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Can the Secret Barrister tell the truth? This Centrist Dad is living in a fantasy

Are barristers all just Centrist Dads? Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Are barristers all just Centrist Dads? Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images


May 12, 2022   5 mins

“Actually the judge’s analysis of the applicable guidelines is wholly unimpeachable. You’re welcome.” Legal Twitter’s centrist bellwether The Secret Barrister heard your petit bourgeois whining about criminals being given nothing more than a slap on the wrist and is making noises on your lawn.

After educating the ignorant and correcting the mendacious on inefficiencies and unfairnesses in the Criminal Justice system these last several years, he now has two bestsellers and half a million Twitter followers to his name. But the big reveal in his new book is that he, too, was once a sinner. An “ardent Daily Mail reader” at university, we are told that “soft sentences infused me with fury”. Then he beat a path to the Criminal Bar. (“I’M GOING TO BE A FUCKING BARRISTER!” he screams in “uncontrollable hysteria” when his pupillage offer lands.) And, over the course of his early years in practice, he sees the light. Nothing But The Truth — his third book, and an autobiography of sorts — tells the story of a moral awakening.

Observing that his “new creed” is now “the dominant strain of ideology” in the profession, he suggests that “there is something that this job does”. In my experience, this is true: the human moral compass — a motley collection of powerful emotional heuristics — did not evolve to navigate the business of prosecuting and defending alleged rapists and murderers. Doing so can shift a barrister’s focus, I think, away from judgment and towards a Taoist acceptance of The Way Things Are.

But that isn’t what the Secret Barrister is talking about. Rather, he is looking to explain his conversion to Progressivism.

Of course, in trying to establish causation, he neglects the base rate: everyone has become more progressive in recent years — barristers, ballet dancers, even Daily Mail readers. Especially Daily Mail readers. An intelligent, aspirational middle-England millennial abandons cumbersome provincial baggage on his ascent to a high-status job: this is no revelation.

As the author himself acknowledges: “It may of course be that mine is nothing more intriguing than a tale of subconscious conformity. Of a weak-willed youngster uncritically devouring the ideological gruel of their industry”. He does this a lot: spiking an objection by caricaturing it only slightly — but enough to make it unattractive. Not quite a straw man then, but perhaps a wicker man. For a tricky plea-in-mitigation, you could do a lot worse than this fellow.

And if his swing-o-meter did shift more than most when he started blogging in the early teens of this century, a cynic might observe that that was when questioning the progressive orthodoxy became a hazardous enterprise among the professional classes, and when those in search of a large, publicly appreciative audience needed to pivot.

But the most disappointing misrepresentations have to do with class. At Bar School we meet the “Three-Piece Suit Wankers” who choose to wear “the obligatory public school tie” when everyone else is in jeans. In his early days in practice, our hero looks after a cocky work experience lad, “six foot three, public school tie” (that again), who in response to a witness’s pre-court question silences the SB with an outstretched palm and declares, “I’ve got this one”. The overbearing sky-scraper even boasts of his reliance on nepotism: “When fair and open competition did not bear fruit, a quick phone call from daddy straightened out any misunderstandings, he haws.”

Nothing But The Truth tells of applicants only a decade ago “whose lineage made it impossible for chambers to refuse them”; of the “institutionalised assumption that all aspiring barristers were born choking on platinum cutlery”; and of the “institutional reluctance… to ask ourselves whether it’s right, in the justice system of 2022, that blood remains thicker than water”.

Choose to believe this stuff if you want, but it is no more representative of the modern criminal bar than Mervyn Griffith-Jones in the Lady Chatterley trial talking to the jury about his servants. Any edition of Counsel magazine from the last 20 years will confirm that it is nothing like the truth. Public self-flagellation may serve some purposes, and yes, there is more work to be done. But public schoolboys encounter one another at court these days with all the noisy enthusiasm of former participants in an unsuccessful one-night stand, or veterans of an unpopular war.

The question arises, why paint this inaccurate portrait?

Well, the Secret Barrister is a creature of social media, and has become an avatar: reliably representative of mainstream opinion, or at least of the publicly expressed opinions of the minority of the profession which uses Twitter. His credibility and popularity has benefitted from endorsement by senior colleagues, many of whom are of a generation for which the struggle against a reactionary hegemony is slightly less mythological. Sticking it to the forces of conservatism is as much their obsession as his. Will Lloyd’s description of Centrist Dads comes to mind: “they still carry on like they are hated by an establishment full of port-soaked aristocrats and Thatcherites who want Nelson Mandela to stay in prison”.

There may be a more personal reason for him to take this line. It is evident that the author is clever, ambitious, and highly sensitive. Solipsistic, self-righteous, egotistical, timid, paranoid, brittle — these are all adjectives he applies to himself in the book, most of them repeatedly. If there is any truth in this self-deprecation, could it be that the only possible impediment to his professional success — nepotism — is a monster that takes on exaggerated proportions in his perception of reality?

