France à la Crossroads

Last week I made a much postponed effort to go to our house in the Dordogne to attend to some mundane business which could not be left to simmer any longer.

Having been overwhelmed with work in my London office and due to the difficulties that the book trade is going through at the moment, I was reluctant, at least for the past twelve months, to abandon ship so to speak and make the trip to France.

Although nature and the scenery are still as good as ever, a number of things have changed. Prices have risen; there is a general feeling that worse is to come and a noticeable gloom among the population that I haven’t seen during the last two decades. The present administration appears to have lost its way and the president has become a laughing stock, not only in his own country but the world over.

The gaiety that the French once had and the joie de vivre have suddenly disappeared as if oblivion has eradicated its every trace. As a result, people are less accommodating, more abrupt and less convivial. Nothing seems to work properly, as if chaos has replaced every aspect of French life. The government is in tatters and their monkey-in-chief is roaming the country in pursuit of his libido.

In days of yore such behaviour would have been inconceivable, whereas in an era noted for excess, we now perceive all this in great shock and with some acceptance; standards have fallen and people are lost in the melee of disorder and unaccountability which prevail.

France has always been a great nation which has survived tumultuous disruptions to its core civilisation, fought back and from the brink, rose again to become stronger and richer.

I have always appreciated France for its great contributions in a variety of artistic endeavours, primarily its wealth of literary achievements, so perhaps my sentiments have affected my judgement.

Notwithstanding, I remain bullish that the bleakness of France’s economic prospects will soon disperse and a glaring sunshine will once again invade the Gallic sky.

Unlike the managing director of John Lewis, and without my tongue in my cheek, I feel that France will overcome this present impasse.

Graham Leonard

Graham Leonard was born in London in 1921 and educated at Balliol College, Oxford of which he became an honorary fellow in 1986.

He was appointed bishop of Willesden in 1964 and bishop of Truro in 1973.

He opposed the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme in the 1970s, and as bishop of London (1981-91) he became the focus of theological opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood.

In 1994 Dr Leonard was received into the Roman Catholic Church and conditionally ordained as a priest by Cardinal Hume and was later appointed a monsignor by Pope John Paul II.

He died on 6th January 2010.

I interviewed him in early 1994.

This may seem a rather blunt opening question but can you distinguish for me between religion and superstition? I mean, what counts as one rather than the other? 

Religion must be based on how things are, on what the world is, on what Charles Williams would have called ‘the is-ness of things’. Religion must be based on reality, and supremely on God Himself from whom all that’s real has its origin. Superstition is based on what we would like things to be, even if they are not; in other words it is based on unreality.

But reality is something you normally feel and experience, and there are certain aspects of religion which don’t fall into this realm… 

I think I’d question that. It may be a reality we do not totally comprehend, but I would certainly not want to reduce religion to being concerned simply with how things actually are. The reality which we experience in religion is greater than our limited minds can comprehend, and this is the distinction I’m trying to make. There is a fundamental difference between our inability to comprehend God and aspects of our universe which transcended understanding, and our desire to base our life, our attitudes, on that which has no basis in reality.

When a private person leaves the Anglican Church and moves to Rome, that is a matter simply for the person himself…but you were a bishop and had the fullness of the priesthood. Did you not feel a fundamental obligation to those you had led for all those years? 

Yes, I did, but if it proves impossible to continue to exercise that fullness of the priesthood, you have an obligation to ask where you can do so. God was not withdrawing my vocation, but He was saying to me, you must exercise it somewhere else. I said that I would come to Rome ‘as a supplicant without presumption’ – that was my phrase – but I did lay down one condition, and that was that I could not be asked to deny my former ministry, however regarded. And that was made very clear, not only by the fact that I was ordained conditionally, but also because in the course of the service it was recognized that ministries outside the Catholic Church could be vehicles of grace. Obviously I gave a lot of thought to those whom I was, as it were, leaving behind, but given the situation in the Church of England, it seemed to me that one way forward was to accept the Roman claims and to seek to be received into the Roman Church; and it has been understood in this way by a number of people.

It must have been very distressing for many of your parishioners, however. Were you conscious of that, did you take full account of that in your decision to leave the Anglican Church? 

I’ve had a good deal of criticism from those who don’t agree with me, but I’ve also heard from many Anglicans who have told me they are now considering the possibility of doing what I have done. I really can’t think of more than perhaps one or two letters which have taken the line that I have abandoned my parishioners or let them down.

I suppose it must irritate you that so many people concentrate on your objection to women being ordained when there are other reasons for your decision to move to Rome. Before we get on to women priests, can you tell me something of those other reasons? 

They were set out very clearly, surprisingly enough, by the Church of England House of Bishops, who then didn’t attempt to deal with them, mainly because of the pressures of secular thought. But at the time they said that the issue affected our understanding of the nature of God, of the way He created the world, and it raised the whole question of the authority of the Church. Having set these issues out, they then didn’t take any notice of them. And so one of my great sadnesses was what I would call the theological levity of the Church of England in not being prepared to face these fundamental issues.

There are two popular views about the Anglican Church: one which sees its doctrines being modified to accommodate changed cultural circumstances; the other which thinks of it as being determined to be all things to all men (and now to all women as well), and that it really has no firm principles at all. Do you incline to either view? 

Not exactly. If you look at what happened in the Reformation in this country, it was above all an act of state. Henry VIII proclaimed himself Head of the Church and broke with Rome. The position of the Church of England emerged as a kind of response to what had been forced upon it by the state. It was never based upon a coherent theology of its own; it was rather an accumulation of responses which took three forms. First there were those who maintained that the Church of England was still Catholic, and that in spite of not being under Rome, it could still claim to be Catholic since some formulae of the Church of England were in fact designed to preserve certain Catholic elements. At the same time there was the Protestant element which came from the Continent and found a footing here, and the Protestants played a great part in modifying the various liturgies and service books produced at the time. And thirdly there were those whose commitment one might say was predominantly rationalist, though they didn’t really come to have such a profound effect until the 18th century. So there were these three streams coming through in the Church of England, and they were never really related. One hears a lot about comprehensiveness of the Church of England but it’s been a comprehensiveness of plurality, not of understanding. Way back in the late 60s and early 70s when the Anglican Methodists’ scheme for union was in debate, I pleaded for those in each strain to admit what was wrong and to take what was good in their understanding into a more cohesive whole. That’s never happened, and what is now clear to me is that the secular pressures are so great that this kind of approach just won’t stand the strain.

You have said that the Church of England cannot now claim to be anything other than a sect. Are you conscious of the fact that the view will be regarded as offensive to a great many people? 

With all due respect, I don’t think that was my quote, but John Gummer’s. I have fallen over backwards to try not to be offensive to the Church of England.

But is it a view you share…? 

