This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
His full name is Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith. He’s worth £9.5m. And he knows the Queen.
But Lord Strathclyde (Tom to his friends) does not take kindly to the label ‘posh’.
We’re talking about his title. I point out that it’s quite difficult to pronounce.
“Lord Strathclyde. That good enough?” he replies.
No, the… erm… French bit.
He sighs. “I know what you’re getting at… It’s du Roy de Blicquy,” he pronounces in a polished French accent (including subtle notes of disdain).
“But we don’t need to worry about that,” he adds, waving away my question from the space between us.
It’s a hot May afternoon, and the balcony doors are open in the leader of the Lords’ deluxe office. We sit on a plump sofa with a view onto his vast terrace. In the adjoining room, half a dozen electric fans waft warm air on his overheated staff.
Does the Conservative Party need to address its posh label? “This is a perception put out by our enemies, who believe the public are fooled into thinking that if Conservative is posh, it’s not for them
“It’s not about whether you’re posh, where you come from, where you went to school or how you speak. These are mid-20th-century notions, and have no place now.”
Do his ‘enemies’ include Nadine Dorries (who described George Osborne and David Cameron as “two arrogant posh boys”)?
“I thought it was very rude and unnecessary of her to say that,” says Lord Strathclyde. “I’m not sure why she did. I’ve known Osborne and Cameron for a very long time. You couldn’t get people who are straighter in the politics they believe in.”
What matters for politicians now is if they are “authentic”, he says. “I believe in being honest, not trying to spin your way out of everything. In the next few years we’re going to see the death of the whole poisonous spin machine that was introduced by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell and others of that ilk in the 1990s… It will rebalance the relationship between politicians and the people who elect them, so that we all understand where we are.”
Lord Strathclyde grew up surrounded by politics. His father and grandfather were Scottish MPs. His father was MP for Glasgow Hillhead but died in 1982, triggering the by-election won by Roy Jenkins. A young Strathclyde took over the family’s hereditary peership on the death of his grandfather in 1985, at the tender age of 25.
“I come from a politics that is immersed in Glasgow… They would never have been elected if they had relied on the votes of the rich. Nor did Margaret Thatcher, and nor did we, in 2010. We relied on people who shared our values.”
What does he think is the public’s perception of him? He looks flummoxed for a moment. “Of me personally? I don’t think the public have any impression of me at all. I don’t think they’ve ever heard of me.” He roars with laughter.
After a pause, he turns to his special adviser, James. “What kind of feedback do you get? You’d better be nice. Your job’s on the line,” he jokes.
James replies: “You want to know what my Dad says?”
“Yes, I want to know what James’ Dad says,” laughs Lord Strathclyde, clearly delighted.
“There’s a sense of not being afraid to deal with stuff head-on,” says an earnest James. “When politicians are interviewed, you can tell when it’s a brief and when it’s them… That’s what Mr Marshall of Yorkshire would say.”
Lord Strathclyde wags his finger. “If only you knew how much of this is being made up as I go along…
“You’re in the job for at least another month,” he nods at James.
One peer frowns when quizzed about the Lords leader. “He’s a great man, very talented, but sometimes you just can’t take him seriously. I’m not sure he can take himself seriously, either.”
Lord Strathclyde certainly has the look of an overgrown schoolboy. He’s chubby-cheeked, with sparkly eyes and side-swept hair. He admits that he didn’t take his studies very seriously. “[I did] insufficiently,” he laughs.
Now, even when on official business in the Lords, he cannot resist entertaining his audience. In one YouTube video, entitled: “Not even Lord Strathclyde can take Lords reform seriously”, the leader of the Lords plays to the chamber. “My Lords, since the general election we have received over 180 letters from members of the public,” he exclaims. “And since the publication of the white paper, we’ve received over 30 pieces of correspondence.” It meets with raucous false politicians’ laughter.
“There is no public appetite [for Lords reform],” he agrees now. “People aren’t really interested in more politicians… There are lots of people interested in politics, but not necessarily many interested in party politics.” A lack of tribalism, perhaps? “Yes,” he agrees.
Would he have stood for election if the Lords was an elected chamber? “Gosh,” he fumbles. “Would I have done in the past? Possibly…”
He trails off in thought. “I’m not sure I would ever have made a good MP,” he continues. “But the House of Lords is wonderful. You may not get the same power and authority, but you do get to play a part… it doesn’t necessarily block or stop the machinery of government, but it influences the decisions that are made.”
Lord Strathclyde was one of just 92 hereditary Lords selected to stay after the 90s’ cull. “I came here very young,” he says. “When the hereditary peers were flung out in 1998, everybody assumed they were a bunch of old farts. But actually the average age of the Lords actually went up by five years. We’re now a relatively old House.”
He didn’t receive any advice from his forefathers about how to treat the Upper House. “My grandfather never thought I would come to the House of Lords,” Strathclyde explains. “He assumed it would all be abolished before I got anywhere near the place.” He laughs and softly thumps the sofa.
But it hasn’t always been so jolly. He says “without a doubt” his most difficult time in politics was the expulsion of the hereditary peers. “It went on for months. There were some very sad moments. People who had served for a long time felt they were basically being thrown out – not because of what they had done but because of who they were. It was very oppressive and a miserable time. We were slightly sold a false prospectus. It was all going to be for a great purpose – and then nothing else happened.”
