Marble Hill Publishers (January 2023)
ISBN 9781838303662
Hardback £25

‘Robert Alexander was the undisputed King of the English Bar for 15 years.’ Thus begins Lord Sumption’s Foreword to these brilliant and humane memoirs, now published posthumously. Apart from his achievements as an advocate, Bob Alexander was also Chair of the Bar, of JUSTICE, of the National Westminster Bank, and of the Royal Shakespeare Company, President of the MCC, Treasurer of Middle Temple and Chancellor of Exeter University.

The flavour of the man, though, can be seen in his self-description of why he thought he could succeed at the Bar:

‘Success at the Bar calls for a good, incisive mind and skilled and sensitive advocacy. I had not managed to get a first class degree and had not seen myself as a serious player in the top intellectual league. I lacked the bottle… to speak in the Cambridge Union. I was sometimes diffident… But strangely I had always felt that I ought to be able to perform well in the structured environment of a courtroom.’

This is not false modesty. A striking aspect of the eight chapters – each of which deals with one of his notable cases – is the lack of any bragging. He provides a measured summary of each matter and considers how and why it turned out the way it did. He then allows himself to express his own opinion on the merits. Bob represented the government in the final stages of the GCHQ case which arose when its employees were abruptly told that they were henceforth banned from union membership. He won in the House of Lords but still felt that to be consulted before employment rights are changed ‘is a fundamental aspect of our general law’. His awareness of the need for consultation before people’s rights were affected led him (when Chair of the Bar) to take the Lord Chancellor to court for imposing only a small uplift in criminal legal aid after breaking off negotiations.

The memoirs describe his time in Singapore where he successfully represented Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who sued a political opponent for libel. A dozen years later Bob returned to represent unsuccessfully a solicitor detained in solitary confinement without trial on grounds of national security. After the appeal was heard, and despite having been on the ‘other side’ on this occasion, his old client, Lee Kuan Yew, invited him to dinner. They discussed many things, but not the case. Bob recalls Lee’s earlier advice that when dining with an opponent, Bob should stick to drinking white wine but to make sure his opponent drank red, which was apparently bad for the voice and would give Bob the advantage the next day in court.

Barristers will particularly enjoy the chapters about Bob’s cases, each of which have multiple learning points and give an insight into how major litigation is conducted. There is also a chapter on his time with the MCC, when he led the group that persuaded members to admit women. Longer chapters deal with Bob’s later career, at the National Westminster Bank and then his time with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His tenures coincided with challenging times for both. At NatWest he had to deal with a then old-fashioned organisation which was trying to take advantage of opportunities after ‘Big Bang’ but ran into the economic downturn from 1990. The RSC grappled with financial worries and trying to find suitable London venues, while at the same time the artistic director departed. Bob stepped down from the RSC ‘with relief and regret’.

Bob died before he had finished the memoir and two uncompleted chapters are not included. Barrister readers will note throughout his love of the Bar and its companionship. They in turn will recognise what he is talking about.