If there were any doubt that there are too many lawyers in Parliament it has been removed by the meeting, on Monday evening, between backbench Conservative MPs and the justice secretary Liz Truss. The subject was Truss’s alleged failure to defend the judiciary from criticism of last week’s High Court judgement on the enactment of Article 50. One MP was reported as saying: ‘Her job is to defend the judiciary from attack.’
No it isn’t. Liz Truss has special duties as Lord Chancellor – but she is the government’s justice secretary, not CEO of a judges’ trade association. Her duty as Lord Chancellor is to uphold the continued independence (from the government) of the judiciary – not to protect it from public criticism. And her role also involves managing government policy on the legal system, which is often going to require standing up to the vested interests of judges, barristers and solicitors, not sucking up to them. The Daily Mail doesn’t exactly hold back when criticising teachers, social workers, postmen and so on – but since when were the education secretary, the health secretary and the business secretary respectively expected to come before the house to condemn headlines on those groups?
It is little wonder that backbench Tory MPs have behaved in this way, however, when so many of them are lawyers themselves. The steady takeover of the Commons by lawyers has been too little commented upon. At the 2015 general election, according to an analysis by BPP University, a private law school, 119 of 650 MPs elected had either studied or practised law. That was up from 85 in 2010. Is it any wonder that the law remains the one profession which never gets properly reformed, given the vested interests in the Commons? It is extraordinary that Michael Gove, who as education secretary, had no problem summoning up the courage to take on teachers, abandoned reform of legal aid as soon as he became justice secretary.
It is a serious problem when one profession becomes so over-represented in Parliament. That would be the same if it were trade unionists, businessmen, social workers or any other vested interest.
Stephen Phillips, who resigned as Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham last week saying he could no longer bear to be described as a Conservative, is all too typical of the new legal-politico class – he practised as a barrister for nearly 20 years before his election in 2010.
So now we are down to just 118 MPs with a legal background. Sleaford and North Hykeham Conservatives – along with the constituency parties of the other main parties – can do us all a favour by selecting a candidate who has never worn silk, never donned a wig and never worked in a solicitors’ firm.