If only Lord Denning had died at seventy...

Share
Related Topics
Tom Denning, former Master of the Rolls, was not blind to his own talents, and insisted on sitting on the bench until he was 83. "Denning's law is, I hope, good law," he liked to say. And, no doubt, until he was aged about 70, Denning's law was, for the most part, good law indeed.

He was the Master of the Rolls, for example, who insisted on the rights of a deserted wife to continue occupying the matrimonial home. Here was an area where the law was an ass, and Denning rejoiced in saying so. He was the champion of the small man, and small woman, against the Big System. An encyclopaedically knowledgeable reforming lawyer, he saw it as a very simple principle that common law should protect and help the common man. Many of his summings-up, both as an Appeal Court judge and later as Master of the Rolls, have passed into legal history for their brilliance and, above all, their fairness.

But, of course, this old countryman with a face like a Ribstone Pippin and a voice like Jane Austen's Hampshire accent (Beryl Bainbridge wouldn't have approved) was given 100 years to live, rather than the scriptural three-score years and ten.

Had he died aged 70, Denning would have gone to his grave with an unblemished reputation as one of the great libertarians of English history. The fact that he was a show-off, or that he derived obvious, puritanical, salacious delight from presiding over the inquiry into the Profumo scandal would have been regarded as harmless peccadilloes. Had he died at 70, we'd not have heard the Denning who thought black men shouldn't be allowed to sit on juries. To say that he lived too long is not merely to suggest that in extreme old age he became increasingly intemperate in his views. He was perfectly entitled to do that. Rather, it is to say that if you live 100 years many of the things which you regarded as virtues in your youth will have become vices in the eyes of your younger contemporaries by the time you die. Supposing that some of your historical heroes had been granted the gift of eternal life. Imagine having lunch today with Mrs Pankhurst, or Keats, or Thomas Jefferson. Might you not discover that you were shocked by their taking certain evils for granted - racial segregation, say, or corporal or capital punishment?

This is the lesson which I learnt on that fateful summer day a decade ago when I was sent off by the Spectator to interview Lord Denning in Whitchurch, Hampshire, the small town where he, his brother the Admiral and his brother the General had all been born above their father's draper's shop. I am not by nature a newshound, and I have conducted only a small handful of interviews in my life. It was certainly not my intention to write anything "controversial". My intention was to write 1,000 words of praise for the dear old champion of Liberty, with, perhaps, a few anodyne memories of pre-First-World-War Hampshire.

Sensing this, perhaps, Denning, who was nothing if not a headline-grabber, started to say things that were calculated to be "talking points"; MASTER OF ROLLS DENOUNCES ARCHBISHOP was his first bid to shock. He told a story of some private individuals, "ordinary churchgoers", a married couple who had come to Denning with a bee in their bonnet, about some Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells issue. I forget if it was Women Priests, Gay Clergy, or something else. Digging around in the law books, Denning advised them to take out a private action against the Archbishop of Canterbury. His lawyers, doing their job, defended the case and bled Denning's friends dry with costs. Indeed, I think the end of the story was that they were cleared out of their house and their life savings.

Some people listening to this tale would have thought it showed Denning in a poor light. "It's entirely wrong to use costs as a weapon in a case like that," he kept saying. But as an experienced judge, he could have foreseen that this was what would happen. If anyone were to blame for the ruin of his friends, it was Denning himself.

Seeing that I made no notes during this anecdote, he leaned forward towards the tape recorder and began, slowly and deliberately telling the machine that the Guildford Four should have been sentenced by a jury of Twelve Good Men of Hampshire to be hanged. "Then we should have forgotten all about them."

It was this view - surprising, to say the least, in the light of all we then knew about the miscarriage of justice that had occurred in the Guildford case - which lit the touch paper. As an encore, Denning the Europhobe told me that it was "entirely wrong" for this country to have put its interests in Europe into the hands of "a German Jew, if you please" called Leon Brittan.

When I questioned the accuracy of this description of Sir Leon, Denning reaffirmed it: "Look him up - you'll see he was a German Jew." He added that Brittan had been a lousy libel lawyer and that it was only those who were duds at the Bar who went into politics. (Tony Blair note well.)

There followed the predictable rant. Seas and oceans that we had known to be British waters since the time of Sir Francis Drake were now "Spanish waters, if you please"....

Well, Denning got what he wanted. The Spectator article caused some of the Guildford Four to consider suing him. Sir Leon Brittan was hurt and angry. Denning came on the six o'clock news saying that he had been quoted out of context. He even invented a new law for the occasion, claiming that I had inveigled him into libelling himself. Lady Denning and others expressed their disgust that a journalist from London should have taken advantage of a poor old man. Denning's reputation was never quite the same again.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Thousands of Russian troops marched on Red Square in the annual Victory Day parade in a proud display of the nation's military might amid escalating tensions over Ukraine  

Once again, the West fails to understand Russia

Mary Dejevsky
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before