Warm, clubbable, avuncular, human – these are some of the adjectives that can be applied to the left-wing barrister John Mortimer. They don’t canter to mind, however, when attempting to describe that other high-profile left-wing silk – and champion of the Bradford Twelve, Bridgewater Four and five of the Birmingham Six – Michael Mansfield QC.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find oneself sitting upstairs at the chambers which Mansfield founded 13 years ago in London’s Took Street – at a symbolic arm’s length from the Inns of Court – listening to the man brooding upon the dream he had last night. In it, Mansfield is running to catch a train which is to take him to a conference – held in a canteen – but the suitcase he is carrying slows him down. He misses the train and decides to walk there. Everyone else is moving faster than he, and the gravel in the pathway is getting deeper – until it’s like ploughing through thick snow. The briefcase is getting heavier and heavier, he’s going to miss the conference…
It’s all in there: vulnerability, insecurity, the desire to please, the urge toward nonconformity (according to arcane ritual, barristers shouldn’t carry briefcases). And the canteen touch is masterful. It’s almost as if someone had whispered in Mansfield’s ear that it’s endearingly human to have anxiety dreams – that they show there’s more to you than the cold detachment of your public persona – and so he’s rather chuffed about being able to deliver an archetypal example. All right, so the dream is work-related, which makes it rather less revelatory about the inner man than one would have hoped. But it’s still a good dream, by any standards, and it has taken two hours of ruthless cross-examination to coax it out of him.
That’s not strictly true. Interviewing the radical conscience of the Bar does not really involve much in the way of hard questioning. Point a tape-recorder at him is like turning on a tap. And, while Mansfield spouts, you’re at liberty to have an out-of-body experience if you want – a wander over to the window, perhaps, to watch the comings and goings of the young, multi-racial, red-brick-university-educated barristers who gravitate instinctively toward Mansfield’s democratically run chambers like spermatozoa to an ovum. Every half-hour or so, you have to return your body to flip the tape over and brush away the cobwebs that have formed on the upper slopes of your motionless mouth. But otherwise the room is yours to snoop around in as you will.
The monologue seems well-rehearsed – the official version of the rise and rise of Michael Mansfield – but a rather clever oratorical device is assumed to keep it from sounding stale. Although Mansfield has a firm, confident drawl well used to carrying across courtrooms, he puts an unreal emphasis on arbitrarily selected words, as if running on weak batteries that can only occasionally muster a power surge.
Thus, when he’s telling you, unprompted, about the incident that inspired him to become a barrister, he will say: ‘My mother, who was the most law-abiding person you could ever meet, was wrongly arrested for parking too close to a pedestrian crossing. She fought it and won because, in true Perry Mason style, there was a surprise witness. My father. He had been sitting in the car. The policeman hadn’t noticed him. That was it for the boys in blue because, even when she gave her version, they wouldn’t back off. They just stood up there in court and lied.’
Occasionally, Mansfield will vary the lurching pace of his speech with an impersonation you suspect has been honed down and polished by many years of crowd-pleasing at Islington dinner-parties. When discussing the iniquities of land-mines, for instance, he will offer a passable Nicholas Soames: ‘Of course we can all see limbs blown orf. But that’s missing the point.’ And when explaining how, in the bad old days of the Sixties and Seventies, confessions used to be regarded as the best kind of evidence, he will tuck his thumbs under his lapels and assume the voice of a doddering old judge: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what better evidence can there be than the words coming from the lips of the defendant himself? Can you imagine why anyone would want to confess to such a heinous crime?’
While all this is going on, you are given a chance to study his unconventionally handsome face. At 55, Mansfield looks how you imagine Sylvester Stallone will look when he’s 65: bulging eyes, hooded above and bagged below, the loose skin of one who has lost weight, a nose that looks like it might have taken a useful left hook at some juncture, and a bouffant of greying hair that trespasses over the collar at the back. The body language is magnificent. Most of the time Mansfield assumes a Paxman-esque slouch, with the occasional forward shift to rest his chin on a veiny hand. What he never does, however, is make eye contact.