Whether I would use the word sect is another matter, but I would say this: the Church of England in the past has claimed, in the words of Archbishop Fisher, to have no faith of its own; it has only the Catholic faith enshrined in the Catholic creed which is held without addition or diminution. It can’t say that any more. What has happened is that the Church of England to a large extent has become a communion in which it is required that you accept something which is quite explicitly rejected by the vast majority of Christendom. Before the vote was taken, both the Pope and the ecumenical patriarch for the Orthodox Church made it clear that this was not acceptable to them, they did not believe it to be part of the Catholic faith, and that if we pursued it and it went forward in this way it would cause great difficulties; but it still went ahead on its own and decided that in a matter of this gravity it could make its own decision. Now, whether you call it secret or not, the Church of England has now claimed in a sense to be autonomous. It has claimed that it can define by itself what is integral to the Catholic faith, and in that sense I believe it has isolated itself.

Many people will understand the arguments from tradition about the ordination of women, but is there a theological argument separable from the argument from tradition? 

I believe there is, and it’s very profound. In the first place Our Lord actually allowed women to be witnesses of the Resurrection at a time when the witness of a woman was not accepted by the Jewish people at the time. He talked to a woman at the well alone, and in many ways overturned the common practice of the time, but when it came to choosing his disciples and then apostles he chose only men. Of course it is commonly said that if Our Lord were alive today He would, because of our culture, do things differently. First of all, I don’t accept He isn’t alive today, but the fact remains that the culture in which God chose to become man was the culture He chose; it wasn’t an accident. And I believe that the whole of Scripture compels us to say that that particular culture, being the deliberate and free choice of God, has a significance for us which we cannot ignore. We can’t amend, we can’t alter the Christian gospel to suit each successive culture; that would be building on sand. Certainly the culture in which God became man was patriarchal, but I believe that was a fact of God’s choice…Our Lord came, as Scripture says, in the fullness of time, after a time of preparation. This for me is a very profoundly theological reason. There is also the question of representation. It is sometimes argued that in order for humanity to be truly represented in the priesthood, you need men and women, and you can’t have a true representation without both. But one thing that cannot be denied is that God was incarnate as a male person only. But if you say that you need both men and women to represent humanity, you are in fact saying that the representation of humanity in Our Lord is inadequate. To my thinking humanity is represented in both men and women who live in a relationship of complementarity, each bringing his or her own particular qualifications and characteristics and contributions in order that the whole of humanity shall operate in a healthy and proper way. To say that man alone cannot represent humanity is to raise some very fundamental questions about the very basic fact of the Christian gospel.

Is God male? 

To me God has no gender but He is the source of gender which He gave to His creation; in all His dealings with us He takes account of the fact that we are men and women. In so doing He tells us, for example, to address His as Our Father, and in Scripture we are taught to think of the Church as the Bride of Christ. There is the complementarity, and I cannot as a Christian think it is wrong to address God as Father because that is the way God has revealed Himself. This may sound very impertinent of me, but God doesn’t do things without reason, and yet this is always difficult for people to grasp. It is no surprise to me that when God became incarnate He was incarnate as a male person, and it is perfectly proper to say that although God is without gender in His Own Being, nevertheless, in the way He tells us to talk about Him, to think about Him, He tells us to use gender, because it’s part of the way He made us.

Does dogma or conscience have priority in church? Would you regard it as a Christian duty to believe what has been revealed by Scripture? 

Well, I promised to do that when I was received as a Catholic, but I have always attributed immense importance to the matter of conscience. I do not believe you can ask somebody to act against his own conscience; you must respect it. At the same time, and this is largely forgotten, it is a fundamental maxim of moral theology that our conscience is always in need of correction, it never points absolutely true to the north, it has to be corrected, and that happens when we live, as it were, under the judgement of dogma. When I look at the New Catechism, it is far greater than I can wholly encompass in my own limited mind, but I happen to live under its judgement. Dogma is given to us in order that our consciences may be cleansed, may be corrected, but meanwhile we have to act according to what our consciences are, and I don’t believe that it is incompatible to live in this way while accepting the truths of revolution.

But which has precedence – dogma or conscience? 

In the last resort, as Newman would say, it must be conscience, but you may have to accept the consequences of that. What I find so difficult is the people who say that their conscience tells them to take a line which is in fact quite contrary to the teaching of the Church but I think that they can still go on as faithful members of the Church. In my view, if your conscience actually tells you that you believe something which is quite contrary to what the clear teaching of the Church is, then it seems to me you have a proper course of action, which is to leave. What you can’t do is to tell the Church it’s got to alter its beliefs to suit your particular conscience at a given time.

How powerful in your mind is the thought that the ordination of woman to the priesthood in the Anglican Church will separate it from the universal Church as presented by Rome and the Orthodox? 

I think it has separated us in a very sad way in the attempt to be autonomous and the extent to which what I would call secular thought has been allowed to dominate what should be theological decisions. A lot of feminists, for example, not only advocate a liberal view within the Christian Church, but claim that the Gospel as traditionally presented is not compatible with feminism.

In the early Church, however, women are recorded as teaching the faith and it seems to have been perfectly accepted. Was the early Church wrong to allow this to happen? 

No. Women were given a proper part to play in the early Church, no doubt about that, and in fact I have pressed at times very strongly for women, who have particular gifts, to be allowed to develop in spiritual directions. But as far as exercising the sacramental role of the priesthood, the Church has been quite consistent in this from the earliest times; and where that has happened it has been condemned.

You have argued that if God had wanted women to be priests He would have made at least one apostle a woman, but isn’t it presumptuous to say what God would or would not have done? And isn’t it anyway a rather crude version of the argument, ‘if God had wanted us to fly He would have given us wings’…? 

I see what you mean. Well, it may be presumptuous to say what God would or would not have done, but what is important is to say what God did, and I can’t get away from that.

Yes, but if we accept your argument, then shouldn’t we perhaps take account of the Jewishness of the apostles? The Church ordains males who are not Jews, but Jesus didn’t…why concentrate on one aspect and not the other? 

Because for me the distinction between male and female is fundamental to all humanity; it is not simply a characteristic like Jewishness. I wouldn’t want to say that nationality is a second order issue, but I don’t put it on the same level as gender.

You said that women are not able to represent the maleness of Jesus in the celebration of mass. But isn’t there a case for saying that what matters is not Christ’s maleness but His humanity? 

I know that argument has been put, but if you say that humanity can be represented only by both sexes, you are saying something fundamentally destructive of the incarnation, because God was incarnate only as a male person. The Church is sometimes accused of denigrating women, and while that may at certain times in the past have been true, you only have to think of the position which has always been given in the Catholic Church to Our Lady to see that a woman has been extolled beyond measure.

But do you think feminism unduly influenced the decision on the ordination of women priests? 

Oh, it certainly did in some places, particularly in America, but also to a considerable extent in this country. A good deal of feminist literature which I’ve read sees the ordination of women as one of their aims in securing the acceptance of what I would call extreme feminist views.

You have sometimes said that women would take things too personally, would be too emotional to be effective, and so on. But would you not allow that this might also apply to some male priests, their maleness notwithstanding? 

I don’t remember saying that, though I wouldn’t deny it. I think there is a fundamental difference between men and women in the way they deal with problems. That isn’t to say that some women don’t have a more masculine approach, and some men may well have a more feminine approach, but it is vital that the basic distinction is recognized and not blurred.

