The long march of low liberalism - A review of Bringing Down Goliath by Jolyon Maugham
Bringing Down Goliath comes with baggage. Jolyon Maugham is founder and director of the Good Law Project, an organization which uses the law to achieve social change, but is most famous for his divisive Twitter presence. For years, Maugham has pursued progressive causes in the courts – these range from campaigns against Brexit and the Conservative government to support for Uber drivers – and crowdfunded these on Twitter. The book has received several negative reviews, one circulating widely.
I shall not re-tread the ground of these reviews, yet Bringing Down Goliath provides insight into the evolution of liberal-democratic institutions, an interest of this Substack. Specifically, we might consider Maugham’s relationship with low liberalism, a non-elite version of liberalism which combines traditional liberalism with authoritarianism and social justice ideology and brings activism to historically neutral institutions. On social media, Maugham is popular among low liberals.
Admittedly, Maugham is not a typical low liberal. Reflecting his status as a King’s Counsel (KC), many of his positions are eloquent and convincing. In Bringing Down Goliath, he articulates reasonable cases against government overreach and corruption. Though some of his positions arguably conflict with liberalism – on social media, he indulges identity politics and supports gender self-identification – the book features fewer of these tensions.
Yet this concession is key,
‘When we think about whether or not to bring a case we absolutely have in mind whether there is an actual or latent public interest. Will the traditional media want to cover it? Will it generate interest on social media?... Of course, if, like ours, your litigation is crowdfunded, you don’t have any choice. If people don’t care – or can’t be persuaded to care – about what you are litigating about you can’t take the case.’
For those familiar with Maugham’s support base, this will raise antennae. On Twitter, the low liberals who support Maugham, such as the Follow Back Pro-European (FBPE) group, peddle a crude alloy of liberalism, authoritarianism, social justice ideology and conspiracy theories. Some call for the jailing of opponents. During the pandemic, some accused the Conservative government of genocide.
Maugham may reject extreme versions of this ideology and its authoritarian parts, yet dependence on such people means that their concerns are yoked to his. We might see Maugham as an institutional agent of low liberalism, advancing this ideology in traditional institutions, albeit in a respectable garb.
One suspects that his notorious framing of court decisions, critiqued as misleading, reflects this. If one has a support base who subsist on low-quality information, it is tempting to feed them this.
Maugham has a curious relationship with public opinion. On the 2016 referendum, he shares the judiciary’s traditional dislike of plebiscites. But in Bringing Down Goliath, he asserts that ‘the real court is that of public opinion’. Complicating things further, Maugham is a broadly unpopular figure, particularly on social media. How can we square this circle? Crucially, Maugham may be disliked more broadly, but is very popular among certain low liberals. In a stratified media in which support among a niche group guarantees funding, this is sufficient.
Maugham’s attitude to liberal-democratic procedures reflects such tensions. He plays a prominent role in the campaign against Brexit, making legal challenges and supporting the revocation of Article 50. Isolated challenges may have been important, but whatever one thinks of Brexit – in 2016, I canvassed against it – this broader campaign aimed to overturn a major democratic vote. Along the way, Maugham commits his own indiscretions. After Mr Justice Swift refuses the Good Law Project permission to challenge Brexit, Maugham accuses two High Court judges of pro-government bias. In Bringing Down Goliath, he makes other comments about the integrity of the judiciary which will anger colleagues.
As is the wont of low liberals, Maugham regards activism as taking precedence over established rules. Recently, he signed a declaration, with over 100 other lawyers, pledging not to act for those developing new fossil fuel projects or against those who protest such projects. Critics argued that this violated the cab rank rule, according to which lawyers act for whoever seeks their services.
In Bringing Down Goliath, we learn why Maugham did this. At times, he reveres liberal institutions, asserting he is ‘very proud to be a barrister’, but cites Judith Shklar’s dismissal of the rule of law as ‘just another one of those self-congratulatory rhetorical devices that grace the public utterances of Anglo-American politicians’. He writes off the constitution as ‘the construct of grand, privately educated, wealthy, white English men’ and asserts that the law reflects the ‘lived experiences’ of such groups and ‘to some degree, lacks legitimacy’.
We may doubt whether activism is compatible with the duties of a lawyer. As Professor Katy Barnett, a legal expert, notes, the role of an advocate entails arguing for something with which one may disagree. Moreover, barristers owe a duty to the court to cite cases or laws which may conflict with their case. For Barnett, ‘Advocacy is one thing. Activism is another.’
Maugham’s supporters consider him a champion of the underdog. Clearly, he does some good. In Bringing Down Goliath, he recounts campaigns for public transparency and victims of sexual assault. As a critic of right populism, I was sympathetic to certain actions against the government, Maugham fighting against Johnson’s prorogation of parliament.
But what if there are other challenges to liberal democracy?
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