Liverpool Lawyers And Their Contribution To Public And Political Life


Speech given at the Liverpool Law Society Dinner

13th November 2003

There is a story about an argument that ensues between three men who all believe that theirs is the oldest profession. There is a doctor, a lawyer and a politician.

The doctor insists that his is the oldest profession: “because a doctor took a rib out of Adam in order to make Eve.”

“No,” says the lawyer, mine is the oldest profession because a lawyer created order out of the chaos that existed in the firmament before time began.”

“No”, insisted the politician, “mine is the oldest profession, because we created the chaos.”

In reality, both the politicians and the lawyers can take some of the credit, and the blame, for many examples of order and of chaos. The link between the making of law and its administration hardly needs stating – and perhaps that’s why, down the generations, so many lawyers have been attracted into politics.

As politicians seek to meddle in the administration of the law – and, as Lord Woolf warned last week – risk unravelling the complex relationships between the judiciary, parliament and the government – it is worth reflecting on how easily political interference can wreak havoc and bring chaos; but how, also, as Mr. Justice Judge said last week, how political interference can ultimately lead to the corruption and subjugation of an independent judiciary.

Perhaps it is more important then ever, therefore, that those who have a love of law and its independence from political taint should themselves think about how they can help to strengthen public and civic life.

I was struck, when thinking about what to say this evening, by the crossover into the political realm of so many Liverpool lawyers: many of whom have brought important gifts into our civic and political life. Let me remind you of some of them.

One of the most colourful of these was F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, who won the Liverpool Walton Division as a Conservative against the tide in the 1906 Liberal landslide. A close friend of the young Winston Churchill, Smith would rise to the post of Attorney General in 1915 (a post held today by Peter Goldsmith – whose connections with this Society and this City are well known). Smith became Lord Chancellor in 1919.

Another local lawyer, Gruffydd Evans, the late Lord Evans of Claughton, once told me his favourite FE Smith story. Each morning Smith would be observed leaving the National Liberal Club near Whitehall. One day his friend, Churchill, who was then Liberal Home Secretary, bumped into him and asked him why he was so often seen coming in and going out of the National Liberal Club: “Is that what it is?” he asked: “I though it was the public convenience.”

In the words of GK Chesterton’s acerbic poem, directed at Lord Birkenhead, the lawyer/politician he most despised: “Chuck it Smith.”

Gruffydd Evans, the late Cyril Carr – who was the first parliamentary candidate I campaigned for – , and Rex Makin – just honoured as the first Liverpool solicitor in 100 years to be given the freedom of the City – were all deeply influenced by Professor Lyon Blease, who, until 1949, was the Queen Victoria Professor of Law at Liverpool University. He also mixed law and politics, having been the unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the Garston Division.

Among the many other local lawyers who blended their professional commitment to the law with public service included the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (Lord Kilmuir) (sacked in Harold Macmillan’s night of the long knives), Selwyn Lloyd, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Speaker of the Commons; his political opponent, Peter Howell Williams – and Selwyn Lloyd’s successor as Wirral MP, David Hunt; others include Sydney Sliverman, a close friend and adviser to Bessie and Jack Braddock, and who in 1965, saw the successful culmination of his long campaign to end the death penalty; the former deputy speaker of the Commons, and Toxteth MP,  Colonel Dick Crawshaw; my predecessor in Liverpool Edge Hill, Sir Arthur Irvine, the Solicitor General in Harold Wilson’s Government; and Hartley Shawcross,  Attorney General and MP for St. Helens, who had Chambers in Liverpool, and was Chief Prosecutor for the War Crimes Trials at Nuremburg.

Perhaps in this week when we recall two world wars and Armistace Day, it is worth recalling his closing speech at Nuremburg Shawcross remarked “In all our countries, when perhaps in the heat of passion or for other motives which impair restraint, some individual is killed, the murder becomes a sensation. Our compassion is roused, nor do we rest until the criminal is punished and the rule of law vindicated. Shall we do less when not one but 12 million men and women and children are done to death, not in battle, not in passion, but in a cold calculated deliberate attempt to destroy nations and races.”

Shawcross reminded his generation that such tyranny and brutality could only be resisted in the future not simply be “military alliances but firmly on the rules of law.”