It’s only comparatively recently that women have been allowed to vote, or indeed go to university, do you think you might also have opposed these changes at the time? 

I don’t think I would. Looking back over my life, I have consistently tried to distinguish between what I would call fundamentals, basic truths, whether a revelation or something else, the other things which might be subject to change. The idea, for example, that my highly intelligent wife couldn’t vote would be most offensive to me.

Even though you don’t see them as being analogous issues, don’t you think that in the fullness of time – as is happening now in the Anglican Church – they will be seen as comparable, and women will come to be accepted in the priesthood, even in the Roman Catholic Church? 

I don’t think so. The last apostolic letter of the Pope makes it quite clear that it is not on the agenda in the Catholic Church. Until recent years the Church of England said it maintained the Catholic faith, not by exercising an authority of magisterium but by the contributions of worship and teaching, from which the truth would emerge. Well, it may be possible for scholars and holy men to do that, but that won’t happen with the ordinary person in the street who does not have the facility for doing that kind of assessment of the truth. I mean, I use my word processor but I don’t pretend to understand it for a moment how it works, but it doesn’t prevent me from using it, and to some extent that applies to theological thought. What is very worrying in the Church of England is the fact that when synodical government was introduced, nobody realized what was actually happening. There is a most extraordinary provision which gives the General Synod power to make doctrinal changes. The clause says something like this: that the General Synod shall not pass anything which is contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England or indicative of a departure therefrom. That sounds all right, but the next sentence goes on to say, but if the Synod shall pass anything that shall conclusively determine that it has not done anything which is contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England or indicative of a departure therefrom…in other words the Synod can do exactly what it likes, and the formularies of the Church of England no longer have any authority. This confirmed what I had always feared, that the General Synod could change the formularies, it could change the creed if it wanted to, it can do anything.

Since the Roman Catholic Church has held out against married priests, and you yourself are married, does this not mean that in effect you are undermining the authority of the Roman Church on this question? 

That is a very fair question, but I would say first of all that the celibacy of the clergy is of course a matter of discipline, not doctrine. After all St Peter was married, and in the Orthodox Church you either have to be married before ordination or be a monk. I did of course discuss this issue with Cardinal Hume, and there has never been any suggestion that because some of us have now been accepted as married priests, that this is altering the discipline. Any ex-Anglican, for example, who seeks to be ordained de novo will have to accept the celibacy role. What applied to me was an ad hoc decision for a particular group of people at a particular time, and it has been made very clear by both the Cardinal and by Rome that it doesn’t alter the overall position of the Church.

Do you think the Roman Catholic Church has gone far enough to accommodate Anglicans like yourself? 

All I can say is that the welcome I received has been overwhelming. I thought that I would be given a period of what I would call decent reticence, but it hasn’t worked like that, and I’m being asked to go round and talk everywhere.

Do you think that the Roman Catholic Church is right in not allowing priests to marry? 

I think there is a great deal to be said for it. I don’t yet feel that I know enough about the internal life of the Roman Church to be able to make a judgement, but we are living in an increasingly secular society, and the pressures of that society are becoming greater upon us. It is very hard to think that it’s right to bring a wife into the kind of pressures under which a priest now has to live. I would think it is probably wiser in the present situation as it looks like being for some time ahead for priests not to be married. Also when I was in the Church of England and dealing with married candidates for ordination, it was very difficult to discern whether the wives or fiancées were really going to be able to live in that public relationship to an ordained man in the future, especially if they were relatively young. How are they going to respond when their husband is having to stand out for things which they personally find difficult to accept? This puts an enormous strain on the marriage, and this makes me feel the present discipline of celibacy is the wisest thing.

You have strong views on the indissolubility of marriage. No one would underestimate the problems arising from broken marriages, but given that they are a fact of modern life, which not even the royal family is exempt from, how best can the Church respond? 

In this matter I believe the Catholic Church actually behaves very wisely. On the one hand, it stands foursquare for the indissolubility of marriage, and on the other it is as understanding and flexible as possible in concrete incidences.

But a lot of people accuse the Catholic Church of being flexible only when it comes to the rich and famous… 

Well, I wonder if this is true. I have heard that said but my experience, limited as it is now, is that if the rich and famous get some nullity or invalidation, it does of course hit the headlines. A lot of simple good pastoral care is given to individuals who wouldn’t come into this category, but their cases do not attract publicity.

You yourself have been marries for 50 years, and your wife is known to share your views. But your wife was content to give up her career to look after you and the children, to take a role secondary to yours. Would you have been happy if the positions had been reversed? 

I’m not sure that I would agree with your description of it as a secondary role. What I constantly realize, looking back, is the extent to which she supplemented my role. That sounds a rather condescending way of putting it, but I’m very conscious of how many people speak of what they owe to her for the friendship she gave, for the fact that the house was always open for people. What she has been able to do, particularly as a hostess, has been very significant and it certainly has satisfied her.

You are quoted as saying that sexual experience is not essential for a full life. How did you arrive at that view? Isn’t sex at the very basis of humanity, an experience of great beauty and joy, and indeed a gift from God? 

I would agree with all that. My remark was made in the context of those who were saying that it was wrong to seek to control sexual experience. Also, if you say that sexual experience is an absolute necessity for a full human life you are in fact saying that Our Lord did not live a full human life. There is no evidence that Our Lord had sexual experience, it has never been assumed that He did, so to me it hits the incarnation fundamentally. Besides, some of the most saintly people I’ve met in my life have not been married and they are such people that it is inconceivable that they would have had any sexual experience, and yet they have been able to direct and canalize their extraordinary gifts in a most remarkable way.

What are your views on homosexual priests? Should the Church show them compassion? 

My line on that has been quite consistent. I make a distinction between being homosexual by disposition and indulging in homosexual genital acts. I cannot accept that the latter are right and good, but at the same time I have always taken the line, particularly when I was Bishop of London, that you cannot assume, just because two men are living in the same house, that they are indulging in homosexual genital acts. People used to write to me and ask, what are you going to do about so and so? And my answer was always, what reason is there for me to do anything, what evidence do you have that they are in fact living in a physical relationship, and of course they could never produce this. On the other hand, if a priest said to me, I am living in a physical homosexual relationship, I would say, that is sinful and you must give it up.

Are there still core doctrines, without adherence to which you cannot legitimately call yourself a Christian? 

That’s not an easy question to answer at the moment. I see the Catholic faith as a whole, but nevertheless if you press me on that point I would say that the cardinal doctrine is that of the incarnation, that Our Lord is truly God and man both. And I would want to go further and put the Resurrection in the same category. But I prefer not to isolate doctrines and give them degrees of importance.

The Church of England seems now to be irrevocably divided. What future do you see for it? 

I don’t know. I try not to speculate about the Church of England or give advice to it. Some indication will be given by the debate which is going to take place soon on lay celebrating of the mass. If that is given a fair wind I think it will be a clear indication that the Church of England is irrevocably committing itself to being at one with the Protestant bodies, because it would be so subversive to the Catholic structure of the Church. In other respects it’s difficult at the moment; I don’t think anybody really appreciates the significance of what the Church of England has done.

