An ability to persuade

From the Birmingham Six to the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, radical barrister Michael Mansfield has represented them all. Jon Robins interviews him as he takes a break from his high-profile legal career

December 21, 2009 · 14 min read

It’s a fairly well-established career trajectory now to go from anti-establishment figure to national treasure. And it seems to be a path that Michael Mansfield QC might follow as he does the book tour circuit promoting his autobiography, Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer. ‘The audiences are very middle England. These are the people I wouldn’t necessarily get to address,’ says Mansfield. He reels off the itinerary. Last night he was attending a book festival in Guildford, tomorrow he is in Cambridge, the day after Liverpool, and then Belfast.

The 68-year-old barrister explains his shows are in the style of ‘An audience with Michael Mansfield – like Dave Allen without the whisky.’ Apparently they are sell-outs. ‘A lot of people have been saying: “You’re not what I thought. You’re actually very reasonable.” I tell them: “There you are. You just have to listen a bit.” It has been very rewarding.’

Mansfield remains one of life’s outsiders and steadfastly refuses to be subsumed into the mainstream. He’s never joined a political party and refused a career on the bench as a judge, despite being sounded out. ‘You can’t be a radical judge,’ he explains. He talks unashamedly about wanting to deliver ‘a message’, both through the book and the speaking engagements. His theme ‘isn’t exactly anti-politics. It seems to me that for the very first time in my lifetime we’re at a watershed in politics whereby I think we have an opportunity to make a difference.’

An alternative point of view

Mansfield’s stage success shouldn’t come as a surprise. His career at the Bar was built on an ability to persuade juries to see an alternative point of view – usually that of the despised, the oppressed and the underdog. Those persuasive powers are legendary; Middle England doesn’t stand a chance. He is an affable interviewee, even though he displays definite digressive tendencies. You ask a question and he’s off, briefly dealing with the substance of the inquiry before shooting off at tangents and frequently reverting to his topic of the moment: the malaise infecting our political system.

I interview him at his chambers, Tooks, situated outside London’s legal establishment, off Farringdon Road, close to the Guardian’s old offices. Mansfield says it’s a shame the newspaper has decamped to King’s Cross as he always enjoyed telling people that Tooks was ‘a little to the left of the Guardian’. Certainly, the contents pages of his new book serve as a fairly exhaustive list of left-wing causes célèbres over three decades. The Miners’ Strike, the Birmingham Six, Stephen Lawrence, Jean Charles de Menezes … you can tick them off.

Reading the book, you understand the Zelig-like quality of the lawyer’s role in British justice during his 42 years at the Bar – except Mansfield is always in the foreground, never the background. It must have been exhausting moving from one all-consuming and emotionally-draining case to the next. ‘The problem for lots of barristers is they just see it as a job,’ says Mansfield. ‘They go through the motions. I don’t believe that – I believe you have to infuse what you’re doing with enthusiasm. Nevertheless, you have to control the emotions so you don’t go over the top. It is a very controlled situation.’

Mansfield readily admits that it has taken its toll. ‘The last two years I’ve been doing 14-hour days, five days a week, and it’s been creeping up behind me.’ He admits that ‘physically and mentally’ he hasn’t been able ‘to accommodate the strain and stress levels’ as he had done previously. ‘I felt it was absolutely vital to take a complete break, recharge the batteries and look at other things in life.’

‘Renaissance’ not retirement

So is this retirement? ‘I use the word “renaissance”,’ he replies. ‘Hopefully I will get reborn – partly as a barrister.’ He wants to work at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, representing the victims of war crimes. ‘I have let it be known that’s what I’d like to do. So far people have been very encouraging,’ he says, adding that ‘intellectually it would be interesting and factually compelling, perhaps overwhelming. It would be a bit like Médecins Sans Frontières. One could be going into very dangerous zones.’

Mansfield reckons that people who know him regard him as ‘laid back, calm, collected and never getting too excited … I feel strongly and passionately about things but I frame that into persuasive argument.’ The subject of his memoirs is injustice, but his writing style is measured, amiable and rambling. It’s polemic-free. ‘Anger has been the motivating force but it would be quite easy to allow that anger to dominate the language at the risk of it becoming a rant,’ he says.

