The New Statesman Profile - Derry Irvine

He wants the press shackled and the Lords turned into a selectocracy. Who can stop the chief of Tony

It seems like years since we have heard from Lord Irvine, who used to entertain the nation with his wallpaper and his general propensity for dropping bollocks before the nation's media. Now he has crashed back into the news in the unfamiliar role of a distraught parent. For once, he may have attracted a measure of public sympathy because of the obvious distress he and his family are suffering. After calling upon the Press Complaints Commission to deter any further exposure of 24-year-old Alastair Irvine's battle against drug addiction, he issued a statement through his spokesman which seemed eminently reasonable, taken at face value. His spokesman said: "The Lord Chancellor accepts that as a public figure he should be subject to rigorous media and parliamentary scrutiny; however, that should not extend to his son."

In that spirit, let us make just one observation about the case and move on. When Ian McCartney, the current minister for pensions, lost his young son to a heroin overdose two years ago, he chose to publicise the tragedy as a warning to others. Jack Straw, when he was Home Secretary, similarly accepted that his son William could not be shielded from publicity after his arrest on a cannabis charge, although he was only 17 years old. Yet the senior law officer in a government that decides which stimulants the rest of us may or may not consume pronounces that it is not our business that someone in his immediate family has been taking illegal, addictive drugs.

However, let us not be ungrateful for that concession from the Lord Chancellor, that on other matters we are allowed to subject him to "media scrutiny". Scrutiny is something which he has largely escaped since he took the advice of people more politically astute than he, and gave up talking to the media.

There are several political issues now coming to a head, of a significance that has been obscured by the way international affairs are dominating the news, and the Lord Chancellor is centrally involved in all of them. On some, the Lord Chancellor has, bluntly, been on the wrong side of the argument. On at least one, he fought with the angels, but lost.

Irvine, 61, has been a highly political Lord Chancellor, chairing a range of important cabinet committees and enjoying an unusually close personal relationship with the Prime Minister, whom he once tutored. Aside from the legal reforms in which he has been involved, there are four huge political issues on which his record as a public servant is likely to be judged - devolution, reform of the House of Lords, the Human Rights Act and freedom of information legislation.

It is not Irvine's fault that devolution is going through yet another messy week, with the personal affairs of Henry McLeish, the ex-First Minister, and Jack McConnell, the likely next one, filling the Scottish press. However, the large rebellion gathering strength in the House of Commons against the government's recently published proposals for the Lords is entirely down to Irvine.

For MPs, the proposal that leaps out of the pages of the white paper on Lords reform is that only 120 members, out of a house that will eventually be 600-strong, are to be elected, while hundreds will be chosen by the party leaders. Even that proposal is an advance on what was originally suggested. In an earlier draft, there were to be 87 elected peers, one for each European constituency, who could then be elected on the same day as MEPs, presumably on the same pitiful turnout. It was the intervention of Robin Cook, after he was made Leader of the House, that edged the figure upwards. Irvine, who headed the cabinet committee responsible for the proposals, was battling to keep it down. Instinctively, it seems, he would have settled for no elected peers at all.

This is all of a piece with Irvine's thinking. One minister who has worked closely with him, and admires the quality of his intellect, described him as a believer in "selectocracy".

"He is not an instinctive politician, like Jack Straw. He likes everything to be rigorously argued out. He believes that in public life there should be people who come to it because they have something to contribute rather than just being there because they have been selected by their parties. He thinks the Lords are there to bring a different set of perspectives, and you won't get the right people through public elections."

On freedom of information, Irvine picked up a reputation as a defender of the establishment point of view early on, when the legislation was being handled by the well-meaning David Clark, who lacked powerful friends. Irvine actually liked Clark, but could not refrain from pulling him apart in cabinet committee meetings.