To outside observers it can seem a little strange that on the one hand there is a mood to encourage the ecumenical approach, yet on the other hand there are more and more obstacles put in its way. Why has this come about? 

That’s a very interesting question, but it doesn’t have an easy answer. Even in my lifetime I can remember the Anglican Methodist proposals for a union, or the times of the covenanting proposals as they were called a bit later on, and the great cry then was, we must do nothing to prejudice unity. It was also said that we must do nothing apart that we can’t do together. All the emphasis was on unity, but that’s gone now. As one bishop said at the Lambeth Conference in ’88, no price is too high to pay for the ordination of women – it doesn’t matter what divisions it causes. So there’s been an extraordinary sea change here, and the prospects of any kind of organic union between the Church of England and the Church of Rome are just not on the agenda.

Politicians are keen to confine clerics within a moral enclosure where they can do no harm – even the Pope is keen not to have his clergy engaged in political action. How can the Church mediate effectively between God and Mammon? 

Again there’s no easy answer to that. I myself have been fairly intensively involved in political issues of one kind or another, but while the Church must involve itself with politics because it is concerned with human beings, those who hold official positions in the Church of England should make it quite clear that Christian commitment forbids them from giving total allegiance to one particular party interpretation, something which politicians find hard to understand. They must first and foremost be Christians and exercise judgement according to the issue.

Is it possible that in the future Christians may have to be content with a version of ecumenism which is more like a confederation, a group loosely allied by subscription to a central doctrine whose sense is not too closely defined…in other words a bit like the Church of England in fact? 

I think there is a certain amount of truth in that. People forget what an extraordinary change of attitude has taken place, even in my lifetime. When I was first ordained in 1948 churches had very little to do with each other. I can remember how we were told by the Catholic Church that we couldn’t even say the Lord’s Prayer together. Now the relationships have totally changed without any question of visible unity arising, and I think you’re probably right: for Christians divided as they are, for them to live together in harmony, to listen to one another, without compromising what they see as their essential beliefs, that is the future for the foreseeable period.

A very small proportion of the country’s population, something like 6 per cent or 7 per cent, now regularly attend Christian worship. Do you think it will be possible to re-engage the nation spiritually? 

It should be, and I think that is something one simply must work for. The only way it is going to come about is by the recovery of a genuine spirituality among the present worshippers, so that those who do worship draw others to themselves. I certainly can’t see this happening by any dramatic moves or legislation. It may happen of course, such is the way of human history, by the situation within the Church becoming much more difficult. It’s one of these ironies of the history that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Can you explain exactly how you felt when the General Synod voted in favour of the ordination of women priests? What was the predominant emotion…anger, betrayal? 

Neither. It was relief. I just felt, well, thank God the issue is resolved now, because I had already come to see the way things were going in the Church of England. I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to go on with this battle any longer.

Your protest against the move to ordain women priests caused a great deal of embarrassment to the former Archbishop of Canterbury…do you regret this? 

I regret that it was necessary. I did try and make my opposition as far as possible principled rather than personal, but I do regret that I had to stand out in the way I did.

You have also been critical of the present Archbishop, Dr Carey. Do you think he abandoned Anglicans like yourself? 

I don’t really want to comment on the present Archbishop of Canterbury. I would simply say this: I think he seriously misjudged the position of those who share my views, and I do find it quite extraordinary that he should imply that neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Church has the mind of Christ.

There are those who claim that you would like to have been Archbishop of Canterbury yourself and that you feel disappointed that you were passed over. Is there any truth in that? 

No, there’s not. I didn’t expect to be, and I was even surprised to become Bishop of London. Looking back, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for me to have done that job, since I would question the theological basis of the Church of England anyway. Let me put it this way – I don’t really see how I could have coped as Archbishop of Canterbury while obeying my conscience.

You have upset quite a lot of people in the Church of England and perhaps because of that you have sometimes been described as a man with delusions of grandeur…how do you react to that? 

I just laugh at it because I honestly don’t think I am. I know that phrase. What people never can understand is that you can be totally devoid of delusions of grandeur but at the same time hold very firm opinions.

You have now retired, but if you had been a younger man, would your position in the Roman Catholic Church not have been very unsatisfactory? It seems unlikely that you would have been recognized as a bishop… 

I don’t know, that’s an open question. Rome made a decision about my priesthood, and I was ordained conditionally, but I made it well known publicly and privately that at the age of 73 I did not want to exercise Episcopal functions. But I am able to exercise all that I wish in terms of my priesthood: I can say mass, I can hear confessions, I can preach, I can minister to the sick, and that is more than enough for any man. And I feel no bitterness towards the church I left; only sorrow.

A Childhood Fantasy

As a boy, I had spent most of my time shut away from the world by well-meaning parents who fretted constantly about my frail state of health.

Adopting a strange form of escapism, I fantasised about being a general directing my troops on the field of battle and being saluted according to my rank.

Three decades later in Abu Dhabi, following my founding of the Al-Manara Trading Company, I found myself at the helm of a small outfit consisting of former officers from the British army and one ex-Royal Navy officer.

All were employed by Al-Manara and its subsidiaries and I was their chief. The naval man was Mike Mackinley, and the others included Mike Brennan, a former army man who was in charge of Falcon Enterprises. This was a sister company of Al-Manara, which was engaged in entrepreneurial activities to do mainly with contracting.

The irony of it would have eluded any observer of the scene, but for me they became the little army of my dreams. My forces were engaged not in conflict but in battling on the highly competitive field of commerce. Their brief, as pioneers in a region that was rapidly meeting the challenges of a modern economy, was all-embracing.

They were accustomed to inhospitable conditions in rough terrain and had the discipline to adapt to whatever they came up against. The problem-solving skills they had learnt in their forces careers were carried across a completely different set of circumstances.

Best of all, the local inhabitants took to them and they seemed able to blend with any sort of background.

Whenever I flew in on one of my monthly visits to Abu Dhabi, my little platoon would be there to meet me, drawn up at the airport. They would greet me in the manner taught by their training, evoking their previous military roles translated into civilian courtesies.

It was for me as if an innocent dream, born out of sheer frustration, had turned itself into a fragment of substantiality, allaying any resentment I might still be harbouring about my lost childhood.

It’s lovely to evoke childhood memories later on in adulthood, especially if converted into near reality.

The Sex Siren to Watch

Cara Delevingne is a news magnet.

Whatever she does, wherever she goes, she’s followed every step of the way – unabashed and undeterred by the publicity that shadows her life so meticulously that nothing remains covered, even within the intimate confines of her privacy.

Her sensuality is so strong and varied that she freely admits playing for more than one team. And what a devastating player she has proved to be.

She’s never short of lovers, was close to Rihanna in the past, called Rita Ora her ‘wifey’, and has had an on and off relationship with Fast and Furious actress Michelle Rodriguez.

And now, as the picture shows, she has developed a new and deep friendship with Nicki Minaj.

The attachment is such that the pair have been talking almost every night since they met in Paris. Nicki has apparently been giving Cara advice on everything from music to relationships.

As we well know, Cara is a fast learner who has of late expanded her activities to embrace film – even an ambition to become a pop star.

A multi-talented young lady who has captured the headlines in a variety of roles, and made hearts flutter irrespective of gender.

I find her a woman erotically fired whose horizons are limitless. I hope that she won’t let excesses ruin her life, as she has the potential of much greater things to come.

I wish her well, for although she works and plays hard her determination is invigorating and worthy of our admiration.

The News Grabber

President François Hollande will certainly be remembered as the most accident prone of any of his predecessors but also incapable of restraining his sexual activities, which seem to attract the French media on a constant level.

The sequence of events involving his private life keep cropping up after being deemed to have expired, or at least assumed by the public to have had its time. His off and on romance with the actress Julie Gayet is back on the menu. She has been seen strolling hand in hand with the pesident, as love birds do, in the garden of the Élysée Palace.

According to Closer magazine, which first revealed their love affair in January, Gayet has stayed for ‘sleepovers’ recently at the presidential palace and on a sunny afternoon last month, it claimed, they enjoyed a picnic on the lawn.

But then the bombshell of Valérie Trierweiler’s book hit the headlines with the ferocity of a mistress scorned, whose every thought regarding this president was spat out with rancour by describing him as a cruel figure who makes fun of the poor and is far from being their declared champion.

Apparently this kiss and tell book has, according to Closer, united Gayet and the president, sheltering their rekindled love behind the high walls of the Élysée.

Gayet last week appeared at the Beirut Film Festival where she is serving as president of the jury.

‘When Hollande is in the capital and when her job does not take her into the provinces or abroad, Julie joins her beloved in the Élysée Palace every evening,’ said the magazine. The palace staff are apparently not surprised to see her.

As for Trierweiler, she has already earned 1.3 million euros from her notorious book which is about to be published in Britain.

Despite both scandals, it seems that Hollande is in general a sex flop with most French women who would not want to sleep with the president according to a survey published recently by La Parisienne magazine.

The politician most women would want to bed is Françoise Baroin, the youthful-looking former finance minister under Nicolas Sarkozy. However, the sexiest is Arnaud Montebourg, a former economy minister whom Hollande sacked in August for criticising him.

It seems, particularly in France, that every cloud has a silver lining. You lose on one front to gain on another.

I wonder whether British women would want to sleep with any of our politicians. A survey can tell us things we are unaware of and will possibly shock us into a state of uncharted awakening.

In the absence of such a survey why not ask the readers of my blog to fill the gap and give us a clue?

Thought For the Day

No one would have thought that 2014 will turn out, so far, to be a milestone of violent upheavals in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe, making the return of the Cold War more a possibility than people would have ever dreamed of.

The interlude, following the dismantling of the Russian Empire and the unification of Germany, was a clear sign that world conflicts were now at a much reduced ebb as nations got used to the tranquillity of a peaceful coexistence where trade and camaraderie flourished among old enemies, and geographical borders were eased to make interchange among peoples as the best way to achieve international cohesion through the understanding of our different habits and cultures.

But it seems that the clock is now turning backwards and the appetite for discord is rearing its ugly head, provoking a state of chaotic ill-will that will spread like wild fire in a heat-charged world.

Unless we come to our senses before the flames of conflict ravage what we have built over the years in terms of living in harmony, then the future is bleak and man is likely to destroy yet again all the benefits he has so far accomplished; as if self-inflicted tragedies are his staple diet without which he ceases to exist.

How sad and immeasurably unedifying we would have become.

Stephen Tumim

Stephen Tumim was born in 1930 and educated at Worcester College, Oxford where he read history.

He was called to the Bar, Middle Temple in 1955 and was a circuit judge from 1978.

In 1987 he was appointed HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales by the then home secretary Douglas Hurd. He was asked to serve a further term by Kenneth Clarke.

He is author of Great Legal Disasters (1883), Great Legal Fiascos (1985) and Crime and Punishment (1997). He died on 8th December 2003.

I interviewed him in 1993 when he was rarely out of the news. A rather attractive figure I found him easy to converse with.

Here is the full text of my interview.

In 1987 you were appointed as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons. How exactly did this come about? 

Having had a retired ambassador as a chief inspector, the home secretary of the day, Douglas Hurd, thought it would be interesting to have a judge. He wanted somebody who would be objective and bring out what was actually happening in the prisons, not a civil servant, and not anybody connected with prisons. When he asked for a judge, the Lord Chancellor’s office sent along a number of criminal judges from the Old Bailey, but they were found to be too established in their views, and so he asked for a judge who did civil work, and the poor chap got me.

Before then you had been a circuit judge. Looking back, does that now seem to have been an unexciting time in comparison? 

No. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the jobs I’ve done, including being what was in effect a county court judge, and it was also a very good training for my present job. I’d been working in North London mostly with poor people, and then I moved in the mid-1980s to become president of the mental health tribunal where I dealt with whether or not people should be discharged from secure mental hospitals like Broadmoor. All that was a very useful background to looking at prisons which contain another category of unhappy people. Of course this job is undoubtedly much more interesting – it would be nonsense to say otherwise.

And more powerful… 

Actually I have no power at all. I may have influence, but I don’t have power. My job is simply to advise ministers on English and Welsh prisons. I also advise the Northern Irish secretary on his prisons, and the Foreign Office ministers on British Caribbean and Bermudan prisons, but if they don’t like my advice they don’t have to take it.

As someone who has worked in civil law, your knowledge of criminals and prisons must have been severely limited. Did you come to see this as a strength rather than a weakness? 

I think it is a strength. I don’t entirely go along with the awful English cult of the amateur, which suggests it’s best not to know about any problem you’re dealing with, so that you have classical scholars looking at finances, and so on. That doesn’t really work, but I do think it’s an advantage to have somebody who can ask basic questions, which is what I do in my job. I’m the only inspectorate which is not led by somebody who has worked in the field: the Chief of Constabularies is a policeman; the Chief Inspector of Social Services has worked in social services; the Chief Inspector of Probation is a probation officer. The problem with that is the obvious one – that you’ve known Charley for 30 years and you make allowances. That sounds awful but it’s inevitable to some extent, and also you don’t ask the fundamental questions because you don’t think about them so much. What is important in a lay inspectorate such as mine is that you have professional advisers who include very experienced prison governors and civil servants.

In an article in the Political Quarterly you said that your two main qualifications for the job were your layman’s status and your independence. You were independent in the sense that you were not inspecting former colleagues, but some people might question whether a member of the judiciary can be fully independent… 

I don’t think that anybody has ever really challenged my independence. Being a judge is a great psychological help in this matter; people still accept in this country that a judge is independent.

Were you a complete ingénu, as it were, about prison conditions…was it something you had ever turned your mind to before it became your brief? 

No, never. I’d only once been in a prison, a visit to Wormwood Scrubs arranged by a friend of mine when I was first appointed a judge.

Effectively you were given a licence to criticize. Did this appeal to you? 

Yes. It would be very boring to be a cosmetic type of inspector in which you simply told everyone they were doing a jolly good job. The home secretary specifically made it a basis of my job that I should be prepared to make public criticism if there was something that merited it. And this also applied to public praise. It seems to me they go together.