And he does at least deploy his disarming postscript thing again: “Some of my alienation may well have been attributable to my own shyness and awkwardness, of course… All the grown-ups present… went out of their way to emphasise how welcome we all were.” Oh right. Perhaps the Bar isn’t so cliquey after all.

Class interests are persistent and mercurial, but exaggerating a problem doesn’t help solve it. One third of new entrants to the Bar attended private school. The national figure is 7%. Even allowing for applicants on scholarships and bursaries — and for the possibility that private schools currently provide, on average, a better education — this indicates a problem: privately educated candidates are surely not several times more likely to be the best person for the job. If exam results are not a reliable guide, it can be difficult to work out who is the best, but it is in Chambers’ interests — and society’s — to do so. What is not in society’s interests, or working-class candidates’ interests in particular, is to entertain Twitter liberals by giving the false impression that the Bar continues to operate like a 19th Century Guards’ regiment.

There is an interesting collateral effect, though — perhaps entirely subconscious or coincidental. All this tilting at the dwindling number of dauntingly privileged colleagues, the lamentations about “pompous regalia” and “pageantry”, the chin-stroking about what people make of us “swigging our port from outside the stained-glass windows” — it all has the side-effect, does it not, of reminding “the public” just how very special and important we are?

An image of this type — of little crowds of ordinary people at the gates of Lincoln’s Inn Hall, collars up against the cold, pressing their noses to the glass and peering in at all the Learned Counsel as they swig port in their finery — is, I am quite sure, one that gets much of “legal Twitter” through the day. For what it’s worth, most practising criminal barristers attend their Inn for a fancy dinner a handful of times over the entire course of their career. There is no need to think, much less talk, in this way.

And I wonder if the Secret Barrister himself is tired of the alter ego. The latest book contains snippets of new information, surely not all invented, from which a determined researcher could, I expect, identify him. Perhaps that’s the plan. Strictly, Have I Got News, the Labour benches, Sir Keir’s Lord Chancellor perhaps?

In this sense, his perspective is representative: many of his colleagues have dreams beyond the bar. Huge numbers of criminal barristers have left the profession. Those who remain now find ourselves refusing to do sub-minimum-wage work. There will never be votes in it, but as the crisis in Criminal Justice deteriorates, perhaps the Government will yearn momentarily for a minimum level of administrative competence. It feels slightly heretical to knock the Secret Barrister — he’s raised much awareness of this issue — but some of us wonder whether it might be time to change the tactic of endlessly shouting “LIAR!” at Justice ministers.


Adam King is a criminal barrister at QEB Hollis Whiteman.

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Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

With no university education I practised at the bar for 33 years and never encountered the sort of snobbery the secret barrister enjoys writing about. I think the man has a chip on his shoulder and makes stuff up. Either that or he writes what he thinks his readers expect to hear.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

It’s a pity he didn’t concentrate on the inadequacy of some of the post-war Judges. Wheatley, Denning, Hoffman, Saville and others, spring to mind!

Stephen Magee
Stephen Magee
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Denning was close to the most overrated judge of the 20th century.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Magee

Only exceeded by Hoffman, it must be said.

Andrew E Walker
Andrew E Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Magee

Would you care to give some examples? Denning had one of the most brilliant intellects of his generation.

Andrew E Walker
Andrew E Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Did you not appreciate Lord Hoffmann’s judgment in Mannai? And what was wrong with Lord Denning’s judgment in Todd v British Midland Airways? It would be helpful if you gave examples of what you claim are inadequate judgments. If you include Hoffmann’s decision in Lawson v Serco, I’d agree with you.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I have become viscerally anti-progressive over the last 15-20 years.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

‘Will Lloyd’s description of Centrist Dads comes to mind: “they still carry on like they are hated by an establishment full of port-soaked aristocrats and Thatcherites who want Nelson Mandela to stay in prison”.’

Exactly this. There is a certain type of centre-lefty who can talk about ‘The Establishment’ without a hint of self-awareness. It’s all so tiresome.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

One of the things that Hans Rosling was able to demonstrate in Factfulness was how even people working in universities and charities were many decades out of date in their perception of the actual facts of world poverty, life expectancy in third world countries etc. It takes many decades for people to adjust their stereotypes even when they are intimately involved.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jeremy Bray
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. – Upton Sinclair

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

If I ever need a criminal barrister I’ll be sure to avoid the London sets. The Secret Barrister demonstrates that they clearly have too much time on their hands. Instead of brushing up on new case law or cleaning their tiny Temple room, they’re tweeting about how much they hate their whiteness, or why English law is a tool of colonialism.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Thank you for a beautifully written and thought-provoking article.
I have read the Secret Barrister and I didn’t find it beyond-the-pale woke at the time, though it seems that since he wrote that first book he has swung further into self absorption and conformity.
There is likely a selection bias in the publishing industry which means a conservative Secret Barrister will never be published.
People, in other words, who have gone through the reverse transition (and I have spoken to some of them), would likely not conform enough to the current orthodoxy to get a publishing deal.
Perhaps it is like I sometimes jokingly say to my friends: “When I get rich I plan to become leftwing”. It may be a case of that – finding success professionally means that he is drawn to finding success with the establishment.

