PROFILE: LORD NOLAN An ideal judge

If John Major thought he had picked an establishment stooge for the sleaze inquiry, he was badly mistaken,; He was determined to avoid sniping and majority and minority reports
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When Lord Nolan decided to hold a party to celebrate the first anniversary of his Committee on Standards in Public Life last Thursday evening, he attached one condition: the bill for the event, attended by the press and civil servants from around Whitehall who had helped in the first year, had to be footed by himself, the committee members and senior staff.

It was a characteristically sure-footed, upright gesture. Not noble or dramatic but entirely proper. Nolan was not going to allow himself or his committee to be accused of freeloading at taxpayers' expense, of raiding the public purse to entertain journalists and public servants.

Anyone thinking this was a slightly cynical move, made with one eye on possible screaming tabloid headlines and questions from Tory MPs anxious to bring him to heel, would be mistaken. Such worldly thoughts, say those who know Michael Patrick Nolan, will never have entered his head. Rather, he will have been driven by the same acute sense that has been present all his life, of right and wrong, of unquestioning morality and unwavering justice.

It started with his parents - "the first and foremost influences on my life", he told the Catholic Herald in a rare personal interview - and their profound Catholicism, and continued at Ampleforth, the Yorkshire monastic boarding school. Lessons learnt there remain with him still. "It was a happy time, steeped in the pre-Vatican II mentality. Priests told you how to march left-right-left-right, it was dead simple. In its way, it proved a good rule for life."

The monks had a firm policy of not allowing the clever pupils to dominate the class with constant questions. Instead they were taught to be patient, to hear their teacher present both sides of an issue before reaching a decision.

That ability to listen and carefully absorb the arguments - always, apparently, with respect for the person making the point - has characterised the first year of his committee. Anyone who witnessed the public hearings will have seen an extraordinary display of even-tempered and good-natured control.

The committee, as he was always saying, was there to listen, to hear witnesses across the spectrum, before making up its mind.

The "it" is crucial. By far the shrewdest move Nolan made, maintain those close to the committee, was to insist from the outset on an agreed report. He was determined to avoid the committee falling apart, with members sniping at each other and producing majority and minority reports.

That this did not happen is an enormous tribute to the committee's chairman. His style has been one of open discussion, with debate confined to the committee meetings and nowhere else. Committee members do not meet one another outside its sessions; Nolan does not ring them up for private chats or canvass their views out of earshot of their colleagues. He knew only one of the members previously - Sir Martin Jacomb, merchant banker and head of the British Council. The rest have had to get to know him at meetings. They have not been to his home in Kent to meet his wife and five children, or to join him in a spot of fly-fishing in Hampshire, which he loves.

Tory MPs may have thought the presence of Tom King, the veteran former Defence Secretary, on the committee would have guaranteed them "a result". It did not. Nolanhandled him beautifully by listening even more attentively than usual, making King feel he was not being ignored, then asking the others what they thought.

The result has been a report his enemies find hard to demolish. They can call him unworldly, can accuse him of not understanding the strains and stresses of political life, of not realising the need for MPs to have other sources of income. And he will listen. But all he has to do is point to the production of a consensual report.

Those who witnessed him at close quarters, before he sprang to public attention, testify that he has always been like that. "He is a very quiet, rather softly spoken person," says Lord Ackner, a fellow law lord. "He does not intervene except to ask very pertinent questions. Always, he asks them with great politeness and courtesy."

Never once can lawyers recall him losing his temper. "Behind that soft manner is a very strong personality. He has the ability to see the kernel of a problem very quickly. He is always courteous and calm - the ideal sort of judge," says Ackner.

When John Major came to appoint the first chairman of the new standing committee on standards in public life - it is a point Nolan always stresses that his committee is a standing body which will not disband after its first inquiry - there were items in Nolan's CV that suggested he might, just might, be on the Government's side. During the 1984 miners' strike he granted injunctions to the National Coal Board to block flying pickets. Later he rejected claims for compensation for psychological damage brought by relatives and friends of those killed in the Hillsborough disaster.

His background suggested pure, solid, establishment: public school, Oxford, successful tax barrister, QC, Crown Court recorder, knighthood, Lord Justice of Appeal and - a little-known appointment but one that bore all the right hallmarks - the commissioner responsible for checking the bugging activities of the security services and Scotland Yard.

Mr Major was badly mistaken. Nolan is not a soft touch and he was never going to be a government cipher.

His politics, such as he has them, say his friends, are probably one- nation Tory. But, they stress, such as he has them. "He is really apolitical, he does not think politically," says one.

What does motivate him is a simple belief in the strength of public service, that people who can should give something back. Throughout, he has remained positive about the state of the nation. He does not share the gloominess of some commentators about our predicament. The very fact that his committee exists, and the way we are prepared, unlike other countries, to grasp the nettle before things get worse is, he believes, to our credit.

When the Commons last discussed the Nolan report, its author decided to attend. Outside he was accosted by Alan Duncan, a Tory MP, who challenged him, under the glare of the television lights, to debate his report with him. Nolan remained impassive, while Mr Duncan tried to score political points. One of them was made to appear foolish, and it was not Lord Nolan.