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Office politics

The slot at the end of The Westminster Hour on Sunday evenings is rarely dull and often quite informative.

19 May 2006

8:29 AM

19 May 2006

8:29 AM

The slot at the end of The Westminster Hour on Sunday evenings (repeated Wednesdays) is rarely dull and often quite informative. The last two maintained the consistency — the first, ‘The Gentleman Usher’, had an interview with a former Black Rod, Sir Edward Jones, explaining the nature of his work; and last Sunday’s, ‘The Lloyd George Papers’, presented by Trevor Fishlock, took a two-part look at the letters of Lloyd George. The office of Black Rod, by its traditional nature, seems to irritate many people, particularly those who hate the past or who are ignorant or unappreciative of history.

Jones, a retired army officer, as most office holders appear to have been, described how Malcolm Rifkind, when defence secretary, warned him about Dennis Skinner’s heckling at the state opening of Parliament. He found his first such occasion nerve-wracking, as there are no instructions on how to do the job, it’s simply been passed down from generation to generation. It’s not just about security at the House of Lords but also the smooth running of the place. Once, a peer, a junior member of the government, stormed into his office complaining that there were no scratch cards with his copy of the Sun that morning. At first Jones thought it was a joke but the peer was serious and he had to find some cards for him. At lunchtimes he would go home to change into his uniform and walk back across College Green in tailcoat, breeches, tights and buckled shoes. Londoners evidently thought this was perfectly normal but tourists gawped and would follow him. He resisted attempts by the Blair government to make him wear trousers instead. He believes a bit of colour and tradition enlivens public life, though he would be happy to see the name of the House of Lords changed to something else, the Senate, perhaps.

He was Black Rod when the Blair government kicked out most of the hereditary peers, and was criticised for writing to them, telling them that they had to clear their desks by the following week or their possessions would be thrown away. He pointed out, though, that time was short and the parties’ chief whips had all declined to write the letters, leaving it to him. He regretted, though, not personally signing the letters in his own hand. We must have had a pretty wet ambassador in Paris when President Chirac paid a state visit because Jones recalled receiving a call from him in which he expressed concern that when Chirac addressed MPs and peers in the Queen’s Gallery he would be confronted by two very large and, in the circumstances, sensitive paintings: one of Nelson dying on the quarterdeck of Victory, the other of Wellington meeting Marshal Blücher on the field at Waterloo. He wanted them covered up and Jones refused.

‘The Lloyd George Papers’ drew on letters and documents held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and Fishlock acknowledged that not everyone regards the former Liberal prime minister as the towering political figure his admirers would claim. In last week’s column I reviewed a Radio Four programme about his selling of honours through Maundy Gregory to raise party funds, and this certainly tarnished his career. Nor did he do much for his party in the end, as it almost died after he left office in the early 1920s. He was an unusual politician at the time, though, an outsider who’d neither been to public school nor university; he reached the top by fierce ambition. Graham Jones, the head of archives at the library, told Fishlock that Lloyd George’s father died when he was quite young and he regarded his uncle Richard Lloyd, a Liberal and a lay preacher, as his adoptive father. He always signed his family letters ‘D’, ‘Dai’ or ‘Dei’, and regretted that his wife Margaret refused to live in London with him, remaining home in Wales.

He often wrote in Welsh and Jones thought this was because his letters were scanned by the security services and he knew they wouldn’t be able to understand them. After meeting the new king, George V, he wrote from Balmoral: ‘The king is a very jolly chap. Thank God that there is not much in his head. They’re very, very simple ordinary people. Perhaps on the whole that is a good thing.’ Lloyd George’s affair with Frances Stevenson began 25 years into his marriage after she became his daughter Megan’s governess and then his secretary. I would have liked more, though, about his experiences as a wartime prime minister but perhaps we’ll hear about that in next Sunday’s programme.

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