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Morrison, William Shepherd, first Viscount Dunrossil (1893–1961), speaker of the House of Commons and governor-general of Australia, was born at Torinturk, Argyll, on 10 August 1893, the sixth son of John Morrison (b. 1842), who had been a diamond prospector in South Africa before settling as a farmer at Torinturk, and his wife, Marion, daughter of Ronald McVicar, of North Uist. He was educated at George Watson's College, Edinburgh, and in 1912 entered Edinburgh University, where he obtained his MA in 1920. His studies were interrupted by distinguished service in France in the First World War: he reached the rank of captain in the Royal Field Artillery, was wounded, and was awarded the Military Cross. He married on 22 April 1924 Katherine Allison (d. 1983), daughter of the Revd William Swan, minister of South Leith parish. She was herself an Edinburgh graduate and was then reading for the bar; she was called by the Inner Temple in 1926. They had four sons, the eldest being , the diplomat.

Morrison, like others of the trenches generation, sought public life in order to repay some of the comradeship experienced in wartime, and determined on the law as the prelude to politics. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1923 on the advice of two established Scottish Conservatives, Sir Robert Horne and the duchess of Atholl. In spite of these connections, he did not have an easy start and was defeated candidate in 1923 and 1924 in the difficult Western Isles. Though a man proud of his Scottish birth, accent, and skill in Gaelic, he had to go south to Cirencester and Tewkesbury to find a winnable seat. He was elected there in 1929 but then easily held it for thirty years.

Morrison had acquired the nickname Shakespeare, or more often Shakes (Bernard Shaw's abbreviation of Shakespeare's name), because he had not only a deep love of Shakespeare's verse, from which he could quote extensively, but something of the playwright's way with words too. His speaking skills and striking appearance, a shock of early white hair overhanging black eyebrows and deep-set eyes, ensured that he quickly acquired the attention of the house, and the broad admiration for him on the Conservative side led to his election as only the second chairman of the 1922 committee in 1932 in a contested election against the committee's founder. Sir Gervase Rentoul had of late been dividing members by his high-handed attitude and now bitterly remarked that Morrison won ‘partly because he was regarded as a neutral, having hardly ever attended a meeting of the Committee, or taken any part in its struggles or activities’ (Goodhart, 60). The ‘1922’ was in 1932 only a shadow of what it later became, but this was an early achievement, and his four years as chairman were an important phase in the committee's development. He was not ‘an energetic innovator’ but he ‘guided the Committee with distinction through a difficult period of transition’ (ibid., 74).

Alongside politics, Morrison continued his legal career, which had begun as secretary to Thomas Inskip, the solicitor-general, taking silk in 1934 and becoming recorder of Walsall in 1935. In November 1935 his political career took off and then accelerated quickly, with appointment as financial secretary to the Treasury. In the following October he reached the cabinet as minister of agriculture and fisheries, and was sworn of the privy council in 1936. Unfortunately he was not successful either in dealing with the intractable agricultural depression, or in raising the morale of the farming community. As the European situation deteriorated he attracted criticism for refusing to prepare agriculture for war, arguing that to do so would injure the industry further, and unnecessarily so since war was not in his view inevitable. In much of this he was typical of the government in which he served, and paid the same penalty as others when war came and found them unready in 1939. On wider issues, Morrison was critical of appeasement, but ineffectively so, and his decision not to resign over Munich, if indeed he ever seriously considered it, weakened his influence further. Neville Chamberlain considered him one of the ‘weaker brethren’ in his team, and demoted him in January 1939 to the non-departmental duchy of Lancaster. This was combined for a few early months of wartime with the new Ministry of Food, but in April 1940 he moved to the non-cabinet post of postmaster-general, a backwater in wartime, and when Churchill became premier a month later he left Morrison there, though even the Chamberlainite chief whip Margesson wanted him sacked altogether as a manifest failure.

