New Labour, new Lord Chancellor

Lord Irvine, larger than life barrister and mentor to Tony and Cherie Blair, could play a big part in the next government. He talks to Donald Macintyre about art, politics and the future of the judiciary
Click to follow
The Independent Online
To start understanding Lord Irvine, it is worth considering his interest in art. This is not merely a way one of the most successful commercial QCs in London has chosen to spend his money. It is the absolute, ruling passion of his life outside family and work. His collection of British paintings, mainly from the first half of the century, at his West Hampstead house, is not the biggest or the most valuable private one of its kind in the country. But, all of it paid for, as he points out "from my taxed, earned income", it is certainly one of the best chosen: Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Sir Matthew Smith, Paul Nash. Many of them are Scottish: the colourists SJ Peploe, JD Fergusson and Leslie Hunter among them. He and his wife Alison - who, in a step both admired and envied by her husband, took a second degree in the history of art as a mature student at the Courtauld 10 years ago - fit their European holidays round the major art exhibitions. They go back again and again to the Uffizi in Florence. Without affectation, Irvine says "I envy the Medicis their taste and the sensible use of their great wealth in accumulating these treasures."

Lord Irvine, in other words, does nothing by halves. Everything about him is just a shade larger than life. He works ferociously hard. But he also loves good food, drink, conversation. He is a big man, in every sense. And if Labour wins on 1 May Alexander Irvine will be bigger still. For we have, as if we needed it, Cherie Blair's word for it that the barrister who brought her and Tony together, and who was pupilmaster to both of them, and who helped to launch the Labour leader on his political career, would be Blair's Lord Chancellor. But that doesn't quite do justice to the role that Irvine, the least well-known member but potentially one of the most influential of Blair's inner circle, will play in a Labour cabinet. It's a big job. Sitting on the Woolsack and presiding over the Lords is the least of it. The Lord Chancellor runs the sixth largest government department. He presides over the highest court in the land whenever he chooses to. And he appoints every judge below the level of the Court of Appeal; his advice is almost invariably taken by the Prime Minister on the appointment of the top judges as well.

But in Lord Irvine's case, this isn't all. He will have political clout way beyond his own remit. As friend and mentor to Blair he speaks daily to the leader on the phone - often at around 7am. He is part of the inner election team at Millbank, arbitrating, counselling, problem solving - an especially valuable role in this rather wobbly stage of the campaign. Though he won't discuss his role on policy, he chaired the small committee which turned over all the options on devolution before Blair announced there would be a referendum. He won't talk about the internal Labour tensions on law and order either, but he is known to have persuaded Jack Straw to abandon his support for the "bugging and burgling" measures in Michael Howard's Police Bill. Irvine is more of a libertarian than than Straw, more perhaps than Blair. He influenced the Labour shift, under John Smith, to incorporating into British law the European Convention on Human Rights. He could even, at 56, become the liberal conscience of a Blair government.

His father, a roof slater, was at war for the first five years of Irvine's life, in No 2 Commando fighting with the partisans in Yugoslavia, and in Italy. Both his parents were Labour but the dominant influence on him was his mother, the fiercely intelligent daughter of Alexander Macmillan, a Lairg socialist and building contractor who moved to Inverness as a clerk of works when his business fell on hard times. His Auntie Emma, another formidable woman who lived to be 102, remained in Sutherland, in a little croft at Gruids where Irvine spent the first 14 summers of his life. In short, Irvine, a war baby and an only child, was brought up by women.

His schooling was a classic of the state Scottish system at its best: Inverness Academy, and then, when the family moved to Glasgow, "Hutchie" - Hutcheson's Boys' Grammar School, where he was taught by some of the best teachers in Scotland, including the rigorous classicist Ninian A Jameson. "I have," he says, "a really passionate belief in public education as a democratic route to self-improvement." At Glasgow University, where he joined the Labour Party in 1958, and where John Smith and Donald Dewar were also students, he read philosophy, economics and law. Moving to Cambridge, he came top, out of 220 students, in the law tripos. He had always planned to enter the Scots Bar, but he was attracted by Sixties London. He needed a job until he had enough money to launch out in practice. Refusing a fellowship at Jesus, Cambridge, he took a job at the LSE. As a radical young law don, he was caught up in the 1968 student unrest: his first act of advocacy was to represent the NUS president David Adelstein against disciplinary charges over a letter he had written to The Times protesting against the controversial appointment of Walter Adams as principal. In recognition of this blow for freedom he was made one of two new honorary life presidents of the LSE students' union. The other was Mao Tse Tung.