After your first two visits to Pentonville and Liverpool you said you could not understand why doctors and probation officers and chaplains were not making what you called ‘furious complaint’ about the degrading and punitive conditions. Did you ever discover why they hadn’t made furious complaint? 

When I first went round those places I came back and told the then permanent secretary that it was quite extraordinary that there were no lavatories or sanitation or washing facilities except very obscurely and then for only part of the day. I told him I didn’t understand it. He thought it was it was lack of imagination and I think perhaps there was a certain truth in that. If you’re used to something, if you work every day as a chaplain, or a doctor, or a dentist, you don’t notice the stains on the wallpaper so much. You become blinkered. There was also a feeling that nothing could be changed; it had gone on beyond human memory. My approach to this job, like all jobs, is fairly pragmatic, so I said I wanted a plumber and an architect and a researcher to look into the question of sanitation. Within a year we produced a plan whereby there were five different methods of getting lavatories and drains into prisons. The cost of doing it was quite moderate, about £40 million for the whole of England.

But what were the main feelings prompted by your findings? Outrage, shock, a sense of shame perhaps? 

It was the first time that prisons had received public attention in this sort of way. Ten years ago television court drama always involved a barrister in a wig cross-examining somebody…nowadays it’s all porridge and prisons and the clank of gates. I’m exaggerating of course, but essentially I think that public interest has grown. My reports attract press interest in a way they didn’t when I started. There’s a change of mood, and people are much more concerned about prison life.

But did it ever occur to you that perhaps your reaction was an over-emotional one…if not, why hadn’t other professionals reacted in the same way as you did? 

It’s never over-emotional to get angered by dirt and squalor; in fact it’s highly desirable. The reason the other professionals didn’t was that they’d lived with it too long.

But what about your predecessor? 

He was a very distinguished man who wrote extremely elegant and well argued reports. He didn’t bring them to public attention so much. He was establishing a new institution of public inspectorate and he took the view, which I’m sure was right, that you have to get credibility within the system before you can usefully go public.

Is your philosophy regarding prison reform ideological, or is it more pragmatic and utilitarian? 

Goodness me, what a question. I suppose it’s much more pragmatic and utilitarian, though that may be in itself ideological. I have always taken the view that we have to ask a very fundamental question: what are prisons for? To me their purpose is to reduce the rate of crime. I’m not interested in making florid declarations; I’m more interested in cutting down the number of burglaries. The next question you have to ask is what sort of people go to prison, and it is clear that the numbers of terrorists, rapists, mass murderers are very few. The great majority of prisoners are young men between 18 and 30 who have both failed at school and failed with families; they are not in a real sense educated – a surprising number of them are more or less illiterate. They’re the young men from the estate who haven’t got a job because they’re tiresome and ill-educated and there aren’t jobs for them, and the offences they’ve committed are essentially involved with drink, drugs and motor cars. The way we deal with them seems to me to be perfectly clear, if perhaps a little boring: we have to train them, give them social education, encourage them to talk to their families. The prison’s statement of purpose is firstly to hold them safely and securely, secondly to treat them with humanity, and thirdly to help them to lead law abiding and useful lives. The purpose is not to punish them – that’s for the judges.

But anyone advocating improvements in prison care will come up against the deeply ingrained attitude in our society of punishment and revenge. The appalling conditions in some of our prisons are seen by a great many people as fitting conditions for criminals to serve their term. How do you get beyond this attitude? 

You have to apply education to the public here. Because an attitude is ingrained, it’s not necessarily irremovable. Of course if you read the leaders of certain newspapers, they say bang them up, but that is not a universal attitude. There are other moods, and I’ve always found when I’ve addressed audiences of all political persuasions, a great deal of sympathy and understanding of the approach I advocate, which is let us try and reduce crime.

Is it simply a matter of education, do you think, or is there something more deeply entrenched in the British approach which it would be very difficult to remove? After all it is only a few years since Lord Whitelaw was talking about the ‘short sharp shock’ treatment and there is still a great deal of evidence in the present government of a punitive approach… 

I think it is largely a matter of education in the sense of getting people to understand the problems. If you lock somebody up for 22 hours a day in a cell – something which is still happening occasionally – he’s going to come out a complete mess and he’s going to commit more crime. The bad prison is the one in which the prisoner is lying on his bed in the middle of the day; the good prison is one where the emphasis is on activity. I’m not interested in the nice or the nasty prison – those seem to me to be sentimental words which we shouldn’t play around with. The prison should be neither a holiday camp nor a medieval dungeon. The ideal role model is one which is as near an industrial works as possible. Prisoners should work in good workshops for eight hours a day, earning roughly the industrial wage which would be paid, not by the taxpayer, but by the company who wants the goods. They could then pay tax, they could pay rent for their cells and their food, they could support their families which would reduce the social security round, and they could learn how to work which is something of which many of them have no experience. I’ve looked at some German prisons recently where this happens and it’s very effective, and I would welcome that sort of approach here. To say, oh let’s just lock them up and throw away the key is an argument of despair and sentimentality in my view.

This government, perhaps more than any other in recent times, has been seen to target the victims in society, the most vulnerable – unmarried mothers, single parents, and so on. Is the political climate conducive to implementing the kind of reforms you are advocating? 

One’s got to remember this government has been in power for a great many years. At the moment there are certainly people in the government who feel that things have gone too far one way and it’s time the pendulum swung back a bit. But having said that, I think it’s a perfectly valid time to push and press for the active prison. If I were suggesting that prisons should be nice cosy soft places, the government would be quite right in refusing to pay me any attention. But I don’t notice any conflict of a serious nature between myself and the people I advise.

You have dismissed criticism of an excessively lenient approach to prisoners by saying that your first concern is that they should be prepared, after serving their sentence, to take a proper and useful place in society. But doesn’t that give the message to the criminal that the consequences of crime are really not very serious, at least for the criminal? 

I don’t think it does at all. Firstly, nobody except the occasional madman thinks that prison is an attractive proposition. I’ve never met a prisoner who committed his crime thinking, well, it will be rather nice to get into prison. Prisoners absolutely hate being deprived of contact with their communities, their families, their girlfriends, so that the idea of prison as a nice place or not is simply a long way from reality.

Professor Eysenck, the distinguished psychologist, has argued very persuasively that punishment is an extremely powerful deterrent, and that those who argue otherwise have never really studied the evidence or are at the mercy of their prejudices. How do you respond to that? 

