21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 7

Sir Geoffrey's aims

The Solicitor General occupies a curious position in any government. He is a Law Officer, a title conveying a certain distance from ordinary politics. But, unlike his colleague the Attorney General, who prosecutes for the Crown but who is, if his advice has to be sought, responsible to Parliament rather than to the Government, the Solicitor General is an active politician, charged with expounding and defending government policies in their legal dimension. He is not a member of the Cabinet; and he runs nothing that can be called a government department: yet he still has a massive brief. I saw the present incumbent of the office, Sir Geoffrey Howe, at Blackpool. He is chubbier than he has been for some time, but as physically indefatigable as ever, full of argument and intellectual decisiveness into the early hours. When I got back to London I looked up five major speeches Sir Geoffrey has delivered since last June. None of them was reported at all adequately.

Sir Geoffrey has two favourite texts Which it is his practice to discuss in the light of politics. The first is an inscription from the walls of the Old Bailey, "Right lives by law and law subsists by power." The second is Bagehot's distinction between the useful and dignified parts of the constitution, particularly with reference to that great journalist's most Conservative observation, "Other things being equal, yesterday's institutions are by far the best for today." Both dicta express his intensely conservative and slightly authoritarian soul. But they are intellectual formulations, required to live side by side with an equally emotional and intense commitment to reform, change, liberty. To the re-conciliation of the two his energies The most interesting of his five speeches is a long discussion of Britain's future in the EEC — considered as a political, cultural and legal rather than an economic institution — delivered to a London meeting of the Centre International de Formation Europeenne, Here Bagehot is intellectually dominating. Sir Geoffrey is concerned more than anything else to assert the centrality of British parliamentary democratic practice for the enlarged community. One after another he finds the existing community institutions unsatisfactory. None of them, he believes, can match British institutions which "have been shaped by a process of gradual, organic growth, moulded of course by changing circumstances over time But essentially the process has been continuous." The question to be asked about Community institutions is whether they can — again Bagehot — "first gain authority and then use authority." The Solicitor General seems uncertain whether they can, unless British practice is followed.

Thus, while asserting himself to be a pragmatist, Sir Geoffrey nonetheless concludes emphatically that the Council of Ministers, the principal decision-making body of the Community, must continue to operate on a basis of unanimous agreement, rather than, as the wilder-eyed Europeans would wish, by majority vote. He is, then, serious in his determination to assert a British interest, and a British independence, in the enlarged community.

Such robust patriotism has its distinct appeal, even if it begs the question of why Sir Geoffrey's government refused to take any amendments to the European Bill which would have strengthened Parliament's role. That mixed assertiveness and shyness is very much a part of the Howe make-up. On Industrial Relations he is now essentially vague and futuristic about the potential of the revolutionary law he helped to draft; but on picketing, and the older law governing that, he is firm in his determination to punish those who transgress the law. On Women's Lib he is proud of the numerous ameliorative measures taken by his government to ease the burden on women of society, but rigid in his resistance to the revolutionary aspects of Women's Lib.

Because of this combination of adventurous spirit and conservative principle Sir Geoffrey seems to me a man who will be much more politically formidable now that the more fundamental reforms wrought by this Government are out of the way. He will also be a much more formidable Conservative; for the essence of his training and his intellectual character as moulded by that training is to defend, and to assert the values of defence. In the later phase of his career the reformist impulse which manifested itself in radical legislation is likely to be toned down to a decent humanity more in keeping with his real philosophy. At that point he might begin to look like a prime minister.