‘My favourite subject at university? Constitutional law. When I became Lord Chancellor with responsibility for constitutional matters, I thought, “Wow, this is wonderful!” It was a huge privilege, and humbling, to know I was following in the giant footsteps of such as Becket, Wolsey, Thomas More and Clarendon.’

I am having elevenses with Sir Robert Buckland QC MP, the previous Lord Chancellor, knighted in the New Year Honours List. Earlier in the morning, he had been on a run. Last week, he was swimming in the Serpentine. He declines a croissant but tucks into a modest biscuit.

We discuss his upbringing in Llanelli. ‘My grandfather was manager of the forerunner of the Job Centre, the Labour Exchange. Mum was heavily involved in running voluntary activity. Dad was a high street solicitor. He took me to visit a court when I was 14 or 15. I would go into his office and in the holidays answer the phones and make his appointments. Dealing with the public was a harbinger of life as a barrister and an MP – seeing people’s problems, gaining first-hand views of the law in action.

‘I had an early passion for reading. I devoured all the books in my primary school class. They ran out. They had to bring in books from the year above. I loved school and study. My parents were – and are – very supportive. Dad had gone to the primary school in his day. It’s still there.’

Sir Robert’s political views were forming around the time of the miners’ strike in ‘84/85. ‘We lived on the edge of the coalfield. I didn’t like what was happening: unlawful striking, Arthur Scargill. At 15, I joined the Tory party. I never worried that my views in politics were not generally shared by my peers. I ran a local election campaign and, between school and university, was the local agent for the General Election of 1987. I had to mug up on electoral law. I was only 18. I had to meet the council’s returning officer. He looked at me, did a double take and said, “You’re the agent?!” But he was brilliant with me.

‘I’m proud of where I come from. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I hear the Welsh national anthem sung by a rugby crowd. But I don’t define myself by geography.’

He studied law at Durham. His older brother (‘we were competitive’) had done the same and is also now a lawyer. Why law? ‘Earlier on I had thought about architecture. An element of creating and building is part of me.’ He and his adult son still build LEGO together. ‘What attracted me to law were the trial process and the multi-functioning system that leads to best solutions to problems. My real affinity with law came when I got into practice. But I did love the debating’ – he was elected president of the Durham Union – ‘and participating in competitions, including winning the Inner Temple’s national competition at age 19.’ He is now a Bencher there.

After call in 1991, Sir Robert practised in chambers in Swansea and then Cardiff. His was a general common law practice for the first several years, but with an increasing specialism in crime. ‘This meant that I spent many years dealing with a wide variety of criminal cases, both prosecuting and defending from large drugs conspiracies to child sexual abuse cases, learning a lot about criminal litigation and life along the way.’ He was a member of the Attorney General’s Panel for Wales and Chester. ‘A practice without advocacy wouldn’t have been right for me. But it’s a different discipline from debating. After university I had to uncouple myself from debating. It took a while. When later I was elected as an MP I could then go back to saying, “this is what I believe” as opposed to “in my submission”.’

The real you, Bar or MP? ‘The two feed off each other. I have gained huge satisfaction from my court appearances, but in my heart of hearts it is the House of Commons, the best place to speak in the world: the setting; the intimacy; the sudden changes in atmosphere, from calm to storm; a sea of emotion.’

Politics remained in the background during his years of practice. In his mid-20s he served on Dyfed County Council for three years. Later efforts in Wales to win seats in Parliament and the European Parliament failed. ‘I then concentrated on work and family before deciding to give it another go.’ Success came when he was adopted for South Swindon and at the second time of asking won the seat from Labour in the General Election of 2010.

The new MP served on various backbench committees and in 2014 was appointed Solicitor General and made QC. ‘My happiest time in Parliament was as a Law Officer. I enjoyed helping to steer the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill through the Commons. Such a controversial Bill called on all my advocacy and negotiation skills. I had campaigned energetically for Remain. I have been pro-Europe all my political life. But I always said I would abide by the referendum result. Not to have done so would have been devastating for democracy. The process of joining the EU took several years; so too will the process of going out.’