Irvine became a QC at 37. For a year he was the youngest Silk in the country. Four years earlier he had married Alison McNair, another Glasgow graduate. His family life - they have two sons - has been steadfastly happy. But there had been a painful aspect to the union. She left her first husband, Donald Dewar, now Labour's Chief Whip, and another pivotal member of Blair's team, for Irvine. This wouldn't be anyone else's business if it wasn't for speculation that it will be difficult for Dewar and Irvine to work closely in government, particularly as they may find themselves jointly responsible for Labour's huge programme of constitutional change. Irvine dismisses this speculation. "We get on extremely well and we have sat together on committees," he says. "Donald has visited our house and we have a good and effective working relationship." Irvine adds that he had care of Dewar's children and that "Donald and I have met over the years on many occasions and had conversations perfectly harmoniously in the interests of the children."

In 1981 Irvine took a dramatic step: he led a breakaway to form new chambers of his own, at 11 King's Bench Walk. Or rather, he was persuaded to do so by nine ambitious young barristers, including Tony Blair. Irvine ran the new chambers, by all accounts, as a benevolent despot. Blair expressed at the time, with mock portentousness: "And you ask me, does the principle of one person one vote apply in these chambers - Yes, I say. And Derry has the vote." Blair has subsequently said that Irvine taught him "how to think". The success of the new chambers is probably Irvine's proudest professional achievement. Every one of his own pupils has become a QC except one - and he may be Prime Minister within the month.

Irvine introduced Blair to John Smith in the very early Eighties. And when a slightly embarrassed Blair told Irvine that he wanted to stand for Parliament, Irvine was startled but sympathetic. He himself had stood for marginal Hendon in the 1970 election, when he was in Sir Morris Finer's chambers. He recalled how when his clerk was "unbelievably hostile" to Irvine for doing so, Sir Morris rebuked the clerk, saying that Parliament was "not exactly an ignoble ambition".

What kind of Lord Chancellor would he be? Last year he was attacked by some liberals for firmly drawing a boundary beyond which judges should not step in checking the executive. He said a speech by Lord Woolf, suggesting that it might on occasion be right for judges to not enforce an Act of Parliament, smacked of "judicial supremacism". Irvine says that he is a "great upholder of judicial review and the independence of the judiciary," but he adds, "what is critical here is to know what is the correct province for judges and what is the correct province for Parliament." Take Howard's "profoundly misguided" and "ludicrous" attempt to impose mandatory sentences. "There is all the difference in the world between someone who has been selling hard drugs to all-comers, and the common case of a pathetic individual who sells a bit on the side to fund his own addiction." But, "a hard distinction must be drawn between what is profoundly unwise and what is unconstitutional. Parliament is sovereign. If Parliament decides to impose a minimum sentence for classes of case, then Parliament is acting within its powers and the judge's duty is to apply the law." Equally, on both pragmatic and liberal grounds, he champions the incorporation of the ECHR, and the consequent new powers it would give British judges. "We have an appalling record in Strasbourg of having legislation condemned because it breaks a convention to which we are a party. Why trust foreign judges and not our own judges?"

Another fear among some radicals is that he will slow down the reforms of the present Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay. Irvine is not planning to halt Mackay's opening up of advocacy to properly qualified solicitors, though he points out that the impact of the Mackay legislation has been very limited so far. "Solicitors who are properly qualified are well entitled to compete with the specialist Bar. My own prediction is that a separate independent Bar will continue because of the high quality of the Bar and its full-time skills in advocacy."

But he is a stout defender of the cab rank rule, under which barristers take any case irrespective of their own views, provided they are being tried on points of law. And here he makes an interesting point about his old pupil Cherie Booth QC. No doubt, he says, from time to time "she will be instructed by Conservative local authorities or individuals who want to sue the government of which her husband is head. She will be criticised for doing so but the ethical rule is plain. What more graphic demonstration of the independence of the Bar could there be than that?"

A big difference from Lord Mackay is politics. Mackay is the least party political of Lord Chancellors. You wouldn't, for example, see the present Lord Chancellor in Central Office during the election, as you see Lord Irvine at Millbank. There is every likelihood that Irvine will be a big player across a broad front - for example chairing key cabinet committees, which Lord Mackay has never done.

Only Lord Dilhorne, Macmillan's last Lord Chancellor, has come remotely near wielding the influence Irvine is likely to have if Labour wins. He isn't a rival. It isn't too much to expect that, for many years to come, he will prove to be the one cabinet colleague Blair trusts unequivocally.