This passionate belief in the upholding of law and in the administration of justice is central to the upholding of civilised values; to the maintenance of human rights and hard won liberties. The rule of law determines  the way in which we govern ourselves in Britain. It is the very bed rock of our parliamentary system and the corner stone of our democratic institutions. Without it we do all indeed descend into chaos.

Sometimes we take our freedoms and liberties for granted.

Last month I visited North Korea, China and the refuges camps on the Burma border. In North Korea, they enjoy few political or religious liberties. I heard of a group of believers whose church was destroyed by the communists 55 years ago but who have continued to meet in the rubble ever since. The recently published Hawk Report documents the suffering of countless detainees held in North Korean gulags.  There have been arbitrary arrests, detentions and murders. I went there because a year ago I met a Korean refugee who had seen his wife and child shot dead and then saw his other child die as he made the perilous journey out of the country.

On the Burma border I saw a child whose parents had both been shot by the military junta; he had been sold over the border to a Thai family and then run away to the camp at Mela, where I me him. All this before the age of 8.    (The boy is Karen `forgotten allies’ – how quickly we do indeed forget) .

This time last year I went into Southern Sudan with the SPLA – into a country where 3 million have died over twenty years as attempts are made to forcibly impose Sharia law; and daily aerial bombardment has been used to try and intimidate and subjugate a whole people.

Their stories reminded me of the priest I met who had been sent by the former Soviet authorities to Chernobyl, to clear radioactive waste as a punishment for being caught celebrating the liturgies in the open, or the bishop who had spent 17 years in prison for his faith; or the Jewish dissidents I visited in the former Soviet Union who had been denied basic rights and liberties.  As those people and the people of far flung countries such as Cambodia, Rwanda and the Congo can testify, the Nuremburg Tribunals did not, sadly, denote an end to the human rights abuses and genocide.

As I think of these people – or indeed the people of our own community on Merseyside, who face all the domestic vicissitudes that life can throw at them – it simply renews my belief in our democracy and the privileges we enjoy. Aristotle, the father of democracy, wrote in his great work “Politics” that we “are not solitary pieces in a game of chequers” and he said that aidos – shame – would attach to the man who refused to play his part. Cicero -in his work “On Duty” – said that we each become more virtuous, simply by accepting the duty to be engaged in civic and public affairs.

For my money, Liverpool’s greatest citizen was William Roscoe, and if anyone personifies the great calling into public life, it is he.

He began his career as an Attorney but found it “an employment which preys upon my happiness and disgusts me with myself and with mankind.”

Born just opposite here in Mount Pleasant in 1753, he left school at the age of 12,  working first in his father’s market garden. In 1769 he became articled to an attorney, John Eyes Junior, and after Eyes’ death to Peter Ellames. Five years later he was admitted to the Court Roll of the King’s Bench and formed a partnership with Samuel Spinal.

At times he became disillusioned with the law, writing on one occasion to his beloved wife that the law could both be “sometimes wilful and sometimes (suffer) involuntary blindness, which prevents the appearance of truth.” Roscoe would have shared with Ben Johnson the belief that a man should “stand for truth: it’s enough.”

When Roscoe retired from practice, in 1796, he was able to concentrate all his energies on writing, on philanthropy, and on public life.

It was no exaggeration when the great historian of Liverpool, James Picton, said that ‘no native resident of Liverpool has done more to elevate the character of the community, by uniting the successful pursuit of literature and art with the ordinary duties of the citizen and man of business’.

In the heat of the commercial boom which hit Liverpool at the end of the eighteenth century, Roscoe became a successful banker and lawyer.

But he never lost sight of his other values. Take his attitudes towards slavery, the war with the French and the French Revolution.

Liverpool’s prosperity was based on the slave trade.  Ramsay Muir, the Professor of Contemporary History at Liverpool University at the turn of the twentieth century, estimated that slavery generated a staggering £15 million in Liverpool in one year alone.  In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century that would have been wealth on a scale only equalled today in the City of London’s money markets.

The slaves were not brought directly to Liverpool; they were just one part of a triangle.  Manufactured goods were shipped from Liverpool to Guinea.  These cargoes were exchanged for slaves who were then taken direct to the West Indies and sold.  In the Liverpool newspapers of Roscoe’s day there were many advertisements urging Liverpool gentlemen to try their luck and to amass their fortunes in this trade of human misery.

It would have been easy for Roscoe to turn a blind eye to these lucrative but evil practices.  The slave traders dominated Liverpool and it was highly unpopular to speak out against it.  He and William Rathbone were two of the few who did.  Roscoe went further and joined with the Quakers, and the political leaders like Fox and the political reformer, William Wilberforce, to challenge the slavery laws.

In 1787 and 1788 he published tracts and poems attacking the inhumanity and evil of slavery.  In his poem The Wrongs of Africa are lines which retain their strength and poignancy to this day: ‘Blush ye not, to boast your equal laws, your just restraints, your rights defended, your liberties secured, whilst with an iron hand ye crushed to earth the helpless African; and bid him drink that cup of sorrow, which yourselves have dashed, indignant, from Oppression’s fainting grasp?’

Roscoe showed admirable courage as shunned popular acclaim, vigorously admonishing his Liverpool readers and reminding them that for all of us there comes a time of reckoning: ‘Forget not, Britain, higher still than thee, sits the great Judge of nations, who can weigh the wrong, and can repay’.

Two decades later, in 1807, he was briefly elected to serve as a Liverpool Member of Parliament.  He ignored the hatred which his position might engender and strongly supported Wilberforce.  Other abolitionists told him his vote in the House was worth twenty. After just three months in the House of Commons: ‘I consider it the greatest happiness of my existence to lift up my voice on this occasion, with the friends of justice and humanity’.

Roscoe showed similar courage in supporting the ideals – though not the fanaticism – of the French Revolution.  From his political position, as a Whig, he bitterly attacked Edmund Burke, who changed sides and became an opponent of political reform.  Roscoe subsequently opposed the Napoleonic Wars – again risking adverse public reaction – and by keeping alive the ideal of political reform, he and the Whigs paved the way for the reforming legislation of the 1830’s and probably helped avert a bloody revolution.

Two hundred years ago he penned these lines about the revolution in Europe: ‘Too long had the Oppression and Terror entwined those fancy-formed chains that enslave the free mind . . . Seize then the glad moment, and hail the decree that bids millions rejoice, and a nation be free’ words which today should resound around the capitals of countries with totalitarian regimes – Sudan, Korea, Burma.

Roscoe fought against slavery and championed individual liberty.  He was adamantly opposed to the Test Acts which debarred and discriminated against Dissenters and Roman Catholics – another unpopular cause in the Liverpool of his day.  He argued for ‘general toleration’.  As a dissenting believer himself – he was a Unitarian – he refused to compromise when offered the position of the Deputy-Lieutenancy of the County (which the lawsaid could only be held by a member of the Established Church).  Even when he was assured that the law would not be invoked against him, he held that bad laws should be repealed not ignored.  Nearly two centuries later the American Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, said, “Do not ask if it is politic, do not as if it is timely, ask if it is right”.  Roscoe saw clearly the difference between right and wrong and lived his life accordingly. Nor was Roscoe simply long on words and short on actions. He supported every project calculated for the public good.  The extent of his private charities were considerable.  The foundation of Liverpool’s Athenaeum and the Botanic Gardens were largely at his instigation.  And his commitment to his city and his family was second to none.

He lived successively at Mount Pleasant, Dingle, Islington, and Allerton Hall and died in 1831 at his home in Toxteth’s Lodge Lane.

He wrote often about the city he loved.  But his children’s poem, The Butterfly’s Ball, is my favourite.  Written for his son Robert, he describes some of the guests at revels in the insect world: ‘And there was the gnat, and the dragon fly too, with all their relations, green orange and blue; and there came the moth with his plumage of down, and the hornet, in jacket of yellow and brown’.  King George III liked it so much that he had the poem set to  music for his three daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth, Augusta and Mary, and it was publicly performed for the first time since the War at the Roscoe Exhibition that I opened at the Picton Library earlier this year.

Many of those who formed your Society in 1827 would have personally known William Roscoe and would have been influenced by him. Perhaps his spirit is one of the reasons why so many others have subsequently played their part in the public and political life of our City and Nation. Men like Roscoe and Shawcross should inspire this generation to consider how they might use their own gifts for the common good. As Liverpool rejoices in its new found title of “City of Culture” let it also understand that culture and civilisation depend on laws to thrive; and that if we are not to descend into chaos, we will always need lawyers committed to the highest ideals and ready to enrich our civic life by their willingness to contribute to the body politic.

May I invite you to raise your glasses and to toast the Society’s past contribution and in anticipation that the best may still be to come:

The Toast: The Liverpool Law Society