Robert Shirley, Earl Ferrers: 1929 - 2012

The Conservative peer who served five prime ministers.

The Lord Speaker has just announced that Robert Shirley, the 13th Earl Ferrers, has died. He was 83, and had been unwell for some time. He had sat in the Lords for over 50 years, and served five prime ministers - as a lord-in-waiting, and as a minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Home Office and others. He was an extremely tall man, who seemed to uncoil himself with great dignity whenever he rose to speak in the Lords, but was always happy to bend down to hear what you had to tell him.

A New Statesman journalist marking the passing of a hereditary Conservative peer like this seems unlikely, I know. But a couple of years ago, I had the chance to meet Earl Ferrers on a few occasions (I used to work at Total Politics magazine, which is published by the same outfit that was publishing his gently brilliant memoir, Whatever Next?) and found him to be a charming, funny and fascinating man. He was a living piece of history - you only had to see the guestlist for his book launch party (which included a former prime minister and half of Thatcher's cabinet) to get a sense of the amount of time and effort he had ploughed into top-level politics, and the high regard in which he was held by some of the most eminent politicians of the last five decades.

In 1998, when the House of Lords was partially reformed and a ballot was held to choose the 92 hereditary peers who would hang on to their seats in the legislature, Earl Ferrers topped the list. He was popular, yes, but his fellow Lords also voted for him in recognition of the fact that, unlike some others, he considered being a peer to be a full-time job. While further reform of the upper house seems to have vanished off the agenda once again, in the future we mustn't forget that even in its undemocratic state, the Lords contained individuals like Earl Ferrers who, through an accident of birth, were placed in a position of power and went about their jobs with good humour, hard work and individuality.

If you never had the good fortune to meet him or see him speak, you're in luck - the Daily Mail serialised his book last year, so you can still read some extracts on their website. I also recommend the anecdote in this interview about how he once threw a rotting fish, repeatedly, at the Lords Chief Whip, Bertie Denham. I mean, who wouldn't?

Earl Ferrers in 1979. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.