This is a technique of his in court. While speaking, he will close his eyes as if reading from an autocue on the inside of his lids. For the party of the second part it feels like sensory deprivation; after two hours of this isolation treatment, I would have confessed to anything.
Research has shown that given the right circumstances, almost anyone will confess to something they haven’t done. Can Mansfield imagine a situation where he would be forced to confess? ‘I suppose I can really, if pressure were put,’ he says. ‘If you were in Nigeria, say, and you’d been questioned for seven days, the isolation and uncertainty would probably get to you.’
This is why Mansfield believes no prosecution should be allowed based solely on an uncorroborated confession. On the shelves in his office there are ranks of red, yellow and green lever-arch files which support this argument, for they chronicle those cases of miscarriage of justice which Mansfield has made his name fighting. One file reveals how he claimed that two West Midlands police officers had forged one defendant’s signature on a fake statement in order to persuade another to confess to the killing of Carl Bridgewater. In February this year, three of the Bridgewater Four were released on bail, after serving 18 years in prison (the fourth, Patrick Molloy, died in prison in 1981). Three weeks ago they were acquitted.
These files, these cases, are what inform Mansfield’s call for sweeping reforms of the judiciary, the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service. In 1993, following one of the cases – Mansfield’s successful appeal on behalf of five of the Birmingham Six – it looked as if he might get his way. However, the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice – set up in response to that trial – did not offer the reforms for which he had been campaigning. Indeed, much to his chagrin, it was the Commission which took up the idea of restricting the right to trial by jury – something the then Home Secretary Michael Howard eagerly encouraged – as quid pro quo for its overall support for the maintenance of the right to silence, something which Howard had been against.
Mansfield believes that both rights are sacrosanct. It was with no little irony therefore that in another high-profile case earlier this year Mansfield found himself questioning men who took advantage of their right to remain silent with a sneer. He was representing the family of the murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence. The collapse of the inquest meant that a video of the white defendants and their friends, which was secretly shot by the police, was never shown to a jury. In the film, recorded by a camera and microphone hidden in a plug socket, one of the accused men was seen brandishing a knife and boasting to a group of white youths of his desire to maim and kill black people. It made for sickening – and for Mansfield frustrating – viewing. Again three weeks ago, however, Jack Straw announced that there was to be a wide-ranging inquiry into the death of Lawrence. It is a testament to Mansfield’s ubiquity that the announcement was made the day after the acquittal of the Bridgewater Four.
Now that Michael Howard is yesterday’s man – and liberal-minded, anti-Establishment barristers everywhere have been deprived of their bogeyman – you would imagine it is time for the outsider Mansfield to come in from the cold. After all, New Labour is awash with lawyer types sympathetic to the Mansfield mission to overturn every unsafe conviction: there is the prince of champagne socialists himself, John Mortimer; there’s the new Lord Chancellor and friend and mentor to Tony Blair, Lord Irvine of Lairg; and, of course, there’s the Prime Minister’s wife herself, Cherie Booth QC. Surely the Establishment ground has shifted enough for even Mansfield to feel comfortable with it? Not quite. During the election, Mansfield’s chambers raised £1,250 in support of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party for a candidate to stand against Jack Straw in Blackburn. Although Mansfield himself has always voted Labour, on 1 May this year  he hummed and hah’d and was tempted to put his cross against the more radical Lib Dem candidate’s name. In the end he stuck with Labour and now concedes that he is cautiously impressed with Jack Straw’s record so far.
‘But he’s on the same pitch as Howard,’ he qualifies. ‘Jack Straw’s playing the same kind of game with the same kind of balls. The politicians have a unspoken club and it needs someone from outside to force them to look at the British legal system anew. I have always avoided organisations. They corrupt people and bring with them power structures and jealousies and you find yourself not talking about the issue but going over the minutes. I suppose, in this respect, I’m an anarchist.’
