12 August 2019: George Santayana

I was at a small supper party last week and sat next to the host, an old university friend called Michael Carvell. He was always a restless person who started his career in the Diplomatic Service, fought two by-elections as a prospective MP (oddly one as a Conservative and one as a Socialist) became a local councillor and ended up finding his advice sought by governments of all persuasions.

I could understand why this was. He was easily the brightest person I knew as an undergraduate. Larger than life in every sense, he had boundless self-confidence and a withering contempt for views with which he did not agree.

‘William,’ he said, ‘still defending the indefensible?’ Before I could reply he interrupted his own question. ‘You really must take another slice of the beef before it becomes as unacceptable as smoking tobacco, because of all those cows farting everywhere causing global warming.’ I smiled and opened my mouth to reply to his original question when he was off again: ‘I really think we must canonise that formidable ecological maid of the North as the new Joan of Arc, what’s her name…?’ ‘Greta Thunderbird,’ I replied, unwittingly using the surname with which Paddy Corkhill had accidentally christened her recently after a few jars. ‘She is simply everywhere,’ said Michael. ‘She will soon be being carved as a talisman for the prows of ships.’ ‘She certainly will,’ I replied. ‘I have a dear horse-mad friend in Chambers called Hetty Briar-Pitt who adores her.’

Michael’s mind leapt on. ‘Hetty Briar-Pitt. I’ve met her. She is married now, I think.’ I nodded. ‘I thoroughly approve of women keeping their original names after marriage. Not just for trading reasons but it actually makes a much wider and more important statement. And back to my opening question?’ he asked. I spent the next 15 minutes explaining the woes of criminal legal aid funding, austerity at our coal face, the decrepit state of many court buildings, the horribly overworked and under-appreciated judiciary and the increasingly nasty and stressful lives of young barristers with ever more demanded of them for ever less money in real terms.

Michael leant forward and placed his fingers together. I remembered the gesture from the seventies. It meant he was thinking. ‘Mmm,’ he said, ‘you are of course an anomaly in the modern age. Rather like the monarchy. You sort of work, but nobody knows why. In some ways, in a world polarising towards populism one wonders how the state is paying money at all to defend the very people it seeks to detain as criminals. Where we have hunger, poverty, crime, overcrowding, intolerance and our crumbling infrastructures need urgent attention, is the liberal concept of justice simply too far down the list of priorities to be noticed?’

He answered his own question. ‘We have to have it. Otherwise it makes striving for success in all the other areas pointless. What good is it to be healthy, wealthy and wise if we live in a world where justice is arbitrary and capricious or simply ignored. It strikes at the very root of life.’ I sat rapt with attention. ‘And on another note, we also need a bit of colour and dash in a dull world and, after all, what else would you barristers do?’

I had an eerie feeling that Michael had been having this debate in the places he inhabited nowadays as an adviser. ‘What do you think about this crackdown on crime?’ he asked. I repeated the answer that Paddy had given me yesterday when we discussed the very same issue drinking a little Burgundy together. ‘They always go for punishment, because it gets headlines and reassures the public. We do it time and time again. We seemingly never learn. Most of those committing criminal offences, fondly and as it happens correctly, imagine they will never get caught. They are not deterred by the concept of punishment because they never imagine being punished. It is the certainty of investigation, detection and capture which truly deters people, not having an extra few years on the sentence you never contemplated getting in the first place.’

Michael looked hard at me. ‘Oh, I entirely agree with you, William. Increasing punishments fails every time. It is also very expensive and leads to huge problems later on for another government to solve. The prison system is an utter disgrace in this country. Your solution is correct… but again, as you so rightly say, it isn’t what people want to hear. It doesn’t get the headlines. Some cheese?’

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.