At first glance, it's just another official announcement of the sort filling pages of the Law Society’s Gazette 80 years ago. ’During the absence abroad of Sir Wilfrid Greene, the Master of the Rolls, the functions of Master of the Rolls under the Solicitors Act...’.
Hang on: this is the edition of May 1941, at the height of Britain’s isolation during the second world war. Where 'abroad' would anyone not in uniform, let alone a 57-year-old member of the senior judiciary, possibly have been absent that month?
The 1941 Gazette wasn't saying. But, 80 years on and no longer bound by strictures on careless talk, we can reveal that Sir Wilfrid, best known among today's lawyers for his judgment in the Wednesbury unreasonableness case, was crossing the Atlantic to do his bit to forge a war-winning alliance. While there, he delivered one of the most remarkable speeches ever by an English judge.
Sir Wilfrid had been invited to speak at an event marking the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Supreme Court of New York. It was no ordinary conference jolly. We presume he travelled by sea, across a hostile North Atlantic - more than 50 allied merchant ships were sunk that month on that passage, including the passenger liner Nerissa with the loss of 207 lives. Even if the government had laid on air transport, the only possible crossing, via Orkney, Iceland and Greenland in an unpressurised flying boat, would have been at least as perilous and uncomfortable.
Sir Wilfrid, who had won the Military Cross in 1918, had no reason to flaunt his physical courage. Why then, did he do it?
This was the context. In spring 1941 the officially neutral USA was taking its first formal steps on the road to war. In March, President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded a sceptical Congress to pass his Lend-Lease Act as a way of supplying Britain arms without cash payments. In a 'fireside chat' on 27 May, the president had declared a state of unlimited national emergency, which futher increased his options for assisting Britain's fight.
Roosevelt was nonetheless unsure of how far he could go. The previous year he had made the election promise 'Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war'. Isolationist sentiment - and outright hostility to the British Empire - was still a political force, and the president knew that many of his actions were built on legally thin foundations.
Greene's job, on behalf of Winston Churchill, was to make sure the US legal establishment was onside in understanding that Britain's fight was America's too.
To judge by the published record of the event, on 28 May - the very day after Roosevelt's emergency declaration - he was pushing at an open door. Proceedings opened with a message from the president himself, very much dedicated to the Atlantic alliance. Setting up the US and the British Commonwealth as the only places on earth 'where the scales of justice are still evenly held by a figure unashamed' he welcomed Sir Wilfrid to the celebration of the survival of these 'citadels of modern civilised living'.
He was followed by Sir Wilfrid, who opened with a tactful reference to George Washington and his regard for the 'true administration of justice'.
Moving swiftly on, he noted that great principle that the law is supreme over the citizen and the state, 'is the keystone of your free institutions as it is of ours'. By contrast, 'in countries governed by despotism one of the first things which the tyrant attacks is the administration of justice. If he can secure that those whom he wishes to destroy are condemned by the courts, if he can make the judges the submissive instruments to carry out his will, if he can destroy the independence of the bar, the removal of his enemies is easy.'
In such an atmosphere, 'Men become furtive and mean and their eyes are cast over their shoulders in fear of what stalks behind them. Such is the fate of the countries which the Germans have enslaved.'
Neutrality is an illusionary refuge, he warned. 'Do not think that this war is like the war of old times, when the victor laden with spoils retired to his own country leaving the vanquished to pursue his own way of life as before. The aggressors treat with derision every ideal for which your ancestors and ours have fought and died. Those ideals and the rule of force and fear cannot co-exist in the world today. One or the other must prevail, for the world today is a tiny place.
'The aggressors know, and they have proclaimed it from the housetops, that their system is to take the place of ours — that our system is to be eliminated from the world. From their point of view they are right, because they know that if the ideals of freedom are left to flourish in any corner of the globe they will spread inevitably and reconquer the world.
'Let no one smile at this threat. The threats of the Germans are not things to smile at.'
It goes without saying that is not the style of a typical judicial address in 1941; indeed it is impossible to read these words without a Churchillian growl. The more so when it comes to the peroration:
'You are one of the few remaining citadels of freedom. The British Commonwealth of Nations is the other. If it were to be destroyed — and it shall never be destroyed — you would be alone in a world enslaved. You would be the last citadel of freedom and the last hope of man. Would it be a pleasant world in which to be alone?
'At this moment night is falling in England. In the grim darkness of that night men and women and children will die in defence of their own right to be free and the right of the world to be free.'
'Let us, therefore, keep before our eyes the noble vision of the common law and the freedom for which it stands — freedom of the mind, freedom of the soul, freedom of the body — a vision which has spread over the globe. And at the same time let us contemplate with clear eyes, but unafraid, the forces that assail us and are seeking to destroy that vision and all the hopes of mankind.'
He concluded: 'In a few days I am returning to my own country and there in London I shall uphold that supremacy and that rule. There is no man or woman among us but stands close to the threshold of death. But nothing will stop us maintaining those high principles; nothing will stop us administering justice in accordance with the law.'
Of course we know now that Sir Wilfrid did return safely, was enobled later that year and served as master of the rolls until 1949. The alliance between the two citadels of civilised living was forged by Churchill and Roosevelt in their meeting in Newfoundland, three months later. And at the end of that year, Adolf Hitler rescued Roosevelt from his 'foreign wars' commitment by himself declaring war on the United States.
Looking back on Sir Wilfrid's speech, two thoughts occur.
First, the lack of any pretence that the master of the rolls was speaking other than for the government. Roosevelt welcomed Sir Wilfrid as representing 'the people and government of England', which was stretching several constitutional points, but no one minded.
Secondly, dramatic as Sir Wilfrid's words were, it must have occured to Churchill that their impact would have been even greater had the judge been bombed or torpedoed on the way. It would be mischievous to add to the legends involving Churchill by accusing him of conspiring to drown the master of the rolls, but in that desperate spring 80 years ago, a single judge's life would have been very small change indeed.