Category Archives: Academia

The Society of Legal Scholars in Dublin

Well it was a special thing to give the After-Dinner talk at the Society of Legal Scholars  Conference in Dublin last night.  Here is the hall being set up and full as it was last night it is a glorious space. The conference itself is being held at UCD where I was a student many years ago and this is the first occasion the Society has ever held its annual event outside the UK. All very moving for me.

Inevitably I talked about Brexit and argued that in Ireland there is a special obligation to assist the UK at this hour of terrible need. (As those of you reading this who know my work will know I am an ‘extreme remainer’!)  Ireland’s common law traditions and its long close association with Britain (or do I mean quasi-colonial domination?) will post Brexit make it a powerful bridgehead between a declining Britain outside Europe and the rest of the EU.  To be effective, it is vital that somehow or other Irish-British relations survive the horrible years of rupture that inevitably lie ahead, so that when common sense returns the Irish are ready to assist.

Is this unduly provocative? Or patronising?  I don’t think so. In the speech I identified six arguments for BREXIT, and found none of them persuasive.  The first three are more or less the same: Brexit proponents frequently explain themselves by attacking the EU (either (i) ‘it is corrupt, venal, hopeless’ or (ii) ‘it is about to fall apart’) or (iii) attacking the people in favour of remain (‘liberal elites’; ‘experts’ etc) as out-of-touch with the people.  None of these positions is an argument. They are just ways of changing the subject since all might be true but the question of whether the EU is so important that the costs – if they really exist – need to be accepted is as a result of this shift invariably dodged. The fourth (‘taking back control’) has been laid to rest by the Government itself whose key white paper has admitted that parliamentary sovereignty was in truth never subverted by the EU but that ‘it just felt like that’. The fifth – the people have spoken – is another procedural trick to avoid any discussion of substance; deployed by the other side it would render all argument after the 1975 referendum illegitimate, an idea that would have been rightly rejected by all those pushing for the more recent referendum.  Democracy is by definition about fluid decision-making. The sixth argument is the strongest – we need to disrupt everything to make progress. Brexit throws all the cards on the table, the game of Britain begins afresh – all will be fine even if there are short term hiccups.  Maybe.  But how things will be fine and what fine will mean are never defined.  This is some risk to take with a people no longer able to rely on colonial territories for the easy accumulation of wealth.

Sinn Fein means ‘Ourselves Alone or ‘We Ourselves’ in English.  How will the UK enjoy being the new Sinn Feiners?  Not very much I confidently predict.  That’s when the old Sinn Feiners (of all contemporary political persuasions), now confidently cosmopolitan, will be needed to help rescue a country drifting aimlessly ever further out into the north sea.


We the LSE guerrillas take our stand against the lack of creativity and imagination in university teaching today.  Why must class be scheduled in the way it is?  How are lectures to be treated as fresh and lively if they take place at the same time and in the same place on a regular basis, and deal only with topics that have been anticipated, set out in advance and generally drained of life?  What is this about disciplines, as though the world were segmented into silos – marked LAW, ECONOMICS, SOCIOLOGY and so on – and not the messy confusion of rival ideas that it is in reality? Why do some humans claim a greater right to teach than others based simply on the arbitrary title PROFESSOR – good at school and afraid to leave it for real life, all that they now bring to others is prejudice amplified by wider reading.

Agreed at our inaugural meeting two years ago, the Guerrilla Manifesto

  1. deplores the concept of the pre-ordained in teaching;
  2. demands that all ‘teaching’ engagements be SURPRISE INTERACTIONS WITH LEARNING;
  3. calls for teaching that is SPONTANEOUS, UNEXPECTED, MYSTERIOUS and therefore MEMORABLE;
  4. recognizes as teaching only that work in which KNOWLEDGE IS CO-PRODUCED BY ALL THAT ARE PRESENT: truth is no longer the preserve of the priest, the learned or the ostensibly ‘qualified’ – humanity is our qualification, voice our common means of communication.

Our first action after issuing our Manifesto was to identify a useful idiot, a conduit through which to channel our ideas.  We settled on CONOR GEARTY (under whose name we write this piece) for various reasons: he had just started a new Institute at LSE and was therefore more vulnerable than most, having something to prove, a rationale for his Institute’s existence that he needed to demonstrate; his presence on Twitter and his access to the levers of power within LSE communications, allied to his perceived status within the organization ( ‘a full professor’ – what a pompous comedy!) made him  someone through whom we could work; and by allowing him to believe the Guerrillas was his idea (easily done) we have secured his commitment to something that is in truth way beyond him.

