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David's Mental Meanderings
24th February 2001

To someone from outside the United Kingdom without a working knowledge of the British political and legal system, it is difficult to understand the role of the Lord Chancellor. You might think that with such a lofty and ancient title, it must have been very important in days of yore, but is no doubt reduced to responsibility for Crown Jewels or something. How wrong you would be. (By the way, the Crown Jewels are the responsibility of the Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain's Office, in case you were wondering.)

The Lord Chancellor is the highest paid member of the Government. He uniquely occupies key positions in all three branches of the civil government. He is appointed by the Prime Minister and is a member of the Cabinet, and thus a member of the Executive. He is the Speaker of the House of Lords and thus a member of the Legislature. But it is his role in the Judiciary that is the farthest reaching.

The Lord Chancellor is the head of the Judiciary. He appoints the judges. In England we have someone called the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. The Lord Chancellor is his boss. The quote from his website, "Broadly speaking he is responsible for: The effective management of the courts. The appointment of judges, magistrates and other judicial office holders. The administration of legal aid. The oversight of a varied programme of Government civil legislation and reform in such fields as family law, property law, defamation and legal aid." He also appoints the certain top barristers to the title of "Queen's Counsel" (QC), which enables them to command even higher fees.

The closest analogy I could draw would be to imagine that William Rehnquist was a member of the President's cabinet, President of the Senate, appointed the entire federal judiciary, spearheaded legal reform, ran the legal aid system, and chose which lawyers would make the most money. Oh, and was appointed because he gave the President his first job out of school. Quite a powerful position, you can imagine.

Now, imagine that you are a lawyer trying to work your way up the ladder and you get an invitation from the Lord Chancellor. You are invited to a dinner at a posh nightclub hosted by the Lord Chancellor. A very important QC and part-time judge is the guest of honour. Oh, and she happens to be the Prime Minister's wife. The dinner is free, but your invitation advises you that "The minimum you will be invited to pledge is 200 per person, but we know that many of you will take this opportunity to make a significant contribution to party funds in order to secure a second term." Would you feel just a little pressure?

Even many Labour MPs and QCs thought something just wasn't right about this. However, when Paul Boateng, a Government minister got on BBC Radio 5 Live and rejected allegations of sleaze, called the Lord Chancellor a man of unquestionable probity, I just about lost it. This is the same man who stole the wife of a fellow Labour politician, with whom he later served in the Cabinet. This is the same man who while railroading through the dismemberment of the unwritten British Constitution, kicking out most of the members of the House of Lords, was also busy re-decorating his apartments in the Palace of Westminster with wallpaper at 400 per roll, and ultimately at a cost of 590,000 ($885,000). He is the only cabinet minister entitled to a salary greater than the Prime Minister. When Labour came to power, the cabinet voluntarily reduced their salaries and refused cost-of-living increases. But not Derry Irvine.

The only thing that all colours of the political spectrum find unquestionable about Derry is his complete arrogance. When he was pressured to make a statement to the Lords over this scandal, he refused to apologise, and brushed off comments from all sides of the House. As the official news agency of the Labour Party (also called the BBC) even said on the evening news (in their characteristically British style of understatement), "Lord Irvine is not known for his expertise in humility." Is it surprising that he is the first Lord Chancellor in years who prefers to be known by his full title of Lord High Chancellor?

How did Derry Irvine achieve his lofty position? That is primarily due to his other moniker, "Cupid, QC." Not only did he give Tony Blair his first job as a lawyer, he also introduced Tony and Cherie to each other.

Other cabinet ministers have resigned over much less. Last month the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter "Mandy" Mandelson resigned because he may have incorrectly told another cabinet minister, who told the House of Commons, that a member of his staff contacted a civil servant to inquire about an application for citizenship for an Indian businessman. In fact, he made a two-minute phone call to the Government minister in charge of immigration to inquire about it.

