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Priests and Lawyers

A review of Philip Wood's book The Fall of the Priests and the Rise of the Lawyers

I must declare an interest. For almost all my time as a lawyer I was a partner of Philip Wood, each of us slaving away at slightly different branches of international finance. In fact it was he who some 50 years ago first introduced me to the mysteries of this area of the law, then more recondite than it is now.

So, knowing Philip well over the years and having read many of his books on legal topics, I was certainly eager to see his new one. I read it a few weeks ago and couldn’t put it down. What is more, I am now reading it again. I can easily say why.

No one but Philip could have written this book. It is a massively ambitious study of the way that Law has taken over from Religion as the basis for our morality and, as Philip brilliantly argues, for our survival. But why is this so much Philip’s territory? He looks at the issues from the perspective of a lawyer who has been, for half a century, at the forefront of the way in which the law has developed and has had to be applied to the more complex and rarified aspects of our life – although aspects that affect us all closely: money, banks, loans, companies, as well as stock markets, derivatives, bankruptcies.

But Philip has a vital skill. A subject like this could be covered in a multivolume work of ineffable dreariness. Philip handles it deftly in a slim volume of a mere 273 pages, written in his characteristically lucid, succinct, lapidary prose, interlaced as it is by comments of splendid wit and irony.

One thing it is not, and that is a diatribe against, or even critique, of religion. Philip deals, in admirable brevity, with the origins and doctrines of all the world’s major religions. Anyone wanting a clear introduction to, say, Hinduism, could well go first to Philip’s few pages. And in doing so would also benefit from Philip’s insights into the way it has interacted with law and morality. “In 1950 untouchability was abolished by law, but often the legal wand, though waved, disturbs nothing but the air” as Philip elegantly observes.

Why am I wanting to read it again? I think the reason is that it is so wide-ranging, so full of unexpected insights, interesting facts. Isn’t it nice to read how Aristotle “put us on the wrong track for nearly two thousand years”? How Karl Marx’s mother’s family founded the Philips electronics company. How the first draft of the French civil code was produced in a mere six weeks (with Napoleon sitting in on drafting meetings).

But the key point in the book – and the point that makes it an inspiring as well as an enjoyable read - is Philip’s discussion of why we need the law. “The basic purpose of law is to enable us to survive. There is no question that the fundamental inspiration of religion is the desire to survive, the same motive which underlies law”.

I can’t resist also pointing to perhaps a less profound observation, but one which reflects much of the tone of the book. Philip discusses banks and the law; he is keen to avoid the glib tendency to blame bankers for all our woes. Says Philip: “To some people, banks and capital markets are peopled by Draculas that eat children and drink blood. In fact, in my experience many of those who work in banking and capital markets are quite ordinary people, although I do not know what they do at night.”

All in all, a masterpiece – fascinating in detail, profound in its broad scope, and an enormous pleasure to read.

6 May 2016

Tony Herbert

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