BOOK REVIEW Off Message: the complete antidote to political humbug
Reviewed by: David Pickup
Author: Bob Marshall-Andrews QC
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978 184668 441 8
What will the Blair era be remembered for? Iraq, New Labour and a new political term: spin.
It was not a great period for lawyers despite the number of politicians with some sort of legal background. It strikes me that ex-lawyer politicians are a bit like some judges. They forget where they came from.
This is a book of reminiscences by a very non-New Labour, Labour MP.
Marshall-Andrews was elected MP for Medway in 1997 at the beginning of the Labour government. Even before he was elected, he fell out of favour for making a joke about Derry (Lord) Irvine, and he spent the rest of his elected life being a thorn in Labour’s side.
One does not get the impression he was particularly committed to a political career. The stint as a MP seems to have been an appendage to a successful life as an eminent silk.
He is one of a breed of sub species of ‘Rumpole’ we solicitors all know and secretly admire or at least respect.
The book has an old fashioned air to it. The cartoons which grace the end pages are Hogarthian. It is a series of essays rather than a coherent biography, containing many anecdotes.
The humour is of the ‘Have I got news for you’-type, a programme on which he has successfully appeared.
Let’s face it politicians do not like lawyers or justice very much. Justice is costly and gets in the way of governments.
We are back in the age before MP expenses scandals and in the era of Iraq, doubtful dossiers, sale of peerages allegations and terrorism legislation. Terrorism became defined as anything that was perceived as terror.
There is a discussion on whether it would be an offence under the Terrorism Act to possess Baden Powell’s Scouting for Boys.
Section 57 created an offence to possess any article giving rise to a suspicion that it was purpose connected to the preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.
Scouting contains sections on survival in the countryside, camouflage etc which would assist a terrorist. It is easy to forget how dramatic these times were.
This is not a book about human rights, which would have less interest, but about liberties. It is rightly pointed out that human rights diminish a country’s sovereignty but liberties probably enhance it.
It is shocking how close parliament came to changing the legal framework.
He is wrong in saying the right of silence was abolished - but it was emasculated. However, the then-government did want to severely restrict the right to jury trial.
We very nearly lost the right to jury trial in most serious cases.
As a sop to liberals the government introduced the idea of the respectable defendant. Magistrates would have to consider the effect of a conviction on the respectable defendant’s life when considering jury trial. Who is respectable?
Probably not one who reads Scouting for Boys. Fortunately the government lost that particular argument.
In reality, the curtailment of liberties was not for philosophic reasons or in many cases for reasons of security, but simply to save cash.
Jury trials are expensive, magistrates’ trial are cheaper.
What will we be saying in five or 10 years time? Will this government launch an attack on the same freedoms again in the name of efficiency?
Only time will tell. It is interesting how easily politicians sell their souls. Many are libertarian in oppositon but remarkably change tack once in power.
Do civil servants get to them? Do they simply want to win the votes of Daily Mail readers?
This book is a staunch reminder that a maverick can rebel and successively defend liberty on occasion, though perhaps by more luck than judgement.
Thank heavens for that.
David Pickup is a partner in Aylesbury based Pickup & Scott