New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:
High Profile

Raising the Bar

Roy McCloughry


Your publisher's puff for your new memoirs (1) describes you as 'intelligent, handsome and dynamic', and yet you start the book by introducing us to your varicose veins. Were you anxious to knock yourself off a pedestal?
Well, I don't really see myself as being on any pedestal. I wanted people to recognise that I'm just an ordinary guy, with the same vulnerabilities and imperfections everybody else has.

You had a very conservative suburban upbringing. Does anything remain of that conservatism?

I'm thinking hard. I don't really think there is any of it left. I suppose that if you regard a certain formality… I mean, my parents were very respectful of other people, my mother particularly. So, I was brought up with these rules: you never went to anyone's home without inviting them back, you never accepted a gift without giving something in return, you always wrote a letter of thankyou. I know they're minor courtesies, but I've actually discovered along the way that they really matter to people. If that is a conservative legacy… I suppose it's sort of caring, really. Caring conservatism.

What about respect for institutions?
No, I don't have any of that. My parents' respect for institutions was eroded substantially by things that hap­pened - mainly, again, to my mother [who was falsely accused of a parking offence and had to defend herself in court]. I think she was increasingly upset by institut­ions she thought were the pillars of our society - main­ly the police. She was really shocked by what happened. She said: 'If they do that to me, God knows what they are do­ing to everyone else!'

After my father died, in 1960 when I was just about to go to university, she did become heavily reliant on the church. The local vicar was very supportive, and she threw herself into making kneelers and little tapestries and she went every Sunday and she took me along with her. I wasn't by that stage par­ticularly relig­ious but I had been to Crusader [Bible] class, so I knew what the score was and I thought I had to support her.
So, that was an institution that certainly survived - there's no question of that. But not for me.

What happened for you? Did you have a personal faith that just leached away as you grew up, or what?
No, no, I was no… I suspect I went up to university sort of not knowing whether I believed or I didn't. I think that what opened my mind to other possibilities was the nature of the course at Keele University, which was very unusual: in the first year (of four), you had a tast­er of every subject from astronomy all the way through to zoology and you weren't allowed to choose [what you were going to study] for your degree until you had seen this shop window. And nearly everybody changed from what they originally thought they were going to do. And I encountered philosophy. I didn't know anything about it - it certainly wasn't taught at school - and in the few lectures we had on it I thought: 'Wow! I would like to try and get my head around this.'

I had a professor of pure philosophy who is very well known, [Antony] Flew - in fact, he's just converted - to God! I don't agree with his politics much, but what I found amazing was his mental discipline. He was teaching empirical philosophy and you were being asked to consider belief in the context of ex­perience, and so I suppose [any Christian belief] just fell away.
I got much more interested in - I suppose the best term for it is 'humanism', where people are right at the centre. I have no belief in anything beyond that - even if there is something, I don't believe in it. I feel there's enough to do while I'm here to make life palatable, not just for me but for as many oth­er people as I can. I have­n't spent much time think­ing beyond that, where for me there's no proof.

MM1.jpgAll the same, we are seeing a resurgence of religion in the world. Do you think it's a positive force?
I'm very worried about it. I realise that under some op­pressive regimes, particularly in South America, Jesuit priests and so on have done a great deal for ordinary people - and obviously the story of Jesus is about ordinary people, so I know there's that potential. How­ever, the problem is that, across the world, part of the root of/route to bigotry and violence has been in the name of God. You had that certainly with the Crusad­ers in the Middle East. I call it 'bigotry' because in the end it's perhaps not what the religions themselves would desire - Islamists will say, 'We don't believe in bombing, and certainly not in suicide bombing; it's not part of our faith' - but, you know, it has been embraced by some people who practise the religion as a manifestation of it, so I think religion has some responsibility.
I am very interested in Rowan Williams. Very in­ter­ested. I think his attitude to all sorts of issues - to gay members of the clergy, the war [in Iraq] and being prepared to speak out in St Paul's Cathedral in front of the very people who perpetrated it, and now he's come out talking about allotments and climate change - I think it's wonderful, because he has an amazing position of responsibility still as head of the Church [of England], because he'll get reported where others don't. (I know he gets misreported sometimes, as he did about shari'a law, and of course that's a risk.)

Whether it's born out of his religion, I don't know. I assume it is, but it may be just a sense of fairness. I would contrast him with Norman Tebbit: I understand why he's angry and all the rest of it, but there's no mercy there, no compassion. People say, 'Why should he be?' Well, I think, you know, that's what really matters.

Rowan Williams' value system is not far from mine. He may choose to say it's from up there and I choose to say it's from down here, or wherever; but actually we are much the same.

