Ease up Derry and stare at those fine walls

MANY years ago I too was involved in a controversy concerning A W Pugin's original wallpaper, in this case for the House of Commons. It was in the early 1950s at the Cambridge Union. The question was whether part of the society's premises should be redecorated with the wallpaper in question.

Whether it was the original stuff or a remake from the blocks I now forget. Anyway, it was expensive. There was no doubt about that. My friend in the Labour Club, Christopher Norwood (MP for Norwich South 1964-70 and now dead, poor chap), calculated that it would be cheaper to paper the area with ten-shilling notes, which still existed in those days. The issue became politicised: the left against the rest, with the left maintaining that the money could be better expended on other causes, such as cheaper beer.

We were defeated, probably correctly, I now think. Pugin's wallpaper was duly purchased and pasted. I think it was torn down in the late 1960s or the early 1970s because it was considered to be elitist. Those were the days when the cowardly dons at King's were for the same reason forced by the undergraduate revolutionaries to instal Formica tables in the college hall. But that, as they say, is another story.

Over the Lord Chancellor's wallpaper the political sides have been reversed. It is now the Tory press, somewhat feebly followed by the party in the Commons - as it usually is these days - which denounces the extravagances of office. I was about to write that it is now the People's Party which supports the acquisition of objects of beauty. But that would not be entirely accurate.

For the party is on the defensive, uneasily shuffling one foot, then the other. It wishes the whole question of Lord Irvine of Lairg and his expensive tastes in interior decoration would go away. Some of its leading members, indeed, would like Lord Irvine to go away.

Of this there is not the slightest chance, unless he falls off the Woolsack, or something of that nature. He is not only a friend of Mr Tony Blair but Mr Blair is in some awe of him. Last week the Whips behaved like members of the old East German secret police in trying to persuade backbenchers to withdraw their names from a motion framed by Mr Robert Marshall-Andrews QC. This calls for the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor and for the transferring of his functions to a minister of justice in the Commons.

There is nothing very revolutionary about this proposal. It has been talked about for as long as I can remember, by people who have nothing to do with the Labour Party. The Lord Chancellor presides over the Lords, sits in the Cabinet, performs in the Lords as a government spokesman, judges as one of the Law Lords (though that is becoming rarer), appoints judges and is responsible for the entire legal system. He is a walking refutation of the doctrine of the separation of powers. He (there has never been a woman in the job) has been retained because he is part of tradition and, in some mysterious way, is thought to "work".

Besides, a ministry of justice has a nasty, continental sound to it. Justice, we think - and it is not an ignoble sentiment - is, or should be, a matter for impartial judges rather than for interested politicians. In reality we already have a minister of justice in the person of Mr Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. Despite the development of judicial review in the last 30-odd years, he continues to exercise wide and often arbitrary powers over aliens, criminals and those accused of crime. A minister of justice would assume some of the lord chancellor's functions and some of the home secretary's.

Labour's 1992 manifesto said: "We will appoint from the House of Commons a minister for legal administration, who will initially be part of the Lord Chancellor's department. We will go on to create a department of legal administration headed by a minister in the Commons who will be responsible for all courts and tribunals in England and Wales."

This is something less than a ministry of justice but more than the present arrangement, which has Mr Geoff Hoon (who is almost as clever as his master) as Lord Irvine's representative in the lower House. And anyway the promise had disappeared by the time the 1997 manifesto came to be written. But Mr Marshall-Andrews is perfectly entitled to raise these matters without being threatened by the Whips. The consolation is that, of a government side composed largely of powder-puffs and marshmallows, he is the last person to succumb to such usually empty threats.

The reason why they are being made is that Mr Blair's apparatchiks are abnormally sensitive about Lord Irvine. They are sensitive because he is outside their control. He is so because of his formal position, his relationship with the Prime Minister and his own manner, which his admirers would describe as formidable, his enemies as bullying.

On the redecoration of Lord Irvine's apartments I am entirely on his side and, more particularly, on that of Lady Irvine, who, as an art historian of a generation preceding the tedious Marxists who have now got their hands on the trade, knows what she is talking about. Nor is it as if they were claiming ownership either of the property or of the pictures which were mouldering (in some cases, literally so) in the cellars of various Scottish galleries. They have perfectly good pictures of their own, including some Sickerts which they lent to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1992- 93.

They also have some perfectly good houses, in north London and Scotland, in which they might well prefer to live if they had a free choice. Most ministers would prefer to live in their own homes. James Callaghan as prime minister in 1976-79 actually managed to do so, retiring from No 10 to his flat in Kennington on most evenings. What we are seeing over Lord Irvine is English philistinism, English envy and, I am afraid, English snobbery: for what would be considered normal, even laudable, in the son of an Irish earl such as Lord Gowrie is found to be reprehensible in the son of a Scottish slater such as Lord Irvine.

About Lord Irvine's manifold political activities I am more doubtful. But it is not entirely his fault. He is being asked to do too much. He is the first lord chancellor since 1945 to play an active role in party politics. Lords Jowitt, Gardiner and Mackay were all reforming lord chancellors too. But their reforms were legal rather than political. The other six were content more or less to keep the machine ticking over. Lords Jowitt, Kilmuir and Dilhorne were generally disliked. Lord Hailsham was not everybody's cup of tea either. These four, together with Lords Elwyn-Jones and Havers (who held the post for only five months), all had a background in the House of Commons. Indeed, Lord Hailsham might have become prime minister in 1963 as Quintin Hogg had he contrived to retain the affection of Harold Macmillan.

Lord Irvine has no such political hinterland in the House. But inevitably he is more involved politically than his predecessors were not only because of his relationship with Mr Blair but because of the constitutional changes which Mr Blair wishes to introduce. So far they are well up to schedule. My advice to Derry, as he is known to his friends, is to ease up a little.