Alan Watkins on politics: Old Labour by temperament, conservative by law

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The Independent Online
It is hard to think of any Lord Chancellor of recent times, Labour or Conservative, with as much influence as Lord Irvine. His predecessors have not been politicians but, rather, law reformers, legal administrators or largely ceremonial figures, presiding over the deliberations of the Upper House and risking their necks by walking backwards after handing the Queen's Speech to Her Majesty at the opening of Parliament.

Lord Dilhorne (1962-64) was something of a joke. Lord Gardiner (1964- 70) had been the leading advocate of his day - he was the sleekest of cats - but became one of the great reforming Lord Chancellors, arguably the most successful minister of the first two Wilson administrations. Lord Hailsham (1970-74 and 1979-87) coined the phrase "elective dictatorship" and was an early supporter of a Bill of Rights but proceeded to do absolutely nothing about it when he had the chance and not much about anything else either. Lord Elwyn-Jones (1974-79) was even more conservative than Lord Hailsham and had, indeed, some claim to be the most reactionary holder of the office since Lord Halsbury (1900-05).

Lord Havers (1987) saw the job as a reward for long service as Mr Attorney and a guarantee of a generous pension. He spent most of his time loafing around the Garrick Club and was quickly removed on the insistence of Lord Whitelaw on account of his indolence. Lady Thatcher quickly replaced him with Lord Mackay (1987-97). Not only was he a Scots lawyer in charge of the English legal system. There was also some doubt about whether he was a Conservative at all. To his credit, he greatly annoyed the English bench and bar. As a reforming Chancellor, he was comparable to Lord Gardiner and a few other (though not many) previous incumbents.

There is no such doubt about where Lord Irvine's political sympathies lie. Owing to his friendship and previous professional relationship with both Mr Tony Blair and Ms Cherie Booth QC, there is a disposition to see him as typically New Labour. This is I think a mistake. He is as much Old Labour as, I suppose, the late John Smith.

I have known him, though not well, for getting on for 30 years, chiefly because he was one of the very few prosperous civil barristers to frequent El Vino's in Fleet Street, referred to disapprovingly by Lord Beaverbrook as "El Vino's public house". The establishment tended to be patronised by slightly seedy criminal practitioners, what Mr John Mortimer's Horace Rumpole calls "Old Bailey hacks". In fact the place puts in numerous appearances in the Rumpole stories as Pomeroy's wine bar.

And prosperous Alexander ("Derry") Irvine certainly was, deservedly so, inasmuch as there is any justice in these matters. He was very clever and very industrious. He still is. His chief defect was a tendency to appear bullying even when he was not actually being so. It is a defect which has persisted and may, indeed, have become more pronounced with the passing of the years.

In those days, the early 1970s, Lord Irvine had a substantial practice before the Industrial Relations Court which had been established by the Heath government and was presided over by Lord Donaldson. Lord Elwyn-Jones, by the way, refused to promote Lord (then Mr Justice) Donaldson to the Court of Appeal after 1974 because he considered it would annoy the party comrades. The omission was repaired when the Conservatives came to power five years later. In 1982 a vacancy arose for Master of the Rolls. Lady Thatcher insisted that Lord Donaldson should be appointed to make up for his scurvy treatment under Labour - or perhaps simply to annoy the party. Lord Hailsham demurred, saying it was the Lord Chancellor who appointed judges. He got into a tremendous huff. Lady Thatcher said sorry but no: it was the Prime Minister who appointed the Master of the Rolls. Lord Donaldson duly got the job.

Before the IRC Lord Irvine would appear sometimes for the employers, sometimes for the unions. He then became ambitious of acquiring a seat in Wales - Aberdare, I seem to remember - and henceforth appeared for the unions only. Nothing wrong with that: the so-called "cab rank principle" is not a principle at all. For one thing, taxis make uniform charges, as barristers very much do not. And, for another, barristers not only specialise but refuse to take on certain categories of case. There are criminal chambers which refuse to defend anyone accused of rape.

Alas - or happily for his future prosperity at the bar - the seat in question went to somebody else, and Lord Irvine felt free to take on employers' cases once again. In 1987 he was made a life peer on the recommendation of Mr Neil Kinnock. In 1992 he was actually given the title Shadow Lord Chancellor which, as far as I know, no one else had previously acquired.

Before this there had, however, been some doubts among senior Labour peers about whether he should be given the job in a real Labour government. These doubts did not concern Lord Irvine's intelligence but, rather, his assiduity: not so much on his own behalf - certainly not - as on his party's. These peers thought Lord Irvine was more concerned with the interests of Lord Irvine than with those of the People's Party as represented in the Upper House. Derry, it was said, was not putting in the hours. These disgruntled colleagues began to talk of Mr Justice Waterhouse, who had once stood as a Labour candidate, as a possible Lord Chancellor, or one of the Scots judges with Labour sympathies (for Lord Irvine, though a Scotsman, originally from Inverness, has always practised at the English bar).

Anyway, it all came right in the end. It probably would have done even if Mr Blair had not become leader of the Labour Party and then Prime Minister. Lord Irvine finds himself in his present pivotal position not only because of his friendship with Mr Blair but also because of the Government's commitment to several constitutional reforms. He has also presumably decided to appear before our wondering eyes as a bit of a character, what the papers call a controversial figure. How else to explain his assault the other day on fatcat QCs? It is not as if they are paid out of legal aid. And coming from Lord Irvine, who himself used to earn half a million a year at the bar, it was rich, not to say fruity.

Lord Irvine has numerous tests before him. The promise to set up a commission on electoral systems seems to have been quietly forgotten. The promise to abolish the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote awaits the Queen's Speech of 1998. The Freedom of Information Act will be a sham if its enforcement is to be left, as is now surmised, to the politicians rather than to the judges. And the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our law will not be worth very much if all a court can do is say, well, yes, this statute does contravene the convention but, unfortunately, it remains the law.

My expectations are low, not because there is any doubt about Lord Irvine's intelligence and assiduity, but because legally he is a conservative. In this he remains very much a product of Old Labour.