One of the last to serve in the ancient role of Britain’s Lord High Chancellor was a humble Scotsman by the name of James Mackay. Prior to constitutional reforms introduced by the Labour Government in the early 21st century, this office was the second most senior ministry in the British cabinet, combining executive, legislative and judicial powers. Its holder was speaker of the House of Lords and, most significantly, the person responsible for judicial appointments in England and Wales. (The office of Lord Chancellor as such still exists, but in a diminished form.) Mackay was not the first Scot to become Lord High Chancellor, but the first to do so after having served only at the Scottish bar, of which he was the leader. Mackay was appointed by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who considered him “the best lawyer in my government.” The president of the Law Society of Scotland agreed: “He is not only an outstanding man in his profession, but one of the most brilliant Scottish scholars of all time.”
James Peter Hymers Mackay was born in July 1927 in Edinburgh. His father, a porter/signalman for the Caledonian Railway Company, was an active elder in the local congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and it was in this theologically conservative denomination that James’ faith was nurtured, leading to his own profession of faith as a young man. He would later become an elder himself, and served the denomination as legal adviser and assistant clerk of Synod for a number of years. Even when in later life his public duties led him into conflict with denominational leadership, he referred to his church’s principles as “the most tender love that has ever been described.” In 1958, he married his wife Bett, and together they had a son and two daughters.
An integrated approach
After a brilliant career as a practicing lawyer, Mackay was appointed Lord Advocate of Scotland in 1979. He took the title, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, named after a tiny hamlet associated with his father’s family in the wilds of northwest Scotland. Significantly, although appointed by Conservative Prime Minister Thatcher, Mackay was also considered a suitable candidate by Thatcher’s Labour predecessor James Callaghan (1976-79), and it was generally agreed that (unlike previous appointments) his was not based on political considerations. After subsequently serving as a judge, Mackay became Lord High Chancellor in 1987. He resigned a decade later as the longest serving Lord High Chancellor continuously in office in the 20th century. He continues today in his late 80s to be active in the House of Lords. His public record (in and out of government) on such issues as divorce, embryo research, assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, Sunday trading, welfare reform, immigration and same-sex marriage can be readily found on the Internet. Among the voluntary positions he has held is Honorary President of the Scottish Bible Society. He also served in 2005 and 2006 as Lord High Commissioner (the Queen’s representative) to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
British Christians in political life generally approach their calling with less of a thought-out Christian philosophy of politics than, for instance, those who have been influenced by the Dutch theologian-politician Abraham Kuyper and his theory of “sphere sovereignty.” To approach political life without a comparably developed Christian philosophy can lead to compartmentalizing, where faith and politics have little to do with one another. James Mackay cannot be accused of this. His approach has been to work for the best possible compromises in the interests of maintaining justice and peace, while seeking to safeguard religious rights and limit the harmful effects of non-Christian legislation.
Acknowledging God always
In his own words, a Christian in public office “must act according to Christian principles but he is not alone and must be an influence for good so far as he can in dependence on divine grace.” His position on specific issues has left him open to criticism from church leaders and secularists alike, but his personal integrity and motives have been above question. His gracious manner in dealing with others has been noted with admiration by media, peers and ordinary folk alike. A former stenographer now in Christian service remembers how James Mackay’s courtesy in dealing with him contrasted with that of other lawyers. When serving as a judge, Mackay received a letter from an observer, commending him for sentencing a young man as if he were a father speaking to his son.
James Mackay will not be remembered as a crusader in the tradition of social reformers like William Wilberforce (1759-1883) or Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885). But by his consistently godly character and reasoned approach to justice for all, with the protection of religious rights, he continues to be a light in the world, reflecting the spirit of his Master, seeking always to acknowledge God in all his ways – trusting that as he does so, his steps will be made straight and his paths directed throughout life, as they have thus far been. This is no small achievement for a Christian in public office.