Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Eccentric Earl, Michael Onslow, RIP

Michael William Coplestone Dillon Onslow: [It is a measure both of Michael Onslow's courage and tireless sense of duty that within weeks of his death from cancer he was still active in the Lords; his last speech was made only three weeks before he died. Paradoxically, although he served it well, he thought the House of Lords was well past its sell-by date...

The stories about Onslow are legion and, more surprisingly, most are true. He did pursue a bullock down the A3 on horseback and he also acquired an authentically Roman stone testicleto put under his wife's pillow. He inherited the earldom and the family estate in 1971 and confessed himself only too glad that Clandon, the family pile, had passed into the hands of the National Trust: the family had been "slaves to the servants". He was quite content to farm the 800 acres left to him and to attend the House of Lords. He sat loosely to the Conservative cause, once memorably telling the Daily Telegraph that he did not know what Tory policy was "on virtually anything", adding, "And I'd probably disagree with it if I did."

He had a dry wit and a trenchant turn of phrase. Taxed with being liberal on homosexuality on the television programme Have I Got News for You, he remarked that it was fine if the boys got together, less good if the gym master gets involved. Most of what he had to say concealed, robust common sense behind a slightly whimsical way of voicing it. Attacking apartheid, for example, he pointed out that "in Egypt the man in a mud hat on the Nile can dream of being a fat cat, but there is no such dream for a black South African – he cannot aspire to being white."

Michael William Coplestone Dillon Onslow was born on 28 February 1938, the eldest son of the 6th Earl, who had been a more orthodox Conservative, serving as deputy Chief Whip in the House of Lords in the Churchill, Eden and Macmillan administrations. ..

..{A}ny House which has me in it really needs to have its head examined." ...He thought it wrong that he had power over fellow citizens because his forebear had got tight with the Prince Regent, but he was against sending the peers packing when there was no agreement on what was to be put in their place. "If the Government is going to play 'silly monkeys' I'm going to behave like a football hooligan and bitch things up", he said...

{H} claimed, in a Guardian article, "to be a pustule on the rump of the body politic to remind Mr Blair of unfinished business."

Although he could be very funny about his ancestry – the Earldom had been a bribe to secure a previous Onslow's support for the Act of Union with Ireland, his earlier ancestors had been cattle thieves – membership of the House of Lords gave Onslow the confidence to express his views and a platform from which to air them. Beneath the charm and the somewhat raffish appearance lay a good deal of shrewdness and the occasional hint of steel. He could be deeply serious about things that mattered. "My father started his war service in Egypt in 1941 aged 28 and ended it in 1944 when he was captured at the Battle of Villers-Bocage. He had 13 tanks blown up underneath him in that time. I do not think that he ever went to bed sober," he told the Lords when discussing stress in battle. "He died extremely young, at the age of 57. Sometimes I worry and ask myself whether I began to understand him, and the answer is no, I did not..."

Pursuing somewhat Whiggish views, he was critical of racism in the police and army, and he sided with the farm workers' union when he condemned rogue employers who ousted them from their "tied cottages" and promptly sold them on for a large sum as second homes. He argued that Ian Smith's actions in Rhodesia were tantamount to treason.

If at times he took an unfashionable line, it was never without a great deal of knowledge. He fought the Thatcher government's Wild Life and Countryside Bill with a passionate seriousness that left little room for wit...

He attended the House almost to the end, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from cancer. But it did not prevent him from speaking his mind. His final speech was devoted to savaging the Coalition Government's attempt to impose fixed-term parliaments. Suggesting that it had gone "completely doolally over constitutional change", he added that in three decades in the House he had regarded himself as a disloyal Conservative – "and I will go on being a disloyal Conservative. If they are doing something that I believe is as fundamentally wrong as this, I will say so." There could be no better epitaph.

No comments: