Peerless manners shown

March 13, 1998

It is a truth self-evident to readers of this paper that discussing higher education for long enough will inflame the most mild-mannered. Experimentally tested on the House of Lords, the most elaborately polite institution in the known universe, the proposition received definitive proof during the third reading of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill as the Upper House indulged in what passes there for a furious row.

The first hints of trouble came when Labour peer Lord Glenamara, known to older readers as Ted Short, rather unfraternally described a speech by Baroness Blackstone as "a lot of codswallop". The baroness retaliated by saying that his consistently critical speeches on the bill had come from a position of "surprising ignorance".

Tetchiness mounted as the Conservative Lord Renfrew and Liberal Democrats took exception to comments the baroness made in last week's Any Questions on Radio Four. This in turn led Labour's Lord Whitty to accuse opposition peers of "posing to be the students' friends". Lord Russell asked him to withdraw the charge. Lord Whitty refused, twice, and for good measure accused opposition peers of a "hypocritical attitude".

Lord Russell looks as though he would have been at home in Gladstone's cabinets, he is, however, a dangerous opponent in the Lords - not least because he knows so much about it.

Aside from being able to offer directions around Westminster based almost entirely on statues and portraits of his family ("Turn right at my great-grandfatherI"), he has a historian's grasp of its rules. He first questioned whether Lord Whitty would like to repeat his comment outside the chamber, and then he moved that the standing order on asperity of speech be read.

A mystified interlude followed while the clerks tried to establish what this request meant. Lord Russell moved the standing order. The largest division of the day - many participants evidently drawn by curiosity - voted by 168 to 99 for the third reading this century, and the first since 1980, of Standing Order Number 30, a Riot Act cast in King James Bible English - "That all personal, sharp or taxing speeches be forborn and whosoever answerI" - dating back to 1621.

What came next was a 15-minute cooling-off adjournment, another comparative rarity in the Lords. The standing order promises to "sharply censure the offender". As the adjournment ended the house was still crowded with peers apparently waiting to see if Lord Whitty would be paraded in chains or have his jacket buttons removed by Black Rod.

It was soon clear that good-humoured contrition, although no formal apology, would suffice. They drifted off, leaving a hard core of those interested in higher education to complete the third reading amid a mild sense of anticlimax.

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