‘A true servant of the House’. Lord Glenarthur pays tribute to Lord Denham
The death of Lord Denham on Sunday 1 December, aged 94, truly marks the end of an era in The House of Lords. Fulsome obituaries have already appeared in the national press highlighting Bertie Denham as a pillar of House for over 70 years.
He adored the House: what it does and what it stands for; its history and traditions; and the constitutional framework of which it is part. It was as much part of his life as were his enthusiasms outside it: family, hunting, racing, fishing, literature and poetry.
Bertie was a true “character”. His bonhomie and sense of humour belied an acute political brain which enabled him, as Chief Whip in the House of Lords, to use his wide friendships and the respect in which he was held in all parts of the House, to get the government’s business through. This was not always without defeats for the government, but he respected the fact that considerable knowledge lay on the back benches and that the government would be unwise not to heed such expertise. He was bold in ensuring cabinet ministers, and indeed the Prime Minister, respected the sometimes truculent mood on his backbenches, even if it was to their discomfort.
Those of us who served as whips in the early 80s under Bertie’s tutelage, and later as ministers, were acutely aware of how much interest he took in his ministerial colleagues. He fostered a system of unofficial “apprenticeships”. A new hereditary peer would be encouraged to get to know as many peers of all political persuasions as possible; to observe, contribute and learn the finer points of procedure and the workings of the House. Those who were up to the task were, if available, invariably put into the whips office as a way of learning how to understand and respect the House. Ability to be fluent but concise, using humour where necessary, would help with the increasingly demanding ministerial responsibilities, should promotion come their way.
Above all, Bertie was revered as an exemplar of what the House of Lords stood for
He was a stickler for correct procedure. Correct forms of address for fellow peers; brief answers to questions; winding-up speeches being no more than 20 minutes in length – whatever the circumstances – were essential. He encouraged his front bench to be ruthless in cutting down unnecessarily long speeches drafted by officials. But when it came to some legislation, often on matters on which backbench peers were particularly knowledgeable, with the House in those days regularly sitting well into the night, he could understandably show a degree of impatience. Legislation, such as the Wildlife and Countryside Bill and the Deer (Amendment) Scotland Bill, drawing backbench knowledge from peers across the country to contribute at inordinate length, understandably tested his mood.
Woe betide anyone on the “payroll vote” who tried to sneak off early – even at 11 pm when divisions might be expected! When caught, despite his remonstrations at whatever excuse was proffered, “But Bertie, I fly to the far east on FCO business first thing in the morning”, he would say: “Would you like a glass of whisky?”. The answer was invariably “yes”. After a friendly chat in his office, magically the division bell would ring, and the vote delivered. He had achieved his aim.
His whips meetings on Thursdays were always helped with alcoholic refreshment. His recipe for the finest Bloody Mary remains the ultimate! He would listen attentively, glean the mood of the House, and indeed the gossip, on wide ranging matters. Attempts to stimulate questions from a group of back-benchers designed to be helpful to the government were viewed ruefully. He acknowledged that they might well be regarded as “the own goals team”.
Bertie always supported his ministers, even if he had no enthusiasm for the department they represented. I recall being asked at one weekly front bench meeting what strength of whip I would need for a particular Bill. Replying that it was regarded by the department as of particular importance, he clearly did not share that view and nor did the then Leader. His remark to the meeting was, “Well, I can guarantee to get them here, but it is up to the Parliamentary Secretary to persuade them which way to vote!”
Whilst Bertie was held in the highest regard and affection by his own front bench, he was also deeply respected by his opposite numbers on the Labour front bench and the wider “usual channels”, particularly by Pat Llewelyn-Davies and then Tom Ponsonby. They admired his skill, intellect and honesty; and he respected theirs.
Above all, Bertie was revered as an exemplar of what the House of Lords stood for. Its historical composition, traditions and constitutional significance. He was not against incremental change, but he deplored the savagery of the 1999 Act which removed all but 92 hereditary peers.
Those of us who worked with Bertie, and the wider House, were fortunate to have known him so well. He was admired and loved. We respected him and he helped make life fun. A true servant of the House, his death leaves a void which will be impossible to fill.
To his wife Jean and their family, we extend our deepest sympathy at their loss after a life lived to the full.
Lord Glenarthur is a Conservative peer.
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