There are other ways to describe this man. When you canvass opinion about him, certain words recur. Ambitious is one. Vain another. Arrogant and chippy also crop up more than once. Fellow barristers are wont to sigh heavily at the mention of his name (although, tellingly, they usually go on to speak of his achievements, and his integrity, in tones of begrudging admiration). His trouble, as far as the Bar goes, is that he’s not ‘one of us’. Instead of being flamboyant and urbane in court – as barristers tend to be – he doggedly nibbles away at a subject. He will frame his arguments in a systematic, rhetorical, almost proddingly forensic way: abruptly make a point, ask bullyingly if witness, judge and jury agree with it, give it a mental tick and then develop the next phase. Sir Frederick Lawton, the former Lord Justice of Appeal, accused him of obstinate behaviour that exasperated the court. ‘Not a congenial advocate,’ he once sniffed of Mansfield. ‘It never does your client any good.’
On a personal level the suspicion seems to be that he is too good to be true, and too, well, smug about being it: all that liberal posturing, the riding to work on a bike, the vegetarianism, the holidays in the spiritual home of New Labour, Italy – it’s just too much to stomach.
His domestic image isn’t so polished, however. In 1992, he parted from Melian Bordes, his first wife, and five children, then married Yvette Vanson, a TV producer, with whom he has a son. Although the second marriage is going smoothly now, 18 months ago there were reports of an extramarital affair. Mansfield says it caused a great deal of distress and anxiety for which he is deeply sorry. So there you go.
Professionally, the resentment probably stems from Mansfield’s ability to combine a hectic career at the Bar with his second job as a media lawyer who writes for newspapers and pops up every week as a panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. The most unforgivable things about Mansfield are that he doesn’t seem to mind what people think of him and, worse, that he somehow manages to wriggle out of the right-on civil-rights lawyer pigeonhole. He can’t disguise the sneer in his voice when he talks about politicians, for instance, but when you ask if there are any that he does actually admire and respect he will say Tony Benn, which is what you expect, and Ted Heath, which isn’t. In addition to all this, the man has the gall to have a hinterland: he plays the drums – jazz mostly – well enough to have been in a band at one time and, for the past year, he has been taking piano lessons to boot. His father, a railway controller at King’s Cross, died unexpectedly from cancer at the age of 62, before he had a chance to get to know his teenage son well. He did, however, have time to teach him the drums and encourage him to take piano lessons from a teacher who, bizarrely, always wore white gloves and galoshes. The trouble was, the young Mickey Mansfield objected to being taught Strauss instead of Duke Ellington. In an act of petulance, he took a kitchen knife and stabbed the middle C wire on the piano at his home.
Some might say this wistful side of Mansfield’s nature has continued into adulthood. One legacy from his childhood which definitely has is his romanticism. As an eight-year-old he was obsessed with The Defenders, an American TV courtroom drama from the Fifties. ‘The heroes, a father and son duo, nearly always lost their cases,’ Mansfield recalls. ‘But they did it with great style. It was the struggle for justice that excited me. Unlike in real-life courtroom dramas, the stories always had a clean beginning, middle and end.’
He doesn’t believe, though, that this formative influence led him to glamorise in his adult imagination the role of the barrister as noble righter of wrongs – even if he has given his own authorised version a neat beginning, with the incident in which his wronged mother fought the law and won. ‘I don’t see it as a particularly glamorous job,’ he says. ‘But I do see it as providing an avenue of justice for someone who is vulnerable who wouldn’t otherwise have access. When I joined I suppose I was in the vanguard of a new approach. At the time you weren’t meant to identify with the client. You were meant to stand back and be objective, like a surgeon. But I believe you should have feelings. That helps you relate to a client.’
