is a self-styled radical lawyer who is known as a campaigner for civil rights and reform. A Queen’s Counsel since 1989, he is still regarded in some quarters as a dangerous subversive.
Roy McCloughry met him briefly on 14 October 2009 at Goldsmiths College in London.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Your publisher’s puff for your memoirs1Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer, published by Bloomsbury Publishing on 7 September 2009 describes you as ‘intelligent, handsome and dynamic’, and yet you start the book by introducing us to your varicose veins. Were you anxious to knock yourself off a pedestal?
Well, I don’t really see myself as being on any pedestal. I wanted people to recognise that I’m just an ordinary guy, with the same vulnerabilities and imperfections everybody else has.
You had a very conservative suburban upbringing. Does anything remain of that conservatism?
I’m thinking hard. I don’t really think there is any of it left. I suppose that if you regard a certain formality… I mean, my parents were very respectful of other people, my mother particularly. So, I was brought up with these rules: you never went to anyone’s home without inviting them back, you never accepted a gift without giving something in return, you always wrote a letter of thankyou. I know they’re minor courtesies, but I’ve actually discovered along the way that they really matter to people. If that is a conservative legacy… I suppose it’s sort of caring, really. Caring conservatism.
What about respect for institutions?
No, I don’t have any of that. My parents’ respect for institutions was eroded substantially by things that happened – mainly, again, to my mother [who was falsely accused of a parking offence and had to defend herself in court]. I think she was increasingly upset by institutions she thought were the pillars of our society – mainly the police. She was really shocked by what happened. She said: ‘If they do that to me, God knows what they are doing to everyone else!’
I have no belief in anything beyond [humanism] – even if there is something, I don’t believe in it. I feel there’s enough to do while I’m here to make life palatable, not just for me but for as many other people as I can
After my father died, in 1960 when I was just about to go to university, she did become heavily reliant on the church. The local vicar was very supportive, and she threw herself into making kneelers and little tapestries and she went every Sunday and she took me along with her. I wasn’t by that stage particularly religious but I had been to Crusader [Bible] class, so I knew what the score was and I thought I had to support her.
So, that was an institution that certainly survived – there’s no question of that. But not for me.
What happened for you? Did you have a personal faith that just leached away as you grew up, or what?
No, no, I was no… I suspect I went up to university sort of not knowing whether I believed or I didn’t. I think that what opened my mind to other possibilities was the nature of the course at Keele University, which was very unusual: in the first year (of four), you had a taster of every subject from astronomy all the way through to zoology and you weren’t allowed to choose [what you were going to study] for your degree until you had seen this shop window. And nearly everybody changed from what they originally thought they were going to do. And I encountered philosophy. I didn’t know anything about it – it certainly wasn’t taught at school – and in the few lectures we had on it I thought: ‘Wow! I would like to try and get my head around this.’
I had a professor of pure philosophy who is very well known, [Antony] Flew – in fact, he’s just converted – to God! I don’t agree with his politics much, but what I found amazing was his mental discipline. He was teaching empirical philosophy and you were being asked to consider belief in the context of experience, and so I suppose [any Christian belief] just fell away.
I got much more interested in – I suppose the best term for it is ‘humanism’, where people are right at the centre. I have no belief in anything beyond that – even if there is something, I don’t believe in it. I feel there’s enough to do while I’m here to make life palatable, not just for me but for as many other people as I can. I haven’t spent much time thinking beyond that.
Rowan Williams’ value system is not far from mine. He may choose to say it’s from ‘up there’ and I choose to say it’s from down here, or wherever; but actually we are much the same.
You have undergone a kind of conversion, it seems to me. Politically, you have moved from blue to red to green. What led to that commitment?
Well, I can pin it on a single event. [On its third evening on air, in 1981,] Channel 4 showed The Animals Film,2Dir Victor Schonfeld and Myriam Alaux, 1981 which was about the exploitation of the animal kingdom, basically. And when I saw what mankind was doing – to produce perfume and fur coats, to satisfy our desire for meat and to experiment for medicines, I just thought: ‘What right have we got to be doing this?’
It made me very angry – and when I get angry, I do something about it – usually. This time, I said: Right, that’s it! I will do as much as I can to cut down the suffering we inflict on animals.
