissection on August 1, 2019, aged 74

16th October 2019