But will Lord Irvine resign over this fiasco? Most definitely not. I wish I could say that Tony Blair avoided letting Bill Clinton rub off on him when it comes to character in Government. Neither Irvine nor Mandelson didn't take money and gifts from a chicken company, nor was he paying off his mistress, or involved any of the other sleazy shenanigans of recent executive officers of the US government. However, both did something improper and then didn't own up to it.

Mandelson only resigned because this was his second bite of the apple. Mandy had to resign back in December 1998 when received a loan from another Government minister (who happens to be a very rich man) to buy a house in the very up-market Notting Hill area of London. There was nothing illegal about taking the loan - he just "forgot" to mention it in the register wherein every member of Parliament declares gifts, loans, and other outside interests which might affect their impartiality. Unfortunately, Blair did something that even Clinton didn't do: fire a cabinet member for sleaze and then re-hire him into the cabinet 10 months later, only to fire him again for sleaze.

That being said, when compared to the US, it requires much less of a scandal to cause a member of the British cabinet to resign. Or perhaps I should say that it requires much less of an indiscretion to cause a scandal. In the Clinton administration, it generally took a federal indictment.

Presidents and Prime Ministers, like any other men, are known by the company they keep. The most striking difference between the Clinton and Bush cabinets is the character of the individuals. I'm not downplaying the fact that Bush has assembled what is regarded even by liberals in the press as one of the most capable and qualified cabinets in history. Competence is a good quality. However, it means nothing without character.

Competence repeats the mantra of the first Clinton campaign, "It's the economy, Stupid." But you know what, Stupid? It's not the economy. The supreme thing is not whether or not you are better off now than you were four years ago. The supreme thing is not even whether or not you have a job or are reduced to what one of my readers is fond of calling "gubmint cheese." Solomon knew the supreme thing when he said, "A good name is to be desired more than riches." Markets rise and fall. Economic policies come and go. The memory of the just is blessed.

For what will Bill Clinton be remembered: half a dozen years of coincidental relative prosperity or Monica Lewinsky? Bill's employees showed their character when they trashed the White House on the way out. George Bush showed his by refusing suggestions of an investigation and possible prosecutions.

This brings me to John Ashcroft. I have been following the career and politics of Mr Ashcroft since he was governor of Missouri. Though he will not have been aware of this, John Ashcroft and I have somewhat diverged theologically since those days. I probably understand his Pentecostal piano playing better than he would understand my icons and incense. But the one thing we have in common is the thing that scares so many of his opponents. John Ashcroft takes Jesus seriously.

Washington has always been uncomfortable around Mr Ashcroft. And here is where the press gets it wrong. They aren't uncomfortable because he doesn't drink. There are a lot of reformed alcoholics in Washington who don't drink. They were uncomfortable because he believes something and isn't afraid to live it in front of them. As Senator Phil Gramm said, "The plain truth is, we may have 'In God We Trust' on our coins, but we do not have it in our heart."

Nothing made the difference between Ashcroft and his detractors more clear than the sad fact that the best person they could find to lead the charge against him was Ted Kennedy. If there is anyone in the U.S. Senate with less character and integrity than the junior senator from the State of New York, it has to be the senior senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Do I really need to say any more than that?

Before you think I'm bashing liberals in general or Democrats in particular, you are wrong. (If you are a member of my surprisingly large circle of "Liberal Friends and Family," I hope you have read this far.) The most important thing a Democrat said on Ashcroft nomination was not said by a conservative/moderate. It was Robert Byrd who said, "Although I do not agree with all of Senator Ashcroft's views, I have no cause to doubt Senator Ashcroft's word or his sincerity regarding his fealty to an oath he will swear before God Almighty.''

At the end of the day (and at the End of our days) what matters is not power, position or lofty titles. What matters is quality of the legacy you leave behind. In all likelihood, Derry Irvine will be remembered for his pride, Mandy Mandelson for his lies, and John Ashcroft for his integrity.

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