What do Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ursula Brennan and Chris Grayling have in common?
The answer is that all of them, though not lawyers, have been elected as honorary benchers of Gray’s Inn. It is a great honour, especially for non-lawyers.
I am grateful to utterbarrister for digging out the Inn’s selection criteria for the appointment of honorary benchers. (The Standing Orders point out that Honorary Benchers should be appointed “sparingly”).
They were honoured under one of two categories:
“(e) Famous or illustrious British non-lawyers whom the Inn would wish to honour,”
(f) Exceptional cases … akin to the Royal Benchers where it would be a great honour for the Inn if the person were to be an Honorary Bencher, and from whom no commitment would be appropriate.”
It would, of course, be hard to think of four people who are so deserving of recognition by Grays Inn. In terms of their achievements it would be invidious to single any of them out. All have had immensely distinguished careers in public service. Churchill saved the country from Hitler. Roosevelt saved his country from the depression and then led it to victory over the Nazis.
Ursula Brennan’s achievements as permanent secretary first at the Ministry of Defence and then at the Ministry of Justice may have been out of the public gaze, but then so were those of Alan Turing when he cracked the hitherto impenetrable 4 rotor Enigma code. Like Turing, with whom she is hardly ever compared, Dame Ursula faced extraordinary, though of course different, obstacles in her climb to the top. Turing was tortured by his sexuality which he kept largely secret through the dark days of the Second World War. Likewise, when she joined the Civil Service in 1975, Dame Ursula had to endure “a culture of bottom pinching.” And although the evidence that her own bottom was pinched is sparse, there is no reason to doubt her when she says that on at least one occasion she was “pursued around a party by a man clutching a piece of mistletoe”. Fortunately for Gray’s Inn, she managed to overcome these obstacles and rise to her current eminence.
Her final ascent to honorary bencherdom began with her 20 month reign at the Ministry of Defence. As she put it, in the sort of crystalline prose that Churchill would have admired:
“I have been proud to lead the MoD as its Permanent Secretary and Accounting Officer through a period of remarkable change.”
Indeed so; although she was too modest to identify exactly what it was she was so proud about. No doubt she had in mind that during her remarkably short tenure she was able to watch, although not actually to prevent, the Defence Secretary Liam Fox become implicated in a mysterious relationship with his special adviser before he was forced to resign. Perhaps she also recalled the MoD’s sale of the Royal Navy’s last remaining Harrier GR7 and GR9s for scrap to the US, a decision described as “crass beyond belief” by Falklands Task Force Commander Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward.
But of course she will be most remembered for defeating the Taliban, or to use her own words (which I am afraid read rather like a partially undeciphered enigma intercept):
“The Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team is impressive testimony to the success of MoD/DfID/FCO co-operation on the ground. At the strategic level, the machinery supporting the NSC was initially dominated by production of the SDSR. With that under our belt, we are now beginning to identify the areas where we need to focus the efforts of our strategy units on national security policy. The Departments will also build on the successful collaboration in the Stabilisation Unit and work to identify the key international security and defence jobs and ensure we are growing a talent pipeline with the confidence to operate successfully in key national and international roles.”
By winning the war in Afghanistan or, to be absolutely precise, establishing the MoD/DfID/FCO/NSC/SDSR talent pipeline, she achieved something that has eluded every other foreigner who has fought there since Alexander the Great (someone else whose own achievements, if not quite on the scale of Dame Ursula’s, would surely have demanded recognition in some form by Gray’s Inn). That achievement, even on its own, certainly makes her the equivalent of Churchill or Roosevelt. However, even this might not have brought her to the attention of the Gray’s Inn Honorary Bencher Committee (or “Pension” as it is known) in 2012 had it not been for the extraordinary success that she has enjoyed since she was moved to the Ministry of Justice. It was, of course, Dame Ursula who introduced an imaginataive new contract for Capita to supply court interpreters earlier that year. The result, as the Public Accounts Committee found:
“… was total chaos. Court officials have had to scramble to find qualified interpreters at short notice; there has been a sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trials; individuals have been kept on remand solely because no interpreter was available; and the quality of interpreters has at times been appalling…. This is an object-lesson in how not to contract out a public service.”
Although the Ministers responsible for the shambles, Crispin Blunt and Kenneth Clarke were either sacked or relieved of all departmental responsibility, Dame Ursula not only remained in post as permanent secretary, but was actually given the job of implementing the new Minister’s plans to reduce legal aid expenditure.
And who was the new Minister? None other than Chris Grayling. Like Dame Ursula nobody could argue that he was not a figure comparable to Churchill, Roosevelt or Alexander the Great. Little wonder that Gray’s Inn lost so little time in honouring him in the same way as his permanent secretary. 2012 was indeed an annus mirabilis in the history of the Inn.
It is true that unlike his permanent secretary, Mr Grayling had not, at the time of his appointment, managed to develop any talent pipelines – perhaps because of a notable lack of talent with which to do so – and his previous responsibility at the Department of Work and Pensions had not been marked by any obvious greatness. However, it is a little known fact that it was not for his statesmanship or political achievements that Mr Grayling was selected. That would indeed have been somewhat absurd. The formidably intelligent conservative thinker Douglas Murray accurately, though more cruelly than strictly necessary, described him as a “political buffoon unsure of what he is saying and with little idea of how to say it.”
But Murray’s criticism misses the point. The real reason Gray’s Inn decided that “it would be a great honour for the Inn” if Mr Grayling were to be an Honorary Bencher has nothing to do with politics, and still less with law. It is because of his literary skill; specifically for his modest contribution to the Insight Guide to the Waterways of Europe (1989, Apa Publications), which, though no longer in print is nevertheless the 3,508,793rd best selling book on Amazon. One need do no more than quote one of the three happy reviewers in full:
“Canal maps are in great detail; explanations of what to see along the canals are succinct and exciting; detailed information on exactly how to barge in certain areas, areas to avoid or be cautious about; resource section is really well done. Highly recommend reading this before booking a barge trip”
That satisfactorily explains why Gray’s Inn was honoured to have Mr Grayling as an honorary bencher. What, after all, could be more interesting over the port than listening to Mr Grayling giving “detailed and exciting information” on how to barge in certain areas?
One small mystery around both Dame Ursula and Mr Grayling’s appointments remains. We need to indulge in a little Kremlinology, but it is striking that whilst the the 2013 crop of honorary benchers were elected “unanimously” the announcement of Dame Ursula’s appointment merely records that Pension had “agreed to elect” her and others as benchers. Surely there was no opposition? But in that case, why not say – as with the clutch of worthy judges and academics in 2013 – that her election was unanimous? And what of Mr Grayling: was he elected unanimously? The answer is that we don’t know. A search of the Gray’s Inn website fails to reveal a single mention of him, although he was undoubtedly reported as having been appointed in December 2012. Dame Ursula’s appointment is recorded, along with the other honorary benchers for 2012 and 2013, so the coyness about Mr Grayling is hard to fathom. They seem to have airbrushed the Lord Chancellor out of their website
But whatever they do to his electronic existence, Gray’s Inn cannot get rid of the real Chris Grayling so easily. They are stuck with him for life. Happily, as utterbarrister tells us, the rules of Gray’s Inn are quite clear. Once an honorary bencher, always an honorary bencher. The Pension of Gray’s Inn have got what they deserved. They can look forward to many more years of Dame Ursula’s talent pipeline and Chris Grayling talking to them about barges. There could be no more fitting punishment for their idiocy.
(Apologies for the rather odd set of fonts on this post which I have been unable to correct!)