Conrad Russell, described by a fellow peer as the cleverest man in the Lords, has just become Westminster's most unlikely spin doctor. The son of the philosopher and philanderer Bertrand Russell tells Rachel Sylvester how his beliefs were formed by his extraordinary childhood. Portrait by Ben Murphy
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WALK INTO the Central Lobby at the House of Commons and you will see a diminutive figure looking down his nose at you from a stone plinth. This is Lord (John) Russell, elected Prime Minister in 1846 and architect of the parliamentary reforms which made politics what it is today. Carry on down the gilt-lined corridor which leads to the House of Lords and you will find, on your left, a painting of a 17th-century nobleman, comforting his distraught wife. This is Lord (William) Russell, executed in 1683 for high treason but later glorified as a campaigner for democracy. Enter the austere library in the Upper Chamber and you will discover a well- thumbed leather-bound book. It is the History of Western Philosophy by Lord (Bertrand) Russell, philosopher, philanderer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Continue into the Lords tea room and you may see a donnish man, dressed in black, his white hair sticking out in all directions, shovelling 10 spoons of sugar into a cup of thick black coffee or sureptitiously taking an ashtray out of his pocket and lighting up another cigarette. He is Lord (Conrad) Russell, Professor of History at King's College, London, Liberal Democrat spokesman on social security and, according to one Conservative peer, "the cleverest man in the House of Lords". If there is any family which could support the case for the hereditary peerage, this extraordinary dynasty is it. The Russells - with their motto "che sara sara" (what will be will be) - have been promoting liberal values with a combination of brains, stubbornness and eccentricity for more than 400 years.

The 5th Earl, Bertrand's son, is obsessed, haunted you could say, by his family, both by their achievements and by their failings. This man, who lived for 10 years without speaking to his father and more than 30 without speaking to his mother, says he has sometimes felt the Russells are under a "Greek curse" that causes madness, misery and suicide as well as greatness. Unlike most of his aristocratic colleagues, he does not believe that his heritage should give him the right to vote in Parliament. When we meet for tea (actually a glass of tap water for him) he has been speaking in the debate on reform of the Lords, supporting the Government's proposal to throw him out. "I can't get up and assert that hereditary peers are legitimate and I'm not going to," he says, in his wavering Dickensian voice. "The real harm hereditary peerages do isn't to all the people who resent them but to all the people who respect them, because they then denigrate themselves."

This is in keeping with family tradition. Bertrand Russell refused to use his title because he thought it was elitist. His son remembers that his childhood home was so unaristocratic that the postman once refused to deliver a telegram for "The Countess Russell" because he did not believe that the woman on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor could be who she said she was. "Yes, and I'm the King of Persia," he said. The current Lord Russell hates the snobbery associated with a peerage - he tells the story of being stopped late at night by the police when he was driving through Islington with David Starkey ("They obviously thought we were on a drug run"). When he gave his name as Conrad Russell, from Kilburn, he says, the questioning intensified, but when Starkey chirped up that he was "Professor, the Earl Russell", the car was immediately waved on. But he is more pragmatic than his father about using his title - apart from anything else, he has calculated, with characteristic precision, that it makes his letters three times more likely to be published in the newspapers. "My party has to put up with all kinds of unjust politicial arrangements and I don't see why I shouldn't take the smooth with the rough," he says. "My father was a prophet not a politician."

Conrad Russell is more of a politician. While Bertrand took up causes such as women's rights and nuclear disarmament with all the passion of a student activist, his son joined the mainstream. He stood for the Labour Party first but became a Liberal Democrat in 1974. "We are now the only left-wing party," he says. "Tony Blair is a Tory." Paddy Ashdown's strategy of co-operating with the Government is, he thinks, "appeasement", which is never going to win the prize of proportional representation.

Recently Lord Russell has developed a new role, as Westminster's most unlikely spin doctor, operating on behalf of Jacqui Ballard in her bid to become leader of the Lib Dems. "She was the strongest candidate on that wing of the party," he says, "and I'm convinced we have already won the primary." Over the past few months, there has been a lot of covert activity: telephone calls to journalists with cryptic messages worthy of Peter Mandelson; attempts to broker deals behind the scenes. In the next few weeks it will come out into the open as the leadership race formally kicks off.

Lord Russell is also the party's front-bench spokesman on social security in the Lords, with a reputation for honesty which makes both the Government and the Conservatives happy to deal with him. One of his close friends in the Lords is Lady Young, the former Tory Cabinet minister who campaigned against the lowering of the age of consent. Although he completely disagreed with her on this, the two peers still admire each other.

"He is greatly respected and completely reliable," says Lady Young. "He is a master of the social security system, which very few people understand."

This grasp of detail is the skill of the academic: he is as used to scouring dusty documents as he is to skimming select committee reports. When he left university, Lord Russell says, he was divided between politics, history and the law. The "history door" opened first, with a series of teaching posts, and his books on the Civil War are recognised as the standard texts on the period. One senses that this fascination with the past stems partly from the desire to put his own disturbed childhood in context. "Every time my father told a family story I used to ask him what happened next and he would say history does not relate. I was always sure it would relate if you asked it in the right way."

