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Jeremy Hutchinson's Case Histories

Thomas Grant

At a books festival last year, I was giving a talk about 20th century espionage when an elderly gentleman in the front row politely raised a hand, and asked a question.

'On page 239 of your book, you state that the information supplied to the Soviets by George Blake led to the deaths of hundreds of agents. Can you please tell me what evidence you have for that statement?'

George Blake was the MI6 officer who secretly converted to communism as a prisoner in North Korea, and went on to hand over vast troves of secret information to the Soviet Union, before being exposed and arrested in one of the great spy scandals of the 1960s. The precise human costs of Blake’s espionage have never been fully established.

I fudged, pointing out that Blake himself admitted supplying the Soviets with the names of some 400 agents. It was surely inconceivable that the Soviets would not have rounded them up, and dispatched them in the traditional manner.

My questioner was not going to be fobbed off. 'That is speculation. What proof do you have that Blake's information led to these deaths?' I didn't have any. My case was based on historical assumption, and my questioner, and the audience, knew it. I wriggled a bit more, then swiftly changed the subject by answering a question I had not been asked.

It was only afterwards that I discovered that I had just been cross-examined by Jeremy Hutchinson, the lawyer who defended Blake at his trial in 1961, and one of the most formidable criminal barristers of modern times.

The career of Baron Hutchinson of Lullington, now 100 years of age, reads like a history of legal landmarks in the latter half of the 20th century: in addition to Blake, he defended Christine Keeler of Profumo infamy, the spy John Vassall, the art forger Tom Keating, Kempton Bunton, who extracted Goya's portrait of Wellington from the National Gallery in 1961, and Howard Marks, the flamboyant cannabis smuggler. He was at the forefront of the great obscenity trials of the era, brilliantly and fiercely defending the right to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill or to screen Last Tango in Paris. He took on the establishment, the Official Secrets Act and Mary Whitehouse.

Thomas Grant, a practising barrister, has brought together Hutchinson's greatest legal hits, and in the process has produced a fascinating episodic cultural history of postwar Britain, chronicling the end of the age of deference and secrecy, and the advent of a more permissive society. More than that, this book is also an impassioned defence of the criminal Bar itself, and the bulwark of democracy enshrined in the principle that every person accused of crime is entitled to independent representation. As Hutchinson writes in an afterword: 'When executive power becomes excessive . . . all that stands between the citizen and the all-powerful state is the judiciary, the jury and the wholly independent advocate.'

The son of a celebrated barrister, born into the fringes of the Bloomsbury group, Hutchinson served in the navy during the war and married the actress Peggy Ashcroft in 1940. Five years later he ran, unsuccessfully, as a Labour candidate in London: the driver of his loudspeaker van was the Hon Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

Two months after taking silk in 1961, he was instructed to represent Blake, the Dutch-born intelligence officer whose wide-ranging espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union sent a jolt of pure horror through the British establishment. Blake had confessed (with considerable pride) to what he had done: it fell to Hutchinson to plead in mitigation.

Hutchinson saw Blake as a spy of principle, a 'rugged ideologist' who had undergone an almost religious conversion to the communist cause. The main plank of his argument was that Blake had only ever intended to disrupt the activities of the British intelligence service (and so benefit the Soviet Union), and had received a promise from his Soviet handlers that the MI6 spies he exposed would come to no harm. Hutchinson claimed at trial that there was evidence of only two arrests made as a result of information supplied by Blake.

The judge was unmoved, and hurled the book at Blake, sentencing him to 42 years, the longest prison term ever handed down by a British court. To Hutchinson, the verdict and sentence was an 'executive act by the state', a political rather than a judicial decision. Blake subsequently escaped from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966, and fled to Moscow, where at the age of 92 he still lives.

If the prosecution in the Blake case aimed to protect the nation's security, then the Lady Chatterley case was framed as nothing less than defence of the nation's moral purity. DH Lawrence’s novel 'sets upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse', insisted the lead prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones, whose quivering indignation stood in perfect contrast to Hutchinson’s poised determination to prove that the book was neither obscene nor corrupting.

The defence, acting for Penguin publishers, called an astonishing array of luminaries to champion the novel, but it was Hutchinson’s cross-examination of Richard Hoggart, senior lecturer at Leicester University and author of The Uses of Literacy, that swung the case. Passage by passage, word by word, Hutchinson as junior counsel proved, through Hoggart's testimony, that Lady Chatterley was not a 'vicious indulgence in sex and sensuality', but a beautiful paean to sexual love.

Grant brings out the essence of each case, and Hutchinson's central role, with clarity and wit, and a minimum of legal technicalities. If the tone leans towards the worshipful, that may be an occupational hazard of lawyers, who are often as elaborately polite and deferential to one another outside court, as they are assiduously rude to each other inside it.

This book is a reminder of how many of the defining stories of modern times have been fought out through our courts, and changed by them: the frenzy of fake moral indignation surrounding the Profumo scandal, the brutal absurdity of the old Official Secrets Act, that 'raddled and discredited prima donna'.

Hutchinson combined legal precision with gleeful 'establishment tail-tweaking'. Howard Marks, famously, was accused of importing enough cannabis in a single load to make everyone in Britain high simultaneously. Hutchinson argued that he had been secretly working for MI6 to infiltrate the IRA, and produced a shadowy Mexican witness to demonstrate his client’s links to the Mexican secret service. Marks was found not guilty of drug smuggling.

For anyone who fell foul of the powers that were between 1960 and 1984, there was no more reassuring sight than that of a bewigged Jeremy Hutchinson rising for the defence: forceful, deliberate, charming, and frequently very funny.

A plea in mitigation: I remain convinced that many of the agents exposed by Blake were liquidated by the KGB. Grant concedes that Blake's insistence that his treachery was bloodless is 'evidence either of naivety, or an unwillingness to accept the consequences of his actions'.

Just how much blood is on Blake's hands will never be known unless his KGB file is released. Until then, the charge of accessory to murder remains moot and, as Jeremy Hutchinson would be the first to point out, it won’t stand up in court.

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