I always attend a party on election night. I started the tradition when I was at University. A rather eccentric man at another college invited to me to his rooms on February 28, 1974 to watch the results on a splendid colour television which he had purloined from the Junior Common Room. It was Ted Heath’s famous “Who Governs Britain?” election. “Not you,” was the electorate’s answer, “otherwise presumably you wouldn’t be asking us.” My friend, whose politics did not fit comfortably into any known political party, had procured a vast quantity of alcohol. If the Conservatives won, then we were to drink champagne; if Labour triumphed it was to be Guinness and if the result was no overall majority we would mix the two and drink Black Velvet. I have enjoyed the combination ever since. Fellow guests have turned out in later life to be cabinet ministers for both major parties and MPs for at least three. It helps explain modern political dysfunction.
Nostalgia is dangerous and time is a generous filter through which to see the past. That is one of the virtues of keeping a diary. However, the 1974 general election was a good deal more exciting than this one. There was, this time, the usual race to see who would declare first, but with very few competitors. By 2am there had hardly been any declarations. Worse still, the huge number of candidates in each seat failed to produce the usual comedic effect of British by-elections and became rather tedious. And those speeches by candidates… on and on and on. Returning officers need some kind of muting device after thirty seconds.
In the 1970s, declarations were often rather precarious events, sometimes from town hall balconies to a noisy crowd outside. Now, like so much of British politics south of the Scottish border, they are stage-managed events attended only by those counting and the party faithful. Roads now seem to be closed for the prime ministerial car, whereas I have distinct memories of Harold Wilson in 1964 being interviewed in a train and Alec Douglas-Home approaching Buckingham Palace having to fight his way through the traffic. Real people used to be in Downing Street: now it is just the sanitised press pack.
My rather jaundiced air was enhanced by the fact that this year I accepted an invitation to a Liberal election party. There was no particular favouritism in this: it happened to be the one and only invitation I received.
Once the exit poll was known and it had been validated by a few actual results, you no longer needed any ice in the vodka. The whole room had become distinctly chilly. In those halcyon moments earlier when hope was still alive, I had spotted a couple of members of chambers, the Twist brothers, in the far corner of the room. It came as a surprise that those two “trimmers” had dared to attend anything as definite as a party political event. I decided not to tell my host that a much worse sign than the exit poll of his party’s imminent demise was the sight shortly thereafter of both Twists slinking off in the direction of Conservative party headquarters.
In what was left of a Bar Mess the next day as we clutched our pre-purchased Costa coffees before court, there was much discussion about what the result meant. Hetty Briar-Pitt, who I was leading, was attempting without much success throughout the election campaign to decide which party best represented the interests of her horses, but everyone else was discussing what the implications were for legal aid.
We know in our hearts that whatever is said by any politician, all the political parties are likely to treat the justice system in much the same way when it comes to the cash. This will not improve until the catastrophic change that altered the delicate balance of power in our constitution by removing the office of Lord Chancellor from the pivotal position joining the legislature, judiciary and executive has been reversed. As Paddy Corkhill put it, having only just recovered from his own election night party which celebrated the Scot Nats triumph in the only way possible for Paddy: “Now they’ve made Falconer the shadow Justice Secretary. Irony, or what?”
Only then can there be some rebuilding of our devastated court estate and demoralised profession through which users walk, presumably imagining they have entered the legal aid version of a Pound Shop and about as awe-inspiring.
William Byfield Gutteridge Chambers
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious