For their final event of term , The York Union welcomed former Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC to the University to talk about his experiences with the Conservative Party and their time in coalition government. The wide-ranging discussion covered several key political issues, including problems with the European Court of Human Right, immigration and HRH Prince of Wales’s infamous ‘black spider memos’.
The interview began by discussing his university career at Oxford, where he was President of the Conservative Association. Mr. Grieve told the audience that his desire to become an MP was not due to his father being the MP for Solihull. He was inspired by hearing the great orators of the 20th century, including Foot, Powell and Callaghan, when he used to visit the Strangers’ Gallery in the House of Commons as a student. Even then, it was many years before he decided to enter politics, preferring to focus on a prestigious legal career; finally deciding to enter as a candidate just weeks before the 1997 election.
The 2015 election campaign was marked by a high level of negative campaigning –general, personal attacks on the opposition-, even the former Coalition partners were criticising each other in the final weeks of the campaign (for more discussion on that topic see my interview with Dominic Grieve here). Therefore, it was refreshing to hear Grieve speak positively about his time working with the Liberal Democrats. He discussed how there was an “honesty of discourse” between the MPs that wasn’t forced and had many productive outcomes. Despite their being obvious political differences between the groups –even down to such things as boundary changes-, Grieve said he was “proud” of their record on government.
The discussion then moved on to the Prince of Wales ‘black spider memos’. When Grieve was Attorney General he forbade the release of the notes written by HRH to various government ministers, which The Guardian had demanded to be released under the Freedom of Information Act. Grieve’s judgement has recently been overturned by the Supreme Court. Grieve said that he had “no regrets” over his decision to withhold the documents from public scrutiny because the constitutional process by which HRH operates gives him access to state papers and he is entitled to voice his concerns, privately, to ministers. He also claimed the overturning of his judgement by the Supreme Court raised questions about the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary because he saw the case as demonstrative of the judiciary ignoring the will of Parliament.
When he was removed from the position as Attorney General by David Cameron in 2014 there had been media speculation that the decision was due to Grieve’s positive attitude towards the European Court of Human Right, which is a viewpoint contrary to many Conservative MPs. Grieve confirmed this was “probably” the reason, but offered a robust defence of the ECHR and the broader European structure. He accepted that it wasn’t perfect, and set out several examples where the Court had got it wrong –such as on prisoner voting-, yet, he argued, as it has succeed in raising the standards of human rights across the world it is an institution that must be defended.
On the matter of the European Union Mr. Grieve proposed a similar argument; there is a lot wrong with it, but a “cost to benefit sheet” would demonstrate that it is worth keeping. He claimed dealing with the EU was frequently akin to banging one’s head off a door; a door that’s dysfunctional and riddled with internal tension. However, he argued, that doesn’t mean we should leave all together, and the UKIP’s plans would potentially leave the country forced to take EU legislation without having a strong voice, as Norway are currently experiencing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the discussion took place during the General Election campaign and he was seeking re-election as a Conservative candidate, Grieve was very positive about the Conservative’s record in Coalition. When faced with questions criticising Cameron’s “bland” election campaign, Grieve claimed that he “admired” Cameron’s leadership abilities and the style was just his way of doing things, but he is totally committed to the country.
After some final questions from the audience, which mostly just picked up on points discussed earlier, the interview came to an end. It was an enlightening talk, with many refreshingly candid anecdotes and beliefs explored. The interviewers could have perhaps pushed him further on some points because he did neatly avoid several trickier questions about the Conservative’s time in coalition, but it was good to hear first-hand from a man at the heart of the British government for five years.