19 April 2010

Paul McBride QC = "Pot, Kettle, Black..."

What physical qualities have all barristers in common?
Keenness of face and hawkiness of eye.
Their arguments are –
Their books?
Dusty tomes; but occasionally musty old legal tones.
In what do they indulge?
Flights of oratory.
If they are women, what is their description?
They are Fair Portias.
~ Myles Na gCopaleen, Catechism of Cliché

Posterity hasn’t handed down a particularly pretty picture of the Faculty of Advocates and the Scottish Establishment of the late 1790s. The “fountainhead of Scottish reaction” some people have styled it, peopled by slithering Tory toadies enslaved to the twin vices of patronage and position-seeking. During the days when “Harry the Ninth” was in the ascendant, Pitt’s port-crony, Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville, dominating Scottish life, political and legal Scotland are recalled, suspiciously entangled, even unjustly so. For some, perhaps the blackest mark and fullest expression of the Faculty’s tribal Tory ethos remains its all-too-keen expulsion of one of their moderate reforming brethren, the unhappy Thomas Muir of Huntershill, after his outrageous trial for sedition in the High Court of Justiciary. A guilty memory which I notice some people are striving to discharge by petitioning “the Scottish Parliament to support the erection of a statue of Thomas Muir (1765-1799) in the vicinity of the Parliament building or at an appropriate place on the Royal Mile.” Do add your name to the petition if you feel so moved.

Even now, the must of conservatism still clings to popular representations of the Faculty and its creatures, easily encouraged by the dreariness of legal detail, their archaic periwigs and gloomy gowns, the slight ludicrous air of pomposity and self-importance which advocates project onto the public consciousness. The dynamic relationship between the centres of Edinburgh’s legal establishment and the new devolved structures of Scottish government and democracy remains one of the more unfortunately neglected themes of recent devolutionary scholarship. For anyone who has encountered both parts of Scottish public life, it is difficult not to be struck by the many contrasts in tone. Holyrood’s polyphony of accents contrasts sharply with the raft of ancient marble-mouthed Scottish judges, and even the frequently bizarre accents affected by some advocates. Hardly testament to the realised spirit of egalitarian democracy many of us have in mind for our country. Overall, I am always left with the impression of two life orders, equally assured of their respective legitimacy, crashing together, often bemused by the juxtaposition. 

Perhaps the weirdest commixture of late has been the emergence of Paul McBride QC (I leave out the obligatory “top”, for reasons expanded on here). Some of you may recall that this “lifelong” Labour voter decided to hop skip and jump into the Scottish Conservative Party. And has been, at times pretty embarrassingly, striving to get his face in the paper for the Tories ever since.  I largely assume that it is simply vanity – and the poor little fellow has had his coiffured head turned by the attention. For example, he pops up in this story about Jim Murphy and the gangster at his fundraising feast, and even rented out his gob in the coverage of Heather McLeod’s resignation as Conservative candidate for Glasgow South West, styled “Conservative legal advisor”. One wonders how the devil he finds the time. Perhaps then, it is the zeal of the converted, and not simply popinjay self-importance. His new-found piety also apparently extends to putting in an appearance in the party’s recent party political broadcast. In a cringe-inducing example of the “Call me Dave” school of modern British conservatism, he is labelled “Paul – Advocate”. Although Mr McBride might not think of himself as a politician, this quibble seems mountingly improbable as he takes up the role of unelected spokesperson on “law and order” and uses his soapbox to have a go at other folk’s policies and generally agitate for fatuous Tory punitivism. Let’s take a look then at what “Paul” had to say.

“At this moment in time, we have a soft touch criminal justice system. It favours the criminals, who very often serve less than half of the sentence that is imposed by the court. And the Conservative Party believe that the sentence imposed in the court is the sentence that you should serve.”

“The system of criminal justice has to be improved and we have to put victims and not criminals at the heart of the criminal justice system in Scotland.” 

This is sentence construction on the bell curve principle – and without flesh on these bones, is clearly pretty fatuous. Equally, the irritable devolutionary argument must be insisted on – a Westminster election cannot be about criminal justice, that matter being thoroughly devolved. These quibbles aside, concentrate your intelligences on this question. Remind me, Mr Bride, to what service have you been putting your own considerable ingenuity to these past twenty years? Oh yes. I remember. “Top criminal defence lawyer”, as you never cease preeningly self-citing. Doesn’t it seem a bit rich, seem a bit improbable, for McBride to be lecturing everyone else on putting victims “first”, when he has put criminals at the heart of his own life? Since when did it become plausible to decry criminals and call others “soft” when defending them has kept you in stockings and gin? And not the cheap stuff either. A cheeky interlocutor suggested that “No doubt he’s also tough on criminal legal aid tough on the causes of criminal legal aid”. Helpfully, since 2003 the Scottish Legal Aid Board has itemised legal aid earnings by individual advocates. So we can be quite clear about the extent to which McBride owes his comfortable financial status to the institution of criminal law. Bear in mind, although not yet tax-deducted, these figures only show payments made from the public purse, not accounting for any extra pocket money he might have made from privately-funded criminal defence work. They are perhaps underestimations. Over the last six reported years, McBride’s legal aid earnings from “soft-touch Scotland” were as follows… 

2008/09           £213,100
2007/08           £217,700
2006/07           £237,800
2005/06           £161,600
2004/05           £357,600
2003/04           £275,80000000000
Total                £1,463,600

Let me be quite plain. I’m not assailing the role of the defence lawyer. I’m not impugning the dignity or importance of affording everyone a decent defence against charges brought against them in court which may threaten their liberty and reputation.  I’m not suggesting that a pittance should do. That said, most of these men and women don’t parade across the public stage, all showy condemnation and conscience, pointing fingers and making accusations. Most don’t make it their business to agitate for the repeal of the Human Rights Act, while no doubt relying on its provisions in the course of their legal submissions and appeals. Most don’t pocket well over a million quid in half a decade, rubbing criminal shoulders and making strategic calculations how to get their clients off - and then demand we think ill of everyone with a different conception of what criminal justice should be. Unlike Mr McBride, most of the politicians he assails haven’t used their eloquence to cross-examine complainers and victims into oblivion on behalf of guilty men. Three words come to mind - pot kettle black.


  1. Interesting stuff, but I must say I've been impressed with him at the TS trial over the last two days.

  2. James,

    Although this is a critical post - and I think fairly so - I'm certainly not denigrating Mr McBride's undoubted virtues and skills as an advocate. Rather, I'm lamenting that he has decided to turn those talents to no good purpose by becoming an often vacuous talking head for the Tories' dough-headed punitivism.

  3. Although I feel Paul has been too outspoken recently concerning Scottish football & now supports the Conservative party because it affects his earnings, I've got to say he is a working class lad who will listen still to a hard luck story and try to help you out!