I should probably not be writing this after a decanter of vintage port and nine mince pies. The news on my digital radio is full of moans and groans from public service unions. I understand their ire at below-inflation pay rises for pretty miserable jobs at indifferent rates of pay. If this diary was launched on the Internet, I might seek their views on the government trying to cut their members’ wages by 30 per cent and then another 20 per cent on top, which is what some of my members are facing.
I have often noted here that the Bar is remarkably cooperative, apart from an occasional Peasants’ Revolt, towards proposals directly against its own self-interest. We are, of course, a conservative lot. The days when barristers were at the centre of political upheaval and, indeed, rebellion are long gone. We do not even have the right to act collectively. Curiously, the Bar Council is always asked to help government with one new pay scheme after another and, doubtless, to persuade us of its merits, but, when the boot is on the other foot, the slightest whiff of “collective action” is met with dark warnings about cartels. I hope this diary is never “tapped” by the security services lest chambers’ finances are frozen and I am marched off to chokey under the Combination Laws or something similar.
Not that “collective action” is ever a real long-term possibility at the Bar anyway. As I write, Gutteridge cannot even agree whether to move to semi-skimmed milk or a softer lavatory paper. Brian Goodison, a Silk I have not mentioned hitherto and am unlikely to ever again, became positively apoplectic last week over the “milk” question. In his usual populist way he told our administrator: “my nanny gave me full creamed milk and I won’t drink whitened water at my age.” This seemed to me to raise a number of issues I preferred not to clarify. Did heads of chambers 50 years ago have to deal with this sort of thing?
And, in a funny way, those little comi-tragedies illustrate the point which makes me so angry. The members of chambers, even the sinister Mr Twist and the horsey Miss Briar-Pitt or the bibulous Paddy Corkhill and bonkers David Moncrieff, are a family. They are often quirky, sometimes irritating, usually good fun and terribly vulnerable – in my eyes. They work long and anti-social hours at a fraction of the rates paid in private commercial practice. They have to cope with avalanches of legislation now the everyday stuff of government, they deal with increasing bureaucracy and are constantly required to demonstrate utter professionalism with regulators here, there and everywhere watching their every step. They never even know I write of them so fondly, sometimes.
The money they receive gross has about 18 per cent removed for clerking and chambers’ expenses. They meet their own insurance, holiday pay, pensions and all the many costs of the profession out of that gross pay. A barrister is as good as his last case and, like The X-Factor, you can find yourself in the “bottom two” any week.
And yet, for thousands and thousands of people, these barristers, with our solicitor colleagues, are all that stand between them and a State which may be accusing them of an increasing range of crimes, with enhanced penalties and draconian powers to whip away their assets. These people have the added and enormous stress of what they and their loved ones face, and all this falls on the lawyers who represent them.
So, my last entry of the year ends on a worried and, yes, angry note. When it was suggested by Paddy that I should become a second Arthur Scargill, I fretted. But, increasingly, I see the true agenda of our political masters. Still, amidst the winter gloom, there will doubtless be something to laugh about. For instance, my recent proposal to hold our annual dinner in a private room at McDonalds. Henrietta screeched with laughter when I mentioned it, but the junior clerks looked quite keen and I have, in fact, made a provisional booking. Perhaps we could share it with some bankers.
Time for bed. I hope this has all recorded as I see large quantities of cigar ash on my keyboard. I hope I have Santa’s e-mail address somewhere…
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.