Few legal practices can boast their own standards – material that is, not ethical – but Thompsons does. One of the venerable trade union and personal injury firm’s crimson-trimmed banners commemorates the role of founder W H (Harry) Thompson in the Poplar Borough Council cause célèbre of 1921.

Reviewed by: Paul Rogerson
Author: Steve Allen
Publisher: Merlin Press
ISBN: 978-0-85036-638-9
Price: £25

This pin-sharp and teak-tough Lancastrian, gaoled as an ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector during the first world war, represented the Labour authority when it took a stand against the gerrymandering of local rates in favour of rich boroughs. Thirty Labour councillors who sought to divert money toward alleviating the district’s desperate poverty went to prison, until Thompson persuaded a court to release them.

As an emblem of what the firm stands for, the banner could hardly be more apposite. The history of Thompsons is, to a significant degree, the history of the labour movement in the 20th century. And that’s ‘labour’, not ‘Labour’. In its formative years, the firm was more closely aligned to the Communist Party. Indeed, party leader Harry Pollitt effectively appointed the firm’s leadership when Thompson died in 1947, and there was an interregnum before the founder’s sons, Robin and Brian, qualified.

The brothers went on to run the firm for more than 20 years before their seeming reluctance to release equity forced a split in the early 1970s. Thompsons was reunited as a single entity in 1996, following far-reaching changes to the handling of personal injury claims.

Today, Thompsons embodies what the author describes as ‘more mainstream Labour values’, but its commitment to what used to be called the working classes remains unswerving. The firm has never acted for employers or insurance companies, and its work for trade unions and their members remains its raison d’etre. Given its recent conversion to alternative business structure status, I wonder whether that symbiotic relationship may soon become closer still.

In this exhaustive and closely researched history, former Thompsons board member Steve Allen draws on original sources and personal recollections to paint vivid portraits of the firm’s principal actors during the near-century of its existence. We are also walked through the major cases it has acted upon, encompassing just about all the pivotal labour disputes of the period.

Grunwick, the miners’ strike, DC Thomson – it is a familiar list. Then there was the Wapping dispute of 1986, which saw Rupert Murdoch’s News International crush the print unions. How ironic that Harry Thompson is included in the Murdoch-owned Times’ list of the 10 greatest lawyers in history, quoted here. Something tells me this spare and serious man would have winced.

Allen is not short of powerful material, then, and he exploits it well. The book is also generously illustrated, with photographs that range from Welsh women hunger marchers of the 1930s to letters of commendation from iconic figures of the Labour left, including Tony Benn and Michael Foot.

Whether you find all this inspiring will perhaps depend on your politics, and there are dissenters. The author does not gloss over this, which partially absolves him when the narrative steers uncomfortably close to hagiography. Dominic Carman is quoted from a biography of his legendary father George, sourly observing that Robin and Brian Thompson were ‘champagne socialists, brought up in comfortable affluence on the edge of Hampstead Heath’.

Carman clearly suffers from the common delusion that you have to live in a ditch and eat gravel to be ‘of the left’, but Robin responded to the charge with amusement. Actually it was Hampstead Garden Suburb; there were no pubs and no public transport; and it was all rather dull, he recalled before his death.

That location might be explained by father Harry’s devout teetotalism; no ‘champagne socialist’ he, at any rate. Harry’s favoured drinking vessel was the prison mug he purloined from HMP Wakefield as a memento of his stay there. There are at least two things this book lacks. The first is a decent index, essential if it is to take its place as a serious historical work in the socialist canon.

The second omission is a ‘happy ending’ – or a happy ending as the firm might conceive of it. Since Thompsons reunited in the 1990s, the proportion of private sector workers who are members of a trade union has plunged by a third, to just 14%. ‘New’ Labour sat on its hands when urged to restore former privileges, so that now even some moderate economists want union bargaining powers strengthened because the proportion of GDP going to wages instead of profits is too low to sustain demand.

Meanwhile, a combination of deep public funding cuts and the Jackson reforms are about to stress-test Thompsons’ business model to the limit. So I must cavil at the author’s assertion: ‘We now take it for granted in our society that everybody has equal rights to access and use the law… a huge step forward and one to which [Harry] Thompson greatly contributed.’

Some might take it for granted, and Harry’s contribution was immense, but that does not make the core statement true. It evokes the famous Zec cartoon, in which a wounded soldier hands over peace in Europe with the injunction ‘Don’t lose it again’. As the coalition rolls back access to civil justice for ‘ordinary’ people, Thompsons must hope its political allies can be persuaded to go into battle once more.

Paul Rogerson is editor-in-chief of the Law Society Gazette