emerged in late 2017 as a key figure in the ‘polite rebellion by pragmatic Conservatives’ against the Government’s plans for Brexit. ‘One man more than any other has the power to frustrate the Prime Minister,’ Bloomberg said.
Huw Spanner met the former attorney general in his office off Parliament Square on 22 October 2018.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Can you tell us a little about your childhood and the way it shaped you?
I was born in the 1950s but my parents were already 40 then, so their values were those of a slightly earlier era. My father was a barrister who had quite an old-fashioned and rather romantic view of Britain and its place in the world, and was very conscious of history, both personal and national. His father had been killed at Ypres four weeks before he was born.
My mother’s family were Franco-British. They had done rather well in commerce, and she was brought up in Paris and did a degree in English at the Sorbonne. She was bilingual, as I am. For our holidays we went to stay with grandparents in Paris or to Brittany.
Was it a happy childhood? Yes, it was, very happy – although later in adolescence there were far more strains and stresses because my older sister developed anorexia, which eventually killed her. My parents had to cope with some very difficult circumstances.
Your father became an MP in 1964, when you were eight years old…
He took me canvassing at the Lincoln by-election in 1962 – I remember this very cold winter and thinking that Lincoln must be very close to the North Pole. He eventually became MP for Solihull.
When did you become interested in politics yourself?
That came much later. When I was at prep school I would occasionally go and have tea at the House of Commons. I then became a weekly boarder at Westminster [School] just across the road and my father would get me a ticket to the public gallery and I’d go and watch debates. I suppose it was then that politics first started to excite me – though until I was 16 or 17 my ambition was to be an Army officer, I’m not sure why.
I’m a bit of an old-fashioned Conservative. I believe in what would nowadays be described as ‘British values’ – tolerance, faith in our political institutions and a strong sense of pride in Britain as a political nation
And then when I went to [Oxford University] there was the added ingredient that we were in a period of massive national crisis. We’d just had the two ’74 general elections, the economy was foundering and there was a palpable sense that Britain was going down the plughole. The university had been very left-wing over the previous four, five years but suddenly student attitudes changed. And I was heavily involved in that. We used to leaflet [British Leyland’s] Cowley works at six o’clock in the morning when the night shift came out.
You practised as a barrister yourself for 17 years before you took your seat in the House of Commons. Were you consciously following in your father’s footsteps?
I went to the Bar because I wanted to have a professional career first before I went into politics. I did actually try for the Foreign Office, which might have taken me in a completely different direction; but they wouldn’t have me.
You are often described as a ‘liberal Conservative’. Do you position yourself in ideological terms?
Certainly now I am a liberal Conservative, and I think in truth I always have been. I’m also a bit of an old-fashioned Conservative – I believe in conservative philosophical principles, which start with the imperfectibility of the human condition and therefore I see politics as essentially pragmatic adjustments to try to achieve concrete beneficial ends underpinned by the need for a human society to have certain accepted norms.
That includes many of what would nowadays be described as ‘British values’: tolerance, a common focus of loyalty – so the concept of monarchy appeals to me because it provides that focus and removes it from politics – faith in our political institutions (although one can get too starry-eyed about those) and a strong sense of pride in Britain as a political nation, which makes it much more inclusive of people from different cultural backgrounds. (I contrast that with my experience of France, where I think to be French requires adherence to a set of cultural norms.)
One obituary of your father said that he had ‘a sternly restrictive attitude to immigration’. Is that something you inherited?
He picked that up in the 1960s, in the first great wave of immigration which came to an end with the passing of the various Immigration Acts.1The 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Acts and the 1971 Immigration Act It brought about demographic changes, particularly in the Midlands, which were proving to be very difficult for people to accept. Undoubtedly he thought that if we allowed immigration to continue unchecked it was going to be very damaging to national cohesion and he was worried about that; but he also was absolutely clear that everybody who was a British citizen had to be treated equally.
Does that chime with my own view? I suppose that even a modern Conservative might take a very similar approach. Indeed, the problems we have at the moment, which have led to major political upheavals including Brexit, can be traced directly to levels of migration into the United Kingdom which are seen as excessive and intolerable by large sections of the electorate. I think we ignore that at our peril.
But, equally, we now live in a multicultural society. You can’t turn the clock back and it has delivered great benefits for us as well as challenges.
