Drinking with the Scottish Lords

The House of Lords remains an amiably dotty place. We are at dinner with the Scottish peers, an annual affair to which I am from time to time lucky enough to be invited. It is a very enjoyable evening, especially because they don't allow speeches. Instead civilised conversation is the rule.

In the company you can easily detect the three kinds of modern peer. First there are the hereditary types and political amateurs. They have a certain shabby gentility the others cannot successfully imitate. One has come up from the deepest countryside for the day. He is wearing a suit, faded now, that was evidently bought in Savile Row many moons ago. On his feet is a pair of shoes with moulded plastic soles. The effect is incongruous but if he finds them comfortable who cares? He is extremely kindly and affable. He is what used to be called a toff.

The second kind of peer is the person who has had a distinguished career outside politics and is recruited for his wisdom or because he has marked his political card. In that category is Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden, who took his seat this week on the Conservative benches but satisfied his cross-bencher instincts by making his maiden speech in praise of Glasgow. Such peers have a certain detachment from the political struggle. They are involved but they have only their toes in the water.

The third kind of peer has taken the plunge. He can be a hereditary peer, like Lord Caithness (Minister of State at the Foreign Office) and Lord Strathmore (a Government whip), or he can have been elevated to a life peerage, like Lord Strathclyde, the Minister of State at the Scottish Office.

These men enjoy office and are clearly switched on by politics. In them you recognise the pro politician, a type much reviled by the public but worthy, in my book, of rather more admiration than they usually get. It is not everyone who can master a brief quickly or argue a point persuasively in public. Even in the more civilised ambience of the Lords, to address the Chamber must still be a daunting task.

One of the watering holes in the House of Lords is known as the lovers’ bar. The Palace of Westminster is not exactly a palace of varieties but the human comedy is certainly played out here. The life is well lubricated and has been so for many years. The late Willie Ross used to speak, with real sadness, of the many promising people whom he had seen succumb to drink in the long evenings.

Pitt the Younger liked a glass of wine, it was said, but preferred a bottle. Winston Churchill’s heroic drink consumption, recently detailed by a writer in the Times, ran as follows: for breakfast sometimes, a glass of hock; for lunch, a bottle of champagne followed by cognac; after a nap, weak whiskies and soda; for dinner, another bottle of champagne and more cognac; thereafter, whiskies and soda until bedtime. He lived, of course, to a ripe old age. People said he was never the worse for wear, though Hugh Dalton, in his Diaries, reported unease among civil servants about his drinking.

It is easy to see how politicians, and their researchers and secretaries, go astray in this overheated ship afloat on a sea of booze. The genuine anger directed at the press because of its exposure of politicians’ moral lapses arises from the fact that absolute impeccability must elude many people here, including the journalists themselves. The parliamentary hours remain an oddity but all attempts at reform, like attempts to reform the House of Lords itself, have failed.

Will the House of Lords survive? Should it survive? Some of its debates are excellent, achieving a disinterested quality impossible in the partisan House of Commons. Its survival reflects the endlessly subtle process by which the British state accommodates change and absorbs dissent.

We see the process at work right now: the SNP has been lured into the embrace of the bear. Nationalism has been talked up. There has been an odd alliance involving the Tories, the Sun and other newspapers. It has been elevated so that it can be dunted smartly on the head. And then it will be only a matter of time before the Sun rediscovers its true loyalties.

Later that evening we find ourselves having a dram with Lords Strathmore and Strathclyde. The talk turns to housing and I suddenly realise that these chaps are mere striplings. They grew up in a Scotland dominated by council housing while I can vividly remember the appalling slums in our cities after the war. These reflected the failure of private landlordism and stimulated the superabundance of council houses.

”You’re just kids,” I found myself saying to these alert politicians. It’s bad enough to find the policemen getting younger. I have, at any rate, promised to send them, if I can procure another copy, the excellent Scottish Housing in the Twentieth Century edited by Richard Rodger (Leicester University 1989). Therein they will find an account of the post-war housing crisis in Scotland by Andrew Gibb and of the achievements, and mistakes, that arose from its attempted solution.

Come to think of it, they could nip along to the Lords library and read it there. That was the library in which the Victorian litterateur Edmund Gosse enjoyed his sinecure. There are no sinecures now in the Lords, though no doubt a few of the buffers who come up from the country do it as much for social pleasure as anything. Good luck to them and, if logic has any place in our constitution, good night. But I suspect that the lights in this peculiar old place will go on burning for many years to come while, outside, the waves of constitutional reform boil upon the shore and then recede.

Why no speeches at our dinner? ”We once had a frightful harangue from Campbell Christie,” confides one peer of the realm, ”and we have never had any speeches since.” I was there that year: Campbell’s speech seemed all right to me but perhaps it had too much political edge. Bad form, don’t you know?