Punishment is a very important part of the battle against crime, but it’s a part that’s played by the courts and not by the prisons. It’s the job of a judge to take into account the need for punishment when he deprives a prisoner of his liberty, and it’s a perfectly proper and necessary part of it, so I’m in no way against it. I’m in no way against the existence of prisons either. But does punishment deter? That’s a very difficult question and Eysenck is very much in the minority among academics on this issue. Of course it might deter you or me from nicking a piece of jewellery if we thought we were going to be locked up in Wormwood Scrubs, but the evidence suggests that it is not a very satisfactory general deterrent. Deterrence is one of the weakest parts of a justification of punishment. If you look at the period of English history with the greatest rise in crime, it was the period of the Younger Pitt, who vastly increased punishment. He created something like 200 new capital offences, but the crime rate continued to rise. I believe that prison is for cutting the rate of crime, and that prisoners on the whole are ignorant and rather lost foolish young men who need to be taught how to behave. I am continually coming across prisoners who say things to me that show they’ve really got no idea at all of the difference between right and wrong or what they ought to do, and I suspect nobody has ever told them. We’re facing a long term failure in our education system and I have a great deal of sympathy for the prison service which has all the time to act as guardians, as teachers, as parents in a way.

Eysenck also says that we have precisely the wrong psychological approach to the problem of crime, in that when a youngster commits a crime we caution him and tell him in effect that if he does it again he will be in real trouble. When he does it again he is told that the next time he will really be punished, and so on. Eysenck argues that this is a way of conditioning criminals to believe that crime actually does pay. What would you say to that? 

I would say that modern research completely disproves it. We know that on the cautioning system used by the police in the last few years, 80 per cent of those cautioned do not reoffend. We also know that something like 80 per cent of boys in their teens who are sent to young offenders’ institutions are committing the same sort of crimes and being caught within two years. The young offenders’ institutions cost infinitely more in my view are infinitely less effective with the majority of boys. There’s always going to be a minority who are very difficult, but Eysenck is simply wrong on the facts as found in our society at the moment. Cautioning has been an enormous success, and there has also been a fall-off in crime by young offenders. The increase in crime is fairly specialized and relates to older criminals.

Do you believe there is a correlation between the crime rate and what might be called social deprivation – unemployment, bad housing, and so on? 

It seems to me that it’s quite impossible to say otherwise. The great majority of prisoners come from the inner cities, from poor deprived areas. They don’t come from South Kensington.

How do you account for the fact that during the Depression and before the welfare state when people were seriously undernourished and there was real hardship, there was very little crime? 

I think we glorify that period unduly. Firstly you’ve got to tie it in with the efficiency of the police in catching people. With modern methods it is rather higher than in the 30s. Secondly I think you’ve got to look at the changes in behaviour, not just in England but in the western world. Also we must never minimize the significance of drugs which have had an enormous effect on crime. I recently looked at a prison where 65 per cent of the young men admitted that they were habitually on drugs, hard or soft, and there must have been many more who were actually on drugs but didn’t want to say so. It is an enormous problem.

In your idea of the model prison each cell would have a toilet and a television set and there would be properly paid work and education and so on. How do you answer people who say that conditions for prisoners would then be better than for a great law-abiding people in society? 

If you’re going to reduce the crime rate it may be that you have to put more resources into dealing with some tiresome young man than you would into somebody who isn’t tiresome. On the face of it it isn’t wholly fair, but on the other hand if it stops old women being raped and houses being broken into, it seems to be valuable and worthwhile. A great deal of what the present home secretary is proposing is based on the idea of carrots and non-carrots – privileges if they behave well and non-privileges if they don’t. There is a lot to be said for this approach if you’re running a prison.

But unless you improve the quality of people’s lives on the outside, which is after all such a long term business, you cannot be surprised at least that many will point to the injustice and inequity of raising the standards of our prisons… 

You’re not going to improve the living standards of people outside unless you reduce crime. Short of executing all offenders, what do you do with these young yobby criminals unless you educate them and teach them how to behave? We all know people who have been mugged in central London, just walking about their ordinary proper business, and it’s that situation I want to stop. I don’t know any way of doing it except by taking the offender in hand and training him in some way so that he won’t do it again.

After the publication of your report on Dartmoor in 1992 the Daily Telegraph leader criticized it: ‘The trend towards table lamps for rapists commands little or no support outside the ranks of professional prison reformers.’ I suspect you might label that kind of remark as a cheap gibe based on ignorance…would you? 

I’m not a professional prison reformer. It’s not my job to reform the prisons; my job is essentially to advise ministers on what’s going on. I also advise them on what can be done about it, but I’m not in the position of a prison reform trust or one of those organizations that exists to change things for the sake of change. I have very frequently disagreed both publicly and privately with those organizations who take an extreme view saying, for example, that we oughtn’t to have prisons at all. My report on Dartmoor was very critical because I thought the government was wasting huge sums of money in rebuilding a prison in the middle of Devon where everybody is actually very law abiding. I would have abandoned Dartmoor, and the only reason I didn’t recommend abandonment very strongly in that report was that we had spent something like £30 million before I went there. Besides, if you followed the line which the Daily Telegraph appeared to be taking, I think you would get more crime, and this seems to me to be undesirable. A great many people take the view that prisoners should have everything made nasty for them, one way or another, but it is philosophically wrong to imagine it will deter criminals. It may be that in Saudi Arabia you can reduce the rate of pilfering by cutting off the thief’s hands, but if you simply make it insanitary, dull and solitary, then you will increase the crime rate and not reduce it.

Do you think capital punishment is a deterrent? 

I don’t know. My objection to capital punishment is that there is this frightful risk of executing the wrong person. A murder is a one off sort of offence, and those who commit murders are usually in such an emotional state that they’re not thinking in terms of what’s going to happen to them afterwards.

Your inspection of Dartmoor was carried out in June 1991 and the report was complete in October 1991. Why then did the Home Office delay publication for eight months? 

I’m a profound believer in incompetence rather than conspiracy – probably they hadn’t got enough people doing the right job, something of that sort. I have no reason to think my report was held back through a desire to conceal.

Some people have suggested that the report on Dartmoor was a bit of a fudge in that if you had had your way it would have been closed down completely, but that would have invalidated the government’s investment in a refurbished programme. Was there any truth in that? 

There’s a great deal of truth in that. I don’t accept it was a fudge, but I have to look at things pragmatically and realistically. They’d spent a huge sum of money on improving this rather sad damp prison and common sense made it very difficult to recommend closure after £30 million of taxpayers’ money. I think they were entirely wrong to spend the money, but again it was probably an act of incompetence rather than conspiracy. Those who authorized the money at that stage were not the same people who were looking overall at what the prison service needed.

Would you not agree that your reports have been very demoralizing for the prison staff who have to cope with conditions as they are, conditions that they did not create themselves? 

No. On the whole the prison service has given me a great deal of support and they see my reports as an opportunity to give a wide currency to issues they want raised. We tend to work together rather than hostilely. Obviously there are times when I criticize prison staff, but I would do so only as a good judge after putting the case to them and hearing their explanation.

Do you think Douglas Hurd had any idea when he appointed you of how sweeping you would be in your criticisms? 

Douglas Hurd would have welcomed it. Indeed I have spoken to him informally more recently and he regards my appointment to have been a thoroughly good thing.

Were you perhaps surprised to be reappointed? 

I’ve always had a very good working relationship with ministers. Incarceration is a rather grey area, and to have an objective and independent person is of great use to ministers. Also when I recommend, for example, 10,000 lavatories, it enables the home secretary to go the chief secretary of the Treasury and say that he wouldn’t suggest spending money on this sort of nonsense himself, but the chief inspector is calling for it.

