I haven’t blogged for a long time, and this has nothing to do with writing or books or any of the things I probably should be posting about. It’s a rant, I’m afraid. I’ve wanted to rant many times over the last three years, but if I started, I wasn’t convinced I’d ever stop. For me, the whole Brexit saga is a great big black hole which no amount of fury will ever fill. Every time I hear the words ‘sovereignty’ or ‘control’ I can feel the beginnings of a hulk-like transformation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve shrieked ‘It doesn’t mean anything’ at the TV screen when someone has trotted out one of those tired soundbites. But I’ve mostly kept the rage offline.
Until that picture of Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging on the front bench in the House of Commons.
I’ve tried to rationalise my rage-levels. I’ve told myself that this is a minor incident in the scheme of things, that it’s just a touchstone for my feelings about the whole political situation. But I keep coming back to it. Because I don’t think it is a minor incident. I don’t think it is just a distraction, a bandwagon for the media to jump on. I think it goes to something very fundamental in this whole sorry mess.
I’ve never said any of this out loud before, and I probably won’t say it again. I apologise if you think it’s mawkish or exaggerated, but this is how I feel. I was a criminal defence lawyer for over fifteen years. And I spent most of those years in the magistrates’ court. Not wigged, not gowned, not dealing with high-profile work, but with shoplifting cases, charges of disorderly behaviour, begging, motoring offences, most of it under the legal aid scheme. Not trivial, by any means – not for the people involved – but certainly not what you see in the courtroom dramas or read about in the papers. Justice in the magistrates’ court is a fairly robust thing. There’s less formality, more of a sense of ‘let’s get it done.’ It’s a flawed system – and with the swingeing cuts in legal aid, those flaws, those cracks are spreading. There are many, many things that need to change – or, in some cases, change back – before lawyers can feel anything approaching an uncomplicated sense of pride in the system in which they work.
But still, every working day for a decade and a half, I turned on my way out of the courtroom and bowed my head before leaving. A common misconception is that lawyers bow to the judge, but the gesture is actually made towards the Queen’s justice. There were times when I didn’t feel particularly well disposed towards whatever had stood for justice, times when I was smarting over some inequality, some rank unfairness, some casual misuse of the law against a vulnerable defendant, but I always bowed. Every single time. It became so ingrained that I once found myself bowing to my empty kitchen after making a cup of tea. No matter how bad a day you’d had in that courtroom, you bowed. Because it wasn’t about that day. It wasn’t about that case. It wasn’t about how you felt about your job in that moment. It was about something much deeper and more fundamental. It was about what that courtroom represented. The rule of law. The requirement for those in power to exercise that power in accordance with the laws of the country.
The legal system has evolved over hundreds of years into something that, at its best, serves as a line in the sand to all the things we don’t want for our society, and a statement of all the things we do want. Rules to prevent lengthy periods of detention without trial, to prevent imprisonment for holding the wrong beliefs, to uphold basic rights. Things go wrong all the time. People slip through those cracks in the system. The rich and privileged have better access than the poor and vulnerable. But it is still a system which is, at its heart, held up by something that should be unshakeable. The rule of law is the ability to say ‘this far and no further’ to those who wish to encroach upon the rights of others. It’s been at the heart of our system of law and government for centuries now, and it’s what we bow to when we leave the courtroom. It’s the mast to which we nail our colours as officers of the court, and no matter how tattered or frayed those colours become, it’s where they stay. Sometimes that bow is no more than an angry jerk of the head. Sometimes it’s done with gritted teeth. Sometimes it’s done with shame or with a sense of failure, of having sold out somehow, by being part of a system that got something so badly wrong. And often, I think, it’s done as a promise. I will keep on keeping on, no matter what. This far and no further.
Because every profession has its promises – spoken or unspoken.
First do no harm.
Without fear or favour.
Make a difference.
Two days ago Jacob-Rees Mogg made a promise to those who he was elected to represent. It was unspoken, but might as well have been shouted with a megaphone.
I will treat you with utter contempt. I will not care about any of this because I do not have to care. None of it matters to me. None of it will touch me. It’s all a game, and I will never, ever consider how winning or losing will affect any of you.
Contempt is a very relevant word here. If a lawyer behaved like that in the magistrates’ court, they’d be held in contempt. And yet Jacob Rees-Mogg, in the chamber of the House of Commons, expressed his contempt with impunity. He’s cushioned by wealth and privilege. He’s secure in his knowledge that none of this will matter to him in the long run. It’s a game, and the fact that, for many people in this country, losing the game will mean losing their livelihoods, or possibly even their lives, doesn’t even make a dent in his arrogant insouciance.
I voted to remain in the EU. This obviously doesn’t put me in the running for the position of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Number One Fan. But it’s leave voters who should be looking at those images of their lounging, smirking representative and feeling the most rage. Because in using those soundbites – sovereignty, control – I think the leave campaign knew exactly what they were doing. The rule of law isn’t sovereignty. It isn’t control. But, like those emotive words, it’s about something fundamental, something we want to be unshakeable, but which we’re frightened of losing. How many popular films have, at their heart, a fight for something that’s important and either lost or at risk? Captain America standing alone against the threatened destruction of the universe. William Wallace and his cry of ‘Freedom!’ More relevantly, perhaps, William Wilberforce unrolling his list of signatories against the slave trade across the floor of the original House of Commons chamber. All those stories and images tell us that to be great, we have to have a cause, a fight. The leave campaign manipulated the sense many people had of something fundamental in our society not quite working as it should, and turned it outwards, against the EU. They gave people a cause, a common enemy, a fight that could be won.
And when Jacob Rees-Mogg lay down across the front bench of the House of Commons chamber, with that smirk, with that untouchable arrogance, he showed, clear as words, that he doesn’t actually care about any of that. He doesn’t care about control or sovereignty or law, or whatever you want to call it. It was the MP equivalent of me winning a case after convincing the bench of the relevance of a specific piece of legislation, then turning round at the door and making a loser gesture at the judge.
Many people will think it doesn’t matter whether he sits up, lies down or stands on his head. That it’s all just archaic pomp and ceremony anyway. It does matter. If Jacob-Rees Mogg can’t fake the most basic of respect and engagement during such a crucial debate in a place that is one of the most important forums in our country, then he has no place there. He was in contempt of the electorate, contempt of democracy, contempt of everything that isn’t Jacob Rees-Mogg and his self-interest and self-absorbtion.
I’m one of his constituents. Unfortunately, there’s no mechanism by which I can not vote for him even more strongly than I didn’t vote for him last time. All I can do is hope against hope that those who did vote for him will now see what he really thinks of them, that the electorate will hold him in as much contempt as he holds them.