Lord Altrincham interview: The Crown, mental health and the Bullingdon Club
Lord Altrincham, Sebastian Grigg
Having taken a seat in the Lords and claimed the title renounced by his uncle, Lord Altrincham talks to Sienna Rodgers about The Crown, mental health and the Bullingdon Club
Lord Altrincham has sat in the House of Lords for more than a year now. After the death of his father, who held the title, Sebastian Grigg contested a Conservative hereditary peers’ by-election in 2021 – and won. “I thought hereditaries were long gone. It was news to me that they were still in the House of Lords,” he tells The House. “My uncle didn’t use the title, so it wasn’t something present in my life.”
His uncle, John Grigg, is the more famous Lord Altrincham, though he disclaimed his title the moment the Peerage Act gained Royal Assent in 1963. A whole episode of The Crown is dedicated to how he triggered a national scandal in 1957 by excoriating Queen Elizabeth II and her “priggish schoolgirl” personality.
“I got given a magic ticket, so I will use it as best as possible”
“I was very fond of him. But the events that he has become famous for, I didn’t know so much about,” the present Altrincham says of his uncle and godfather who died in 2001. “He was quite a serious man and an intellectual. His posthumous fame for commenting on the monarchy is rather astonishing.”
Although the 2nd Baron Altrincham’s advice prompted modernising changes, such as televising the Christmas message, Altrincham makes clear he does not share his late uncle’s views. He did not share his uncle’s perspective on hereditaries either and is delighted to have joined the Lords, explaining: “I got given a magic ticket, so I will use it as best as possible.”
As a former investment banker, he retains a keen interest in the upcoming Financial Services Bill, which is expected to arrive in the Upper House soon. “I’m abundantly aware of the issues that surround the negative perception of investment banking,” he says. “Lost maybe in the noise, the negativity, is the importance of these firms and what they do.”
At Credit Suisse in 2008, his team advised the government on recapitalising banks. “It was immensely pressurising, extremely fast-moving, and new to everybody involved,” he says.
The Conservative peer originally wanted to be an MP and unsuccessfully ran for Heywood and Middleton in Tony Blair’s landslide Labour election victory of 1997. “I was a candidate for over a year in Manchester, where my grandfather had been an MP. I tremendously enjoyed being one.”
Then, all at once, his life was turned upside down. “My wife got sick very, very quickly. Within a couple of hours, she was lying on the floor, and she was screaming – really screaming.” As she repeated “I’m going to die”, he thought she was dying of a heart attack.
“An ambulance picked her up and took her to hospital, but astonishingly took her to a psychiatric hospital. That’s how our story started.” A former journalist, his wife Rachel Kelly now writes books about mental health. Her latest – You’ll Never Walk Alone – is out soon. Altrincham intends to make mental illness a core part of his work in the Lords, and has already spoken on the Schools Bill to that effect.
Jarring somewhat with his complex life story is a single moment Altrincham is best-known for: the Bullingdon Club photograph. Dressed in finery at the University of Oxford, the 1987 picture shows him posing beside David Cameron, with Boris Johnson sat close by.
“I don’t have any recollection of it being taken, and I’m quite surprised to find myself in it. But there we are. I am! There’s no denying it,” he says. “It does come up in my life everywhere. I went into a building in the US a few years ago and someone said to me, ‘we thought you’d be wearing a tailcoat’.”
He may not be the most famous Lord Altrincham, but Sebastian Grigg has the chance to recast his own reputation through contributions to legislation in the House of Lords – and he promises to make the most of it.
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