Political Agenda – Sir Robert Buckland MP

When Robert Buckland talks about his time the justice secretary, his considerable enthusiasm for the role shines through.

“Without the Ministry of Justice, what values do we have as a country?”

The former barrister, Swindon South’s MP since in 2010, held the post of solicitor general between 2014-2019 before becoming secretary of state for justice under Boris Johnson’s newly formed Cabinet.

Six months after leaving the post, Buckland has had time to reflect on his two-year tenure, and the disappointment he still feels about not being able to carry out the reforms he had started.

“I needed a parliament in which to fully turn it around… I feel denied the chance to carry out some of the achievements”.

Despite an £8 billion budget and staffed by 80,000+ employees, Buckland says his task was to help the justice department recover from a “historic position where it had been seen as a somewhat of a junior partner in government.”

“The job I was doing wasn’t just keeping things ticking over but making major change”, he points out.

Buckland speaks candidly about feeling “very frustrated” at being sacked as justice secretary.

“It doesn’t seem from what I’ve read and what I understand since, that it seemed to have anything to do with my work… even though everybody said that I was doing a decent job.

“Without that sort of rationale, without that obvious mistake or series of mistakes, I’m frankly a bit nonplussed, to say the least, as to why I’m here and why I’m not still doing that work.”

Despite his frustration, Buckland accepts the decision is the product of the harsh realities of politics at the top level of government.

“Politics is a funny and a fickle occupation and I have to accept that sometimes you take the rough with the smooth.

“I’m seeing a lot of the work that I started and championed being carried out, which is good.”

As the Ministry of Justice continues to adapt to the challenges posed by the digital revolution, Buckland makes no bones about the challenges that lie ahead for his old department.

“It’s how we harness those opportunities and make technology work for us rather than being the servant of technology”.

Buckland warns: “In China, for example, now AI isn’t just being used to research law and collate facts. You have AI making decisions in millions of civil cases in China, there is no human judge.

“I think that’s worrying, I don’t think that’s the right way to go… what does that mean for justice as a concept?”

Born in Llanelli, Buckland’s political awakening came in the 1980s during the miners strikes, a period which he describes as a time of “great ideological strife.

“I got very exercised about the use of unaccountable power”, Buckland admits.

Having joined the Conservative party aged 16, Buckland says he “grew to understand and embrace” One Nation Conservatism, listing the likes of Benjamin Disraeli, Harold Macmillan, and Iain Macleod as influences.

Despite describing himself as a “very pro-European Conservative”, Buckland admits his big political test came following the Brexit referendum and dealing with the “miasma” emanating from Westminster.

“I’ve always believed that you have to take the world as it is rather than the world as you’d like it to be.

“I felt it was my duty, even though I didn’t agree with the result, to implement it and to make sure that democracy prevailed… I shudder to think about the consequences had another course been adopted.”

It is clear talking to Buckland that he holds a strong desire to build closer ties with Europe in a post-Brexit world. He points to the situation in Ukraine as a “helpful reminder of the shared values” the Western world must uphold in the face of Russian aggression.

In recent days, the British public have made their voice heard loud and clear on taking in Ukrainian refugees. Over 100,000 people alone signed up for the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Buckland says the public’s swift response to hosting refugees is a “wonderful testament to who we are as a country.”

Even with the scheme, the government has come under fire for its response to taking in Ukrainian refugees, creating new fault lines in the ongoing debate of how the UK should run its borders in a post-Brexit world.

Buckland admits he has been frustrated by the “lack of speed and coordination” of the UK’s response to the crisis, but he fires a warning shot to opposition MPs accusing the Conservatives of being “callous” over the issue.

“There’s no monopoly on compassion”, Buckland observes.

When the conversation turns to Buckland’s Swindon South seat, he speaks with fevered passion about the place he calls “home”.

Whilst admitting that Swindon South will never be “a safe seat for either party”, Buckland is adamant he is up for the fight at the next general election.

“Bring it on”, Buckland declares in a resolute tone.

Having been in government for over two years, the readjustment to backbench life can prove difficult for some ex-ministers. However, Buckland concedes his personal political success is down to his dedication to his constituency work.

“Having that absolute unwavering devotion to working in the constituency has meant that I’ve had to probably work twice as hard as other people to achieve what I have done in politics.”

For Buckland, constituency work is the tonic to the hardships of political life.

“There’s a deep sense of achievement in getting stuff done for constituents.

“The bit of casework that might mean that a family finally gets an assessment for their child with a disability which then allows them to access services is a win for me.

“Whatever the regrets and the frustrations of politics… I can always look back on those wins and say, well, yeah, I think I made a difference”.

Buckland, who was Knighted in the 2022 New Year’s Honours list for his political service, confesses Westminster is “a weird place to work”.

Nevertheless, it is a place he is clearly still fond of. He lists the likes of Simon Hoare, Victoria Atkins, and Nadhim Zahawi as good friends, and identifies Laura Farris and Laura Trott as rising stars of the 2019 Conservative intake of MPs.

Whilst acknowledging the House of Commons is ultimately a place of “adversarial debate”, Buckland speaks passionately about the importance of building friendships across the House.

Fellow Welsh Labour politicians Carolyn Harris and Nick Thomas-Symonds are valued colleagues of Buckland’s, adding he has a “lot of time and respect” for SNP veterans Ian Blackford and Joanna Cherry.

Buckland makes no secret that he seeks a return to government, confirming he would be “more than happy to come back in” if asked to by Johnson, but accepted the decision is “a matter for the PM”.

For a politician whose get-up-and-go attitude to politics is undimmed 12 years in, one thing is for sure, he won’t be waiting for a phone call from Downing Street.

“I can’t sort of sit around waiting, I’ve got things to do.”