2000s >> 2003 >> no-1187-july-2003

Greasy Pole – The Importance of Being Irvine

It sounds like the kind of question which might have come in a sticky passage a few weeks ago in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Who was the most senior and the highest paid member of the government? You want to ask the audience: most of them think it had to be the Prime Minister. So you want to phone a friend; they think it’s a trick question and it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer because he’s responsible for taxes. Bad luck; you’ve just lost a few thousand pounds because the correct answer was the Lord Chancellor, who technically – and traditionally – outranked the Prime Minister and earned a lot more because his pay was linked to what the judges got while common or garden ministers and MPs had to rub along on pay linked to that of senior civil servants. After a rise of £22,691 – a lot more than the basic pay of many people in a year – the Lord Chancellor trousered £202,736, compared to the Prime Minister’s £175,414 and other Cabinet ministers £127,791. For the Lord Chancellor it got even better: his pay was protected by what used to be called a differential – a whopping one, which ensured that he always gets a lot more than that other legal bigwig the Lord Chief Justice.

Of course some of the lucky recipients of that kind of money might be expected to be a bit bashful, especially as they earn some of it by telling the rest of the people to be satisfied with much, much less to get by on. But politicians are not famous for being bashful about their double, or treble, or quadruple, standards. One who went to great lengths to avoid a reputation for bashfulness or restraint in his self-indulgences is the man who was Lord Chancellor until Blair’s recent re-shuffle which not only got rid of him but abolished his job. An event which must have brought back memories for workers who were similarly treated in the steel industry, the coal mines, the shipyards . . . He answers to the title of Lord Irvine of Lairg – or Derry as he is known to any friends he has or to those who are trying to help their careers along by being seen as his friend. Early in the life of the new Blair government Irvine put down his marker when he made it plain that he had no intention of agreeing to forego the £16,000 rise which ministers were awarding themselves but which Chancellor Gordon Brown thought they should not have. Then there was the matter of the £650,000 spent on the refurbishment of his official residence, including the famous hand-blocked wallpaper, which at 300 pounds a roll pounds cannot be bought at the local B&Q, and the gothic beds at £16,000 each and the works of art which were “donated” by museums and the like.

Humble Origins
Clearly, Irvine regarded himself as something special. In fact he came from beginnings which were very much run of the mill of the working class. His father was a tiler and his mother a waitress. Young Derry looked beyond such a life: he won a scholarship to a posh school then took degrees at Glasgow and Cambridge Universities. He became a barrister and set up chambers where he employed a future Prime Minister, who met his future wife among the dusty law books and beribboned briefs in the Irvine chambers. Whatever favours Irvine may be thought to have done for the man he continued to call “young Blair” were amply repaid when the first Labour Prime Minister for almost twenty years signalled the end of the times of privilege and nepotism by appointing his old mate to be the highest judge in the land. Which suited Irvine to the tips of his elegant footwear because he was by then notorious for his arrogance and his bullying, a man who had to have a flunky peel his oranges for him, a man of whom a fellow peer could say “You have to think through carefully what you are going to say to him for fear of getting your balls burned off”.

The job of Lord Chancellor involved being both judge and politician, which was well suited to Irvine. Apart from his passion for the finer things in life he had a reputation for being swollen with his own importance. In October 1997, not long in the job, in a speech to the Reform Club he compared himself to Cardinal Wolsey, who basked in the favours of Henry VIII and who was also fond of a lavish life style, which was why he had Hampton Court built for himself. It was not an entirely happy comparison because Wolsey fell out of Henry’s good books and ended his days ducking and diving to avoid being tried (and almost certainly executed) for treason. Irvine’s pomposity may have been punctured when his son Alistair got 16 months in a Los Angeles prison for stalking and threatening the boyfriend of a woman who had dumped him. In any case young Blair has now decided that the solution to a number of questions is to move Irvine over and make room for another old chum in Lord Falconer, who is said to be as clever as Irvine but by no means as arrogant. There was the usual exchange of letters, which were unusually frosty in tone.

Irvine’s retirement had been copiously leaked; it was whispered that Blair was losing patience with his old boss because he was not living up to his promise to reform the legal systems. Perhaps more to the point, the tabloids were after Irvine – and if there thing which concerns Blair it is to appease the gutter press. In some ways the Lord Chancellorship was an open target for the tabloids, for of all the grand jobs in the government it was about the grandest. Apart from the mediaeval clothes and sitting on something called the Woolsack (which is in fact a sack of wool) he had more than one job. He was head of the judiciary, with the last say in the appointment (and the sacking) of the judges and the magistrates. He was Speaker of the House of Lords (where a previous man in the job, Lord Hailsham, would sit on the Woolsack muttering “bollocks” in response to the speeches of some of the noble lords). And he was a member of the Cabinet, in the chair of several committees. His style of running those committees was not universally popular because he was in the habit of acting like a prosecutor with ministers as the criminals in the dock.

Judges and Politics
Of course ministers often have multiple responsibilities. The unusual thing about the Lord Chancellorship was the apparent clash between being head judge and a member of the Cabinet, which at the least questioned whether the Courts were as insulated from political pressure as they were supposed to be. One of the problems with Irvine was that he used the combined roles to avoid disciplining judges. Hailsham, applying the kind of logic which is beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals, argued that the very unity of the roles was an insurance that they would be kept separate. The Council of Europe took a different view, saying that the dual responsibility is a contravention of human rights; in February eleven members of the Council signed a resolution which said the arrangement called the independence of the judges “seriously into question”. This was widely welcomed and not necessarily in the tabloids, which are not expected to concern themselves with such arcane questions. Roger Smith, the Director of Justice, said “the political powers of the Lord Chancellor can no longer be combined with a role as a judge”.

But who says they can’t? Does anyone seriously believe that judges do their job, running a court case, summing up evidence, passing sentences, in ignorance of political influences? Consider the case of Lord Denning, once one of the most eminent judges in the land, who once bemoaned the fact that the Guildford Four had not been executed because it would have prevented all that fuss about their being innocent. Denning gave his opinion in another notorious case, when the Birmingham Six applied to sue the police. In refusing the application, which was based on evidence of brutality and falsification of evidence by the police, Denning said that the mere suggestion of police corruption was “. . . such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further’”. And when it had to be admitted, even by the most stubbornly blind, politically motivated, judge that the police had been violent and had lied, Denning made a nauseatingly lame and partial apology: “As I look back I am very sorry, because I always thought that our police were splendid and am very sorry that in this case it appears the contrary.” By then the Six had spent another eleven years in prison.

Denning’s doomed defence of the police was based on his assumption that they must be immune from such criticism because of the part they play under capitalism. This system is based on a minority class owning the means of life, which is another way of saying that the majority are denied access to those means and can get it only with the consent of the owning class – by being employed by them. Of course the majority could help themselves but this would be a basic assault on the system so there is a vast and complex structure, called the law and the legal system, which prevents them doing this. At the sharp end of that structure are the police. To challenge this is to take on the very weaponry with which capitalism asserts its essentially coercive nature. Irvine’s lucrative and self-ennobling career demonstrated the grim reality of this. His going and replacement will not change things. In any case he will be getting a pension package worth £2.6 million, he will continue to sit as a judge, and then there is always the chance of the odd directorship or consultancy, writing his memoirs, or joining the after-dinner speaking circuit. He will not want. It will be even better for him than if he had won Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

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