Not always wrong: Lord Frost reviews 'Bringing Down Goliath'
Edinburgh, October 2019: Jolyon Maugham outside the Court of Session | Alamy
Jolyon Maugham’s revealing account of his life and career exposes a flawed world view so common to lawyers
I expected not to agree with this book, and I don't. I expected it to be badly written, and it often is. Yet it’s not a bad book, and reading it is certainly revealing.
For a start, Jolyon Maugham is not quite part of the privileged North London elite that many will have assumed. Maybe he is now, but his account of his dysfunctional childhood and upbringing leaves one impressed he was able to overcome it and forge his career. It’s a reminder that for everyone in public life there’s a real person behind the persona.
He's also not wrong in many of his arguments. It's true that access to the law and legal aid is unequal and unfair. He's right to criticise the law on deprivation of nationality, which seems to me fundamentally unjust and illiberal. He’s correct to bemoan the government’s readiness to use its bottomless bank account to take bad cases repeatedly to court, especially HMRC in its obsessional pursuit of tax collectors’ rights. And I agree with him that the judiciary must be open to public criticism, though he seems happier when it's at his hands than at the Daily Mail's.
Those of us on the Leave side of the argument can only thank him for his involvement
But the fundamental difficulty with the worldview of this book is the belief common to so many lawyers, which is that everything is resolvable by legal means. He seems blind to economic and political realities: it’s not clear that he gets the economic point of the non-dom tax rules, and he seems proud of destroying Uber’s business model and of making it more difficult for ordinary Londoners to get taxis late at night.
This blindness to ultimate consequences is also evident in his account of my specialist subject: the Brexit saga. He insists the referendum was merely advisory and claims it was worth all his efforts to get the European Court of Justice to rule that the Article 50 decision was revocable – but the politics made both points irrelevant. I personally sympathise with his view that Boris Johnson’s attempted prorogation of Parliament was a poor one – in my case because of its wisdom rather than its ex ante legality – but it has to be recognised that Parliament too had overturned long-standing conventions and was seeking to usurp the executive in managing the negotiations. In a moment of introspection, Maugham does acknowledge that the Miller 1 case "turned out to be somewhat unhelpful" to the Remain cause, and that he had not "foreseen any longer-term consequences of winning the right for Parliament to vote". Those of us on the Leave side of the argument can only thank him for his involvement.
Perhaps the clue to the purpose of this book, then, is on the final page. He says that we "try and live in ways that make us happy and fulfilled. We each get to make our own choices as to how to find meaning". His efforts aren't about results. They are about giving him a sense of purpose. It's for its funders, and supporters, to decide whether that is really good enough.
Lord Frost is a Conservative peer and former UK chief negotiator for Exiting the European Union
Bringing Down Goliath: How Good Law Can Topple the Powerful
By: Jolyon Maugham
Publisher: WH Allen
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