The anger is there in the book but it’s implied. Readers get a taste of the forensic abilities of Mansfield as courtroom advocate in his painful and merciless pursuit by cross-examination of a paratrooper during the Bloody Sunday inquiry. The transcript is included in the book. ‘Soldier F’ is forced to admit that, yes, he did shoot an unarmed man in front of the man’s widow. It is genuine courtroom drama, which is harrowing as the truth is slowly teased out. The cross-examination ends when the inquiry chairman Lord Saville calls it to a halt (‘Just one minute, Mr Mansfield …’) as the widow faints. The transcript ends with the court reporter’s parenthetical note: ‘People crying, leaving the gallery.’

Another transcript included in the book features the conversation of the young men accused of killing the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. It is pure racist bile. (‘I reckon every nigger should be chopped up, mate, and they should be left with nothing but stumps,’ etc). We speak a couple of days before Nick Griffin appears on Question Time. Is there a connection between those racist thugs and today’s British National Party?

Absolutely, Mansfield replies. ‘You only have to look at the kind of people they have outside BNP meetings to realise they’re very close to what was going on with the blackshirts in the 1930s and the Cable Street riots. They’re quite proud of their Nazi connections.’ Civil libertarians might argue that everybody should have their say in a free and democratic society. ‘I don’t agree,’ Mansfield says. ‘I think that the BNP is very close to being an illegal organisation – not because of their constitution but for what they actually say.’

Mansfield controversially failed to secure a private prosecution in the Lawrence case. However, the report that did emerge from the inquiry by Lord Macpherson fundamentally changed the landscape of modern policing.

Radical and resented

Michael Mansfield’s role in championing miscarriages of justice in landmark cases such as the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four contributed to a seismic blow dealt to the foundations of the justice system. It is worth remembering just how radical Mansfield and the small group of lawyers who entered the profession in the 1960s and 1970s were compared to the rest of the legal profession – and how resented they were by the establishment.

‘I frequently used to hear vile, unprintable, almost hysterical remarks made about leftie lawyers,’ wrote Marcel Berlins in a New Statesman article in 1999. ‘I have seen judges in court barely able to speak civilly to the likes of Michael Mansfield, such was their hatred of him and the threat they thought he represented to the good order of the law.’

The Mansfield memoirs quote Lord Denning, as Master of the Rolls, on what he clearly considered to be the dreadful prospect of the acquittal of six men sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for the Birmingham pub bombings in what was then the most serious terrorist attack on mainland Britain. Denning argued that if the men were to win it would mean that the police would be ‘guilty of perjury, guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were involuntary and were improperly admitted in evidence … This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: it cannot be right that these actions go any further.’

Of course, the police were guilty and the convictions were overturned in 1991. That case led to the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the independent body that now investigates alleged wrongful convictions.

Do Muslim terrorist suspects these days get a better deal than his Irish clients did back in the 1970s? The nature of the investigation has changed, he replies. ‘You’re not going to get loads of alleged confessions that you had in the Irish cases.’ The police have much more sophisticated surveillance techniques at their disposal, as well as the ‘Prevent agenda’, designed to engage with Muslim groups to undermine support for extremists. ‘But there is the same tendency which there was back in the 1970s and 1980s because of the great pressure to get results. You ended up broadening the net such that ordinary Irish families were treated as suspects, and now ordinary Islamic families are going to be treated as suspects.’

Individuals against the state

Mansfield argues that the common thread running through the cases in his book is the relatively recent ability of individuals such as his clients to take on the might of the state and win through the courts. ‘If you look back before I was born to the 1930s, there was all this activity like the hunger marches, general strikes and so on but within the legal framework there was nothing,’ he says.

He argues that the experiences of the people he has represented, such as Stephen Lawrence’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, and Eileen Dallaglio, mother of the youngest victim of the Marchioness pleasure boat which sank after a collision on the Thames in 1989, have a political resonance. ‘Ordinary people have done some amazing things. I am saying to other ordinary people: now it is your chance.’