I stopped eating meat pretty well overnight. I’m not perfect – you know, I do still wear leather shoes – but on the whole I’ve succeeded.
I’ve just got more and more angry the older I get at the inequalities and the injustices. Today I feel more strongly than ever, and I get very upset
So, yes, that was a road to Damascus, really. And in a sense the same thing happened with the law. It was a piece of celluloid that sort of did it for me – well, several bits of celluloid: everybody gets turned on by To Kill a Mockingbird,3Dir Robert Mulligan, 1962 and then there was a [US television] series called The Defenders.4A courtroom drama series that ran on CBS from 1961 to 1965, which portrayed two lawyers, father and son, who specialised in defending in legally complex cases I loved it and was inspired by it.
You have said that part of your motivation as a barrister stems from anger, which you trace back to your mother’s trouble with the police. I can see that anger can initiate action, but it can’t sustain it, can it?
My dad used to say: ‘If you’re not a socialist by the age of 20, you haven’t got a heart’ – he never used the word ‘socialist’ but that’s what he meant – ‘and if you’re not a conservative [in all senses of that word] by the age of 40, you haven’t got a head.’ However, in my case it’s worked the other way around: I’ve just got more and more angry the older I get at the inequalities and the injustices. I’ve emerged from a deeply traditional, conventional background – very secure, I’ve no complaints about it – and slowly but surely migrated, not through dogma (because, you know, it’s not some book that’s done it for me) but through meeting other people and experiencing their lives. Today I feel more strongly than ever, and I get very upset.
I hear lots of stories – people come up to me, write to me and so on – and you go: ‘This is dreadful!’ And I can’t go to bed at night with that anger just hanging in the room: I’ve got to channel it into something, so that as long as there’s a little bit of change, however small… I mean, so many people who’ve been affected by a case I’ve done or a talk I’ve given come up to me and say: ‘You don’t know this but actually that’s the only thing that has kept me going and I’ve just come to thank you.’ And you think: ‘OK, it has been worth it after all!’
You believe that people are fundamentally good and that they want the best for other people –
So, is the problem that institutions behave less morally than individuals?
I think the problem is power – that’s the corrupting influence, without any question at all. That’s what we’re seeing in the House of Commons at the moment [with the expenses scandal]: they got themselves into a position where they thought they were almost untouchable and could charge us for their KitKats and all the rest of it, and now it’s come home to roost. And that’s only a small part of what has been going on – for centuries.
Which is more important to you as a lawyer: winning a case or promoting a cause? What is the balance?
I still think there is a freedom about the press; but I don’t think we can say we’ve got a free press. We have some journalists who are courageous, but on the whole…
Well, first of all, there isn’t a balance between them – that’s the point I really want to make. I’m not promoting a cause when I’m doing a trial. Inquests and inquiries are slightly different, but usually, again, I’m operating within quite a specific remit. On the other hand, once a case is won or lost I can then speak publicly about the issues underlying it that haven’t been litigated (because they can’t be) and I can say: ‘Well, the ramifications of a case like this are blah blah blah.’ I can’t use the court, or a tribunal, as a political platform; but outside it, obviously, I can say: ‘This is what I feel strongly about.’
Who are your greatest allies?
I’ve known Tony Benn5Interviewed for High Profile in September 1996 a very long time, so I see him as an ally. Jeremy Corbyn.6Interviewed for High Profile in June 2015 Bob Marshall-Andrews, who is a lawyer and an MP. And, of course, Helena Kennedy,7Interviewed for High Profile in November 2012 who sits in the Lords. Within the Bar, I think there are many Silks whose respect I’ve won over the years, even if they don’t agree with my politics, who I can rely on for support. There’s a lot of them. I wouldn’t say hundreds, but tens of them.
I don’t feel isolated – but I’ve gone out of my way to ensure that I’m not. I’ve always put myself out there, so everybody knows – well, most people know – who I am and what I’m doing and thinking; but I try to avoid fighting personal battles. And because I’ve done it that way – to begin with, people felt that obviously I was a Red under the bed and were worried about me; but gradually they’ve realised that I’m not going to do anything from behind. It’s all going to be to your face and if you don’t like it, fine, you can kick up a fuss.
