October 12, 2021

For a certain sort of American liberal, the former Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become an icon. That word is now grossly overused — everything is “iconic” today — but appropriate in its original sense (a symbol of devotion, to be venerated) for the secular worship of “RBG”. Images of Ginsburg can be bought on sweatshirts, mugs and other mundane items, usually showing her “trademark” lace collar.

Ginsburg-worship is just another way to proclaim your place on the political and cultural spectrum, but it might actually have changed American history. In 2013, just as RBG memes were becoming popular, Ginsburg was urged by some supporters to step down and allow President Barack Obama and a Democratic Senate to appoint a younger liberal replacement. Then aged 80 and suffering recurrent cancer, she refused. She died in office in 2020, allowing Donald Trump and Republican senators to tilt the court, and American life, away from her values. Did enjoyment of fame contribute to her decision? Never mind the dangers of judicial vanity: there are T-shirts to sell, and virtues to signal.

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Some people clearly dream of turning Brenda Hale into Britain’s RBG, a pioneering feminist lawyer and cultural symbol. These are people who spend too much time online and have #FBPE in their Twitter bio. A couple of years ago, many of them added spider emojis, too, in tribute to Hale: she is best known for wearing a spider-shaped brooch while ruling, as president of the Supreme Court, that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament — a crude attempt to “get Brexit done” — was unlawful. In the days that followed, people seemed more interested in this “coded statement” — this “secret message” — than the unambiguous ruling, which marked the culmination of Hale’s stellar legal career. She retired not long afterwards and has now written a book that her publishers evidently hope will appeal to all those people who obsessed over her “power dressing”.

I suggest that this is her publishers’ hope because Hale doesn’t seem particularly keen on this attempt to turn her into a celebrity. Her book suggests an author somewhat resistant to the narratives that are being enthusiastically imputed to her.

One of those narratives is of social mobility and possibly even class struggle: however did a girl from a little village outside Richmond in Yorkshire (not, she says early in the book, “the sort of place where you would expect a top judge to grow up”) reach the Supreme Court? Yet Hale’s origins are hardly humble. Born in 1945, she is the daughter and granddaughter of Oxbridge graduates. Her father is head of a boys’ grammar school. Her parents take the Telegraph, invite neighbours for sherry after church, and send the handyman to collect Hale and her sister from school at lunchtime so they don’t have to eat with the village kids.

Serious, diligent and ferociously bright, Hale progresses to Cambridge with neither difficulty nor trepidation. She rightly notes that this makes her part of a tiny minority: only 4% of school-leavers went to university at the time. She also says the transition to university didn’t faze her, because this was just what her family did: it was normal. So much for that class struggle, then.

Meanwhile, Hale pays only the most superficial attention to wider issues of access to the legal professions. She offers a rose-tinted view of today’s law school as places that mean people who would never have dreamed of becoming lawyers in the past can now do so. And yet, they undeniably remain bastions of privilege, much of it inherited. The sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Lauriston calculate that the children of lawyers are 17 times more likely than other kids to become lawyers. A 2020 study by Bridge Group and the University of York concluded that “the legal profession remains dominated by individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds with students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds half as likely to attend the top English law schools as other students”.

Still, Hale seems better placed to discuss struggles not of class but of sex. Her success as a female lawyer in a male-dominated establishment is remarkable, and she deserves to be held up as a role model. But again, she seems reluctant to play the part. Her book has a striking opening, in which she writes frankly of suffering “imposter syndrome” at numerous points in her impressive career. But this candid author then quickly disappears behind a fairly dry account of her career progression. Having been set up to tell the story of a determined woman who rose to the top in the face of male chauvinism, Hale sometimes makes becoming a top judge sound almost easy.

In her telling, the closed male legal establishment actually looked after her rather well. She becomes the first ever female member of the Law Commission, despite not actually applying for the role — a more senior lawyer on the Commission nudges her into it. She becomes a judge after the traditional “tap on the shoulder” from a senior official. Further promotions sound smooth and painless. Occasionally she’s annoyed by anachronistic masculine judicial titles, silly remarks from colleagues and daft old dinner-table traditions that exclude women. But her book isn’t a tale of institutional sexism.

