Sir David Williams
As Cambridge’s first full-time vice-chancellor, David Williams, who has died aged 78, gave outstanding leadership both in modernising the governance of the university, and in laying the foundations for its development campaigns. He was also a path-breaking legal scholar and teacher in the field of public law. He served on many public bodies, including the Council on Tribunals and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
As a scholar, Williams brought a radical approach to the study of civil liberties, administrative law and environmental law in a style accessible to a much wider public than the legal profession. He explained and criticised legislation and case law in a historical context.
His first book, Not in the Public Interest: The Problem of Security in Democracy (1965), exposed the extension of official secrecy during the first half of the 20th century, including the use of non-statutory instruments such as D notices (guiding the media on issues of national security), and the absence of independent scrutiny of the security services. His contributions in this and later writings provided the arguments for the sweeping changes of the late 20th century, including the repeal of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, the adoption of the Freedom of Information Act, and greater regulation of the security services, although he believed that much still remained to be done to ensure full democratic accountability.
His second book, Keeping the Peace: The Police and Public Order (1967), also broke away from the traditional analyses by lawyers. Against the background of events such as the Red Lion Square disorders, the anti-Vietnam war and anti-apartheid protests and the miners’ strikes, he demonstrated that the ambiguous definitions of public order offences meant that freedom of speech and assembly depend critically on the way in which police and prosecutorial discretions are exercised.
He argued persuasively that preventive action should always be a last resort, but his historical approach led him to recognise that prior control had overtaken sensible, traditional British policing methods, a trend that continues to this day to undermine freedom of speech and assembly. His contributions also ranged across subjects such as police accountability, the scope of judicial review, the role of tribunals and inquiries, and devolution.
As vice-chancellor of Cambridge University from 1989 to 1996, Williams provided a smooth transition during a period of change. Since 1587, the vice-chancellor had been head of one of the constituent colleges of the university, normally holding office for two years. Williams had been elected under that system, while president of Wolfson College and the Rouse Ball professor of English law. Under the new system, introduced in 1992, the administrative head of the university could not hold any other office and was to be appointed for a period of up to seven years. Williams gave up his more congenial offices to become full-time vice-chancellor. He managed to reassert the democratic character of the university as a self-governing institution, while at the same time enabling the university to respond more swiftly and decisively to growing government pressures on universities to manage their affairs more efficently and find new sources of funding. He did so by persuasion rather than direction, using his instinctive charm and tact.
As an administrator, Williams displayed the best values of the modern system of public administration and law which, as a legal scholar, he had helped to create: integrity, fairness, openness, and deep respect for the democratic rights of individuals. When he retired as vice-chancellor in 1996 he resumed an active career as a legal scholar and travelled abroad extensively as a lecturer and fundraiser for the university.
Williams was born in Carmarthen and was a pupil at Queen Elizabeth grammar school, where his father was headmaster for 26 years. His passion for Wales stayed with him, particularly during rugby internationals, and in 2007 he was delighted to be appointed the first chancellor of Swansea University, having been president of the former University of Wales, Swansea, since 2001.
After national service in the RAF, Williams achieved firsts in history and law at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and won a Harkness fellowship to Berkeley and Harvard universities in the US.
His first teaching post, from 1958 to 1963, was at Nottingham University. After four years as a fellow and tutor at Keble College, Oxford, he returned to Cambridge in 1967 as a law teacher and fellow of Emmanuel College. His pastoral talents soon resulted in his election as senior tutor of Emmanuel, a position he had to give up on being promoted in 1976 to a readership in public law. In 1983 he succeeded Sir William Wade as the Rouse Ball professor.
In 1980, Williams was elected president of Wolfson College. He and Sally (nee Cole), his wife for almost 50 years, created a warm and lively environment there, without the traditional hierarchies of older colleges. He put Wolfson on the map, bringing together scholars and lawyers from many countries, and forging close links with the US, Hong Kong and Commonwealth countries.
His distinction was recognised by honorary degrees and fellowships from more than a dozen institutions, and by the annual Sir David Williams lectures. He was knighted in 1991 and appointed an honorary QC in 1994.
He is survived by Sally, two daughters and a son, and seven grandchildren.
• David Glyndwr Tudor Williams, legal scholar and university administrator, born 22 October 1930; died 6 September 2009
Originally published: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/sep/22/david-williams-obituary