To be absolutely honest, I approached this book with a bit of a heavy heart. Here, I thought, would be another potboiler on human rights, interspersed with old war stories.
But such prejudice proved unfair and untrue. This is exactly the sort of book to give to a niece, a nephew, a son, a daughter thinking of a career in the law – even if they aspire to work in Canary Wharf. It is a reminder of why law, human rights and civil liberties matter and how lawyers can play a vital role in their defence.
Anthony Lester (pictured) identifies five key values that demand our attention both as political demands and legal constructs: human rights, equality, free speech, privacy and the rule of law. There is a freshness to the argument that reminded me a little of H G Wells’ famous treatise on The Rights of Man. This is a book which is a call to political arms rather than an academic treatise. It is a reminder of why law is politically important and why, in its last words, ‘there is so much to defend and fortify and undo – and so much need of your active involvement in the pursuit of justice’.
Lester is the right author for this kind of a book. He has a lifetime in politics and might have been lord chancellor had he not moved from Labour to the Social Democrats at a critical moment. He can credibly turn from recounting events during the troubles in Northern Ireland, where he was legally involved, to suggesting how we should move towards an explicitly federal constitution.
Author: Anthony Lester
£14.99, Oneworld Publications
He can mix it as a lawyer if required and appeared in many of the key cases in the fields that he covers. He also has, remarkably for such a senior lawyer, a very clear writing style. It is difficult to think of any senior QC who can write quite so directly for a general audience.
Each of the chapters of the five ideas that he has selected covers a breadth of history, principle, case analysis and personal anecdote. This is what I thought would not work – but it does. The choice of values is interesting and the text carries you along as you read it. The one query with which I was left was whether fairness was not the sixth key value for which we should all fight. But that would take the author deeply into economic values, where this book stays resolutely with constitutional ones and, as such, does rather well.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice