Jeremy Hutchinson’s life tells us why civil liberties matter – and how Labour was largely to blame for their erosion

Just occasionally, you meet someone with a life story so extraordinary that you pinch yourself as you hear it. Jeremy Hutchinson – one of Britain’s leading criminal barristers throughout the 1960s and 1970s, former chairman of the Tate Gallery, former husband of Peggy Ashcroft, and still going strong today – is one.

A biography, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, was published by John Murray earlier this month to coincide with Hutchinson’s 100th birthday. Its author, Thomas Grant QC, is himself a high-flying barrister – better known to me as my older brother Tom – but has produced a ripping yarn easily accessible to those, like me, with no legal training (all my lawyering has been of the barrack-room kind).

Meeting Hutchinson, as I was once lucky to when I accompanied the author at one of his interviews, it’s unnerving to hear him reminisce about meeting Virginia Woolf or Duncan Grant (no relation), or being a Labour candidate in 1945, as a first-person witness rather than a historian. Modestly, he says that “the life of the advocate is enjoyably ephemeral” and he took some persuading to co-operate with his biographer. I am glad he did.

As the judge Edward Bindloss has rightly said in his own review of the book, “Hutchinson has a Zelig-like tendency to crop up at many of the key moments of post-war British history… here he is representing at trial Penguin Books (for Lady Chatterley’s Lover)…. here he is defending the spy George Blake and the Great Train robber Charlie Wilson… here he is representing a defendant charged with the theft of the World Cup in 1966. Here he is playing games on holiday with T.S.Eliot; here he is mentioned in Virginia Woolf’s and John Gielgud’s diaries; here he is married to the daughter of Coco Chanel’s lover ‘Boy’ Capel; here he is clinging to the wreckage with Lord Louis Mountbatten of HMS Kelly after it was sunk by the Luftwaffe off Crete in May 1941; here he is in Los Angeles with Aldous Huxley; here he is building a brick wall with Churchill in the garden at Chartwell… here he is being taught how to tie a bow tie by Lytton Strachey; here he is lunching with Charlie Chaplin.”

Most of these stories, and more, are told with relish in the book. But it is more than a trip down memory lane. A surprisingly large proportion of the book’s characters are still alive: not only Hutchinson himself but also Geoffrey Robertson, Michael Bogdanov, Geoffrey Bindman QC, Duncan Campbell, Jonathan Aitken, Brian Sewell, Howard Marks, Christine Keeler, Lord Carrington and George Blake. Several others – such as John Profumo, Chapman Pincher, and John Mortimer (whose creation Rumpole was said to be partly based on Hutchinson) – died only recently.

Many of the conventions that the book recounts – such as a merciless “no touting” rule that Quintin Hogg infringed by merely mentioning he was about to return to the bar in a press interview – belong to a bygone age. But in a telling postscript, Hutchinson himself does not wallow in nostalgia but offers an up-to-the-minute survey of the modern Bar, and a gloomy warning about its future. “I read the headlines ‘Is the criminal bar on the brink of extinction’ [and] from my own limited researches the answer seems to be ‘yes, indeed’.” He pours scorn on the sacking of the “experienced and competent” Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve and the rise of “management consultant” Chris Grayling,  who until the election was busy dismantling Legal Aid as Justice secretary. But Hutchinson is just as scathing about the “autocratic and oppressive” David Blunkett, who effectively abolished the office of Lord Chancellor in 2003.

****

The first chapter plunges straight into a case which is not a clear-cut miscarriage of justice, but a complex task of mitigation that illustrates many of the moral dilemmas that all lawyers face. George Blake, who Hutchinson defended at the Old Bailey in 1961, sold secrets to the Russians which lead to 400 Western agents being exposed – and many of them probably murdered by the KGB. It’s thus difficult to agree with Hutchinson’s assertion that Blake’s prosecution for treason was simply a political prosecution, given that his crimes were far from victimless. However, Tom explains how Blake had been brutalised and tortured in North Korea for over a year before returning to London as a hero and becoming a Soviet spy (a storyline not unlike the American TV series Homeland). It’s shocking how little concession was made for Blake’s brutal treatment in Korea when an unprecedented 42-year sentence was handed down.  Blake should have served until 2003, but sensationally  escaped from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 and has lived in Moscow ever since.

A large chunk of the book is devoted to ‘Eccentrics and Folk-Heroes’. I skimmed through the chapter about Howard Marks – an international cannabis smuggler who Hutchinson got acquitted by persuading the jury that he was only smuggling in his role as an agent of the Mexican government – as I have never understood why he is feted as some kind of modern-day Robin Hood.  Marks, a self-publicist par excellence, is a much less interesting character than two small-time eccentrics  that I had never heard of: the Falstaffian artist Tom Keating who with Hutchinson’s help was acquitted of passing off a copy of a Samuel Palmer drawing as the real thing, and the retired bus-driver Kempton Bunton, who stole Goya’s portrait of Wellington from the National Gallery as a protest against the TV license fee. Both their tales have sank into obscurity since the 1970s and their retelling is long overdue.

A further five chapters deal with the obscenity trials for which Hutchinson is best-known. Here the story weaves between Olympian rhetoric and sexual depravity. Bottoms are a constant theme: we are reminded that at the heart of the Lady Chatterley case was the debate about whether or not DH Lawrence depicted anal sex. Hutchinson’s defence of Last Tango in Paris – the 1972 film in which Marlon Brando lubricated Maria Schneider’s anus with butter – ended in an anti-climax, with the prosecution collapsing on a legal technicality before an acquittal could be secured. Tom delightedly records that the judge in the case, Mr Justice Staughton, had been a shipping barrister before his elevation to the bench and authored a book on bottomry (borrowing money against a ship). Hutchinson’s gag about “a shot across the stern” may not have amused the judge, but it raised a chuckle from this reader.

A difficulty in many of these cases was that the works that Hutchinson was defending – above all The Romans in Britain, whose run at the National Theatre prompted a private prosecution by Mary Whitehouse – had been slated by the critics, making the defence of artistic quality appear thin. It’s understandable that Sir Horace Cutler, Tory chairman of the GLC, threatened to withdraw the National’s subsidy: with or without buggery, the play just wasn’t much good. But the legal pin’s head on which the prosecution case turned – that the play’s director Michael Bogdanov had “procured” male actors to commit simulated buggery on stage, contravening an anti-gay law that had stayed on the statute book – was clearly absurd. Hutchinson sealed its fate by pointing out that such an interpretation of the law would see any director of an am-dram production of Hamlet prosecuted for “procuring” the murder of Polonius.

The book also manages to tell us something new about the Profumo affair. Rather like the Zapruder film – another key event of 1963 – Profumo has become too familiar: we all know what happens next. Yet here is some fresh insight: one of the most poignant moments in the book is Hutchinson’s recollection that Christine Keeler, who he defended on a charge of perjury, was one of his only clients not to stay in touch after her nine-month imprisonment. He’s too much of a gentleman to say it, but it’s clear that Keeler is not quite as much a helpless victim as many previous accounts have suggested. Neither Christine Keeler nor Stephen Ward were saints; and just as odious as the hypocrisy of the establishment in hanging Ward and Profumo out to dry was the viciousness of the press. Tom does well to put Profumo affair in its proper context. Much of the energy the press put into uncovering establishment hypocrisy was simply settling an old score: Fleet Street was furious that two reporters had been jailed for not revealing their sources when reporting the Vassall affair (another spy case which Hutchinson defended) the previous year.

****

Unusually, the book sheds light on the tactical discussions that take place between lawyers and clients behind closed doors, not in open court: which celebrities should be called to say what a masterpiece Lady Chatterley’s Lover is, and which old bores might annoy the jury (it is intriguing to read that the charlatan Robert Maxwell, then a Labour MP, appeared as a  witness for the prosecution at the Last Exit for Brooklyn trial in 1966). I couldn’t get enough of the nitty-gritty details: how Hutchinson would arrive early to size up the courtroom (and the jury). Effortless success rested on a lot of advance preparation: “The less the advocate looks at his papers the more attention he will be given.” As in politics, sport, and showbusiness, glamour is rare and perspiration matters much more than inspiration.  It is telling that many of the cases ended with celebration parties even after guilty verdicts had been handed down: Hutchinson’s role was often to mitigate, not secure an acquittal.

But the book’s best achievement is how it challenges received wisdom about liberalism (Hutchinson, who was made a peer in 1968, quit Labour for the SDP in the early 1980s and then sat as a Lib Dem before voluntarily retiring from the House of Lords in 2011). For the author’s generation – a group I belong to as I am only four years Tom’s junior – the liberalism that Hutchinson embodies is an unfamiliar beast. It is very far from the lazy, conformist liberalism of the Guardian, or the authoritarian, bogus liberalism of those busy fools on Twitter who demand the resignation of Professor Tim Hunt for a single sexist gaffe.

