Parliament & Politics: The Sketch - Earl delivers double whammy on hereditaries' demise

AS HISTORICAL tableaux go the Secretary of State for Scotland's last appearance at the despatch box before the Scottish elections lacked a certain oomph - not very surprising really given that one of the more important dramatis personae, Alex Salmond, was nowhere to be seen. "Whairs yoor leaderrrr?" shouted Labour backbenchers at the lonely John Swinney, the sole member of the Scots Nats who could be spared from shoring up the party's collapsing election hopes. But Mr Dewar himself took a kindly line on his isolation: "In case anyone says something nasty about that from my side," he said, "I think we should have some consideration for those who might lose their seats." Mr Swinney grinned bravely - sympathy is one of the vilest substances you can have poured on you by an opponent higher in the opinion polls, and he had just taken a tubful.

Mr Dewar was in a pretty chipper mood all round - buoyed up, perhaps, by the exciting refrain that rang through ministerial replies: "From 1 July 1999 this will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament" - and though there weren't many opportunities for his dry wit he did his best. After his very last question as Secretary of State, a drably informative reply to Teddy Taylor, he apologised for the lack of entertainment: "I'm not sure that's the most exciting answer I've given but I hope, as it's likely to be my last, that it will have helped the Honourable Member." Mr Taylor muttered something sceptical about the prospect of ever seeing some Scottish members again. But Mr Dewar had reassurance: "He and I have been shouting abuse at each other for some 30 years - I'm sure he'll want that admirable level of co-operation to continue".

The porridge of the Commons will lose some of its salt without Mr Dewar. And the Lords will undoubtedly have less savour without the hereditaries too - as they proved with a brief flurry of straw-clutching during the second day of debate on the committee stage of the House of Lords Bill. The Conservatives had detected what they claimed to be an error in the drafting of the Bill. Hereditaries did not sit by virtue of their peerages, they argued, as the current wording implies, but by virtue of a writ of summons from the Queen. The Government viewed this bit of constitutional pettifogging with considerable suspicion, despite repeated protestations from the Opposition benches that they only had the Government's peace of mind at heart. If the Bill passed in its current form then who knows what legal challenges could follow? Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish memorably tried to clarify matters with a sporting metaphor. Imagine that we were trying to ban cricket, he said, and had failed to be specific about ball games in the legislation: "Supposing we did not specify a hard leather ball, and we just meant balls?" He looked the picture of innocence as peers sniggered but I had a feeling he knew exactly what he was doing. And in that respect, of course, although entertaining, he doesn't deliver the unique flavour that only the hereditaries can supply. Calculated nonsense is within the grasp of a life peer. But for the wild flare of instinctive tosh you need members of more venerable pedigree. Earl Ferrers supplied a good example yesterday, first insisting that he and his colleagues sought nothing but to protect the Government from its own folly, and then going on to point up the deep irony that Tony Blair should be fighting ethnic cleansers in Yugoslavia and pursuing "hereditary cleansing" in London. As I imagined a poignant straggle of refugees making its way across St James's Park, I realised that Earl Ferrers had pulled off a double. He supplied incontrovertible evidence of why the hereditaries should be dispatched and a reason for regretting that they soon will.

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