How does he feel about being the guy who could abolish the remaining hereditary peers? “My kind were abolished long ago in 1997, so I’m indifferent to the remaining hereditary peers in the House of Lords. It was well understood in 1998 that the House being created was an interim House, before moving on to a stronger, democratically-elected second chamber.”
He stops himself. “You want to talk about reform, don’t you?”
We do, but Lord Strathclyde may not. How confident is he that the reforms to the Lords will pass? (He’s been reluctant to answer this question definitively in the past.) “It’s difficult, because the scene changes almost week-by-week. We’ve always said that the Lords is not going to be reformed with a proper electoral mandate unless there is a consensus between the parties… If Labour supports the legislation, it will go through and we will have elections in 2015.”
This week, how confident is he that Lords reform will pass? “50/50.”
Lord Strathclyde is one of the prime minister’s closest companions. Has he encountered any of Cameron’s famous ‘Flashman’ tendencies over Lords reform?
“I have found a deeply rational, sensible, extremely intelligent individual with a healthy dose of good humour, who works immensely hard.”
They come into contact often. “I see him a lot. I have a sort of laissez passé to his 8.30 meetings if I want to,” Lord Strathclyde explains. “He’s very engaged in what happens in Parliament, particularly the House of Lords.”
He pauses. “Is it all going incredibly smoothly in the best of all possible worlds? Well, no, but that’s not in the nature of politics. You talk to some of our great predecessors – Norman Tebbit or Norman Fowler – they all agree we look back to the 80s and 90s with rose-tinted spectacles. Every day was hard work. There were banana skins. Things went horribly wrong. People got caught out. That’s the nature of politics.”
But the nature of politics changes when you are in coalition. “Coalitions are messier,” he agrees. “Messages get distorted, disagreements are more visible between elections.”
He says he avoids rows with his Lib Dem opposite number Lord McNally. “It’s not our way of dealing. We sometimes have to speak very frankly with each other about our respective backbenches and the difficulties that sometimes come from it.”
Sounds very fiery… So what’s the frankest exchange of views they’ve had? “I’m not sure if I could possibly comment on that,” he says. “But in the health bill, there were periods, days, when we both felt very exasperated with what was going on.”
Despite his view that party politics matters less nowadays, Lord Strathclyde is not beyond scoring a few points off his coalition partners. “It’s more difficult for the Lib Dems. In the Conservative Party, the House of Lords is largely made up of former members who’ve been backbenchers, who’ve been ministers, who’ve been in cabinet, who understand the process of government. The Lib Dems are used to being in opposition, almost forever, and have had a more difficult process of transition from being a party that’s always attacking to being a party that’s having to defend.”
He points out that there have been even more problems for the coalition in the Lords – namely, there wasn’t room for everyone to sit. “The Lib Dems used to sit on the bishops’ bench, but there was a bit of argy-bargy early on in this government between sharp-elbowed bishops and brave Lib Dems who tried to sit there. We brought peace in our sort of United Nations way by moving the two sides apart. We put the Lib Dems at the other end of the chamber.”
In his other role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord Strathclyde oversees the administration and estates of one of the two royal duchies in England. He spent the Queen’s Jubilee as part of the royal flotilla that went down the Thames, and his road in Westminster (where neighbours include Lord Ashcroft and Keith Simpson MP) held a street party – “which, paradoxically, has been largely organised by foreigners. The Germans and the Italians and the Hong Kongers really get into it. We come along for the ride”.
So, go on, what’s Her Majesty like? “There are no anecdotes I can possibly give you about the Queen,” he replies. “Although, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster I have a magnificent tie. And whenever I see the Queen, I always get the feeling that she recognises the tie before she recognises me.”
It’s all getting a bit Hello! magazine. So what are Kate and Wills like? “They’re wonderful. Thank goodness. I have no anecdotes about them at all. I’m a full loyalist and monarchist and all the rest of it. How could I be otherwise?”
There’s something old-fashioned about ‘Lord Strathclyde: the reformer’. He’s not taken a view yet on gay marriage (“but I think it’s something that needs a free vote. It will come to a matter of conscience, in the same category as abortion, euthanasia…”). His favourite food is shepherd’s pie. And the most romantic thing he’s ever done is cook “good food” for his wife, although he avoids his “speciality of spaghetti bolognaise”.
So we come back to the question, is Lord Strathclyde posh? “Many years ago, I had a conversation with a former editor of The Sun, and he said the most important word in their lexicography was ‘toff’. What happened to ‘toff’? We’ve all gone from being ‘toffs’ to ‘posh’. I’m not going to try and fight it. Of course when people look at me they see ‘posh’, and if that’s the label, then I’m perfectly happy to go along with it and live my life.”
‘Toff’ may be purged from modern tabloid English, but posh Lord Strathclyde is here to stay.
“Retire from work? I shall go on and on. In any case, none of us are going to be able to afford to retire until we’re about 80.”
What’s the last thing you do before you go to sleep? “Thank God that I’ve survived… especially so at the moment.”
With that, Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith hauls himself off the sofa and heads to the sunny patch on his great stone balcony.