Is Dominic Grieve the best justice secretary austerity Britain never had? Jonathan Rayner went to meet the former AG in his Westminster office.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve QC MP has been a vociferous critic of some of his party leadership’s pet projects. He has been consistently pro-Europe in the face of calls for the UK to quit the EU. He has identified ‘factual inaccuracies’ in the proposed British Bill of Rights.
He abstained both when the Commons voted to legalise same-sex marriages and when it passed the second reading of the High Speed Two (HS2) rail route bill. And perhaps most damningly of all – at least in the context of the Westminster village – he has accused his fellow politicians of ducking difficult issues by not being ‘forthright’ with the voting public.
It is small wonder, then, that he is now a former attorney general. Or is that to take too simplistic a view? Could it be that he is not merely a serial troublemaker, but is simply living up to his own precept that ‘you should say what you think and, if only in a modest way, contribute to the national discussion’?
The interview starts with the subject of Grieve’s apparent fall from grace. He is diplomatically reticent about the reasons the prime minister gave for demoting him in last summer’s cabinet reshuffle, but insists that it was not his ‘pro-Europe stance’ that triggered his return to the back benches – or at any rate, he says, David Cameron did not mention Europe when dismissing him. ‘The immediate consequence,’ he is only willing to confide, ‘was like applying a Hoover to my diary.’
He adds: ‘But I’ve got plenty to keep me busy. I’ve begun to accept invitations to give lectures again. I’ve let my chambers know that I’m available for work [he took silk in 2008, having built up a practice in occupational safety and health law]. And my legal skills can be used in a parliamentary context.’
Grieve is also involved in organising the Global Law Summit, scheduled for 25-25 February 2015, which will bring more than 2,000 law, business, government and academic leaders from around the world to London to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Grieve has dubbed the summit ‘the Davos of where law meets business’. He adds: ‘And of course, as an MP, I’m continuing to look after the interests of my Beaconsfield constituents.’
What are the big issues currently exercising his constituents? ‘HS2,’ he replies without hesitation. ‘I abstained on the Commons’ second reading [when the HS2 bill was passed by a majority vote of 452 to 41, April 2014] because I felt that questions remained unanswered by the government. My constituents feel strongly about a new train line passing through the Chilterns and through a Site of Special Scientific Interest.’
Just nimbyism then, ventures the Gazette. Grieve is dismissive. ‘I don’t like the characterisation of nimby,’ he says. ‘People in a democracy should have the right to defend their interests. Some people will be directly affected by noise or construction traffic and see their property reduced in value. There is a big issue surrounding compensation, with the current package on offer being unsatisfactory.
There may also be a spur line to Heathrow airport, cutting through still more people’s properties and fuelling more debate. The spur line has not been finalised yet, but how can the project be evaluated without certainty?’
He continues: ‘It is fanciful to think that we don’t need infrastructure developments. It is also fanciful to think that we can achieve them without some environmental damage. HS2 may turn out to be necessary and a great success, especially after it is extended to Scotland. But the big questions remain. Should we be spending money on HS2 now rather than on anything else, such as the NHS? It needs evaluation. And in 40 years’ time, will HS2 be seen as an expensive white elephant or an inspired idea?’
The Gazette, mindful that for four years Grieve was the coalition government’s chief legal adviser, asks him where he stands on the proposal to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, and replace it with a British Bill of Rights (BBR). He replies that he was involved with drafting the BBR before the 2010 general election, but has subsequently been excluded from the process.
There has been a ‘big shift’ since 2010, he says, with the government’s October 2014 paper on the BBR proposing – among other measures – to make judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (the Strasbourg court) merely ‘advisory’, rather than binding.
Grieve goes on to deride the government paper for being ‘deficient in reasoning’. Membership of the 47-member-state Council of Europe (CoE), which is the continent’s human rights watchdog and also administers the Strasbourg court, is conditional on being a signatory to the ECHR. By ceasing to recognise the primacy of the ECHR, the UK can no longer be a member of the CoE. ‘The government’s published plans gloss over the international repercussions of our withdrawing from a full commitment to the CoE,’ he says. ‘If the UK begins to ignore the Strasbourg court’s rulings, treating them as merely advisory, then why should other member states – particularly those with a poor human rights record – pay them any heed?’
He continues that the plans envisage the UK pulling out of the CoE while remaining a member of the EU, a ‘questionable’ manoeuvre in that membership of the CoE is generally regarded as a first step towards full accession to the EU. Such a move would also require the agreement of the other EU member states, which given the UK’s negotiating record in Brussels is an improbable outcome. ‘If we succeed in remaining in the EU, but then fail to implement the Strasbourg’s court’s rulings, Europe’s top court – the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg – could act against us. And the CJEU’s action is likely to be far more intrusive than anything Strasbourg could throw at us.’
Grieve’s position on the issue contrasts sharply with that of eurosceptic Chris Grayling, of course. So how does Grieve react to claims that he is the best justice secretary we never had? He ducks the question by replying that, in opposition, he was briefly shadow justice secretary, as well as shadow home secretary and shadow attorney general. He then generously claims that his role as the coalition government’s attorney general was less stressful than Grayling’s. ‘I haven’t had to grapple with the austerity cuts,’ he says.