That’s not to say such bias doesn’t exist, and didn’t figure in Hale’s career. Rather, Hale isn’t giving us the whole story here; she often seems reluctant to talk about herself, her experiences and feelings. Her personal life is largely absent. The end of her first marriage, after 24 years, is mentioned only obliquely. Her daughter gets a handful of mentions, but there is no account of how she combined family life with a demanding job. The book is subtitled “A Life” but it would be better to say: “A Career”. Influential men, of course, when they write their memoirs, aren’t expected to explain who was looking after the kids while they were conquering the world — but given that so many women find their careers hindered by family responsibilities, Hale might be a more accessible role model if she’d addressed the subject.

That career has been driven by a truly formidable intellect — it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Hale’s rise demonstrates the old adage that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to achieve the same. But her refusal to talk about herself blunts her ability to explore sexism in the legal establishment. She’s more comfortable talking about her cases and the law itself. This is generally done dispassionately, though she reflects intriguingly that her time as a family court judge was largely spent “oppressing” women.

Perhaps she’d rather not be defined by her sex, but it’s hard not to think, reading her memoir, that an entire book by Hale on how and where the law fails women would be fascinating — and powerful. But that book wouldn’t include the prorogation case, Brexit or that spider brooch — the things that made her properly famous, and therefore the things most likely to sell copies.

Focusing on them, though, is to forget that Hale was a public figure for decades. During that time, she figured occasionally in newspaper reports. Not all of them were positive, and this rankles — she recalls not just unfriendly Daily Mail headlines about her, but the page numbers and reporters’ bylines (“On 23 October 1995 there was a front-page article by Paul Harris”). In a rare display of emotion, she says such personalised coverage is “distressing”, but insists the greater worry is journalists’ failure to understand her legal thinking.

Was this memoir written as the last word, then? Somewhere behind the veil of judicial dispassion stands a human being with the same frailties as the rest of us — including vanity and inconsistency.

Both of these are displayed in Hale’s account of the prorogation case. To my mind, the Supreme Court’s ruling was a good one, re-establishing Parliament’s constitutional primacy, and deserving of ongoing attention. But how much do we need to know about the people who gave that ruling? How much do we gain from learning that Hale wrote her findings from her house in Yorkshire, and that one of her fellow judges did the same in Sicily?

Hale herself insists that the legal principles are what really matter here — and professes exasperation with public focus on her appearance in court. “What I was wearing that day is not important,” she declares, shortly after telling us what she was wearing that day, including the spider brooch and its history. Despite her exasperation, she appears rather pleased by the people who buy T-shirts with a spider logo or wear spider badges “to show their support”. And then there’s the title of her memoir, Spider Woman, which features the famous brooch on the front cover. Hale may not like that attention on her outfit and jewellery — something a male judge, surely, would never experience — but she’s content to use it to promote her book.

Is there a touch of vanity here? I suspect so, but I don’t say that as a criticism: we are all vain creatures, and there’s no shame in that. Even the most august and dispassionate of judges may succumb to the urge to show off a bit — fame has a terrible allure. To plug her book, Hale has been doing the media circuit of broadcast and print interviews, alongside authors, actors, and influencers. And even before the prorogation case, she heard the siren call: in 2018, she appeared as a judge on Masterchef. This is the age of celebrity, and everyone’s invited, even judges. Indeed, in her book, Hale make the case for diversity on the bench by arguing that judges must look like the society they serve. Perhaps they ought to be selling themselves, on Instagram or TikTok, to ensure that young people engage with the law and relate to those who uphold it.

Then again judges are arguably the closest thing we now have to Plato’s Guardians, a group that comes from society but still sits apart from it, in order to make decisions in our best interest. We don’t really need to know what they think or — worse — how they feel while they dispense justice. And the more we know about them, the more likely we are to disagree with them. Familiarity breeds distrust. The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be a cautionary tale to British judges, not an inspiration. For every American who adores “Notorious R.B.G.” there is one who distrusts liberals in the judiciary. It is better for public trust in our institutions if impartial public servants keep quiet than if they make themselves more “relatable” figures, a lesson that a certain former House of Commons Speaker has sadly ignored.

I’m wary of imputing thoughts to Brenda Hale, but I wonder if she, too, is in two minds about the wisdom of a senior judge courting celebrity. Perhaps that explains why her book is stuck somewhere in the quagmire between fully revealing autobiography and impersonal legal history.