It sounds like quite a bland espousal of ‘people power’. It’s not when you consider what the likes of the Lawrences went through. ‘There’s no question in all the cases I can think of that the emotional and domestic cost to the families has been huge. It’s probably unrecognised as to how much has been given and they probably never recover from that,’ he says, although he adds that ‘it imbues them with a sense of purpose’. ‘Someone like Doreen Lawrence is constantly monitoring how they are getting on with the job.’

Mansfield contends that the success of individuals in courts over the past few decades represents a significant opening up of our society. ‘In the 1970s and 1980s criticism of the system was, if not unheard, then muted. The system was thought to be as near infallible as any system could be. It was held out to be a paragon of virtue. People now have a greater ability to ask the right question, see the right lawyers, fight the cases and not roll over.’

‘That has been a message of the book and the message of the meetings: you can do something,’ Mansfield continues. ‘No one is going to do it if you don’t fight for it. In the end it might take a decade or more but you will get a result.’

Moneybags Mansfield

The barrister is often caricatured as a ‘champagne socialist’ or, as the Daily Mail, would have it, ‘Moneybags Mansfield’. Is he embarrassed by how much he’s made from the publicly-funded cases that have made his name? ‘I accept the fact that I earn a lot of money. I am not afraid to talk about it,’ he replies. Mansfield reckons his average earnings from the legal aid fund have been about £180,000 annually. ‘Now that’s a lot of money, but nothing like the figures being quoted in the press,’ he says.

Unsurprisingly, Mansfield has some fairly radical ideas about reforming a legal aid system that has all but disappeared for non-criminal advice. He calls for ‘a national legal welfare system rather like the National Health Service’ where legally-aided services are dispensed through a national network of law centres, as opposed to private-practice law firms. ‘I don’t want to be told by this government they’re short of money. The £2 billion legal aid budget is peanuts compared to what they are spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is peanuts compared to the trillions that they are spending to bail out the banks.’

So, if we are at a ‘watershed’ moment in British politics, as Mansfield argues, what are the options? ‘I am saying to ordinary people: now’s your chance, don’t vote Labour back in. I say that from a lawyer’s point of view. They got the Human Rights Act in – however, their flouting of the rule of law starting with Iraq through to rendition and torture, Belmarsh … it has seriously undermined ordinary democratic rights.’

He also decries the Conservative government’s plans to scrap the Human Rights Act (‘absolutely extraordinary’). Mainstream politics has been devalued. The expenses scandal and the idea of MPs resisting ‘paying money back for their floating duck houses or cleaning the moat’ are ‘unbelievable’. ‘If you really care about equality, diversity, fairness and all those things we as a country are supposed to be good at, you can’t vote for either of the major parties at all.’

What about his own politics? Why did Mansfield never join Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party? Apparently the National Union of Mineworkers’ leader had a membership card waiting for him. Mansfield pays warm tribute to Scargill’s ‘leadership qualities’ in his book (‘he has definitely earned his place in history’). But he says: ‘I have never joined any party.’ The problem with politics has been ‘the corruption of power’ and ‘the odd independent firebrand isn’t going to do too much’. ‘I stay out of Westminster politics. It doesn’t feel like a very democratic process at the moment because the two major parties have a stranglehold.’

Shaking the system

Mansfield’s take on modern politics sounds like the counsel of despair. Not so, he insists. ‘The opportunity is to shake the system up very clearly,’ Mansfield replies. ‘You have to undermine the belief that politicians have a divine right to rule. They don’t have a divine right and that belief has to be squashed this time round. The politicians have to be made to sweat and made to go back to the drawing board. The most important priority is to show the British public that we have a system that is capable of producing the kind of democracy we’ve allowed to rust away because we are lazy.’

‘We didn’t like Thatcher so we voted in Blair as a protest vote, who ended up as another Thatcher,’ Mansfield says. ‘Now there is going to be another protest vote which says that we’ve had enough of Tony Blair and his imitator Brown and so we will vote in David Cameron. Can have another 15 years of this? It is ridiculous. Crisis management. If we do not crack it now we never will. It has to be at this election when all politicians have the fear of God put into them.’

And, apparently, that’s how Mansfield wows Middle England.

See review of Memoirs of a radical lawyer

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