Last week the Daily Telegraph’s front page showed the 15 Tory MPs who had voted against the government under the headline ‘The Brexit Mutineers’. One of the first things pointed out was that two thirds of the group were lawyers. (In fact, only nine of the 15 are barristers or solicitors; a tenth is the son of a High Court judge, but in the hereditary meritocracy in which we live, that counts as the same thing.) This seemed to be taken as a point in their favour — who wouldn’t want our politicians to be sensible lawyers? Certainly, it contrasted with the disdain shown for journalist-politicians, like Michael Gove or Boris Johnson.
Would we really rather our MPs were lawyers than hacks? Yes, some journalists do treat politics as a game, but it seems cruel to let people stand for Parliament only if they promise not to enjoy it. It’s a fair criticism of leader writers that they have only a super-ficial knowledge of their subjects. But isn’t having a superficial knowledge of many subjects rather a good thing if you have to decide between competing claims and interests, which is our legislators’ job?
To steal Isaiah Berlin’s distinction, journalists are people, like the fox, who know lots of things; and lawyers, like the hedgehog, know one big thing. (This distinction can be made, I think, without ascribing fox-like cunning to our Foreign Secretary.)
Moreover, the big thing that lawyers know (the law) is not necessarily the best preparation for government. Dominic Grieve, QC, the informal leader of the mutineers, suggests that lawyers bring a certain cautiousness to the table. Working out the worst possible outcome is of course part of their job; but it does, quite unconsciously, seep into their worldview. I have felt it myself: halfway through my law course a friend was telling me about two people who had moved in together and were very happy. And I remember feeling surprised at this until I realised that I had spent the last term studying land law and equity. For months, every story I had heard that began, ‘C and D were in a relationship and decided to move in together’ had ended in disaster and litigation; a morality tale about the consequences of living in sin without a solicitor drawing up the needful paperwork.
I have a dear friend who is a barrister specialising in road accidents; she refuses to travel anywhere by car because she has seen too many crashes. If I were married to her, I should be irritated at having to travel every-where by bus, but her husband is a family law specialist and they are famously docile spouses — they have seen too many divorces.
There is nothing wrong with being cautious. But lawyers have a counterbalance: clients — people to tell them that actually they do want to drive, or divorce, or put their trust in the person they love. Sensible business-men and women know that lawyers are there to advise, but eventually there comes a point when they have to say: yes, I see the risks, but this is what I want to do — now get back to the office and sort out the paperwork. Without this counterbalance, lawyers retain the mental attitudes of their professional practice. For lawyers in politics, the elimination of risk becomes the highest aim of government. It is not, and should not be.
And while it’s good to have MPs with differing attitudes to risk — the optimum level is somewhere between the extreme risk-aversity of lawyers and the boldness of hacks — there is another danger to having too many lawyers in Parliament: like the hedgehog, their one big thing envelops them completely. When Harry Mount wrote an article here suggesting some barristers were overpaid and that some work reserved to lawyers could be done by an intelligent layman, the letters page of this magazine and the comment pages of others were filled with the angry reactions of QCs and senior solicitors.
No one else does this. If The Spectator’s food critic says a certain restaurant is rotten, or the food costs too much, Gordon Ramsay doesn’t write in to defend the institution of restaurants. But in no other profession does your sense of integrity depend on the institution you belong to. When lawyers are asked how they can defend someone who is guilty, they argue, perfectly correctly, that is their job within the legal system; but people whose self-esteem is dependent on the legal profession as a whole are hardly likely to challenge the rights and privileges of that profession if they become politicians.
Lawyers are overrepresented in Parliament (around 15 per cent of MPs at the last count). Ideally we would like our MPs to better reflect the population, with fewer lawyers, more women and more working-class. But if that utopia is unobtainable, journalists may be an adequate proxy. Yes, their political views may just be the intellectual justification of gut instincts — but doesn’t that make them representative of us all?