Curiously, having come to Parliament to be a politician I have come to have a slightly semi-detached view of the political process
My impression is that most Conservatives look back at conservatives in earlier times and see them as kindred spirits, and yet endorse many of the radical changes we’ve seen in the last 200 years – from the extension of the franchise to the introduction of a minimum wage. Is there some kind of tension in that, or conflict?
I think of this as ‘the Peterloo question’. If you were transported back to St Peter’s Field in Manchester in 1819, would you be on the side of the magistrates or the protesters?2See bl.uk/the-peterloo-massacre.
I certainly wouldn’t have been on the side of the magistrates, because they exceeded their remit in the most appalling fashion!
Conservatives are anxious to maintain continuity and prevent upheaval: they think that the things that our forebears have delivered to us should not be abandoned lightly. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t see the value of evolutionary change. Conservatives tend, I think, to take quite a benevolent view of progress [if] they see it moving incrementally in a sensible direction. When they see that change has to happen, they often embrace it – and sometimes take it further than the radicals who proposed it may have envisaged.
Whereas when I speak to [fellow MPs] who are radicals, they tend to be wanting to change things that they don’t like and you pick up that there are lots of things they don’t like.
In 1997, you finally won a seat in the House of Commons. It was a momentous year. The Tories were exhausted after 18 years in office and you yourself were succeeding a Tory who had been disgraced for taking ‘cash for questions’.3See wikipedia.org/Tim-Smith. Much of the country was electrified by Tony Blair. What was in your mind as you entered Parliament? What was your purpose?
I was very troubled by Labour’s proposals for constitutional change, because it seemed to me that they hadn’t been properly thought through, and I was eager to try to prevent Labour from doing things that I thought might be undesirable. In some ways I was admiring of Blairism and its astonishing success in triangulation, in appealing to the voter with a sort of ‘third way’. I was conscious that the Conservative Party needed root-and-branch change if it was going to make itself electable again.
Is it hard for a politician who is principled to escape getting sucked into mere ‘politicking’ – the tribalism, the point-scoring, the doing things simply to frustrate or embarrass the other side?
This is quite an interesting question. As it happens, I didn’t come into Parliament thinking, ‘I want to be a lawyer in the House of Commons’ but I was never able to escape being a lawyer and from a very early stage, whether it was debating Scottish devolution or House of Lords reform or various other things, I got sucked into an area of politics where law and principle featured a lot.
By 2003, when I was appointed Shadow Attorney General by Michael Howard, I realised that my destiny had become slightly fixed. I might have preferred to spend more time talking about other subjects but I became very focused on the law. And once you get into that position, it has quite a profound impact on the way you view the politics.
I certainly had a privileged upbringing, but I don’t think I’m ignorant of the issues that people who are less privileged have to deal with daily
And then for four years I was Attorney General, which (although it is a very political post) is a post where you have to actually avoid politicking almost entirely if you’re to do [the job] properly and to have any standing.
So, rather curiously, having come [to Parliament] to be a politician I have come to have a slightly semi-detached view of the political process, because I’ve been there to provide advice and input to others on matters which can often be in tension with the politics itself.
Some people wonder how it is that some MPs who seem to be thoroughly decent sorts nonetheless vote for measures that are widely perceived as deeply inhumane – for example, the bedroom tax.4fullfact.org/bedroom-tax A common defence is: Well, they’ve led privileged lives –
Well, I certainly had a privileged upbringing, although we lived in a flat and it was not, I think, what people would nowadays think of as a luxurious existence. I was privately educated, I went to what I suppose would be described as ‘a top public school’ and I had many privileges that other people don’t have.
All I would say is, I was a councillor for four years in [the London borough of] Hammersmith and Fulham and [in the 1987 general election I contested the old constituency of Norwood,] which included Brixton, the ‘front line’. That was highly educational. Also, I spent my first 10 years at the Bar in general common-law chambers, doing a lot of criminal and family-law cases and I often represented people who were in poverty.
Those were all rather formative experiences. So, yes, I’ve been privileged but I don’t think I’m ignorant of some of the issues that people who are less privileged have to deal with daily.
But doesn’t that take away any mitigation? You voted for the bedroom tax, you voted for cuts in welfare even though from your own experience you knew what impact they would have on the poor?
I voted for the bedroom tax because housing benefits cost a great deal of money at a time when the national finances are under immense strain. In truth, we can’t afford all sorts of public services to the level I would want, whether it’s welfare or national defence or the quality of the roads in my constituency. For all of these you can make arguments for more money, but more money can only come from taxation or borrowing – and the borrowing we can’t afford to do and if you tax too much you kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
Did you find it troubling to vote for welfare cuts?