As for the controversy around the Internal Markets Bill, which led to the resignation of the then Treasury Solicitor, Sir Jonathan Jones QC, ‘I didn’t think it [the resignation] was necessary. There were respectable arguments for what the government was proposing. Asking civil servants to prepare legislation didn’t put them in breach of any codes. It wasn’t a sufficient moment to walk the plank. There are two further moments in the life of a section in an Act of Parliament – bringing it into force and then using it. Both would have required further advice and consideration. I helped to ensure a further Parliamentary lock was added to these provisions in the Commons. In the end the clauses never became law, fortunately due to sensible negotiations.’

After five years as Solicitor General, Sir Robert became Prisons Minister. Two months later he was Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. A traditionalist, he immediately proclaimed, ‘the wig is back!’ for the ceremony to open the new Parliament. ‘I loved the job. I did my best to set an example of happy leadership. I brought my CD player into the office. I loved music in the department from time to time. “Let’s put on a bit of Erroll Garner’s jazz piano or Mendelssohn.”’ Current favourites? ‘The last Act of Der Rosenkavalier, Count Basie’s April in Paris. I rely on music to get me through the good and bad times.’ He isn’t someone who makes regular reference to it but ‘perhaps most important has been my Christian faith. It has sustained me in difficult moments. I would have struggled without it.’

What was he proudest of during his two years at Justice? ‘Ensuring COVID didn’t work mayhem in the prison system; avoiding deaths, disorder and breakdown. A wonderful achievement. We didn’t need to trigger contingency plans to release thousands of prisoners. This was a huge testimony to the efforts of staff and governors. The prisoners were informed of what needed to be done and they understood why, in particular the need for long periods of lockdown. I praise the Judiciary, court staff, the Bar and the wider profession who responded to the sudden and extraordinary impact of the pandemic to keep the justice system moving as well as they could, including through increased use of technology. Another proud achievement was our reform of the probation system.’

As former chair of the All-Party Group on Autism, a cause close to his heart is the promotion of awareness of neurodiversity in all parts of the justice system. ‘I strongly support all initiatives on this subject. As a parent of a daughter with autism I know the emotions through which parents go when coming to terms with the fact. In government I was determined to explore the topic. I called for evidence and commissioned a report to advise people in the system of what was needed, including better screening of individuals and appropriate adjustments. Parc Prison at Bridgend has a wing for people with autism and is brilliant. The system is getting better, and the Children and Family Court has helped improve the statementing process. But we need to do more, including for adults. Ideally we should be screening children for a range of conditions, including ADHD and dyslexia, as well as autism. The word “normal” is banned in my house.’

We avoid the fast-moving subject of Downing Street gatherings. ‘I will say this. The country has been amazing in its response to COVID. It got on, knuckled down and did it. The vast majority complied. What goes wrong is if government lacks a clear compass. The public doesn’t like it when people say “do what I say” but don’t do it themselves. The need for consistency is a thread that runs through public life.’

Advice to those starting out? ‘I am a believer in hard work and making your own luck, in helping others and making a difference to people’s lives. Don’t be frightened of change. Embrace it. Be patient. If you are determined enough, you will find a role. It doesn’t have to be conventional. I have seen talented people in government and across the private sector. There is no one right way.

‘I practised in crime. I dealt daily with lots of individuals. I was not at the top-paid end of the Bar, but it was work that was needed, ensuring that fair trials happen, that people are treated without fear or favour, that the unpopular are treated fairly. I took an unglamorous route but one that was just as legitimate. I am proud of what I did. In the words of Aunt Eller in Oklahoma: “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t jist as good.”’

What next for him? ‘It was a tough moment to leave office last year. I was deeply frustrated. But you learn to count your blessings, to assess what you can do, to move on to the next adventure. I am privileged in being able to serve Parliament and my constituents. I’m keen to preserve my various links with the law. In politics you learn to expect the unexpected. My first love in reading was Tolkien. I identified with Frodo and his quest of the age. Small and often unobserved, he makes an impact on the world. I’m not the tallest. It’s quite a fair analogy.’ 

© PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Robert Buckland QC MP is pictured at the Royal Courts of Justice in London for his swearing in ceremony as Lord Chancellor in July 2019, serving until September 2021. Above, Sir Robert is pictured arriving for an extraordinary Cabinet Meeting following a reshuffle in February 2020.