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

“There is likely a selection bias in the publishing industry”
I have taken a solemn oath only to read novels by white men until the publishing industry starts publishing novels by white men.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Fortunately, there are a great many which were published in the past – plays and poetry, too.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Heh. Me too.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 years ago

“When I get rich I plan to become leftwing”.
Nice one, Hayden!

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

There was the splendid “Animal QC” a few years ago.

Michael J
Michael J
2 years ago

SB has that well-honed disdainful and sneering attitude of the progressive twitter class. They know what is best for you as they are your betters and they are more decent than you because they hold all the right opinions. I find them nauseating.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael J

Don’t eat them if they make you sick 🙂 Srsly they (+ the judiciary/police as a whole) are a danger to ordinary working people and if they don’t straighten out on their own history has a habit of forcing their hand.

Michael Follett
Michael Follett
2 years ago

I have not read his books, but I have followed him on Twitter for several years. Similarly, I do not know much about what it is like to be a barrister, but I recognise when someone is performing to an audience. He comes across as intelligent and well-educated, however I find him cynical and insincere. In my opinion, like most Liberals and now Progressives, he sees the benefit, in his case financial, to broadcasting his own virtue and condemning others for their shortcomings.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

After I left school, I never wore my old school tie, because it wasn’t favourable sartorially, and never perceived any other advantage.
In the intervening years, the situation then arose whereby I came to think it would be extremely disadvantageous. That was at least 50 years ago.
The numerous progressive broadcasters and writers have built a mental image based on stereotypes so widely and repeatedly described that it is instantly recognizable to those not in a position to truly know, and capable of arousing prejudice and envy. By doing so, they acquire cheaply the virtues of integrity, courage and compassion, and along the way, also employment, royalties and reputation.

tom j
tom j
2 years ago

It’s probably worth pointing out that nobody becomes a criminal barrister for the money, so it will probably attract the progressive types. The guys making the big bucks are doing the commercial cases.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago
Reply to  tom j

I suspect they do okay anyway

Jonathan Glass
Jonathan Glass
2 years ago

I thought it was a woman, not a man.

Anne Copley
Anne Copley
2 years ago

Interesting that you and all commenters assume the Secret Barrister is a man.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  Anne Copley

True women can be selfish puffed up drawling public school morons BUT in my exp men are far more likely to adopt that persona. I think its a coping strategy for insecurity and low intelligence, both academic and emotional. I’d bet 10:1 on that its a man.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago

Thankfully i have limited experience in the courts: had one brilliant Barrister who really did the whole Atticus Finch in his defence and saved me a heap of trouble. The three other times were one each of witness, plaintiff and defendent. Won 2 lost 1, but in each case the Barristers were arrogant, foolish dramatists who i wouldn’t employ to sweep the floor. Part of their schtick seems to be ham RP accents and Bertie Wooster mannerisms. On a more serious note one managed to convince a judge that an inner car panel can be damaged from the outside whilst the outer skin remains perfect. Whether its just the arrogance of privelage or lack of education there needs to be a way of controlling these characters, even a primitive legal system would be a start because it seems there are more “secret barrister” types than genuine operators. There are two solutions to a failure of civil law – martial law or anarchy. These puffed up popinjays would fair as badly in the one as the other.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

As a juror I recall the trial argument that a black gun may not have been seen lying on top of a radiator if the radiator was painted black, with no claim that the radiator was painted black.
Some anti- police jurors of limited intelligence actually accepted this argument! They were quickly disabused by my asking how many black radiators have they seen in their life, with the sarcasm carefully hidden.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

“Of a weak-willed youngster uncritically devouring the ideological gruel of their industry”. Well. He certainly proved that’s true, given that he refers to himself in the plural.

Paul Watson
Paul Watson
2 years ago

‘Centrist Dad’ is such a lazy idea. Would be a better article without it

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

He’s not a barrister when blogging he’s an activist.

john o'donoghue
john o'donoghue
2 years ago

The hilarious irony of an article bemoaning conformity spawning a comment thread full of conformity. Is this a parody?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

Yours, of course, shines with originality and wit.

