Andrew Watts

Legal challenge

Knowing the law inside out is not always the best preparation for government

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.

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