Would you consider yourself to be something of a thorn in the government’s flesh? 

Not in the least. I see myself as a critic of sloppiness wherever it may be, but in my report on the Brixton escapes, for example, I specifically said that they resulted from local errors and that ministers should not be blamed.

Obviously you have to strike a balance between criticism and encouragement, but some would argue that you have not always got this balance right. For example, a few days before the Strangeways riot you report was published congratulating the staff on the improvements they had made. Was that not terribly embarrassing? 

[laughs] No, I don’t think it was. I have a theory which is rather like the French Revolution: just when things are going along quite nicely you get a riot. Once you start improving conditions, that is the moment you have to watch for a disturbance. The governor of Strangeways at the time was busy dividing the prison up into smaller groups, and I think I was right to congratulate him, though I must admit I did look rather silly when a few weeks later there was this colossal disturbance.

It has been suggested that you were unhappy with the government’s response to the Strangeways riot, and although you accepted the decision to appoint Lord Justice Woolf, you did not think he should have been allowed to conduct such an extensive inquiry into prison reform which you regarded as your job. Is there any truth in that? 

No, there’s no truth in it. I told the then home secretary who asked me to conduct the enquiry that it would not be proper for me to do so immediately after my report. At that stage Lord Justice Woolf was perfectly correctly brought in. He wanted to widen the enquiry and asked me to join him so that it was in effect a report by both of us. We had various advisers, but we were the two principals, and I would accept him as the more principal of the two because he was senior in the legal world and he also had the advantage of being an outsider.

You seem anxious not to be linked with any of the prison pressure groups. Why is that? Aren’t your aims and ideas similar? 

No, they’re not. The job of the Howard League, the Prison Reform Trust and many other admirable organizations is to improve the living conditions of prisoners and to reduce the use of prisons. Those are entirely different objectives from mine. My job is pragmatic; theirs is much more based on dogma.

How do you avoid being perceived as ‘do-gooder’ – perhaps in the Lord Longford tradition? 

[laughs] Devoted as I am to Lord Longford personally, I don’t share all his views. I do think it’s better to be a do-gooder than a do-badder on the whole, but I don’t see myself as a doer at all; I’m an adviser, and my job is to form a judgement of what I see. Each of my reports is as subjective as I can make it – it’s the sort of thing one might do if one were conducting an enquiry as a judge, which indeed I am.

It was reported in the Independent in 1991 that a leading figure in prison reform had broken ranks to say: ‘The problem with Stephen Tumim is that he does not listen to prisoners. He would not make them citizens by giving them rights which could be enforced through the courts. Instead every change he would like to see would be imposed from above.’ How do you respond to that? 

I think it’s complete nonsense. I do in fact always listen to groups of prisoners without anybody else present and I take very seriously what they have to say. I also have a large correspondence with prisoners, I listen to their complaints and follow them up.

We apparently lock up more people than any other country in Europe but this does not seem to stop the crime rate rising. Isn’t this perhaps too difficult a problem to leave to the politicians? 

But who else is going to look at it? It is a difficult problem, and I suspect we do have a culture which means that the length of imprisonment in England is probably too long. There have been some very interesting experiments in Germany where they’ve reduced the length of incarceration without increasing the crime rate.

You once allegedly got into trouble for saying that three quarters of the men in prison should be freed and the rest should never be released. That remark may have been incautious but was it based on an honest opinion? 

The weakness of that remark is that it’s a bit of a cocktail party remake, it’s a bit epigrammatic, and epigrams are never very sensible. It’s obviously not wholly true but it has an element of sense about it. There are a few desperate criminals who are on determinate sentences and have to be released at some stage, and who could indeed be a menace. On the other hand, I suspect there are a great many people who could be safely let out.

Your work by its very nature is controversial, your reports provocative. Is this an aspect you enjoy? 

I hope they are controversial. If they did not prompt discussion there would be no action, but I hope I never slant a report to make a sensation. I’m not worried by controversy if it’s inevitable. And I do enjoy my job. It would be quite intolerable to do something one didn’t enjoy.

But do you never long for the comparative calm of the divorce courts? 

[laughs] I think divorce courts are far more stressful than prisons.

You have something of a reputation as a bon vivant – you’re a member of the Garrick Club, and so on. Isn’t there a fundamental irony, some might even say an indelicacy, that a man like yourself should be reporting on people who for the most part are at the other end of the social spectrum? 

I think it’s a very happy and fortunate balance. If I spent my entire life lurking around the grey world of the landings, it would not be of value and my work would suffer. It’s very important that you should lead a life outside your specific work.

Our legal system is currently in crisis and the reputation of British justice has suffered heavily as a result of terrible mistakes. Do you still defend the system which you were once part of? 

I’m still part of it in the sense that I’m still a judge; I’m paid as a judge, and I will in due course get a judge’s pension. There are obviously a lot of weaknesses in the legal system, and as the years go by I get further and further away from the real darts and arrows of the legal system and therefore less able to produce useful judgements. But in my view all institutions are rather conscious of their weaknesses…

But what about the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six? How could such appalling miscarriages of justice happen within our legal system? 

Miscarriages of justice are in a category by themselves. I think it’s very proper that the Royal Commission on criminal justice has said that there really must be some external body, rather like the inspectorate of prisons, because without that even the most honourable can get into trouble. I have no axe to grind, but I do believe we have the best lot of senior judges we’ve ever had, certainly during my career. As for those who came before, it is impossible in an individual case to form any judgement if you haven’t read the papers properly and don’t know the facts.

But it was proven that there were miscarriages of justice. 

Yes, but it doesn’t necessarily prove that the judge did anything wrong. There were expert witnesses who were criticized, police officers who were criticized, counsel who were criticized.

Judges and their sentencing policy attract a great deal of criticism…are you one of the critics? 

No, I’m not. I’m not saying they’re all correct, I’m just not one of the critics. If I were the chief inspector of judges I would go and sit in court and watch and listen and look at the papers. If you don’t do that I think it’s very unfair to form judgements.

Your previous work experience, apart from the courts, has been largely for charitable and literary organizations was it a bit of a culture shock to move to prison inspection? 

Yes, it was. Also a bit of a smell. But I’ve managed to join up some of my interests. For example, I’m chairman of the Arthur Koestler trust for the exhibition of art by prisoners, I’m involved with several other trusts dealing with art produced by mental patients, and so on.

Looking back on your life, what would you say were the triumphs and disappointments? 

I don’t know that I could claim a triumph on anything, but the things I’m most proud of having been in the prisons, particularly the progress of sanitation. I’m also proud of the fact that I have inspired and got going the removal and replacement of three prisons in the British Caribbean. In other words, it’s not so much ideas as bricks and mortar. Regarding the second part of the question, I’ve had a life without very great disappointments. There have been the obvious battles of life, the greatest of which has been having children who were born deaf. That has been a problem which my wife has mastered much more than I have; I haven’t done nearly enough for them, and I feel sad that I didn’t make a bigger contribution to them when they were young. But they turned into perfectly admirable people.