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Great British Eccentrics by S. D. Tucker

ONE LORD A-LOONING: John Conrad Russell and the Sad Destruction of the House of Lords

In an extract from his book Great British Eccentrics, out now in paperback, SD Tucker remembers the life of the strangest-ever member of the House of Lords, John Conrad Russell.

With Press controversy currently raging over the prospect of the assorted time-servers, sycophants and hangers-on in the House of Lords apparently planning to try and block the will of the people by conspiring to wreck the passage of Article 50, there have been renewed calls of late to abolish the entire Chamber. This would be short-sighted. Instead, why not simply return the Lords back to the way it used to be, when Members inherited their peerages, rather than being political appointees? Quite apart from putting an end to the naked political cronyism which now characterises life in the Upper House, this would also have the entertaining side-effect of allowing some genuine lunatics to don the famous ermine once again; as is well-known, eccentricity runs rife in the blood of the English aristocracy. The maddest Lord of all was surely John Conrad Russell, the 4th Earl Russell. Russell’s father was one of the most famous men of his age, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. John Conrad Russell, however, had to settle for simply being one of the oddest …

I suspect there can be few persons outside of politics or the media who have ever actually bothered to buy any copies of Hansard, the official transcripts of sessions which take place in the Commons and the Lords. The exception to this rule was an edition containing a particularly unforgettable speech of Earl Russell’s from 1978, which sold out almost as soon as it was printed. Russell’s rabid rant was nothing if not memorable. Certainly, it pulled no punches, the Earl being quite happy to ask his fellow-Peers ‘What are you? Soulless robots?’ before then going on to accuse them all of being nothing but a bunch of ‘spiritless Papal bum-boys’. ‘Forward, the creative spirit!’ he roared, before providing the country with some very creative solutions to its most pressing problems himself.

In Westminster-speak, Russell’s speech was technically classified as being a ‘response to an unstarred question’ during a debate that was supposed to be about aiding victims of crime, but which ended up being about much, much more. After all, as Earl Russell explained to a bemused House, there was actually no such thing as crime. If Britain was really the civilised nation it pretended to be, he said, then its police-force should be merged with the Salvation Army immediately, and its officers retrained so that their only function was to make people cups of tea.

If a man tried to steal anything, then that was his perfect right, Russell made clear, giving the example of someone who might walk into a jeweller’s shop to snatch a bag of diamonds. If such a thing happened, said the Earl, then surely the only truly humane thing for the jeweller to do would be to let him steal them, then give him a second bag as well, for good measure. Prisons, it turned out, should be banned; according to Russell, policemen up and down the land were engaged in a gigantic conspiracy to arrest young men and seduce them in their cells, before then selling them on into lives of gay prostitution in prisons. What way was this to treat the flower of English manhood, he asked? Surely it would be better if the Government just paid them all a fair wage to sit around and do nothing all day in big huts instead of making them become Chief Constables’ rent-boys?

Earl Russell had some interesting plans for the nation’s schoolgirls, too. At the age of twelve, he said, every girl should be considered a woman, and given a free house. Then, 75 per cent of the nation’s wealth would be donated to the fairer sex, whilst the remaining 25 per cent would be used to protect men from the police in their large communal huts, which the girls could then visit in order to choose their husbands – as many as they liked, the men would have no say in the matter. This, he said, would be the true realisation of ‘Women’s Lib’.

Explaining that ‘the habit of arresting young people and raping them in gaol is part of a plot which is designed to destroy the human race’, Russell demanded that the nation’s youth be put in charge of everything, and encouraged to play outside all day in the nude instead of being treated as mere ‘indoor products’. As he said, ‘the ancient Greeks fought naked’, and so ‘naked bathing on beaches or in rivers ought to be universal’. School and work were just Establishment conspiracies aimed at forcing adolescents to stay inside all day instead of romping through fields as nature intended; ‘Leisure is the point and working is wrong, being in any case the curse visited by God upon Adam and not to be blessed.’ He approved of bored schoolboys burning down their schools, as it was obvious (to him) that if they were being taught properly by their teachers then the spirit of Sir Isaac Newton would have been reincarnated in one of them by now. Surely we should instead all follow the example of the old cartoon-character ‘Little Audrey’ who, he said, had ‘laughed and laughed because she knew that only God could make a tree’?

So embarrassing was this episode that a myth has since arisen that it is the only speech ever made in Parliament which was not recorded in Hansard. This is not true, but I think I can explain the misunderstanding; Earl Russell had not finished talking when he was forced to give way to Lord Wells-Pestell, and, seeing as the rest of his speech was not actually spoken in the Lords, Hansard had no business printing it. Russell had planned to end his oration with the surprisingly understated assertion that ‘It may be expected that most people will support these proposals, because they are, after all, in everybody’s own interest.’ In this, as in so much else, I fear he may have been mistaken.

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S. D. Tuckers new paperback edition of his book Great British Eccentrics is available for purchase now.