Friday, 16 January 2009

John Mortimer 1923-2009

Today we learned of the death of the great, the good, and the occasionally infuriating Sir John Mortimer QC, barrister, writer, thorn of an Establishment of which he contrived nevertheless to remain a beloved member, and all-round national treasure. Something irreplaceable, uniquely English (not British) and infinitely valuable goes with him. A non-believer, though one of gentle disposition (he once complained about the way Richard Dawkins "goes around preaching about it all the time") he will not be anticipating a welcome in heaven. Immortality of a different sort, however, surely beckons.

It is rare for anyone to achieve distinction in more than one field, yet Mortimer managed it with panache. As a barrister, he had notable triumphs to his name: his successful appearance in the Lady Chatterly (and even his unsuccessful appearances in the Oz and Gay News trials) helped permanently to change the law. He was the prolific author of plays, novels and pamphlets. Most of all, I suppose, he will be remembered for Rumpole, his alter ego, mouthpiece and Falstaffian hero. Rotund, infuriating, long-winded, self-important but ultimately good, Rumpole was an anachronism even when Mortimer invented him: today, he seems as fantastical and unlikely a creation as anyone imagined by Dickens. Rumpole was the perfect fictional distillation of the strengths and weaknesses of the English bar in the last days of its greatness, before the modern world finally crashed in upon it. Mortimer will surely always be remembered as Rumpole's creator, as Arthur Conan Doyle will always be remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes - and as a character, indeed an archetype, Rumpole deserves Holmes's immortality.

I hope, though, that Mortimer's work in defence of civil liberties will not come to look as whimsical as Doyle's sponsorship of fairy photos. He supported Labour all his life, or most of it anyway, yet found himself comprehensively disillusioned by New Labour in power. At first, it was the "Thatcherite" indulgence of bankers and big business that annoyed him, but he soon found a better target for his rage in the government's increasingly authoritarian turn. Already in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 he was complaining about Tony Blair's "horrifying disregard for liberty". New Labour, he wrote ruefully in 2003, seemed to have been "born without a single civil libertarian instinct". At heart, he was a left-wing libertarian, a combination that seemed possible, even natural, in the days when Roy Jenkins was at the Home Office but sounds like an oxymoron today. And if he didn't coin the phrase "champaigne socialist", he certainly embodied it.

His disaffection sprung, principally, from his belief in liberty: traditional English liberty at that - for his appreciation of individual rights was firmly based in the principles and traditions of English law (jury trial, habeas corpus, equality before the law, etc), principles that this government has merrily tossed aside. He wrote in the 2003 article I quoted from above that the presumption of innocence was something that "we should be proud of as a nation as the writings of Shakespeare and Wordsworth". The legal profession has often had a bad rap from outsiders, but at its best (and Mortimer, like Rumpole, embodied this best) it has been independent-minded, rigorous and courageous.

"Our civil liberties," wrote Mortimer, "depend to a great degree on poorly rewarded criminal defenders"; some may question whether they are always, or even often, "poorly rewarded", but the right of every accused person to a full, fair trial assisted by an expert counsel is surely the most fundamental freedom of all. Although even that would seem to be in danger in the era of ASBOs and on-the-spot fines. Looking at the snipping away at the justice system - well advanced even more than five years ago - he found it especially sad that it had been accomplished by "a government full of lawyers".

His was essentially a romantic view of the law, even (though he would have hated the suggestion) a Tory one. He greatly regretted the effective abolition of the Lord Chancellorship - that oldest and most paradoxical symbol of the ancient constitution - and the way it seemed to have been "scribbled on the back of an envelope". Perhaps this is why one of his first campaigns against New Labour took the form of a defence of foxhunting. The other wellspring of his libertarianism was a deep dislike of Puritans and busybodies. Late in life he returned to smoking. "I only started again because of all the anti-smoking hysteria", he told Laurie Taylor.

He never gave up the fight: he was in fine form in an interview with Lucasta Miller in October 2006:


"One thing my father said was that if you find yourself in a country where you have to carry papers, you know it has a lousy government."


Indeed. But you have to wonder why they knighted him - and why he was prepared to accept it.

2 comments:

valdemar squelch said...

Not a single comment? Looks like I'll have to say, yes, I agree he was a good man. A truly erudite, civilised, witty man of letters, of the sort that every generation thinks it will never see again. Trouble is, this time we may be right.

As to why he accepted a knighthood, well, perhaps he thought it impolite to refuse what is technically a decision by the monarch - a fellow hunting enthusiast? People have done things for far stranger reasons.

Skimmer said...

To have the courage and conviction to stand up to the self righteous is a great thing, but to do so with good grace and humour is a true gift.

Mortimer was a gift to the obscenity/censorship travails of the 60’s, there are those of us who would dearly love so engaging a QC to stand against todays insanities of drug prohibition.