So what to make of the extreme language, veering from the histrionic to the hysterical, dominating political discourse? The words ‘surrender’, ‘treachery’ and ‘sabotage’ ricochet around Westminster. According to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Supreme Court’s verdict is a ‘constitutional coup’. For the Sun it’s ‘an incendiary coup by political judges’. David Cameron describes Michael Gove as a ‘foam-flecked Faragist’. Boris Johnson is painted as the Antichrist. All of which puts into perspective my own somewhat hackneyed contribution to this lexicon of acrimony. It is nearly three years since the Mail’s headline ‘Enemies of the people’ detonated a national debate over whether judges were hijacking political powers. Written five minutes before deadline, this somewhat clunky reference to an Ibsen play was meant to capture Brexit ministers’ rage at the court’s ‘undemocratic’ decision to insist parliament must vote on triggering Article 50. Interestingly, the Telegraph’s front page that day, ‘The judges versus the people’, was almost identical, but it was the Mail, the chatterati’s favourite bogeyman, that was criticised. Was this fair?
Let me be clear: I revere the independence, intelligence and integrity that, by and large, characterises Britain’s judiciary, just as I hold sacred the principle of press freedom that has defined this country for 300 years. But I also bear copious scars from losing millions of Rothermere shekels in libel courts that didn’t seem to believe in press freedom. And I’ve broken bread with too many home secretaries — particularly David Blunkett — who raged at unelected judges using the Human Rights Act to thwart elected politicians from expelling terrorists. The truth is judges are no less fallible than editors and ministers, all of whom see life and truth through very different prisms. But in this country there is a childish fiction that judges are Olympian figures who, chosen in penumbral obscurity, are unaffected by their political or personal beliefs and therefore beyond scrutiny. This is poppycock and the transparency of the Supreme Court in America attests to a more grown-up constitution.
My question is this: how can Britain’s top judges, many of whom have deep links with the EU (the wife of one tweeted that the referendum result was ‘mad and bad’) be utterly neutral over such a bitterly contentious issue as Brexit? The fact is that in claiming to protect the sovereignty of parliament, the judges have actually diminished it by handing more power to themselves. The man in the street — sickened by the appalling antics of John Bercow (Britain’s real head of state) and self-obsessed MPs — believes the judges are just part of a great stitch-up by an arrogant ruling class determined to reverse the referendum and ignore the sovereignty of the people. Talk of riots in the streets is nonsense. But the rage and contempt that most people hold for that class is now palpable. And that’s not good for democracy. Or judges — whose days hiding in penumbral obscurity are now numbered.
Cameron’s memoir confessions of drug-taking prompt memories of a surreal incident. I was asked by Gordon Brown to chair a review into the rule that state papers should be kept secret for 30 years (we reduced it to 20 — a small but significant victory for people’s right to know). As part of our deliberations, my committee sought the views of the then leader of the opposition, whom we saw in a private Commons room. Clearly somewhat rattled, Cameron suddenly blurted out: ‘I know what this is all about — it’s Brown trying to expose my drug-taking.’ There was a stunned silence and the subject was changed. I can only presume that Call Me Dave was worried what some old security vetting might reveal.
How fascinating the effect guilt has on the mind and tongue.
Supreme Court President Lady Hale has long been a bête noire of the Mail which, in my 26 years as editor, campaigned unremittingly for marriage — a subject on which the Baroness, who spent nine years on the Law Commission, seems to have held decidedly sour views, including her declaration that ‘logically we have already reached the point at which we should be considering whether the legal institution of marriage continues to serve any useful purpose’. So it was that the Commission set out to establish that marriage was no different from other living arrangements. Co-habitees should enjoy the same rights as married couples. No-fault divorces were recommended. An institution which for centuries had been regarded as a spiritual melding of selves was transmogrified into a self-centred business transaction. Unsurprisingly, this mishmash of moral relativism resulted in a soaring divorce rate with children being treated as just more disposable items in a throwaway society. Whether any of this should be laid at the door of Lady Hale, I judge not. I do know, however, that there is a mountain of evidence that children brought up by two parents in an enduring relationship lead happier, more successful lives than those brought up in ‘alternative living arrangements’. As for the Baroness — I learn she has just been given a cushy number at the Oxford college run by the ex-editor of the left-wing Remainer Guardian who, oh yes, is a prominent supporter of Gina Miller. Oh piccolo mondo! I rest my case m’lord.
Lord Patten, rejected by voters 27 years ago, is the embodiment of a smug un-elected elite. As former chairman of the BBC Trust, he appointed not one but two director–generals of utter mediocrity. Now he criticises the Corporation for its ‘craven judgment about what constituted balance in its news coverage’ in the run-up to the referendum. He’s partially right. For the first time in memory, the Eurosceptic–hating BBC astonishingly gave equal air-time to both sides of the argument, which may have been a small factor in the result. How pathetic that their former chairman should attack them for this, but then the Corporation (is its Europe editor Katya Adler actually employed by Brussels?) now daily pumps out hysterical anti-Brexit propaganda, determined to make up for its short-lived neutrality. Its coverage is a disgrace. As is the insane political correctness behind the censuring of ‘racist’ Trump comments by Naga Munchetty, the admirable woman presenter of colour whom political correctness was meant to protect.
A lawyer friend sends me a transcript of a recent Appeal Court ruling on an obscure case presided over by a certain Mr Justice Jay. According to the court, Jay showed ‘hostility and rudeness to the claimant… appears to have cast off the mantle of impartiality… used language that was threatening and frankly bullying… acted in a manner which was, at times, manifestly unfair’ and may have ‘reversed the burden of proof, expecting the claimant to prove his innocence’. Could this Justice Jay be the very same Robert Jay QC, who was the wheedling, insinuating inquisitor-general in the Leveson inquiry, when the entire British press was — because of the appalling criminal behaviour of a small section of the industry — also presumed guilty and had to prove its innocence? Then there’s Jay’s assistant, a then married mother-of-two who — although holidaying in Santorini during the inquiry with the oily lawyer representing the priapic Hugh Grant — insisted that their affair only started after Leveson was published. Both escaped unscathed in a supine Bar Standards Board investigation. I indulge in such prurience to show the legal profession itself is not above criticism. Who chose Jay to be a judge? How are QCs appointed? Why is the lawyers’ regulatory body so risibly weak? How can some firms get away with charging such iniquitous fees? I don’t know, but I do know the legal profession is one of Britain’s last great unreformed, vested-interest closed shops. How about an editor-led inquiry into the practice, culture and ethics of lawyers? I shall await the call.
It’s a rum old world. The Mail’s ‘Murderers’ front page, which by naming his killers led to justice for Stephen Lawrence, was a blatant contempt of court, condemned by an ex-master of the rolls who called for my jailing. In retrospect, it was acclaimed by liberal opinion. That ‘Enemies’ front page, which reflected the view of ministers and a great many Britons, was excoriated by the same liberals. So do I regret it? Hell no! Newspapers are meant to be provocative, outrageous even. Striking the right balance between the law and politics is never going to be easy. If that front page helped raise consciousness about this vital debate, then I can face my maker with equanimity.