It is fascinating to find Sir Geoffrey Cox, the former attorney general, posting on Twitter a scene from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons to affirm his belief in the sanctity of the law. Since Bolt was a one-time communist, an active supporter of CND and a dramatist who wrote a hagiographic portrait of Lenin in State of Revolution, he and Cox make strange bedfellows. Yet, although Bolt was ready to defy the law in pursuit of a cause like nuclear disarmament, he still saw it, in his own words, as “the essence of organised society”.
Cox’s choice of a clip from the film of A Man for All Seasons is highly pertinent but, to understand it fully, you need to know the context. Sir Thomas More has just been confronted by Richard Rich, who is part of the network of spies Thomas Cromwell is using to gather information about him. Once Rich has gone, More is urged to arrest him. More’s response is that what Rich is doing may well be evil but that it’s not illegal. He places his faith in the inviolable integrity of the law. Destroy that and anarchy follows. As More says: “This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast and if you cut them down do you think you could really stand upright in the winds that would blow then?” It’s a powerful message for today.
Cox seems to have got the point. As a parliamentarian, he’s not famous for his humility: indeed he appears the antithesis of the More portrayed by Paul Scofield in the film, who was the epitome of quiet modesty. However, when Cox said this week that “the breaking of the law ultimately leads to very long-term and permanent damage to this country’s reputation” he was speaking sentiments More might have understood.
Perhaps he could arrange a clandestine showing of A Man for All Seasons for Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, and Suella Braverman, the attorney general, who seem all too happy to cut their consciences to suit the current Tory fashion.
But while it’s good to see Fred Zinnemann’s film being used to make a moral point, it started out as a stage play and is only one of many in the 20th century in which the individual is pitted against authority. Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan shows its protagonist taking on the Catholic church and, unlike Bolt’s More, putting God’s law above man’s. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, dealing with the Salem witch trials of 1692 but highly relevant to the hearings of Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, shows a hero who sacrifices his life to his principles. And Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo depicts a pioneering scientist who abjures his beliefs when faced with the Inquisition.
Bolt’s play, when it opened in 1960, was openly compared to Brecht’s: not always in its favour as shown in a celebrated argument with Kenneth Tynan in the pages of the Observer. But Bolt stuck to his guns and argued that More was right to pin his faith to the primacy of the law, and against those who “were ready to crack it open and let in anarchy to maintain their own advantages”. Not a bad phrase to apply to the age of Johnson and Cummings.