Evidence of the romanticism of his childhood – his image of the lawyer as the man in the white hat who comes to the rescue of the underdog – surfaces when you ask him which case he is most proud to have been associated with. ‘It would have to be the defence of the Orgreave miners – ordinary working men striking to save their community – in 1984. They stood their ground.’ During the trial, Mansfield went with his family to live in Yorkshire on a farm overlooking the Orgreave mine – he had to be there for the trial, but he also regarded it as a chance to see first-hand the social effects of deprivation. Method defending, Daniel Day-Lewis would call it. ‘It made me think there was another England I had never seen before,’ he says in a rather unguarded confession of class ignorance. ‘Families would have sold all their furniture and have nothing much to live on apart from charity. Yet I would come out of their houses thinking, “My God, they gave me more than I gave them.” Amazing courage.’
Mansfield often refers to courage. It’s what politicians need, it’s what judges lack, and it’s what Mansfield believes he’s got in taking on the Establishment. After all, it’s what enables him to empathise with his downtrodden clients. But doesn’t getting too close, being too sympathetic, ever cloud his judgement? ‘No,’ he says. ‘The passion makes sure that you keep your eye on the real issues that are behind the case. You have to start thinking as the defendant might think and this helps you put questions you might otherwise not have thought of.’
He says he is often moved to tears in private – ‘especially when there is a conviction of one for whom I have fought very hard. I suppose the way I deal with it is by channelling it into anger,’ he says. ‘I’ve always felt anger is the most important emotion. It keeps me going. It’s like when I didn’t get into university, anger made me want to do something about it.’
After Highgate School, Mansfield did go to Keele University to study philosophy – but only because he refused to accept his initial rejection and turned up unexpectedly on the admission tutor’s doorstep. The tutor was so impressed by his determination, he offered him a place. Mansfield was called to the Bar at the not-very-progressive Grey’s Inn, in 1967, but not before he had doggedly retaken his Bar exams after first failing them.
Sometimes, he says, he can find himself shaking with anger. ‘Anger can help you focus. Give you clarity. It can also give you courage, well, maybe bravado is a better word. Sometimes you get to the stage, in a case where you think I must find something else.’ He clenches his fist. ‘There has to be an inner truth. I do find it gives me a feeling of where the weakness in the case really is. You begin to spot when you are reading statements that there is something funny going on here. This doesn’t fit. This doesn’t flow. This isn’t working. Something is missing from all these statements.’
It tells us much about Mansfield that his anger is invariably directed at the evil Mr Bumble of the Establishment rather than at the Oliver Twist of the accused: even when his personal involvement in a case is more than emotional. In 1973, in the first major case of terrorist explosions on the mainland, he defended the Price sisters – after one of their Old Bailey bombs blew up his own car. Its burnt-out shell was towed to his house in Hampstead. In the small hours of the following morning, Mansfield came downstairs, dressed only in underpants, to answer the door to two policemen who had terrible news for him: his car had been vandalised. ‘No,’ he replied with a yawn and a scratch as he turned to go back to bed, ‘it was blown up.’
He was also mugged once, only to find himself apologising for the mugger afterwards, arguing that he was probably a victim of his environment with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Does he ever worry that John Major might have been right when he said that we should condemn a little more and understand a little less?
‘Well, fundamentally, I have a positive view of the people,’ he says. ‘Not necessarily politicians – but ordinary people. The people who sit on juries. Because we are living in an ever more materialistic and polarised society, where there is an ever greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands, I think you can never have enough understanding for those vulnerable people who live in poverty.’
It is a shamelessly, refreshingly idealistic answer. And his idealism is symptomatic of his youthful outlook. In middle age, he may now suffer from work-related anxiety dreams. But in his heart, Mansfield is the boy who never grew up. In his daydreams he is still sitting in front of his parents’ television, watching The Defenders lose their cases romantically, heroically, and with great style.
This appeared in 1997. In 2001 Michael Mansfield unsuccessfully defended Barry George, the man convicted of the murder of Jill Dando. He did, though, come up with the quote of the trial when he declared that ‘the prosecution case is hanging by the merest thread.’