Our first strike was in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral: the first thirty LSE workers (students? professors? staff? – we recognize no such distinctions!) in a flash queue in the new academic building were guided to a grubby street in Westminster when at a preordained time they entered a dark and dank passage that lead beneath the Cathedral to a Holy Place where, surrounded by the tombs of cardinals, they debated the MEANING OF HELL, in the company of the School chaplain Jim Walters, a sociologist of cults  Eileen Barker and an anthropologist with a specialism in humanism Matthew Engelke.

Next up was Highgate Cemetery. We took possession of it one Summer evening when it was ostensibly ‘closed’ (albeit not to the guerrillas!) and after our LSE people had wandered this mysterious place of death we summoned them by bell to the graves of Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, frowning at each other across a gravelly path, the one a great revolutionary, the other a cheerleader for social Darwinism. Leah Ypi and Tony Giddens debated their merits, both school people immune to status however high they rise and natural sympathisers therefore with the Guerrilla agenda.

Our most ambitious action was our last.  Just a few weeks ago we took possession of LSE Director Craig Calhoun’s apartment (magnificent; opulently overlooking the Thames) for a debate about wealth and higher education.  Calhoun himself was not in though his partner was – her tweets from the upstairs study alerted the Director and on arriving home at 9pm he found us still in deep debate – Nick Barr, Tim Leunig – both faculty workers – were joined by the Student Union’s Nona Buckley-Irvine, and a group of LSE people brave enough to have taken a ticket to an unknown destination one miserable February evening.

Brothers, sisters, trans-siblings: this is just the beginning! As this last action shows, we are growing in confidence, drawing nearer and nearer to the full levers of power.  In education what is power? Not knowledge for we deny there is such a thing, but rather the networks of influence and opportunity that the ostensible search for knowledge at the right place brings.  The right place is LSE, top ranking, international, hugely influential.  If we can realize our Manifesto here we can achieve anything, anywhere. And even if we do not what does our failure leave: memories of unexpected discussions for those courageous enough to have sought them out; debate about topics on which we feel strongly but of which feelings we knew nothing before we had the chance to explore them. If this is failure then we devotedly hope that more lectures and classes should fail more often. Death to routine!

On Being Distinguished: A Story About An ‘Influential Lawyer’

I first heard I was among The Times ‘Top 100 Lawyers’ on Twitter.

I don’t read the paper, in fact have always treated it as a polemical tract only lightly disguised by learning, so I might never have known. (Not many of my friends read the paper either.)

But there I was, my eleven letters and space among the 140 characters in an enthusiastic Tweet.

One of the ‘Top 100’?

I was excited, and also intrigued. Where was I in the Pantheon? My pulse raced. Maybe even ‘Top Ten’? And what did they say about me? Perhaps there was a profile, interviews with grateful students from the past, a picture even! My mind raced to construct the sort of praise that would finally do me full justice. And deliciously, who was not on? One hundred was not very many – letters of sympathy to the disappointed were for a nano-second of triumphalism forming before me as a real option: ‘Dear Geoffrey, I was so sorry to read in The Times of your omission from the list of top lawyers. I think that is quite wrong, or at very least they should have included the next 100. Let me just say that had I been asked I’d have certainly offered my place to you. Yours, Conor’.

But where to get the paper?

It was late. Left any longer it might disappear into that black hole which is yesterday’s news. I headed off with the dog, eventually finding and buying a copy, but furtively, eschewing my usual (and already purchased) Guardian and reaching into the tabloids as though I were buying Playboy or Penthouse and not the Old Thunderer itself. Good it had the law section; great there was the article – hold on – it’s a bit short. Let’s get home.

Disappointment awaited.

The ‘paper’ paper only had the greatest hits among the 100, the Shami’s and the Brenda Hales, the household names and not the whole bunch. To get these, readers were directed to The Times web-site, which I already knew was hidden from public view, protected by a ‘fire-wall’ demanding payment for entry. I ran upstairs, credit-card in my hand, intent on buying that day before the day ran out – surely only a pound or two.

