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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 12:32 GMT
Profile: Lord Goldsmith
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith
Lord Goldsmith has a background in commercial law

The days are probably gone when a barrister could carve out a successful legal career while also keeping his footing on the ministerial ladder.

So, it was not a shock that Lord Goldsmith had no experience of Westminster politics when he was appointed Attorney General in 2001.

Much has been made of the fact that he had no background in international law. Has this made him more vulnerable in the contretemps over his Iraq advice?


It is difficult to think of any post-war attorney general who had any real experience of international law, apart from Sir Hartley Shawcross, who prosecuted at the Nuremberg Trials.

The ability to master a brief capably and speedily and to use sound judgment are the essential qualifications for the job and Lord Goldsmith's years as a commercial silk certainly trained him to do that.

Dual role

His appointment was also lubricated by his involvement with the Labour party, if mainly at ward level.

Despite the intense focus on Lord Goldsmith's opinion on the legality of the Iraq war, advice to the Cabinet occupies only a fraction of his time.

His in-tray is more likely to be full with issues concerning the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney, himself, is required by statute to be the final arbiter on a range of criminal prosecutions, from incitement to racial hatred to contempt of court.

This role, too, has its controversies.


During the recent ricin trial at the Old Bailey, for example, it emerged that the Attorney had warned his then colleague, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, about comments on terrorism which might prejudice the court case.

The current furore over the Iraq advice has highlighted the way in which political and diplomatic pressures can bear down on an Attorney.

For, surely, it is the 10 days of intense activity on these fronts which explain why his opinion, given on March 17th, was unequivocal when the view on March 7th was evidently not.

Political connection

In the 1970's, the dual role of the Attorney as lawyer and politician was called into question by Sir Hartley, then Lord Shawcross.

He argued that the combined function offended against the separation of powers.

However, others believe that the political connection is precisely what equips the Attorney for his main role.

Professor Jeffrey Jowell, of University College, London, said: "Lawyers insulated from the political world may not be the best people to decide matters where the public interest has to be taken into account."

Lord Goldsmith is certainly not insulated from the political world - even if he wished he could be. It is a moot point whether he will still be part of it after the election.


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