Unpopularity comes with the job: The chairman of the company accounts watchdog tells Roger Trapp he does not expect to be liked

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The Independent Online
TAKE Edwin Glasgow at face value at your peril. He claims to be stupid, lacking in education, politically naive and suspicious of those who do good. He is in fact - and is widely acknowledged to be - highly intelligent and politically astute, and spends a disconcerting amount of time on good causes.

Whether chairing the Financial Reporting Review Panel falls into the last category depends on your point of view - though it is a job carried out for an undisclosed but apparently insignificant salary.

Plenty of auditors and finance directors have been upset by the company accounts watchdog since it was set up in 1990 as part of the reforms that also saw the establishment of the Accounting Standards Board.

This is largely because there has never before been anything like it to enforce the profession's standards. But it is also due to never being able to satisfy everybody. When the panel forces a large company such as Trafalgar House to restate its accounts, it is accused of trophy hunting; when it criticises a small business, it is attacked for concentrating on minnows, says Mr Glasgow.

A QC who was recommended by the Lord Chancellor's Department for the post when the first chairman, Simon Tuckey, became a judge, he says he does not mind being disliked. 'Anything that makes you this unpopular has got to be worth doing,' he observes perversely.

A lot of the criticism also stems, he believes, from a misunderstanding of the panel's role. It cannot 'go looking for trouble', but can only examine cases referred to it.

Even so, that has amounted to more than 120 cases since he took on the job on 1 April 1992.

Dealing with that kind of workload takes a lot of time. Mr Glasgow tends to devote Sundays - since it is easier to ensure confidentiality in the privacy of your own home - and the equivalent of another working day to the task. He says this is because he is very slow.

The ASB chairman David Tweedie - dubbed 'the most hated accountant in Britain' - suggests this is another example of the man's self-deprecation. 'He's as sharp as a needle,' he says.

So why the continual dissimulation? 'If you're an outsider trespassing in an area where people are working very hard, it behoves you to be that much more careful. It's a job you can't do if you pretend to know things that you don't,' Mr Glasgow admits.

The workload also brings its regrets. A keen rugby fan who played hooker in his youth, he was forced to miss England's recent victory over the All Blacks through working the whole weekend.

His wife, Janet, and two children, both studying at Oxford, have a lot to put up with, he says.

Though colleagues insist that he is not as interested in money as many at the Bar, the long hours have brought a comfortable lifestyle. Home is a rambling Georgian house close to the river at Thames Ditton, Surrey and he also has a house near the Rhone Valley in France.

And as if he did not have enough of committees in his working life, his love of music has led to him being a trustee of the London Opera Players, while an enthusiasm for motor racing is responsible for him being a steward of the Royal Automobile Club.

He sees it as part of the wider perspective that being a generalist offers. Many modern accounting ills are attributable to specialists dreaming up complex schemes, he maintains, mourning the passing of the age of the amateur.

Friends and colleagues say this has a lot to do with the unconventional start to his career. Surprisingly for a QC known for his love of the arts and classic literature, he left school at 14. His own stupidity rather than family circumstances were to blame, he says. He grew up in comfortable middle-class surroundings in Suffolk.

His grandfather, also Edwin Glasgow, was a member of the Royal Academy and one-time head of the National Gallery, whose watercolours adorn the walls of his cramped modern chambers in Essex Street, London, close to the Royal Courts of Justice.

An aunt, Mary Glasgow - 'the woman I admire most in the world' - was a pioneer of modern languages teaching. He chairs a trust dedicated to carrying on her work.

Having left St Joseph's College, Ipswich without qualifications in what is said to have been an act of youthful rebellion, he started work as a solicitor's clerk.

A year later, he joined the Metropolitan Police. While he enjoyed some parts, the three and a half years there 'reinforced a dislike of certain aspects of behaviour inside and outside the force'. Nevertheless, he was able to take his O and A-levels and qualified to read law at University College, London before going to the Bar.

Now aged 48, he says his commercial practice is as wide as anybody's. Besides general commercial litigation, where he is often instructed by Brian Moore, an insurance solicitor better known as the outspoken hooker in the England rugby team, he takes on many serious personal injury cases. He has also worked on large inquiries, such as those into the Bradford and Hillsborough football disasters and the Guildford Four affair, and first came into contact with accounting irregularities as a Department of Trade and Industry inspector.

Last year he made the headlines by defending the Malawian labour leader and human rights campaigner Chakufwa Chihana, during his appeal against two years' hard labour for sedition. He took on the case after the Malawi law society complained to the Bar Council - where he is a member of the human rights panel - that English barristers were conducting the prosecution case.

It became one of Malawi's most important political trials and was a key factor in forcing the democratisation of the autocratic regime of President Hastings Banda.

But Mr Glasgow tries to give the impression it was just another job. 'You couldn't find a more boring, unpolitical figure than me,' he says.

The respect he won in Africa is echoed on his home turf. 'He's a very courteous man who has no side to him,' says Sydney Treadgold, who works alongside him as secretary to the Financial Reporting Review Panel. And a young barrister who sits with him on a Bar Council committee aimed at giving greater opportunities at the Bar to the disabled adds that he is 'an incredibly nice, very open man of great integrity'.

Perhaps this general approval explains his enthusiasm for the review panel job. The rebel in him appears to relish the notion that he is upsetting somebody. While pointing out that anybody who actually wanted the job would probably not be suitable, he says: 'I'll do it for as long as people are prepared to put up with me. As long as I'm unpopular, I'm not likely to be removed.'

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Nash

(Photograph omitted)