Britain has given many wonderful things to the world – Stephen Fry, Parliament, Marmite, Shakespeare, rugby football, cricket. However, the most important is the rule of law. This is because it incorporates so many other British virtues: fairness, decency, a truculent belief in the underdog and a bloody-minded refusal to give in to arbitrary power of any kind.
That is why at first sight we should wholeheartedly applaud the decision to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, that superlative landmark in the evolution of the British state, with an event at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre at Westminster next month. Delegates have been summoned from all over the world. They are a mixed bunch. They include a managing partner of Goldman Sachs, the vice-president of the Barrick Gold Corporation and a Rothschild banker. The Master of the Rolls will speak, as will Mark Hovell, head of sport at the law firm Mills & Reeve, and that famous jurist Boris Johnson.
Delegates will listen to Cherie Blair QC and also to a public relations expert called Andrew Grant. Mr Grant has made a fortune out of Tulchan Communications, a firm that advises businessmen on what to say to journalists. It is wholly unclear what contribution someone like Mr Grant could conceivably make to a conference about Magna Carta and the British rule of law.
The sponsors include Schillings, which has established a reputation as London’s most ruthless and unpleasant group of libel lawyers. I suppose Schillings counts as a law firm, though not one that would have much appealed to Sir William Blackstone, the great constitutional lawyer who prepared the first critical edition of Magna Carta in 1759.
Blackstone would certainly have been perplexed by Saunderson House, “a leading firm of independent wealth managers providing award-winning advice to busy professionals and other high net-worth individuals”. RSM International, which advises companies on how to avoid tax, is another sponsor. RSM’s presence is not just inexplicable. It is inexcusable.
I have obtained all these details from the Global Law Summit website, which devotes a page to the business advantages of attending the conference: “Whether you are looking for investment, to invest or wanting to collaborate, networking can be instrumental for your prospects for growth.”
Its “superb programme of social and networking opportunities” includes a visit to The Guildhall Art Gallery, where the finest surviving Magna Carta, which includes the seal of Edward I, is held. Delegates are especially privileged: “Because of its delicate nature, it only goes on display for special events.” The programme finishes on Wednesday afternoon “with a networking reception at the Houses of Parliament”.
So far so sordid, disgusting and debased. In his recent book, Mammon’s Kingdom, David Marquand noted what he called the collapse of the public domain, defined as ‘‘the domain of citizenship, equity and service whose integrity is essential to democratic governance and social well being”. You do not have to be a Social Democrat like Prof Marquand to understand there is something dangerous about the way that market forces have merged so effortlessly with the rule of law. It brings tears to my eyes and makes me white with anger to reflect that such a fusion should have occurred at an event to commemorate Magna Carta.
But next month’s celebration is not just venal. Let’s never forget that Shaker Aamer, a British resident with four British children, is still rotting in Guantánamo Bay after being held there for 13 years without charge. Neither David Cameron nor any of his ministers have lifted a serious finger to help him – though this seems not to alarm the ambitious judges or the fat-cat lawyers, let alone the financial PR men and investment bankers.
The rank stench of moral hypocrisy will hang over the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre. Before the last election, Mr Cameron promised a judge-led inquiry into the very serious allegations that the British state has been involved in torture. After nearly five years, it has gone nowhere. Who cares, when there’s a networking opportunity at the QE2?
Mr Cameron’s Government has launched a systematic attack on the legal aid system which gives poor people access to the justice system [for oD coverage see here]. There has always been a two-tier system of justice in Britain, one for the poor and one for those who can afford expensive private lawyers. The Government changes have widened this divide, and run flatly contrary to Magna Carta. So does the latest Criminal Justice Bill, with its vicious attack on judicial review, the main way in which arbitrary government decisions are held to account through the courts.
Most important of all, Mr Cameron is close to committing Britain to withdraw altogether from the European Convention on Human Rights, a document which entrenches the principles of Magna Carta in international law. Britain will, under Conservative plans, exit the Council of Europe, and become the awful bedfellow of only two European countries: Belarus and Kazakhstan.
To summarise, Mr Cameron’s Government has launched something close to an out-and-out attack on the rule of law. The idea that either he or his ministers give a damn for the principles that underlie Magna Carta is preposterous.
Let’s now return to the cast list for next month’s event. The big corporate lawyers are out in force. The Allen & Overy partner Sir David Wootton is chairman. His board contains 15 men, zero women. Seven Allen & Overy partners – repeat, seven – are billed to speak. Most of the big firms will be there: Simmons & Simmons; Berwin Leighton Paisner; Travers Smith; Macfarlanes; and, to its lasting discredit, the barristers’ chambers 39 Essex Street, which is known for carrying out a great deal of government-related business and is the workplace of Ed Miliband’s wife, Justine Thornton.
But don’t bother looking for those small solicitor firms, which for pitiful fees have made a precarious living out of advising legal aid customers. This is an occasion where only legal oligarchs, along with their wealthy clients, are welcome. This is an occasion that celebrates justice – for the rich, the powerful and the well-connected.
High Court judges are supposed to be fastidious about where they go and who they meet. Senior members of the judiciary, such as the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Thomas, and the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, need to ask some searching questions and they need to start asking them now. The anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta falls on June 15. Why, then, the need to hold the London celebration at the end of February, more than five months before the anniversary proper – but just weeks before the formal launch of the general election campaign?
With so many government ministers (including the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling) speaking, why has no invitation been sent to Sadiq Khan, shadow Lord Chancellor? The system of law and justice which has come down to us from Magna Carta belongs to everyone. It is emphatically not the private domain of the Conservative Party.
Next month’s event looks uncomfortably like a partisan attempt to hijack one of the great glories of our common history for party political purposes on the eve of a general election. David Cameron would be well advised to call off this improper, revolting and dreadfully conceived enterprise.
This article first appeared in the Telegraph.