It was part grand rhetoric, part classical declamation, part comedy riff. London mayor Boris Johnson justified his top billing at the Global Law Summit with a semi-improvised address that managed to elicit snorts of laughter even from the po-faced press benches.
Not least when, in defending London as the ‘caput mundi’ for the rule of law, the mayor reflected: ‘Only in London could the mayor receive a notice to remove an inoffensive garden shed erected on his own property. And be sent aggressive letters demanding that he pay the congestion charge – signed by the mayor of London.’
Only in London too could a ‘Latin-American despot be plucked from his bed and made to answer for crimes committed in the 1970s’; and ‘crusties’ be allowed to ‘erect bivouacs’ outside parliament and to hurl abuse at the inhabitants.
Johnson began by declaring that the ‘liberal spirit of Magna Carta is alive throughout the English-speaking world’. Sadly its distinguished ‘descendants Jimmy Carter and Helena Bonham-Carter cannot be with us today,’ he added.
The UK upholds the right of ‘access to justice for everyone in the land’, said the mayor, while warning that the ‘whole British legal system is in the dock’. Setting down the charge sheet, Johnson reflected that ‘the prosecution would say we do too little to protect our essential freedoms’, whether in attempting to liberate citizens from Guantanamo Bay or by cutting legal aid to the detriment of the vulnerable.
Conversely, the charge could also be laid that ‘we do too much, upholding so many rights and freedoms as to be a threat to good government’. The mayor cited a ‘convoluted planning system’ seemingly devoted to ‘protecting the rights of newts, salamanders and bats’. The result is that building homes here is ‘more costly than anywhere else in the world’.
Turning to ‘foreign affairs’, Johnson took a swipe at ‘ambulance-chasing, Better Call Saul-type lawyers who wander round Baghdad asking jihadis if they have been mistreated by the British state’. Some of the ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ spent defending claims that are ‘vexatious and without merit’ could instead be spent on legal aid, he suggested.
Warming to a theme, he also lashed out at a ‘lawyer-driven ecstasy of namby-pambyness’ afflicting the education sector: notably in bringing claims for ‘rugby football’ injuries in a year when England will host the World Cup.
Reflecting also on London’s pre-eminence in commercial disputes, Johnson cited legal clashes ‘between oligarchs that you might wish both of them could lose’. The major contributor to the capital’s appeal was a ‘courts and legal system that is seen to operate to the highest intellectual standards and to be free of any taint of corruption’.
The mayor did, of course, reserve a special place in his oratory for the French, who must suffer the ‘Napoleonic system’. London has almost as many Michelin stars as Paris, he stressed: ‘We used to have more but then they found out and start dishing them out, North Korean-style.’
Attorney-general Jeremy Wright QC will be glad to have ascended the podium first.