He would have loved President Obama’s address to both Houses of Parliament in the ancient and austere Westminster Hall. He would have approved of the state trumpeters dressed as playing cards and returned the gentle gaze of the wooden angels carved into the roof trusses. With his prodigious memory and knowledge of history, he knew where Charles I was standing when he was condemned to death and the precise spot where Churchill lay in state. He would have relished the President’s opening lines about following in the footsteps of the Pope, The Queen and Nelson Mandela: ‘Either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke.’
Michael William Coplestone Dillon Onslow, 7th Earl of Onslow, had a razor-sharp sense of irony, and it would be letting him down not to observe that, at the very hour the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British army was standing before Parliament as President of the USA, his family and friends were gathered in a small church in Merrow, Surrey, burying Lord Onslow, young at 73, descendant of Richard Onslow of Blackfriars who became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1566.
As much as he would have enjoyed the irony of the double booking, given a choice, Michael would have opted to be in Westminster. He would have been a worthy presence there. For one thing, he was a lone voice back in 1979, writing to Margaret Thatcher and urging her to grasp the nettle of reform. He felt that the Lords could no longer justify ‘having members like myself who are there because an ancestor got pissed with William Pitt’-the peerage dated from 1801 when George Onslow was created Earl of Onslow-and he believed passionately that the House of Lords, with its expertise and unpredictability, provided the balance that keeps our democracy in health. His warning that if a Tory government didn’t reform it, a Labour government would ‘and do a botched job’ was prophetic.
There are many other reasons that Lord Onslow should have been there. He was fierce in his attacks on apartheid in South Africa, calling it ‘the tyranny and the bureaucracy enforced by stubby-fingered Afrikaaners’, and he spoke out against ‘passive racial discrimination’ in the Household Cavalry, saying that, in 30 years, he’d never seen a black face. More than most who crowded into the medieval hall last Wednesday, Lord Onslow, one of the 92 elected hereditary peers, truly had earned his place there.
In the sea of the great and the good, Michael would have stood out. For such a grand occasion, he would have worn his signature black pinstripe suit and pink-and-aqua Garrick Club bow tie, foregoing his seasonal alternative, a linen suit the colour of day-old gardenias. His sartorial flamboyance matched his verbal extravagance, an unstoppable flow of acerbic observation, humane politics, mischievous gossip and common sense.
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He loved his wife, Robin, and couldn’t believe his luck at winning such a beautiful mate for life. He was never happier than when he was with his three children, and he managed to hang on for the wedding of his daughter Charlotte, getting her to the church in his carriage the week before he died. He confessed to his local vicar that, in his last months, he had never felt so loved by his friends and family. ‘What more can you ask?’ replied the vicar. ‘Another 10 years?’ came Michael’s instant reply.
Lengthy obituaries tried to convey his huge vivacity, but it was Quentin Letts, writing in the Daily Mail, who captured best his intelligence, humanity, wit and singular kindness, reminding us all what a parliamentary hero and good man this country has lost. The headline said it all: ‘Peerless.’