Do you think that the media are right to see themselves as champions of justice?
Well, some media are. Some journalists. I wouldn’t see any single organ as being, you know, the bastion of free speech and democracy. The Guardian fights some of these battles, but it also has journalists who I wouldn’t see as being on the side of justice – at least, not justice as I see it. And then at the other end of the spectrum there’s a lot of stuff in the Daily Mail I don’t approve of, but I wouldn’t tar every journalist who writes for the Mail as someone who is incapable of speaking out the truth.
What I’ve realised over the years is that the critical eye in all these media has become smaller and smaller and smaller – I am fairly dismayed by the lack of critical analysis, which is absolutely vital for a democracy. There is the odd Panorama or whatever that is good, and the odd insight article in the Times or the Guardian or the Observer or the Independent. So, there are pools of light, and they’re very important – and I still think there is a freedom about the press; but I don’t think we can say we’ve got a free press. We have some journalists who are courageous, but on the whole…
The list of cases you have acted in is extraordinary; but there must have been many occasions when colleagues have thought: ‘I wouldn’t take that on. It’s a lost cause.’
And others when they must have just rolled their eyes and thought, ‘That makes no sense at all.’
I’m obviously concerned what people think, but at the end of the day I can’t live my life by other people’s standards. I adopt standards for myself and I try to stick to them, and that leads me into areas where, you know, angels fear to tread.
One final question: do you long more to see the triumph of justice or the triumph of mercy?
That’s quite an interesting one. I don’t see them as alternatives. Justice is not justice unless it’s tempered with mercy. The two go hand-in-hand, all the way.
A longer version of this interview was originally published in the December 2009 issue of Third Way.
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|⇑1||Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer, published by Bloomsbury Publishing on 7 September 2009|
|⇑2||Dir Victor Schonfeld and Myriam Alaux, 1981|
|⇑3||Dir Robert Mulligan, 1962|
|⇑4||A courtroom drama series that ran on CBS from 1961 to 1965, which portrayed two lawyers, father and son, who specialised in defending in legally complex cases|
|⇑5||Interviewed for High Profile in September 1996|
|⇑6||Interviewed for High Profile in June 2015|
|⇑7||Interviewed for High Profile in November 2012|
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Michael Mansfield was born in 1941 and educated at Highgate School. He read history and philosophy at Keele University.
He went on to study law at Gray’s Inn (where he was elected a ‘bencher’ in 2008) and was called to the Bar in 1967. He established his own set of chambers, Tooks Chambers, in 1984, and was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1989.
His notable early clients included Angela Weir of the Angry Brigade in 1972 and two members of the IRA, Dolours and Marian Price, in 1973. He has also acted for Judith Ward, the Bradford 12, the Bridgewater Four, the Birmingham Six, Barry George, Fatmir Limaj, the accused in the ‘ricin conspiracy’ case and the ‘shaken baby’ appeal, Nabeel Hussain and Mohamed Al Fayed, and the families of Stephen Lawrence, Jean Charles de Menezes and, long after their executions, James Hanratty and Ruth Ellis. He has represented families at inquests concerned with Bloody Sunday, the Marchioness disaster, the Deptford fire and the Lockerbie and Omagh bombings.
He has been professor of law at City University since 2007, and a visiting professor of law at Westminster University since 1997.
His first book, Presumed Guilty (1994), was followed by an unpublished novel, The Inquest (1997), a legal handbook, The Home Lawyer (2003), and Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer (2009).
He is a regular contributor to television and radio and was for many years a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. He has also written for all the major broadsheets and law journals and has presented several TV documentaries and series, including Presumed Guilty for BBC1. In recent years, he has appeared in theatres around the country in the series ‘An Audience with…’.
He is president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the National Civil Rights Movement. He is an honorary fellow of the University of Kent and holds honorary doctorates from Keele, London South Bank, Ulster and Westminster Universities and the Universities of Hertfordshire, Kent and Middlesex.
He has five children from his first marriage (which lasted from 1965 to 1984) and one from his second, to the documentary film-maker Yvette Vanson.
Up-to-date as at 1 November 2009