David Hammond
David Hammond
2 years ago

A young man from a provincial middle class background gets to Oxbridge from his comprehensive. Studies law, becomes a barrister. In his forties he explores a judge’s role. During this procedure he is asked an optional question: “Did you attend an oxbridge college?” He chooses not to answer this question knowing that it will be used against him. His hard work and success do not recommend him.
The system penalises those who might be “privileged”. Not sure what the “secret barrister: is on about.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Hammond
Tim Smith
Tim Smith
2 years ago

I thought his identity had already been made public a few years back by Guido Fawkes?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

Zzzz

anthony seymour
anthony seymour
2 years ago

Firstly, I find that his and Clive Coleman’s (the BBC’s legal correspondent) opinions on law seem to coincide a lot . (Is that a coincidence’?) His/ Her opinions on law are very populist. Such as guilt by accusation and whether ‘not guilty’ means innocent (In Law) I would welcome an open discussion on these points and I am available to take part in these discussion whenever they take place.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago

I think a good start would be to study how much the system that created “barristers” etc can be traced back to any theories of jurisprudence from Lex Talionis through Sharia to Hayek/Crowley and their “do what thou wilt”. It seems they don’t even have the logical base of the last one. Until “guilt” can only be established via inquisition of facts you can forget revenge, reparition and rehabilition through the courts. What is on trial is not facts but a person’s social standing, skin colour and personal habits. This works a bit as a deterrent by causing law abiding people to fear the courts & police, but doesn’t put committed criminals off at all.

Anton van der Merwe
Anton van der Merwe
2 years ago

As someone who is obsessed with evidence it is very difficult to be enthusiastic about either side of the political spectrum. Both sides studiously ignore evidence when it does not support their views. One difference is that the right are aware of the fact that they are doing this. I am not sure whether this makes it better or worse.

Delia Barkley-Delieu
Delia Barkley-Delieu
2 years ago

Well, that rather scathing article has made me want to read the book.
I’m all for the puncturing of pomposity and for things to be said ‘like what they are’. I do like straight talkers with at least one food grounded in reality. I have little truck with Centrist Dads and their ilk. We all know we will be blighted with a damning ‘ist’ label should we dare ‘speak our truth’. (OMG…I hate that term…self-flagellation after cocoa.)
The Secret Barrister serves a purpose. I’ve no idea what goes on in the Inns of Court and the only bar I’ve ever been drawn to will serve me with a stiff G&T or a decent beer. However, “Bravo” I say for highlighting there are still many who delight in wearing the old school tie and enjoy the many privileges it will bring them decades after they’ve left school. I’ve yet to hear a barrister speak as if he was born and bred in the east end of London so let’s have some realism here. Well done to those who make it without the aid of nepotism or financial privilege. There’ll be some, but not many.
I raise my glass to the Secret Barrister. If he does have a ‘chip on his shoulder’, so what? Don’t most of us? I could open a fish and chip shop and never have to buy a potato. In a world dominated by left-wing media we desperately need an outlet and some perspective. I wish him well.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago

I came to the criminal bar after a career elsewhere. I got half way through The Secret Barrister before sentencing it to a community penalty by donating it, in aliis ruderibus libris, to a charity shop. A little satire there, Latin is no longer used. It is easy and lazy to write about the Bar as if it were a 1950s Boulting Brothers comedy, where everyone dresses for dinner or Carry on Up the Steps where Sid James is a wily clerk and Barbara Windsor runs the court list office. The Bar, in particular the criminal Bar, is a hard working, essential industry suffering from a top down inability or reluctance, to adopt modern working methods. Defence barristers should be able to effectively withdraw their labour, the work of the law should not involve 2 confused and competing professions (solictors and barristers) scrambling for the same work and the ridiculous garb required of the barristers (who actually appear in court) should be axed. But these core ideas of challenging the old ways are not dealt with well in the author’s works. A central problem is that the British public enjoy the theatre and drama of productions like Rumpole or recently on Netflix, Anatomy of a Scandal. A survey some years ago asked court users if wigs and gowns should be dropped. An indicative 98% of witnesses, defendants, jurors, professionals, admin staff, reporters and the public gallery wanted these relics kept! This sort of thing explains the sales of The Secret Barrister’s books and why we have a Rumpole figure as a Prime Minister. .

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
2 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Maxwell

A good, informative post – but other than being an overweight, middle-aged, henpecked Oxford grad, Horace Rumpole bears no resemblance to Borisconi that I can see. Rumpole has ability, integrity, a passion for justice, a deep love of English literature and shows little career ambition.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

Good point, thank you. I have done Horace a disservice and John Mortimer would be spinning in his grave at the association! I like Borisconi.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

They 
 who must be obeyed. At all times.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Just take a look at the names published at those called to the bar… 20 % or less are British.. watch this space.