Well, I think I find lots of things troubling. You do have to make difficult choices in politics – otherwise, you could spend your life… I mean, as an MP I sit in my surgery on a Friday and queues of people come to see me – and although I have a wealthy constituency with a big Conservative majority, there are lots of poor people and it’s the poor people frequently who are coming to see me and I have to go into battle to try to make sure that they get what they’re entitled to.
It strikes me that the two decades you’ve spent in the Commons have been much more tumultuous – one might say ‘disastrous’ – than the decades your father spent there. In 2003, there was the vote to invade Iraq, which Sir Michael Wood5Principal legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1999 to 2006, and a member of the International Law Commission later admitted he thought was a crime of aggression.6The crime of aggression is defined by the 1988 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as ‘the planning, preparation, initiation or execution, by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State, of an act of aggression which, by its character, gravity and scale, constitutes a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations’. David Cameron said that he agonised over that vote. Was it something you agonised over?
I worried about – I worried even then – it sounds like benefit-of-hindsight but I did – it always seemed to me that toppling Saddam would present very few difficulties, but what really worried me was: Have they thought through what they’re going to do afterwards?
I also worried as to whether Blair could be trusted, because there had been other examples of his skill at presenting things with a degree of certainty that might not be justified. But I listened carefully to what he had to say and I accepted it and I voted to take military action.
I mean, I regret it now. I regret particularly that we allowed the Government to manipulate the evidence in the way that it did.
When we interviewed Tom Watson, he suggested that his cohort of MPs ‘will be more sceptical about these big international interventions for the rest of their parliamentary lives.’ He abstained on ‘military action’ in Libya in 2011, but you voted for it. In 2014, your colleague John Baron, who sits on the Commons foreign affairs committee, said that Western intervention in Libya had been ‘a disaster’ that ‘directly led to the current violence and instability which have been greatly to the benefit of extremists’.7bit.ly/2QBhV2m
Why do you think the House of Commons fell for it a second time?
There was a Security Council resolution justifying military action if Gaddafi didn’t stop his attack on Benghazi.8bit.ly/2RGZ5o0 You must remember that it looked as if, unless there was military intervention, tens of thousands of people would be massacred. I mean, that’s what we were facing: a mass humanitarian crisis.
I don’t think it has. I think the evidence was compelling that that was what was going to happen.
Now, there is a very legitimate question about the problem of mission creep. The difficulty is that if you get involved in military action against a state [in order] to stop it doing something, if it’s never willing to stop doing that thing the military action simply persists and escalates until a point is reached where, in fact as happened, Gaddafi got toppled. In fact, he was – well, was assassinated, murdered or killed, however you want to describe it – and the country fell to pieces; but that wasn’t the intention behind the original intervention.
In fairness to my government colleagues, including David Cameron, there was always an awareness that this could happen and the realisation that it would be particularly challenging if it did, although I have to say that when it did happen we were collectively unable to deal with it in a way that prevented serious consequences flowing from it in terms of anarchy developing in Libya. There was a willingness to try to put in sensible measures to try to deal with it, but they didn’t work.
The truth is that unfortunately as human beings we can only do our best and we are inevitably going to make mistakes; but you have to be careful not to make mistakes that are so catastrophic that they have long-term consequences which you can’t grapple with.
You must be aware of the telegram to Hillary Clinton, published by WikiLeaks, that said that the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had some fairly non-altruistic reasons, let’s say, for intervening in Libya.10That is, ‘a desire to gain a greater share of Libya[’s] oil production, increase French influence in North Africa, improve his own political situation in France, provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world [and secure France’s place] as the dominant power in Francophone Africa’ – see bit.ly/2BSCjnr.
Voting to leave the EU was a revolutionary act. In fact, I can’t think of a political crisis of such gravity since – frankly, you’d have to go back to the 17th century, that’s how serious it is
Well, I’m aware that all sorts of people can say – I don’t know if Sarkozy had non-altruistic reasons.
Politicians in Britain today are more despised than perhaps they have ever been –
The House of Commons is accused of having no principles, no courage, no vision. Do you think that is unfair or is it true that the present crop of MPs is not of the calibre of their predecessors?
Well, I could say some rude things about some colleagues in the House but I shall refrain from doing so – we’ve avoided the B word so far. But the hard reality is that [voting to leave the European Union] was a revolutionary act and I’m afraid that, like all revolutions, it has a whole series of consequences that are paralysing our political system completely. And revolutions have a tendency to eat their children and we’re beginning to see that happen as well.
This is without doubt the most serious political crisis in modern British peacetime history. In fact, I can’t think of a political crisis of such gravity really since – I mean, you might go back to the crisis round the Great Reform Act in 1832 but I don’t think even that quite [compares]. Frankly, you’d have to go back to the 17th century. That’s how serious it is. And to my mind it was utterly predictable that this was what was going to happen if [the electorate voted] to overturn the existing order, which is what it did.
The view from the Continent, if one can generalise, seems to be astonishment at how incompetent our government has been. Is that a consequence of the revolution you are talking about, that the British system is simply breaking down?
The system is under very great strain because the consequence of the referendum result is to mandate a course of action that in reality is extremely difficult to carry out – and certainly very difficult to carry out in the way the Prime Minister has been trying to do it. We keep asking for something which in my view is undeliverable. The EU is, after all, an international treaty organisation underpinned by a complicated rulebook, but many of our politicians don’t understand what it is and how it functions at all.
But, for me, the whole episode highlights also great naivety about how the UK operates and how our constitutional structures are maintained, our place in the world and how in reality we can maximise advantage for the citizens of this country. We have ripped up the rulebook and we’re surprised that we are finding it almost impossible to get what we want. And with an adversarial system at Westminster as well (and there’s no way of changing that), we have ended up with a highly polarised situation which is very unusual and very difficult to manage. There’s a risk that actually we’re going to end up with something that nobody wants.
Are you surprised, as a self-described Eurosceptic, to find yourself now a champion of the Remain cause?
Yes! If you’d asked me that question 20 years ago I would have just fallen off my chair laughing. The consequence of the ground shifting as it has done is that I find myself now seen as having – I’m not sure about extreme views, but more Europhile views than many of my colleagues, which is deeply ironic. I still have many criticisms of the EU; but I don’t believe in pulling out of it. The vast majority of my Conservative colleagues, even if they think this is a national disaster (which a lot of them do) are of the view that there’s nothing that can be done about it. So, that, I suppose, does mark me out as different.
Everybody pays lip service to democracy, but there seems to be quite a lot of confusion in our society as to what democracy really means. How would you define it?
Parliamentary democracy is a system of government whereby the electorate can change governments without violence, and where the processes of debate and engagement over change are such that minorities are willing to accept majority decisions.
That came out quite pat. You’ve obviously thought about this.
Well, I say it every time I go to speak to Sixth Formers, so, yes, I have thought about it a lot.
If you move away from parliamentary democracy, you start getting into some very dangerous territory, because it’s quite clear that in any human society if enough people won’t accept a majority decision democracy will collapse very quickly – as you saw in Northern Ireland, for example, during the Troubles. So, one has to be, I think, quite careful.
Do you feel optimistic about the future?
About our ability as a nation to muddle through somehow, I do feel optimistic. About the future of the human race, I feel very pessimistic.
What do you think is the most important quality in a politician?
A sense of humour.
Tom Watson suggested kindness…
Well, kindness and a sense of humour, yes – and I was about to say ‘tolerance’ as well. I think they’re perhaps different facets of [the same thing]. I think we do need to be kind. We need to be kind to each other and kind to the people who we’re doing our best to represent.
I think the most challenging bit in the Gospels is the conversation between Christ and the rich young man, when Christ says: ‘Give everything up and follow me’
Is humility an important quality, or do you think that actually a good politician needs to have a strong belief in their own judgement?
Well, the sense of humour I’m talking about is as much self-deprecatory as anything else. I think you need to keep a sense of perspective and you need to recognise that you do, potentially, have power and that that power can easily result in bad outcomes as well as good ones.
I remember when we were doing our maiden speeches in 1997, there was a Labour colleague who said, ‘I’ve come here to change the world!’ and I have to say I laughed. It was a very worthy ambition but it’s not going to succeed and it’s quite dangerous unless it’s linked to a sense of perspective.
I’ve read that you’re ‘a practising Anglican’. Is that just a cultural allegiance you inherited?
No, it’s not. My father had, I think, some religious faith, particularly at university, but I don’t think it was very strong. My mother taught me to say my prayers in the evening and we used to be taken occasionally to the children’s service at Holy Trinity, Brompton, but my parents were not regular churchgoers.
My sense of faith came in my teenage years, I have absolutely no doubt about it, but that didn’t mean that I popped off to chapel on a Sunday when I was at university. I might go occasionally – they used to have a termly sandwich lunch and I wanted to manifest a certain amount of solidarity, but I was not sitting down talking theology or Christian discipleship or anything of the kind – I was busy doing lots of other things. I really only started going to church regularly after I got married. My wife and I took a decision ‘Let’s go to church next Sunday’ and we did, and we’re still going to the same church.
Many people who don’t have a faith dismiss Christianity as a crutch, but it’s just as much of a challenge –
It is a big challenge.
As a politician sitting in the pew, what do you find most challenging?
I think the most challenging bit in the Gospels is the conversation between Christ and the rich young man.11See eg Matthew 19:16–26. Christ smiles at [him] and says, ‘Give everything up and follow me’12In full, Jesus says: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’ (NIV). – and he goes away bewildered! That’s clearly the single most challenging thing in the Gospels, I think.
And have you come to any terms with it?
Well, you know, I have to face up to the fact that somebody could say: You’re the rich man who looks startled. Fortunately, Christ goes on to say: ‘In my Father’s house [there] are many mansions’!13John 14:2, which The Message paraphrases as ‘There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home.’ I think there’s an understanding of our human condition.
But it’s always seemed to me that that is the single most challenging thing.
[ + ]
|1.||⇑||The 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Acts and the 1971 Immigration Act|
|5.||⇑||Principal legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1999 to 2006, and a member of the International Law Commission|
|6.||⇑||The crime of aggression is defined by the 1988 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as ‘the planning, preparation, initiation or execution, by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State, of an act of aggression which, by its character, gravity and scale, constitutes a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations’.|
|9.||⇑||See, eg, bostonglobe/editorial and foreignpolicy.com.|
|10.||⇑||That is, ‘a desire to gain a greater share of Libya[’s] oil production, increase French influence in North Africa, improve his own political situation in France, provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world [and secure France’s place] as the dominant power in Francophone Africa’ – see bit.ly/2BSCjnr.|
|11.||⇑||See eg Matthew 19:16–26.|
|12.||⇑||In full, Jesus says: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’ (NIV).|
|13.||⇑||John 14:2, which The Message paraphrases as ‘There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home.’|
Dominic Grieve was born in Lambeth in 1956 and was educated at Westminster School. He read modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford and went on to take a diploma of law at the Polytechnic of Central London (now Westminster University) in 1979. He was elected president of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1977.
He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1980 and worked as a barrister for 17 years, latterly specialising in occupational safety and health law. He was made a Bencher of the Middle Temple in 2005 and was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 2008.
From 1982 to ’86, he served as a Conservative councillor in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. He stood for Parliament in Norwood in the 1987 general election but finished in second place behind the veteran Labour MP John Fraser.
He entered the House of Commons 10 years later as MP for the safe seat of Beaconsfield. He was elected with 49.2% of the votes cast and has increased his share of the vote at each successive election.
From 1997 to ’99, he sat on two select committees, on environmental audit and statutory instruments. He was promoted to the front bench by William Hague in 1999 to speak on Scottish affairs, and was moved to criminal justice by Iain Duncan Smith in 2001. Michael Howard made him Shadow Attorney General in 2003, and in early 2006 he was instrumental in defeating the Government’s attempt to introduce the power to detain people suspected of terrorism for up to 90 days without charge.
David Cameron made him Shadow Home Secretary in 2008 and then, in 2009, Shadow Justice Secretary. He was appointed to the Privy Council in the 2010 dissolution of Parliament honours list.
After the general election, he became Attorney General for England and Wales and Advocate General for Northern Ireland, until 2014, when he was sacked, ‘almost certainly’ for advising the Prime Minister not to withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights.
Since 2015, he has chaired Parliament’s intelligence and security committee.
He supported Remain in the 2016 referendum. In December 2017, he tabled a successful amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill which required that any Brexit deal must be enacted by statute, rather than implemented by government order.
He was a member of the London Diocesan Synod of the Church of England for six years from 1994.
He is president of the Franco-British Society and in 2016 – like his father before him – was awarded the Légion d’honneur. He broadcasts in French on French radio and television.
He has been married since 1990, to the barrister Caroline Hutton, and has two sons.
Up-to-date as at 1 December 2018