By which, presumably, he means he has not been the target of outraged lawyers and consumers complaining about his government’s savage paring of civil and criminal legal aid, its imposition of higher fees at employment tribunals, the rising numbers of litigants in person, and the rest of the panoply of changes to access to justice that characterise Austerity Britain.
He continues: ‘Legal aid was always going to be under pressure, but maintaining an accessible justice system should always be a priority.
‘Realistically, a government’s three main duties to its citizens are defence, the maintenance of order and access to justice. The lack of remedies where there is inadequate access to justice undermines public trust in politicians and fuels the alienation of growing numbers of people from the democratic process. We need to look at the quite considerable consequences of the changes brought about by budget cuts.’
Have those changes helped the meteoric rise of UKIP? Grieve nods. ‘We have to ask ourselves how we have created a climate where a significant proportion of the public is indifferent to the big picture, but focuses instead on single issues, such as immigration or being allowed to smoke in pubs,’ he replies.
‘Mainstream politicians have lost touch with the people they aspire to represent. They are not forthright in their discourse. There is an unwillingness to disagree, as exemplified by a recent Labour party paper urging canvassers to avoid talking about immigration. How can you expect people to have a view if you skirt around the issues that count most to them?’
We then turn to Grieve’s record as one of four cabinet members to abstain from the May 2013 vote on same-sex marriage. He replies that, in his view, the decision to legalise same-sex marriage was ‘badly conceived’ and marred by a ‘mistaken approach’.
BORN Lambeth, London, May 1956.
EDUCATION Westminster School, London; Magdalen College, Oxford; Central London Polytechnic – Diploma in Law.
LEGAL CAREER Called to bar at Middle Temple, 1980; Bencher of the Middle Temple, 2005; Queen’s Counsel, 2008.
POLITICAL CAREER Elected Conservative MP for Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, 1997; shadow attorney general for England and Wales, 2003-2009; shadow home secretary, 2008-2009; shadow justice secretary, 2009-2010.
KNOWN FOR Attorney general for England and Wales and advocate general for Northern Ireland, 2010-2014.
He continues: ‘If you want to create genuine equality, then I think I would pull the state out of civil marriage altogether and just have civil partnerships available to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. This would have the merit of removing the main objection to same-sex marriage, which is that it allows the state to change the definition of marriage [which many people hold to be exclusively the union of a man and woman with the aim of having children].
‘These civil partnerships would be mutually beneficial, allowing same-sex and mixed-sex couples access to the protections that married people enjoy.’ They would also, says Grieve, help avoid some of the archaic ‘mess’ that besets even civil marriages, such as the need to consummate the marriage as a first step towards parenthood – a biological impossibility for same-sex couples.
Grieve’s proposal would allow same-sex couples to marry in church providing the church in question is willing to support same-sex marriage – which in turn would relieve the anxiety felt by some faith groups at the prospect of being forced to conduct such marriages.
The Gazette asks Grieve about the woman civil registrar who claimed that Islington Council was discriminating against her following her refusal – on religious grounds – to marry a same-sex couple. She took her case all the way to the Strasbourg court, which ruled – in a controversial split decision – that her refusal discriminated against gay people and that the council was right to prevent such discrimination. Grieve responds: ‘If a public servant in public office is required to register something that is deemed lawful by the law of the land, then there is no defence. She was wrong.’
The interview, still focusing on religion and the law, moves on to Grieve’s Christian faith. He is a practising Anglican and was a member of the London Diocesan Synod of the Church of England, 1994-2000. His wife, barrister Caroline Hutton, runs a Sunday school. How important is Christianity to his legal and political career? He replies: ‘It is terribly easy to exaggerate the influence of a faith-based ethic, but atheist and agnostic lawyers have the same outlook as Christian ones. The law is demand-driven. We deliver a service according to a code of conduct and a fundamental belief in the rule of law.
‘As for my parliamentary career, I am not conscious of a faith-based ethic or of people of the same faith uniting as a pressure group. Parliament is about working collectively, moderating people’s views and coming to a consensus. We need to co-operate with one another.’
Grieve’s involvement with the Westminster Abbey Institute is the point at which his Christianity most obviously links with his legal and political careers. The institute, according to its website, holds that ‘faith in public life is a force for good’. It continues: ‘…working with the public service institutions around Parliament Square, the institute seeks to revitalise moral and spiritual values in public life. It is a forum for lively truth-telling and provocative conversation on issues of morality, faith, politics and policy-making.’
Grieve assists the work of the institute by sitting on its Council of Reference, along with such legal luminaries as Baroness Butler-Sloss, Lord Judge and Jack Straw. He says: ‘The institute provides a forum on ethical issues related to public service. There are sessions for parliamentarians as well as for associate members working in public service.’
Drawing the interview to a close, the Gazette asks Grieve what persuaded him first to become a lawyer and then a politician. His family had form, it turns out: his father, Percy Grieve QC, a barrister and judge, was Conservative MP for Solihull, 1964-83. Grieve says: ‘I was initially more interested in applying for the foreign office, but my father talked about the pleasures of self-employment and so I read for the bar.’
The Gazette still had one last question to put to Grieve: is it true that, when relieving you of your attorney generalship, David Cameron merely thanked you for your hard work over the last four years and wished you well for the future? It was then that the bell rang for prime minister’s questions, the last before the Christmas recess, and the question remained unposed – and unanswered.
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer