Magazine article The Spectator

If I Had My Time Again, I Could Have Sued

Magazine article The Spectator

If I Had My Time Again, I Could Have Sued

Article excerpt

Looked at from one angle the new habit of going to law over every grievance may seem like progress - a welcome sign that the British people are beginning to feel their democratic oats, stand up for their rights, and throw their weight around. For far too long they have allowed themselves to be trampled upon. At last the worm is turning and, thanks to Legal Aid, having recourse to the law with something of the same freedom as was once enjoyed only by the very rich and powerful.

The trouble with this cheerful view, suggesting that what is happening is part of an overdue drift towards a more egalitarian society, is that it is based on a false premise. For, truth to tell, the rich and powerful seldom did go to law for the kind of reasons that people regularly do so today. They never sued the public schools for starving and beating their children, their university colleges for failing to teach their children, their regiments for unnecessarily sacrificing their children's lives, their lawyers for giving rotten advice, their doctors for taking out the wrong organs, and so on and suchlike.

In fact they bent over backwards to live by a culture which took it for granted that life was not fair. One of the most frequent justifications made by top-dog parents for turning a blind if not approving eye on cruel bullying at public schools was that it was never too early to learn that crucial lesson. Because so much else might give the children of the rich and powerful the false impression that life was a bed of roses, it was felt much more important for them than for the children of the poor - who were never likely to get the wrong impression - to be taught from the word go, at very great expense, that it was really a bed of nails. So far from complaining, let alone suing, if their children were given a traumatic time, they were more likely to do so if they were given a cushy one. For the inculcation of resignation and fatalism - a stiff upper lip - was seen as a moral imperative. A proper way for a gentleman to meet the vicissitudes of life was with a sigh, not a writ.

Reasonable enough, you may say, in the bad old days of my youth, the 1930s, just after one great war and just before another, when life was indeed likely to be nasty, brutish and short, but wholly anachronistic now, at least in our part of the world. Up to a point that may be true, but only up to a point, since contemporary life can still come up with plenty of horrible surprises. In any case, I don't think the refrain that `life is not fair' which I heard so often as a boy had much to do with the memory of the first world war or the prospect of the second. It had much more to do, I believe, with a pretty accurate assumption, nurtured by Dickens's famous novel Bleak House, that if correcting injustice meant going to law, the cure, so to speak, would prove far worse than the disease, not primarily because of the crippling cost, which the rich could well afford, but because of the damage done to the civilities of life; the fouling of your own nest.

Had my life been spent in the litigating age rather than, for the most part, in the pre-litigating age, so many of the relationships with individuals and institutions which I have enjoyed would almost certainly have been put in jeopardy. First and foremost, it would have lost me a much cherished lifelong friend. Forty-odd years ago I wrote something in my column, quite unintentionally, which did him very serious damage, and undoubtedly in the present climate he would have felt more than justified in suing, with every prospect of high damages. …

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