John Bowers KC

I was born and raised in Grimsby, which inevitably makes me a passionate supporter of Grimsby Town Football Club! I left Grimsby for Oxford University, and from there, I went to London to become a Barrister and eventually a KC. I specialised in employment law and worked on some of the most significant employment law cases. The case with the most claim to be a landmark was the application to the European Court of Human Rights on the employment of gay servicemen in the military. I also acted in major industrial disputes such as the 1984 Miners Strike, the 1989 Docks Dispute, the News International Wapping dispute, numerous rail disputes and Gate Gourmet. In my career’s later stages, I worked on many equal pay and discrimination cases. Eight years ago, I was elected as the Principal of Brasenose College, at Oxford University. This is how I now spend all of my time during term time, and I sit as a Judge outside term.

I have written 12 books on employment law and have now published my first book for a wider audience, Downward Spiral, which examines collapsing public standards in government and how to restore them. Some of the employment law tomes are quite niche! I felt compelled to write this book because of a total lack of ethical conduct in some recent governments, and a concern that no one had the power to prevent this spiral downwards.
Downward Spiral audits the different ethical regulators (eg the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the Electoral Commission) that are supposed to regulate public standards. The book exposes how they have been bypassed by prime ministers and others determined to impose their agenda, particularly throughout the Johnson era, which will be remembered for a series of scandals that severely eroded trust in the British government. From questionable PPE tenders and public appointments to the ‘partygate’ fiasco, every aspect of public life seemed tainted, and the problem started at the top. I argue that we need a more coordinated and judicialised system of regulating public conduct rather than informal conventions, which the prime minister can abolish. When someone like Boris Johnson, a populist willing to ignore institutions that protect the rule of law, is in power, there is a significant risk. With my background as a lawyer, involvement in governance and ethical issues, and passion for the topic, I felt equipped to write this book.

I started writing it during COVID and did most of the research during that time. I interviewed many people with intimate knowledge of the system and was lucky to have amazing access to senior-level people. I talked to permanent secretaries, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as many journalists, civil servants and politicians from all sides.

Self-discipline is important when writing a book and I did most of my writing very early in the morning. My experience at the bar helped me gather lots of material, bring it together, and present it in a concise and argumentative (and hopefully persuasive) way, while still bringing balance (which is a job requirement as a judge!). Cutting it down was challenging, especially when you have many more in-depth interviews that you want to include! (Perhaps I will write another book!)

My aspiration for this book is to provide a route map for a new Government to impact public policy positively. I wrote this book out of a deep passion for good ethical governance. I believe that the system has gone backwards over time, and I hope this book helps change that.

Circle Square Member Q&A

What 3 words best describe you? Warm, passionate, northerner.

If you could offer your younger self one piece of advice, what would that be? Don’t work too hard.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement? My three children and one grandchild. 

Which person (dead or alive) would you most like to invite to dinner? Clement Attlee to understand how someone so apparently ordinary and low key could be such a game-changing politician.

How has age strengthened your advantage? It brings the advantage of experience and wisdom.

What inspired you to join Circle Square? Noam and Nick.

Downward Spiral is available to buy here. Plus, we are thrilled that John will launch Downward Spiral at an exclusive Circle Square event on Wednesday 1st May, in conversation with publisher, Andrew Franklin. Join us to examine one of the most important issues facing democracy in Britain today. Click here to register.

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