You have undergone a kind of conversion, it seems to me. Politically, you have moved from blue to red to green…
Which is what I shall vote next year, don't worry!

What led to that commitment?
MM2.jpgWell, I can pin it on a single event. [On its third evening on air, in 1981,] Channel 4 showed The Animals Film, which was about the exploitation of the animal kingdom, basically. It was narrated by Julie Christie, who I greatly admired at the time, so I thought: 'Yeah, I'd like to watch that.' And when I saw what mankind was do­ing - to produce perfume and fur coats, to satisfy our desire for meat and to experiment for medicines, I just thought: 'What right have we got to be doing this?'

It made me very angry - and when I get angry, I do some­thing about it - usually. This time, I said: Right, that's it! I will do as much as I can to cut down the suffering we inflict on animals. I stopped eating meat pretty well overnight. I'm not perfect - you know, I do still wear leather shoes - but on the whole I've succeeded.

So, yes, that was a road to Damascus, really. And in a sense the same thing happened with the law. It was a piece of celluloid that sort of did it for me - well, several bits of celluloid: everybody gets turned on by To Kill a Mockingbird, and then there was a [US television] ser­ies called The Defenders. (2) I loved it and was inspired by it.

You have said that part of your motivation as a barrister stems from anger, which you trace back to your mother's trouble with the police. I can see that anger can initiate action, but it can't sustain it, can it?

That is your experience?
Yeah. My dad used to say: 'If you're not a socialist by the age of 20, you haven't got a heart' - well, he never used the word 'socialist' but that's what he meant - 'and if you're not a conservative [in all senses of that word] by the age of 40, you haven't got a head.' However, in my case it's worked the other way around: I've just got more and more angry the older I get at the inequalities and the injustices. I've emerged from a deeply tradit­ional, conventional background - very secure, I've no complaints about it - and slowly but surely migrated, not through dogma (because, you know, it's not some book that's done it for me) but through meeting other people and experiencing their lives. Today I feel more strongly than ever, and I get very upset.

I hear lots of stories - people come up to me, write to me and so on - and you go: 'This is dreadful!' And I can't go to bed at night with that anger just hanging in the room: I've got to channel it into something, so that as long as there's a little bit of change, however small… I mean, so many people who've been affected by a case I've done or a talk I've given come up to me and say: 'You don't know this but actually that's the only thing that has kept me going and I've just come to thank you.' And you think: 'OK, it has been worth it after all!'

You believe that people are fundamentally good and that they want the best for other people -
Yeah. Yeah.

So, is the problem that institutions behave less morally than individuals?
I think the problem is power: once people who basic­ally want good are given the op­portunity to wield power - that's the corrupting influence, without any question at all. That's what we're seeing in the House of Com­mons at the moment: they got themselves into a position where they thought they were almost un­touch­able and could charge us all for their KitKats and all the rest of it, and now it's come home to roost. And that's only a small part of what has been going on - for centuries.

We haven't yet managed, it seems to me, to contrive a system in which we can organise our lives without getting caught up in the trappings of power. You know, absolute anarchy (in the true sense of that word) might work in a very small state - you might manage to work out which side of the road you're going to drive and that sort of thing - but when you do things on a much bigger scale, obviously there has got to be organisation and that doesn't just happen.

What I'm thinking is that no power blocs should be there for more than three years at the most. Four is too long. Even two is possibly too long. You need to move people around so they don't get entrenched in a position where they feel they can get away with things.

Isn't there a link between experience and wisdom that would be broken by that kind of brevity of tenure? When civil servants are rotated too quickly from one ministry to another, the whole thing gets a bit shaky.

MM3.jpgYes, but then if you leave them there too long they be­come sanguine. There needs to be much better checks and balances, as they've tried to do in the States. You know, I'm not saying that anywhere is perfect, but at the moment I feel that our democracy is morally and pol­itically bankrupt. Nobody feels that they make any difference; people have given up. The younger generation aren't that interested in voting - why should they?
They need to be persuaded, and I'm saying to people: Vote - but don't vote for either of the major parties. We have a wonderful opportunity now to kick 'em out, make 'em start thinking again. I'm not saying we need a coalition government for the rest of time, but there are other countries, like Germany, where coalitions do work and where politicians cannot exercise overweening power, because there's another group right there. If you look at voting patterns in this country and then you look at the House of Commons, one is not reflected in the other. I think it's very, very unhealthy.

Would the same principle of brief tenure apply to the judiciary?
Yes, I think it does. In fact, the judiciary have changed quite a lot during my lifetime. In fact, the higher judiciary have been almost bastions of liberty, surprisingly - over the last 15 years they've been the only people standing up to the Government in the House of Lords - and I think even they are recognising that you can't let judges stay in one position for too long. The Lord Chief Justice - mainly because of the pressure of the job, I think - has not been staying very long.3 Same with the Director of Public Prosecutions.
I think people are beginning to realise that actually it's better if you move on, even if you've got experience and wisdom: hopefully you plough them back in be­fore you leave, but you give someone else a chance and the roots of corruption don't take in the soil of the office you hold. And I think it's a much healthier situation.

Which is more important to you as a lawyer: winning a case or promoting a cause? What is the balance?

Well, first of all, there isn't a balance between them - that's the point I really want to make. I'm not promoting a cause when I'm doing a trial. Inquests and inquir­ies are slightly different, but usually, again, I'm operating within quite a specific remit. On the other hand, once a case is won or lost I can then speak publicly about the issues underlying it that haven't been litigated (because they can't be) and I can say: 'Well, the ramifications of a case like this are blah blah blah.' I can't use the court, or a tribunal, as a political platform; but outside it, obviously, I can say: 'This is what I feel strongly about.'

With regard to the Stephen Lawrence case: Doreen, his mother, was not satisfied, from one point of view, because the people who committed the murder haven't been convicted. So, we didn't win that. But in my view what she has achieved is actually even more important than getting individuals convicted: she raised an agenda that no one had raised before. She didn't know she was going to do it until she was on that road, as it were, and realised that as she made demands, people began to respond and she could make a difference.

And so you got [the] Macpherson [Inquiry] and its 70 recommendations, and the police thinking hard ab­out their 'institutional racism' - and they're still think­ing hard. And she hasn't left it hanging: she's saying, 'I can't trust the police to implement these 70 recommendations, or the politicians to monitor them.' And so last spring she convened a conference at Central Hall West­min­ster and they all turn up, the Home Secretary and the Shadow Home Secretary, because they have enormous respect for her and they know that if they don't, she will be pointing that out. And they have to give an account of themselves.

I don't think of it in terms of victory - I don't think Doreen would call it a victory - but it is an amazing achievement. And I tell people: 'You can do that. The Lawren­ces are ordinary people, they admit they're just or­din­ary people - in fact, we're all just ordinary people - and they've done this by saying: "This is a memorial for Stephen, and it's what you would do for your own child if you were in our position."'

Who are your greatest allies?
I've known Tony Benn a very long time, so I see him as an ally. Jeremy Corbyn. Bob Marshall-Andrews, who is a lawyer and an MP. And, of course, Helena Kennedy, who sits in the Lords. Within the Bar, I think there are many Silks whose respect I've won over the years, even if they don't agree with my politics, who I can rely on for support. There's a lot of them. I wouldn't say hundreds, but tens of them.

I don't feel isolated - but I've gone out of my way to ensure that I'm not. I've always put myself out there, so everybody knows - well, most people know - who I am and what I'm doing and thinking; but I try to avoid fighting personal battles. And because I've done it that way - to begin with, people felt that obviously I was a Red under the bed and were worried about me; but gradually they've realised that I'm not going to do anything from behind. It's all going to be to your face and if you don't like it, fine, you can kick up a fuss.

Do you think that the media are right to see themselves as champions of justice?
Well, some media are. Some journalists. I wouldn't see any single organ as being, you know, the bastion of free speech and dem­ocracy. The Guardian fights some of these battles, but it also has journalists who I wouldn't see as being on the side of justice - at least, not justice as I see it. And then at the other end of the spectrum there's a lot of stuff in the Daily Mail I don't approve of, but I wouldn't tar every journalist who writes for the Mail as someone who is incapable of speaking out the truth.

What I've realised over the years is that the critical eye in all these media has become smaller and smaller and smaller - I am fairly dismayed by the lack of critical analysis, which is absolutely vital for a democracy. There is the odd Panorama or whatever that is good, and the odd insight article in the Times or the Guardian or the Observer or the Independent. So, there are pools of light, and they're very important - and, of course, the [Daily] Telegraph [on MPs'] expenses - and I still think there is a freedom about the press; but I don't think we can say we've got a free press. We have some journalists who are courageous, but on the whole…

The list of cases you have acted in is extraordinary; but there must have been many occasions when colleagues have thought: 'I wouldn't take that on. It's a lost cause.'
Oh, yes.

And others when they must have just rolled their eyes and thought, 'That makes no sense at all.'
You know, I'm obviously concerned what people think, but at the end of the day I can't live my life by other people's standards. I adopt standards for myself and I try to stick to them, and that leads me into areas where, you know, angels fear to tread.

One final question: do you long more to see the triumph of justice or the triumph of mercy?
That's quite an interesting one. I don't see them as al­ternatives. Justice is not justice un­less it's tempered with mercy. The two go hand-in-hand, all the way.