OBITUARY : Lord Airedale

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The Independent Online
Oliver James Vandeleur Kitson, fourth Baron Airedale, was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, and lived, when he was not in the House of Lords, in Ufford Hall, a large if somewhat dilapidated mansion near Stamford in Lincolnshire. This conjures up the popular picture of an hereditary peer. Nothing could be more misleading.

His appearance, to borrow a journalist's phrase in describing one of Airedale's fellow peers, "showed an almost ostentatious disregard for fashion" or even for the normal conventions of tidiness. His favourite drink was elderflower champagne, which he brewed himself. He showed no sign of personal ambition or of any desire to advance his own interests. He was a natural and loyal member of the Liberal Party and later of the Liberal Democrat Party, but was always content to be an utterly reliable supporter, without seeking any frontbench position.

The House of Lords was the ideal forum for Airedale's own approach to politics. An ardent supporter of individual human rights, he identified causes to which he attached great importance, and fought for them gently but relentlessly - consumer protection, animal welfare and, above all, the maintenance of the policies and procedures which he recognised as essential to the underpinning of democratic government. In his own quiet, unassuming but very determined way he was an able and devoted politician. The House recognised this and he became Deputy Chairman of Committees in the Lords in 1961 and Deputy Speaker in 1967.

He was also a long-standing member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. This body, perhaps not widely known away from Westminster, is an invaluable watchdog ensuring that governments do not, either deliberately or inadvertently, slip through legislative changes in regulations which have not been subject to proper parliamentary control. Membership involves a great deal of hard, detailed, unglamorous work, the sort of work for which Airedale was peculiarly well suited and which he obviously enjoyed. He had a close knowledge of the way a democratic parliament is supposed to work and was a stickler for the most rigorous application of the rules. Over and over again, when some procedural matter was being argued in the Chamber of the House, Airedale would rise quietly from his backbench seat and provide the precise and exact answer to the question under discussion.

He was also a stickler for the correct use of the English language. He understood how slovenliness in language could lead to dangerously muddled thinking. One of his determined but unsuccessful campaigns was to change the words used by the Home Secretary when wiping out a conviction for "free pardon" to "grant of exoneration": no one would wish to be "pardoned" for a crime never committed.

Lord Airedale was a very private person. He was good- tempered, good-humoured and friendly, always willing to chat at meal times, or in the appropriate parts of the library. But he also appeared to be happy in his own company. A bachelor, living alone, he was no recluse. An agreeable companion in the House, he seemed to enjoy, but not particularly to need the company of other people. He could talk interestingly on a range of subjects, but was obsessed by none; or if he was, he kept it to himself. Quiet persistence for the causes in which he believed was perhaps his distinguishing characteristic.

At this time of year we would be waiting, and this year will wait in vain, for him to ask when the Government would implement the Easter Act of 1928 fixing the date of Easter. Easter "wandering all over the calendar", as he put it, seemed illogical and untidy. In such matters he did care about tidiness.

Nancy Seear

Oliver James Vandeleur Kitson, politician: born 22 April 1915; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1941; succeeded 1958 as fourth Baron Airedale; Deputy Chairman of Committees, House of Lords 1961-96, Deputy Speaker 1962-96; died 19 March 1996.