Conrad Sebastian Rupert Russell (his father was such an admirer of the novelist, a friend, that he called both of his sons Conrad) was born in 1937 to Bertrand and his third wife, Patricia, known as Peter. His father was 65 when he was born and he appeared to contemporaries at school as a child from an earlier age. "He is a very Victorian figure, partly, I suppose, because his father was a Victorian," says the Tory MP Andrew Rowe, who was at Eton with him.

The family had lived in 15 places in America and Europe by the time Conrad was seven, and he was aware that there were difficulties over money - an eccentric millionaire had refused to continue funding his father when he produced a series of "substandard" essays ("they're now the History of Western Philosophy," Lord Russell says, deadpan). School was an ordeal. In America he was bullied for being too English: "I thought I'm not going to change to please them, I'm an Englishman and they will have to live with it." So his parents sent him to England, to Dartington, a progressive institution where lessons were optional and, when he went to them, he was picked on for being a swot. He ended up at Eton, where he was beaten up because he had not been to the right prep school, could not play cricket and did not understand the social rules. "We were asked to write an essay on the Boxing Day meet and I had no idea what it was.'' Contemporaries remember a boy with inky fingers and a skew-whiff tie reading Jane Austen's Emma out loud on the lawn and ranting about the Suez crisis while they smoked behind the bike sheds. "He was eccentric." says Andrew Rowe, "and, in that unkind way boys have, he was a bit of a figure of fun, partly because he was so passionate, serious-minded." Lord Russell says he was miserable. "I never really fitted into any of the successive worlds I was put in. But then almost all politicians are getting their own back for having been bullied at school." He sent his own two sons to William Ellis, a state school in north London.

The problem was that the young Conrad was different from the other children - he had debated military strategy with Liddell Hart over dinner at the age of eight ("the bystanders said I had the upper hand") and discussed Indian politics with close friends of Nehru and Gandhi at the age of nine. It sounds like a fascinating childhood but Lord Russell says, "Like James Bond, it reads better than it lives." He says: "I was self-confident in arguing but I was not socially self-confident. I was at ease with grown-ups, but I grew up without other children."

The isolation was exacerbated when he was 12: his parents separated and he moved with his mother to a house in Cornwall with no running water or electricity, and three miles from the nearest village. Conrad felt a failure because he, her only companion, was unable to make her happy. "There's a lot one doesn't want to remember," he says. The family was on holiday in Sicily when the split happened - Bertrand had got very drunk at a party, after the drinks were spiked. Friends suspect that this made his wife panic because she had grown up living in fear of her own father, a violent alcoholic - her mother had taken her away from him in the dead of night when she was nine. Years later, in Sicily, Conrad was woken by his mother and told that a taxi was coming to collect her in 20 minutes to take her away from his father for good. "I kept thinking that if I had been awake I would have been able to persuade her not to rush out of the door," he says now. "I have never been prepared to tackle anything in the first hour after waking up ever since."

He did not see his father throughout his teens and was haunted by the old myth, recycled by his embittered mother, that Bertrand was mad and that the condition was hereditary. He developed a phobia that the family had been put under some sort of curse - exacerbated by several close relations with schizophrenia and one who committed suicide. In fact, the philosopher, though eccentric, was far from insane, and they re-established contact when Conrad was in his twenties.

But by then Conrad's mother had ceased to be in touch with her son; shortly after he got married she suddenly told him, without offering any explanation, that she never wanted to see him again. Friends say she has, at some point, severed links with almost everyone she has ever known. Cruelly, she chose to tell her son that she had decided to cut him off just as he was heading out of the door for an interview for a fellowship of an Oxford college. (He was not appointed.) Lord Russell has not seen his mother for 36 years, although, bizarrely, she is a local Liberal Democrat activist who deals regularly with his colleagues in the Commons. "The family is like a papal schism," he says. He had little contact with his father's other wives or mistresses, al- though he once met Dora, Bertrand's second wife. "Human rhinoceros," he says. "Charged straight on, veering neither to the right nor to the left."

While Bertrand was notorious for his womanising, Conrad lists "uxoriousness" as one of his recreations in Who's Who. "The real trouble with marriage," he says, "is that you don't see enough of each other." But he admits that he was paranoid that he would recreate his parents' relationship when he fell in love with, and then married, one of his students. Elizabeth Sanders was, he says, one of the two most brilliant people he has ever taught and he was determined to be proper throughout. They had a Jane Austen-style courtship, of which Lord Russell's supervisors were kept fully informed, and he is still clearly devoted. "I was over-aware not to be like my father. There was a quite excessive determination not to go into the same pattern - and that sense of panic doesn't pay."

Lord Russell admits he is stalked by the ghosts of his ancestors. "I had no other real contact for a lot of the time and that created a great attachment to the sense of continuing family over the centuries ... It brought this sense of a Greek curse into perspective because looking at them over the centuries they were an ordinary collection of people, some distinguished, some not." But he still feels the burden of living up to his heritage. When he was a child, he says, his father was constantly on the radio and the "New Statesman was always coming to lunch", and he feels he only began to combine - in the same way that his father did - his political and academic skills when he got into the House of Lords 10 years ago.

He quotes a poem: "His son resigned unto the heavenly will/ Doth carry on the business still."

But, he says, "It took me about 50 years to be sure I was really able to do that." 2