Morrison's final ministerial post came when made first minister of town and country planning in February 1943, with a brief to implement the Uthwatt report. He piloted through parliament the Town and Country Planning Act (1943), a milestone in legislation for building control, but though he had had little to do with its gestation he was caught in the crossfire between Labour MPs who wanted more intervention and Conservatives who wanted none at all, at least during a party truce. He sadly confessed to Hugh Dalton in November 1943 that he was ‘having rows all round just now’ (War Diary, 663). When Churchill briefly formed a caretaker government with a full quota of Conservative ministers in May 1945, he left Morrison at the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and offered him no cabinet seat, and he carried on until Labour swept into office two months later. It was remarkable how rapidly Morrison's ministerial career waxed and waned. ‘Chips’ Channon, a friend of Morrison but an astute taker of political temperatures, noted in January 1943 that though ‘once the hope of enlightened Tory England’, he was ‘now an amiable white-headed boy taken seriously by nobody’. By March 1945 Morrison was ‘a ghost of his former self. He has lost all but the vaguest vestiges of power’ (Chips, ed. James, 349, 389).

In the Conservative opposition after 1945, Morrison occasionally attended shadow cabinets, but took no active part in the work of the opposition. When not away pursuing his legal career he was more often seen sleeping in the library than speaking in the chamber. Through an intervention by Churchill, however, he suddenly re-emerged into the limelight in October 1951 when persuaded to stand for the vacant speakership. For the first time since 1895 the speaker's election was contested and went to a vote, for many Labour MPs were not happy to support a former minister with no experience of chairing the house. Morrison was elected on a mainly party vote, but rapidly established his authority, and was unanimously re-elected speaker in 1955. He used his rich voice, wit, and Scottish accent to considerable effect, jollying the house along with the frequent plea that ‘We must get on’, but exhibiting exemplary firmness. This was certainly the case during the Suez debates of 1956, when he had frequently to urge restraint on hot-headed MPs and on one occasion was obliged to adjourn the house altogether so that tempers could cool. He was generally thought to have done this difficult job very well indeed.

Physically he looked the part to perfection, with his towering figure and finely modelled countenance, so fitly framed in the wig. No man wore the habiliments of his office with such elegance. The Speaker's procession, with Morrison's presence to grace it, was a rewarding sight … His patience was wellnigh inexhaustible, and his courtesy, even with bores, was exquisite … To points of order and procedural conundrums he brought a lambent clarity, and his judgements usually commanded acceptance. But in such matters he was always meticulous in acting as one who essentially was the servant of the House. (The Times, 3 Feb 1961)
Morrison's health was, however, undermined during the long hours and continuous strain of eight years as speaker, and in February 1959 he announced that he would not seek re-election to the house. He last presided over the Commons on 19 September, and was granted at the house's request a viscountcy (November 1959), the speaker's usual title in retirement, and a pension. This latter was soon the subject of controversy when it transpired in November that though leaving through ill health he had almost at once accepted, on the invitation of his friend Robert Menzies, the arduous post of governor-general of Australia, with a salary of £10,000. He arrived in Australia early in 1960, and whole-heartedly threw himself into the post, visiting every state capital within the first few months and embarking on an active social round to introduce himself to ordinary Australians. His health was not up to the exertion, though. He was ordered to rest in September and died suddenly of pulmonary embolism at Government House, Canberra, on 3 February 1961. His eldest son, , succeeded him as Viscount Dunrossil, and Morrison was buried four days later at St John the Baptist Anglican Church, Canberra, with a state funeral and military honours.

John Ramsden

Sources  

The Times (3 Feb 1961) · The Times (4 Feb 1961) · The Times (6 Feb 1961) · The Times (8 Feb 1961) · WWW, 1961–70 · ‘Chips’: the diaries of Sir Henry Channon, ed. R. R. James (1967) · The Second World War diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940–1945, ed. B. Pimlott (1986) · N. Smart, The national government, 1931–40 (1999) · M. Cowling, The impact of Hitler: British politics and British policy, 1933–1940 (1975) · P. Goodhart, The 1922: the story of the 1922 committee (1973) · S. Ball, ‘The 1922 committee: the formative years, 1922–1945’, Parliamentary History, 9 (1990), 129–57 · K. Jeffreys, The Churchill coalition and wartime politics (1991) · b. cert. · Burke, Peerage (2000) · AusDB

Archives  

Welwyn Garden City Central Library, Hertfordshire, corresp. with F. Osborn  

FILM

 

BFINA, news footage


Likenesses  

O. Birley, oils, Arundel · E. O. Fearnley-Whittingstall, oils, Palace of Westminster, London

Wealth at death  

£5973 10s. 7d.: administration with will, 24 April 1961, CGPLA Eng. & Wales