On the face of it, the significance of a legal spat between three daughters of the late Lord Lambton and his only son, Lord Durham, over his will would seem to rate some way below other news – the appearance of David Icke on Alice Walker’s reading list, for example.
Yet as a parable of British life, and how the standards of the past live on today, the Lambton saga could hardly be bettered. With elements of sex, power, class and inherited money, it may feel like fiction from the past – Nancy Mitford rewritten by Julie Burchill – but it has a niggling relevance to today’s debates about privilege and division.
The cause of this recent trouble was Lord Lambton who, in one sense at least, was a traditionalist. A staunch believer in the aristocracy, he renounced his title early in life so that he could be elected to the House of Commons and then insisted on being called by it. When he died in 2006, he followed the ancient tradition of primogeniture, leaving his entire £12m estate to his male heir, Ned, youngest of four children.
In other areas, he was less concerned about correct procedure. A minor minister in the Heath government, he became briefly famous in the 1970s as a sort of cut-price Profumo, having been filmed naked and in bed with two prostitutes, “cavorting”, to use the press’s rather inappropriate term (Lambton was never one of life’s cavorters) and puffing on a toke. He resigned, later admitting in an interview with Sir Robin Day that, in order to deal with the futility of political life, he needed vigorous gardening and debauchery.
This languid honesty, and the fact that the British tend to have a soft spot for a sprauncy member of the aristocracy, earned Lord Lambton a comfortable billet on the fringe of the establishment. He retired to Tuscany, where he wrote novels and right-wing columns, giving the odd interview. “People who are well-born and brought up, go to public schools and are surrounded by people who look after them... mix with all classes from an early age,” he once told the writer Naim Attallah. “The keepers, the groom, people like that.”
A man who had failed in politics, had never had to work or worry about money, became regarded with a certain affection, even respect. There was a sense that he had a style and sophistication which other, more vulgar politicians lacked. He was a talented man who went slightly off the rails. Among those who stayed with him in Tuscany were Tony and Cherie Blair, and Prince Charles.
Many say that Lambton was charming but, to an outside eye, he seems ghastly. Self-indulgent, pleased with himself, a user of prostitutes, happy to quote tradition when it suited him and drop it when it did not. Perhaps his son, Lord Durham, now living off his handsome inheritance, is also charming. Certainly the media coverage, in 2013, has been as generous in its descriptions of him as journalists of the past were about his father. His life, often described as “colourful”, seems to have consisted of playing in a pop group, getting married three times, most recently to a woman 22 years his junior whom he approached with a declaration of love on Facebook, and spending time in the Philippines to, as he put it, “indulge all my Robinson Crusoe, Tarzan fantasies”.
However a member of the British aristocracy behaves, it seems he will be given a free pass by the media and the political classes. Money still talks. Inherited privilege is a short-cut to respectability. Few commoners who had lived a life of ease and pleasure thanks to family wealth would find themselves being affectionately described in the press as “colourful”.
One does not have to be a radical, or even particularly left-wing, to see that a society that still accords special status to those whose worth lies in a title and unearned money will remain uneasy, divided and resentful.
Let’s hear it for lookalikes
It is said that members of the Dutch royal family once approached senior members of the country’s national theatre with a request for acting lessons. The deal fell through when the actors were told that no reward would be forthcoming, beyond the honour of serving their nation.
Over here, we arrange things better. The Queen’s leading lookalike, Helen Mirren, in the persona and the stage costume of Her Majesty (the original being unavailable on that day) has just received a visit from a sick child.
Here, surely is a solution both to the problem of roles drying up for older actors and to the excessive demands on the royal family. The line between fact and fiction has now become so confused that an appearance by the heir to the throne and his wife, played by Nigel Havers and Penelope Wilton, would be enjoyed every bit as much as one by the rather less convincing original versions.
One lesson, though, should be learned from the Dutch experience. A respectable fee must be paid to the royal lookalikes.