Magazine article The Spectator

The Death of the Establishment

Magazine article The Spectator

The Death of the Establishment

Article excerpt

If we have managed to carry this far into the 21st century an idea of what we think the Establishment ought to look like, we might well have settled on someone who looked remarkably like Lord Hutton. Grey-haired, grey-suited, precise and correct, he suggests to us a traditional education at one of our older universities, his conservative outlook and presumptions embodying the leather-upholstered, book-lined, port-soaked world from which we feel he should come. Although he was born on Belfast's North Circular Road, this is indeed a Balliol man. His reputation for integrity and honour are well deserved, and typical of one from that strict Presbyterian Ulster background. They also typify the values of probity and disinterestedness that we feel describe the Establishment at its best. And, as anyone with the slightest idea of what it has taken to be a judge in Northern Ireland in these past 35 years will know, he will also be a man of physical courage.

After a lifetime in the Province, Sir Brian Hutton came to London at the age of 66 and became a law lord: and those of us who know Ulster understand that little will have prepared him in his life there for what he found here. An insightful Irishman, looking ahead a few months ago with remarkable accuracy to the outcome of the Hutton inquiry, made the following observations about Lord Hutton: he had, in his long career at the Bar, shown a profound respect for procedure and hierarchy. He was not a man to be swayed by popular sentiment. On 30 March 1994, when he was Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, he dismissed the appeal of Private Lee Clegg against his conviction for murder, when Clegg shot at what he thought were IRA terrorists. Private Clegg's conviction was later overturned, to no detriment to the career of the judge who had kept him in jail. Clegg returned to the army and was promoted. His release in the spring of 1994 would not have been opportune for the Major government, which was trying at the time to win the trust of the Republicans. We can be sure that Lord Hutton had no knowledge of such low politics when delivering his judgment, which will have been based on the evidence - just like his judgment last week, in fact.

Nor, indeed, should we necessarily think it was relevant that in his last incarnation as a law lord he was one of four judges who, in March 2002, rejected David Shayler's application to offer a 'public interest' defence as defined in section one of the Official Secrets Act. It may or may not be right to presume that this was taken into account by those who chose Lord Hutton for his most recent task, and that they concluded he would have little sympathy for someone like David Kelly, and every sympathy for someone like Tony Blair.

What Lord Hutton's findings should make us consider, however, is the man's judgment in the wider sense of the word. Even distinguished judges cannot entirely rid themselves of certain prejudices, however hard they try, and however firmly they set their face against being influenced by anything except the facts. Lord Hutton's prejudices have long been clear to those who have watched him: the 'respect for hierarchy' and the adherence to 'procedure'. And it was clear from the tone of his report that these were foremost in his mind when he set about examining the Kelly affair. We must not impute motives to him, but a caricature of the thinking of someone like him could easily be drawn.

It would go something like this: a civil servant, party to certain official secrets, breaches his contract for apparently political reasons by talking to the media. One media operative to whom he speaks misinterprets or embellishes something he hears and makes it the basis of a report in which he impugns the integrity of the Queen's First Minister. He eventually admits his mistake, though claims it was an error merely of degree. In the ensuing competition between the journalist, working for an organisation that appears to be slapdash in its procedures, and the Queen's First Minister - a man who, like Lord Hutton, has sworn the Privy Councillor's oath, for heaven's sake - there can be only one outcome. …

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