It wasn’t as simple as that. Reading The Times’s home-page felt like being assailed by a computerised Big Issue vendor crossed with a snake-oil salesman.

You couldn’t buy one; you had to buy a package, involving The Times – possibly for weeks on end, maybe for ever! – and potentially much else besides. There was one moment when I was a button away from Sky’s supreme package which would have led to a Dish on the roof the next morning and cycling live from Budapest in the afternoon. (This was before I had heard of Bradley Wiggins.) None of it was as cheap as buying the newspaper in a shop. I wavered. What was it to be: the minimum package to get at today’s paper, or forget the whole thing. At that very moment I learned something important about myself: I am more mean than I am big-headed. I left it.

That is not to say I did not brood.

Why on the web, with more space, my profile might be longer, even more fulsome, the picture finer?

And the nagging thought I might be ‘top ten’ ate away at me.

Eventually I hit on a plan. I asked the Press Office at LSE (which I knew must be a subscriber) to find and send me the article. Brilliant: money saved and ego massaged. As The Times didn’t allow electronic escapes from their prison of news, this meant I had to wait for an old-fashioned print out to reach my LSE box via the internal mail. The tension!

Eventually the internal envelope arrived, thinner than I’d have expected for an article detailing the talents of one hundred – perhaps they had sent me just the bit about me?

No, this was it.

No organisation of names into any particular order. Just a jumble of people, some I’d heard off some I hadn’t. And there under G, me – and the single explanation for my appearance: ‘Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, LSE’ – a job I gave up three years ago. Horror: I shouldn’t have been there at all! Never mind, no one reads the paper and if I keep quiet my secret is safe.

A month later I had to pitch for a pay rise, as do all profs at LSE on an annual basis. In filling in the form I tried to remember what on earth could justify me getting more money for the job I love doing anyway. Yes, that’s it, I am a top 100 lawyer. I am ashamed to say I put it in. And yesterday I got the letter declining to give me the extra money I didn’t deserve anyway. Never mind, the letter was as warm and gentle a rejection letter as you are ever likely to get: ‘The accolade of recognition as one the United Kingdom’s one hundred most influential lawyers brings great credit to you personally and to the School.’ Good job they don’t read the electronic Times either.

Liberty and Security

Conor Gearty, Liberty and Security (Polity Press, forthcoming)

All aspire to liberty and security in their lives but few people truly enjoy them. This book explains why this is so. In what Gearty calls our ‘neo-democratic’ world, the proclamation of universal liberty and security is mocked by facts on the ground: the vast inequalities in supposedly free societies; the authoritarian regimes with regular elections; and the terrible socio-economic deprivation camouflaged by cynically proclaimed commitments to human rights.

Conor Gearty’s book is an explanation of how this has come about, providing also a criticism of the present age which tolerates it. He then goes on to set out a manifesto for a better future, a place where liberty and security can be rich platforms for everyone’s life.

The book identifies neo-democracies as those places which play at democracy so as to disguise the injustice at their core. Nor is it just the new ‘democracies’ that have turned ‘neo’; the so-called established democracies are hurtling in the same direction, as is the United Nations.

A new vision of universal freedom is urgently required. Drawing on scholarship in law, human rights and political science this book argues for just such a vision; one in which the great achievements of our democratic past are not jettisoned as easily as were the socialist ideals of the original democracy-makers.

Should Academic Lawyers Want To Be Understood By The General Public?

There was a dispiriting moment in the Q and A session after Professor William Twining’s excellent address to the Society of Legal Scholars last Thursday, on the need to foster the public understanding of law. An academic colleague described how the business of writing his academic treatise meant he had little time for other, non university stuff, dealing with the media for example, or making submissions to a parliamentary body on a matter on which he is expert. But how many people will read your book, was Professor Twining’s reply – and it was left rather hanging in the air.

At a time when the public purse is being so closely scrutinised, do those of us who make a living off the taxpayer in the higher education field not have some sort of obligation to explain what we do? After all I get a lot more money than an MP, and it strikes me that my accounting for it should include learned books maybe, but well-prepared teaching and efforts at public engagement for certain. Surely there are enough hours around to be able to teach say an average of four or so hours a week (over the year) and write a few words a day for the tiny circle of readers of the specialist stuff, while also being able to help colleagues run the Department and still having enough time left over to be able to engage with the general public as and when the opportunity arises?