Profile: Never on a Sunday: The Lord Chancellor is a tireless legal reformer, but only six days a week, writes Cal McCrystal

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The Independent Online
THE PRESS officer was adamant. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'He's an extremely tolerant man, but he won't budge on that one.' Her response was to a request for an interview with the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. But he is a strict Sabbatarian and will not speak to journalists for articles published on a Sunday. He will not, explained Sheila Thompson, his press officer, do a BBC radio interview 'if there's a likelihood the programme will be repeated on a Sunday'. Nor will he use the phone on Sunday, except in an emergency. Even Saturday evening travel is ruled out, lest delays cause the Sabbath to be desecrated. Yet last week his 'tolerance' stretched to cabinet colleagues who openly supported MPs demanding fewer restrictions on Sunday trading - John Major, indeed, favoured total deregulation.

Lord Mackay has served in the Cabinet since 1987, longer than all but a few of his colleagues. He is the highest-paid cabinet member and his job puts him at the centre of important developments in social and legal policy. Last week, for example, he proposed reforms of the divorce law which, in the view of some Conservatives, would make marriage dissolution easier. He also approved the end of the barristers' monopoly of advocacy in the higher courts.

Yet, to the English, he remains a mystery, an outsider. Where or what, for example, is Clashfern? It is not a place, but a run-down cottage of the same name (Gaelic for 'ditch of the alders') four miles north of the village of Scourie on the harsh Sutherland coast. It was the home to which Mackay's grandfather returned every night from a day of tending sheep, and which Mackay's father left as a young man to seek work on the railway. Locals regard the cottage as 'a bit of an eyesore'.

And what are his politics? When Margaret Thatcher appointed him in 1987, his fellow Scot, John Smith, said: 'Congratulations, James, but I had no idea you were a Tory]' He wasn't. His parents (signalman father, boarding house keeper mother) were far from destitute and seemed natural Liberal fodder, yet they voted Conservative. James, on the other hand kept his politics to himself, only 'joining the faith', as he puts it, on becoming Lord Chancellor.

HIS religion is an even more perplexing issue. His views on Sunday newspapers are rooted in Scotland's Free Presbyterian Church, known as the 'Wee Frees', in which he was raised. This Church holds - in common with the Rev Ian Paisley - to the 1643 Westminster Confession which regards the Roman Mass as 'Satanic', the Roman Church as 'the Whore of Babylon' and its leader as 'AntiChrist'. But he was kicked out of it three years ago for attending requiem Masses for Lord Russell of Killowan and Lord Wheatley, Roman Catholic friends and legal colleagues. Hundreds of 'Wee Frees' deserted their sect in his support and formed the Associated Presbyterian Churches, which Mackay did not join, apparently out of respect to his parents, but in which he worships when he can.

Deep religious conviction, based on a strong Highland sense of family, undoubtedly conflict with some of the obligations and friendships of secular life. The Rev John Tallach, long- time friend and Aberdeen presbyter, says: 'I pray that he will be given wisdom. I am conscious of his own sense of need of divine grace and help in these tensions.' Mackay is also helped by a detached, cool, agile intellect which has made him one of the cleverest lawyers of his generation.

He was born in 1927 in an Edinburgh flat - the only child of parents who had married late in life - and sent to the George Heriot school when he was 12. Heriot provides a free education for the deserving poor and a curriculum that emphasises the sciences. Mackay is remembered by contemporaries for self-control and 'caustic wit'; he was not, said one, 'a tremendous mixer'. He took Pure Maths at Edinburgh University and, in 1948, began lecturing in mathematics at St Andrews. He then realised he had chosen the wrong career, a contemporary recalls, and switched to law, learning the requisite Latin in three months and becoming an undergraduate, on a Cambridge scholarship, once more. On completing his degree, he went back to Edinburgh to work in a firm of solicitors. He was called to the Scottish Bar in 1955 and, three years later, married Elizabeth Hymers, a second cousin, who had gone to Edinburgh to train as a nurse and stayed with Mackay's mother. They have two daughters and a son.

