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?