While Hutchinson deplores the illiberality of Blunkett, Blair and Grayling, he also deplores the futile prohibition of foxhunting. Hutchinson smells out humbug from a good distance: in his summing-up speech at the end of the Mouth and Oral Sex trial he managed the rare feat of defending the permissive society without sounding like a self-satisfied bore (the “good old days” of Victorian London, Hutchinson reminded the jury, were ones in which judges were “hanging people for stealing” and there were just as many prostitutes in Leicester Square as there are today).

Nor is this liberalism “anti-establishment”. Although the book charts the slow implosion of blimpish conservatism Hutchinson, the son of a criminal Silk and educated at Stowe and Magdalen College, Oxford, is unarguably a pivotal member of the post-war liberal establishment that supplanted it.

Above all the book is an uncomfortable reminder to the left that Labour governments have, at best, an ambivalent record on human rights, press freedom and state secrecy. There is no wooliness here. Tom is no lefty, and the book shows that the left has no monopoly on civil liberties. Tom is right to point out that Labour governments often overcompensated, so terrified they were of being seen as weak on matters of security and defence. As NUJ President Dennis Macshane – later a Labour minister under Blair and Brown – said in 1978: “Anybody concerned about civil liberties will find it hard to campaign for a Labour party that has one of the worst records this century in defending journalistic freedom.”

While Roy Jenkins may have legalised homosexuality and abolished censorship of the London theatres, it was Labour Ministers – Home Secretary Merlyn Rees, Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart, and two Attorneys General, Sir Elwyn Jones and the hapless Sam Silkin – who led the prosecutions in the Biafra trial in the late sixties, and the ABC trial a decade later. In 1972 – with Heath in power – the Franks committee had recommended that the notorious section 2 of the Official Secrets act (a catch-all which made it an offence to publish a civil service canteen menu) be reformed. But Labour did nothing and the section was not repealed until 1989 – when Thatcher was still in Number ten. In the meantime, Labour condoned “secret machinations” such as vetting juries to ensure that people inclined to acquit those accused of spying were excluded.

A fascinating chapter reminds us that Jonathan Aitken (nowadays remembered primarily as a Minister in John Major’s government who was jailed for perjury in 1996) had a more illustrious career as a groundbreaking journalist in the late 1960s, exposing the Wilson’s government’s mendacity over the arms it was providing to the Nigerian government to quell the Biafra uprising, for which he was prosecuted under the Official Secrets act. Hutchinson ruthlessly exposed the “blanket of official fog” which overlaid the prosecution’s ‘much ado about nothing’ case: although Aitken had admitted passing a confidential document to the Sunday Telegraph, neither he nor the paper was told that its dissemination was to be a breach of the Official Secrets act. As in other cases, it seems politicians ordered a prosecution not as a point of principle, but to slaughter “sacrificial lambs” as a kneejerk reaction to hostile press coverage.   Hutchinson’s description of “gentleman of the Foreign and Commonwealth office, fluttering their feathers in their Whitehall coops, pecking away ay their classifications,” is apt today, as officials panic in the face of Edward Snowden’s and Wikileaks’ revelations.

Then, as now, national security is an elastic entity and it is impossible to know whether these revelations are as damaging as officialdom claims. Remarkably, Lord Justice Caulfield was persuaded. In his summing -up, he opined that Whitehall could not see the wood for the trees – and that in fact there were no trees at all – the prosecution’s case was “only a desert, a barren waste”.

****

Hutchinson is “Jeremy” throughout and, as Tom acknowledges, a biography that addresses its subject by first name could – like this review – be accused of insufficient objectivity.  My only other cavil is that the text has too many adjectives, adverbs and commas. It could have done with a bit more pruning (then again brevity is not a recognised Grant characteristic, as this blog demonstrates).

And although the book is aimed at the lay reader, some words made me reach for the dictionary. Tergiversation (repeatedly changing of one’s mind), rodomontade (extravagant boasting), rebarbative (causing annoyance) and Disjecta membra (scattered fragments) were all new to me. These terms are not unnecessary legal jargon but a reminder that in the law, words must have precise meanings. Michael Gove, Grayling’s successor as Justice secretary, has just issued a grammatical primer to his civil servants. He would also do well to study this book before inflicting any further damage to the right of everyone to proper representation in court, and a fair trial.

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