In 1965 he became a QC and, by 1979, he had become Lord Advocate of Scotland and a life peer. As Lord Advocate, he skilfully backed a new Bill which relaxed Scottish law on homosexuality and banned booze in football grounds. He attracted lawyers' admiration by successfully prosecuting a Glasgow shopkeeper for supplying child glue-sniffers.

MACKAY has always been an advocate of easier, quicker, cheaper justice, but professes not to know precisely why Margaret Thatcher asked him to be Lord Chancellor. 'She had been impressed with the opinions she had seen from me as Lord Advocate. I assumed that she had formed some view about me. All she asked me was whether I would be willing to become the Lord Chancellor.' She was most likely attracted byhis ability to drive a Roman road through the most complicated problems.

Mackay has thick, grey hair, dark eyes and a fresh complexion from weekend walks in the Highlands (he has a flat in Edinburgh and a summer house in Inverness). His voice is unemotional - that of a man who is hard to rattle, who prefers logic to ideology. His style is very different from that of the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham. Versatile in argument, Hailsham waged a war of jests, bon mots, pointed sarcasms and popular allusions. Mackay listens, reasons, showing neither asperity nor a tendency to let discussion drown in the depths of his sagacity. Hailsham resented judges who sounded off to the media. Mackay ruled that they had a right to be seen and heard off the bench. Unlike Hailsham, he does not seem to revel in the ancient proprieties of being Lord Chancellor. Shortly after a self-conscious start in wig, stockings, damask skirt and purse of office, he said: 'I must say I would feel uncomfortable walking up Whitehall dressed like that and thinking of my colleagues in Scotland.'

The Lord Chancellor has weathered many of the storms blown up by his reforming zeal. But he has not always had his own way. He has had to abandon, 'for the time being', plans to switch the power to grant legal aid from magistrates to the Legal Aid Board. In fact, his legal aid reforms as a whole have attracted much criticism on the grounds that they would exclude 127,000 people a year from legal aid and compromise the principle that everyone, rich and poor, should have access to the legal system.

He has done some good things, such as ordering all circuit judges, recorders and assistant recorders to attend a racial awareness course - to encourage even-handed justice and to help the judiciary to avoid causing offence. He has also done some odd things, such as crossing the Green Line between Greek and Turkish Cyprus earlier this year in order to lobby for the return of the absconded millionaire Asil Nadir.

Mackay has taken most stick from his own profession whose members sometimes see his 'cheaper justice' reforms as an erosion of their profits. For example, the Bar is suspicious of his desire to see more solicitors on the circuit court bench while solicitors worry about his suggestion that more use be made of Citizens Advice Bureaux in legal aid cases.

There is also some resistance to his proposal to reform the libel law to enable people to clear their names quickly without resorting to lengthy and expensive court cases. On the other hand, by introducing a contingency fee system, he has mollified lawyers by giving them the go-ahead to double their money for winning cases. And he has respected their conservatism by refusing to open files on the system for selecting QCs.

Lord Mackay likes to say: 'The public's priorities are my priorities.' Those who talk to him get an impression of a man with an open mind. But some doubt that he will prove to be the great reformer he is made out to be. He 'tends to defend the creaking machinery of justice by emphasising that it is run impeccably and according to the highest standards,' says one. '(He) is not entirely free from loyalty to his profession.'

In the face of intense criticism, such as recently from a group of magistrates who hissed and jeered him for his plans to make their courts more accountable, he employs what the Scottish MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn describes as 'infinite charm and beautiful manners'. Most Scotsmen approached about the Lord Chancellor last week voiced strong approval of him. But he does not share their nationalism. Although he thinks 'there is a great deal to be said for Scots having a say in their own affairs . . . and I'm very anxious to do my very best for the Scottish people, naturally enough,' he also thinks that 'the union should be defended very strongly'.

He maintains a relatively low personal profile, eschewing glamorous parties, sticking to a half- glass of wine, going for long walks on visits to Inverness or to Scourie where he has spent several summers. In Scourie, he always calls on his aunt, Johan Munro, who says: 'Although James was born in Edinburgh, his roots are here. We're all very proud of James. Oh, he's a lovely fellow]'

(Photograph omitted)