Britons have been denigrating the judiciary at least since Hogarth. Long may it continue.
These judges are vandals, the politician railed. ‘They are worse than kids who slash tyres.’ The speaker wasn’t a 2016 Brexiteer but one of the heads of London’s local government, speaking in December 1981. Former bus conductor Dave Wetzel was expressing the outrage of many voters at the decision by the House of Lords to uphold the Court of Appeal’s ruling that our elected Greater London Council had acted ultra vires in cutting public transport fares. (The council wanted to reverse the decline in the use of public transport; believe it or not there was a time when the Tube’s problem was undercrowding.)
In the press, even in papers with little sympathy for the leftist Greater London Council, we made hay over the disconnect between the judiciary and ordinary lives. ‘When did you last see a judge on public transport?’ feature writers thundered. We had particular fun with the fact that Lord Denning, master of the rolls, was 82 and apparently completely adrift from modern values. A riff on the theme by a young cartoonist, Steve Bell, became the Guardian’s long-running ‘If...’ cartoon strip.
In those days, lampooning individual members of the judiciary was de rigeur in sophisticated circles. We had plenty of targets - Denning himself was to retire a year later amid controversy over remarks about the capacity of members of the ethnic minorities to serve on juries. Another was Mr Justice Cantley, whose summing up in the Thorpe trial was brilliantly caricatured - ‘You will now retire, as indeed should I’ - by Peter Cook in the 1979 Secret Policeman’s Ball. Broadcast, I recall, on national television.
And who can forget every liberal bien-pensant’s favourite judge Melford Stevenson, who combined savage prison sentences for student demonstrators with what even then were colourful views on homosexuality and rape consent?
Pilloried, every one of them, at least in the broadsheet and ‘underground’ press (who, once the dust of the 1970s had settled, turned out to be recruiting from much the same pool).
So scandalising the judiciary - or ‘murmuring judges’ in the excellent Scots expression picked up by playwright David Hare - is a splendid tradition. It may originate in eighteenth century Grubb Street, in Hogarth’s depiction of ‘shallow discernment' or 'wilful inattention' in the corpulent faces on the bench. I can't honestly claim that the Mail’s ‘Enemies of the people’ represents the finest of that tradition, but judges are public figures and in a free country must be open to public criticism, just as Denning, Cantley and Melford Stevenson were.
Or do we allow criticism and satire only when it is in the posh prints?