However, once he was up against Jack Straw, whom he heartily dislikes, the Lord Chancellor emerged as the man fighting for more freedom of information rather than less. When the legislation was on the statute books, he then became locked in a battle with Downing Street over how quickly it should come into force. Tony Blair's advisers were all for postponing the awful day as long as possible. An announcement in the Lords earlier this month showed that Irvine had lost: parts of the legislation won't be law until 2005.

Finally, there is the issue that has come home to the Irvine family in recent days: whether the freedom of the press should take precedence over an individual's right to privacy. Irvine's first great political blunder in the cabinet was in precisely this area. One of the accomplishments for which he hopes to be remembered is the introduction of the Human Rights Act, a piece of legislation about which other cabinet ministers have distinctly mixed feelings. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is, as you read this, engaged in trying to undo part of it to give him more freedom to deal with suspected terrorists who have taken refuge in this country.

Long before the human rights bill was enacted, Irvine was warned first by the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Lord Wakeham, then by the culture secretary, Chris Smith, that it could inadvertently create a privacy law, with implications for freedom of the press. Irvine grandiosely told Smith that he had no legal training and should leave matters such as these to those who had.

In fact, Smith was right and Irvine wrong, as the Lord Chancellor later had to confess to the cabinet. The practical upshot was seen recently, when a footballer who had cheated on his wife with two other women was able to obtain a court order preventing the newspapers from identifying him.

Most members of the cabinet regard this as an ominous judgement - not necessarily because they want the world to know the identity of the randy footballer, but because it is another instance of laws being made by judges rather than by the people who are elected to make them.

The spectacle of judges making law appears not to disturb Irvine, especially not if they restrict the behaviour of journalists who write about the private lives of public individuals. Having had almost no contact with the media before he became a cabinet minister in 1997, he has never understood why they ridiculed him as they did over the £650,000 worth of tasteful wallpaper that now decorates his grace-and-favour office.

As the son of a roofer and a waitress brought up in an Inverness council house, Irvine came late to the good things of life. After attending a state school in Glasgow, he read law at Glasgow University and then Cambridge. He "stole" his close friend Donald Dewar's wife, Alison, in 1974 - and took on their two children, Marion and Iain. (Dewar was reportedly heartbroken, and never remarried.) Irvine was made a life peer by Margaret Thatcher in 1987, and quickly rose to become one of Britain's leading barristers and a central figure both of the establishment and the Labour left.

Unlike Gordon Brown, who would have sold off the Treasury's silver, he believes in husbanding the nation's treasures. The Lord Chancellor's Department's collection of 484 antiques, valued at nearly £1.5m, and 78 paintings worth £395,000, will not be sold off by their present custodian. He honestly thought the nation should be grateful to him for making sure that the magnificent building he inhabits was decorated in a fitting manner.

Neither is he likely to be moved by protestations that a law which applies to a footballer one day could later be used to protect the misdemeanours of more important people, such as cabinet ministers. On that subject, Irvine let slip his instinctive views when he was interviewed in the New Statesman four years ago, at the time when Robin Cook's marital problems were in the news. The Lord Chancellor hinted that newspapers should be required to prove that there is a public interest before they pry into the personal lives of the famous, and should be fined for transgressions. This was wildly removed from government policy, and is alleged to have prompted Alastair Campbell to instruct the Lord Chancellor to stop talking to journalists altogether.

Baroness Jay, the former leader of the Lords who had a celebrated affair with the Washington journalist Carl Bernstein, once told Irvine: "I'll never get away from Carl Bernstein and you, Derry, my dear, will always be known for wallpaper." That is a very galling thought for a man of Irvine's intelligence, who has risen so far by working so hard.

If he were remembered as the man who brought in a freedom of information law but then let others hold it up, who tried to bring about an undemocratic second chamber stuffed with political placemen, and who allowed a privacy law to slip into the British court system without consent from parliament, that would be fairer. However, it may not make Lord Irvine of Lairg feel any better.

Andy McSmith is chief political correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. His novel Innocent in the House is published by Verso

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins