Peter Goldsmith: The silk who holds the secrets

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"There may come a point in some cases where the best advice which any Law Officer can give is advice which will be wholly unwelcome to the client. Should that be the case ... I will not hesitate to say so and to do so firmly."

Whether those words, delivered in a 2001 lecture, will come back to haunt the speaker, Peter Goldsmith, remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that the vultures are circling ever more menacingly over the head of this urbane, charming and very clever lawyer as he and his government fend off demands to publish the advice which he gave as Attorney General before the invasion of Iraq.

On the face of it, Lord Goldsmith is ill-equipped to face such a firestorm. He probably brings less political experience to the office of Attorney General than any of his recent predecessors. A colleague said: "To call his political CV skimpy would be on the generous side. But that's not his fault. These days, it's impossible to be a leading member of the Bar and work your political passage as an MP. It's one or the other."

But that is not to say that Lord Goldsmith had no political credentials when he was appointed after New Labour's election victory in 2001. A predecessor in the post, Lord Morris of Aberavon, recalls first meeting the smart youngish commercial silk when he was chairman of the Bar in 1994.

"I had dinner with Peter and his wife. They were very good hosts and when we got on to politics, I remember him disclosing that he was secretary of the Hyde Park ward of the Labour Party. Well, OK that doesn't make him one of the horny-handed sons of toil but he's been a long-standing footsoldier in the service of the party and I respect that."

Lord Goldsmith is only the second Attorney General to sit in the upper House rather than the Commons for more than 300 years. And, as a colleague in the second chamber, Lord Morris has observed his younger successor at close quarters. "He's formidably clever and very well respected by peers. He has a great deal of charm."

Lord Morris refuses to be drawn on whether his fellow peer should make himself more popular, at least with the Opposition, by publishing the advice he gave on the legality of the Iraq war. But it is not exactly a leap in the dark to conclude that both men stand shoulder to shoulder on the principle of lawyer-client privilege, even where the client is the government of the day and the issue as momentous as the waging of war.

Lord Goldsmith is something of a paradox. At first glance, he appears to be the epitome of everything which some despise about the Bar. He has a sheen of grooming about him. He speaks in mellifluous tones and earned a lot of money in the lucrative world of commercial law. But he has worked his passage. He was born in Liverpool - his father was a solicitor - went to the same school as John Lennon, and retains an outsider's wariness about exclusive clubs.

The barrister Nicky Howard had regular dealings with him when she was chair of the Junior Bar in 2003. "I used to meet him quarterly to discuss issues which concerned young barristers and those trying to break into the profession, and he was very sympathetic. Some years before, he wrote a paper attempting to ensure that the Bar remained open to all comers, whatever their class or ethnicity, and I know he felt very strongly about it."

Until Goldsmith, the Bar's record in supporting pro bono work was patchy to say the least. But he was instrumental in setting up a pro-bono unit offering free legal advice and a special award in memory of his father. He also feels strongly about human rights. In the year he chaired the Bar, the BBC did a series of reports on investigations into Nazi war crimes. He told me he felt it was important work and had resonance for other abuses of human rights in the contemporary world. He subsequently chaired a mission to Zimbabwe to highlight the threat to the rule of law and, indeed, democracy itself.

Last year, he put his concern for human rights and the rule of international law to the test in an English criminal court, becoming the first Attorney General for 20 years to lead the prosecution in an Old Bailey trial. The defendant was an Afghan warlord, accused of torture and hostage-taking. Despite a crowded schedule and demands to disclose his Iraq advice, and fresh from presenting the Government's unsuccessful case to the law lords over the Belmarsh detainees, Goldsmith was determined to lead the Crown team. His motive was to make the point that, in an era when civil liberty has often seemed secondary to the fight against terrorism, certain standards needed to be upheld.

In a grubby Old Bailey corridor, where he hardly looked at home, I asked him how he felt his defence of Britain's detention of foreign-born suspects had gone down with the law lords. Some would have equivocated. He grimaced, and left me in little doubt that he was expecting to lose, as indeed he and the Government did.

There have been recent rumours that Lord Goldsmith is not long for his ancient office. Not that he will be hurled into obscurity. When the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, retires later this year, Lord Goldsmith will step into his shoes. The argument goes that it will be a kind of reward for his loyalty, but Peter Goldsmith is not a man who would wish it to be whispered that he had been bought.

And, though history is on the side of Attorneys General becoming Lords Chief Justice, it also carries a warning. In 1924, Labour's very first Attorney-General, Sir Patrick Hastings - perhaps the most celebrated silk of his day - is said to have been the cause of the government's downfall. It was alleged that Sir Patrick had changed his mind about prosecuting the editor of the Workers' Weekly for inciting mutiny after pressure was applied by cabinet colleagues.

The truth of the allegations is disputed to this day but, as Lord Goldsmith himself pointed out, "this case has long served as a warning to later law officers and to governments."

Just so. Politics and the law can be a highly combustible mixture and those who don't take great care can get their fingers burned.


Born: 5 January 1950, in Liverpool, to Sydney Elland Goldsmith, solicitor, and Myra Nurick.

Family: Married to Joy Elterman, 1974; three sons, one daughter.

Education: Quarry Bank High School, Liverpool; Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (MA law 1971); University College, London (LLM 1972).

Career: Called to the Bar (1972); QC (1987); Chairman, Bar Council (1995); Founder, Bar Pro Bono Unit (1996); Co-chairman, International Bar Association Human Rights Institute (1998 - 2001); created life baron (1999); Attorney General, 2001 - ).

He says...: 'As I have always made clear, I set out in the answer my own genuinely held, independent view that military action was lawful under the existing Security Council resolutions.'