One of the best things about being a journalist, especially if you do interviews, is that your preconceptions are overturned pretty often. Rock stars and actors generally turn out to boring and unlikeable, while politicians, even ones who are painted in Private Eye as being nasty pieces of work, turn out to be eloquent and charming. Meeting Lord “Charlie” Falconer, the epitome (it would seem) of the cronyism of Tony Blair’s government, was a particularly enjoyable surprise.
To begin with, there was his mode of arrival. Personally, I expected him to arrive in a large ministerial-type car (probably a Jag), which would stop in front of Caius, where a flunkey would open the door, before His Lordship stepped out to treat us with general disdain as the Jag sped round the corner. In the event, he walked round the corner, holding a pad of paper, looking more like a slightly dishevelled lecturer than the last man to hold the title of Lord Chancellor.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of a ministerial car (he’s no longer a minister), Lord Falconer was slightly late, which cut our interview rather short. It’s rather difficult to ask detailed questions or to follow up any of the dubious answers when you only have fifteen minutes in which to cram as many questions as possible.
I asked first why he had originally wanted to abolish the position of Lord Chancellor and why he then changed his position. He said that the Lord Chancellor’s role in preserving the independence of the judiciary was crucial, but that “it was impossible…for the Chair of the final Court of Appeal…to be a member of the Cabinet”, because the party that appears in front of the Law Lords most often is the government, compromising the separation of powers. However, he believed the role of Lord Chancellor should continue to exist simply to tell other ministers not to criticise judges or otherwise interfere with the judicial process.
Enlightened about one area of constitutional reform, I took a step into the abyss, revealing my ignorance by asking whether there should be a Supreme Court to represent and enforce the separation of powers, as in the USA. “That’s why the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 created…a Supreme Court that will start sitting in 2009,” he gently explained. Falconer one, Murray nil.
He went on to point out that the main difference is that the Law Lords are being moved out of the House of Lords and into a building across Parliament Square, rather than being in the Houses of Parliament, a “building that is politics to its core”. He argued that judges should restrain themselves as far as possible from making policy decisions in order to let “politicians do politics”, with judges only making decisions founded on law.
He argued that most importantly, the Human Rights Act should set out the “outer limits of what is permissible”. He reiterated, though, that the courts, especially the Law Lords, must be seen as impartial arbiters of the law, who rely on well-established principles, not least because “the views of a successful professional will not necessarily reflect the views of society”.
Moving on from this, I asked Lord Falconer about devolution and why he had opposed an English parliament with such vehemence. He said that “devolution is a means of convincing the Welsh and Scots that they’re not going to be the subject of laws made in London”, rather than a way to create some unnecessary symbolic equality between the three countries. He rightly pointed out that, as 83% of MPs at Westminster are from English constituencies, all governments must necessarily have a majority of English support and appeal to the English.
He also attacked the idea of creating English-only votes as leading to a two-tier system of MPs, which would be objectionable to the Welsh and Scots, pointing out that some English education bills do affect Scotland, such as the Barnett formula, which determines how much money Scotland is given. He said such a system would be the best way to encourage separation – a disaster for all concerned, as Wales and Scotland would have their power in the EU diluted and England would be publicly undermined by its inability to hold the Union together.
Finally, I asked Lord Falconer about the role of unelected officials and advisers in the Blair government and whether there was a problem with this, especially in connection with political apathy. Up until this point, I had been extremely impressed with Lord Falconer’s erudition and intelligence, asking myself why it had been necessary for him to be appointed rather than elected.
Unfortunately, moving away from his preferred subject of constitutional reform and into a more overtly political subject, he was much less impressive and much more reminiscent of the Blair government. He deflected the criticism of Blair’s unelected coterie at Downing Street by blaming apathy on a “lack of deference”, the way the media tend to “fillet politicians” and the more “consumerist” nature of politics. As my interview was cut short the question of why we need to show deference towards politicians even when they fail to deliver remained unanswered.
The talk which followed at the Caius Politics Society continued along similar lines, focusing on the role of Lord Chancellor, the Lords, the Human Rights Act and disillusionment in politics. On the constitutional topics he was again impressive (not least because he spoke for at least 40 minutes with no notes), pointing to the importance of the reform of the House of Lords in making it less dominated by conservatives (with a small “c”) and improving its advisory capacity. However, on more political matters, he was uneasy, with a claim that the Lords should be 80% elected and 20% appointed seeming somewhat arbitrary.
His respect for human rights also clearly clashed with his loyalty to Labour, as his defence of the anti-terror laws, which he admitted were quite authoritarian, was that their effect had been mitigated by the Human Rights Act. Therefore what happens to terror suspects now is in fact a slight improvement on what happened to terror suspects in the 1970s. The questions afterwards simply revealed what an advantageous platform such talks can be for politicians, as they can simply brush aside questions with answers, which, if not trite, certainly would not hold up to further examination.
My particular favourite this evening was a response to a question on spin, which was essentially “Alastair Campbell is an honest man”. Despite this, I imagine most people will think of Lord Falconer in the same way that they did before. I, as an avid reader of Private Eye ever since I became interested in politics, would have liked to have come away with my distaste for the Blair government and everyone connected to it intact.
However, politicians in person often make you reconsider what you thought you knew.