Lord Acton: Hereditary peer who was instrumental in ending the inherited right to vote in the House of Lords

Although a hereditary peer, Richard Acton was one of the prime movers of Lords reform that in 1999 led to the end of the inherited right to vote in the Upper House.

As his son Johnny listened to Richard’s passionate arguments from the gallery before the vote, Richard pointed to his heir. He told the noble lords of his wish that Johnny would take his place in the chamber, but on merit rather than birth. With Richard’s help, the House of Lords Bill passed in the Lords by a vote of 221 to 81 on 26 October 1999.
The Labour government made him a life peer so that he could continue his work in the Lords, but Richard’s independence compelled him to vote against the government on British participation in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and several criminal justice bills that he, as a barrister and historian, believed would curtail fundamental civil rights. He had, as a young man, fought political battles against the illegal regime of Ian Smith in Rhodesia and would not easily succumb to all the demands of the Labour Party that he had joined only in 1998.
Richard Acton was born on 30 July 1941 at Aldenham Park, family seat of an old Roman Catholic family whose post-war financial hardships forced his father to sell the property and move to Southern Rhodesia with his then six children in early 1948. His parents were John Emerich Henry Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 3rd Baron Acton and 10th Baronet of Aldenham, and Daphne Strutt, the daughter of the 4th Baron Rayleigh, who converted to Catholicism after her wedding. The Actons raised 10 children and a herd of Jersey cows, on their farm near Mazoe. Richard began his formal education aged seven at Saint George’s College, run by the Society of Jesus, in the capital, Salisbury. Two years younger than his classmates, he was the youngest member of the school swimming team.
In his essay, “A Colonial Childhood: Coming of Age in Rhodesia” (North American Review, June 1990), he wrote about the particularities of his Jesuit education: “The bamboo cane played a huge part in discipline. I remember that in one term I was beaten 55 times in 84 days. My crimes were talking and cheek.” Another crime was using the excuse of going into town to play squash, which he did badly, in order to catch the last two races of the day at Salisbury racecourse. While hoping mainly to see his father’s thoroughbreds, Richard was not above betting on races in which the family’s mounts were not running. None the less, the school made him prefect in 1959.
The famously child-hating Evelyn Waugh, who included a visit to his friend John Acton’s Rhodesian farm in his book A Tourist in Africa, gave the flavour of life at Mazoe in a letter to Ann Fleming on 10 March 1958: “Children were everywhere, no semblance of a nursery or a nanny, the spectacle at meals gruesome, a party-line telephone ringing all day, dreadful food, an ever-present, tremendously boring ex-naval chaplain, broken aluminium cutlery, plastic crockery, ants in the beds, totally untrained black servants (all converted by Daphne to Christianity, taught to serve Mass, but not to empty ashtrays). In fact every thing that normally makes Hell, but Daphne’s serene sanctity radiating supernatural peace. She is the most remarkable woman I know.
From 1960-63, Acton read modern history at Trinity College, Oxford, returning to Southern Rhodesia as a manager for Amalgamated Packaging Industries. His interest in politics led him to become a campaign manager for Dr Ahrn Palley, an independent candidate and the only member of the Rhodesian parliament opposed to Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front Party and its Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1965.
In August 1965, Richard married Hilary Juliet Sarah Cookson, whom he met while she was actively opposing UDI as a student at the University of Rhodesia. Their son Johnny was born a year later. (First-born Acton sons were named Richard and John in succession, since Sir John Acton, prime minister of the Kingdom of Naples in the time of Admiral Nelson, called his oldest son Richard. Sir John’s grandson, the historian, became the first Baron Acton in 1869.)
Richard moved to South Africa, which declared him a “prohibited immigrant,” barring him from the country, because of his opposition to apartheid. He took a job with Coutts’ Bank, which in 1970 appointed him Britain’s youngest bank director. Following Hilary’s untimely death, he married Judith Todd in 1974. Her parents were the former Rhodesian Prime Minister Garfield Todd and his wife Grace.
Judith, a committed campaigner for one person-one vote, had been arrested and, while on hunger strike in prison, brutally force-fed by Ian Smith’s police. Smith’s government put her father under long-term house arrest at his ranch near Bulawayo, from which he reported to the British government on oil deliveries by western companies in violation of British and international sanctions. From London, Acton worked tirelessly for the release of Garfield and Judith.
In 1976, while he and Judith were living in London, Acton qualified as a barrister in Peter Rawlinson’s chambers in the Inner Temple. After nearly five years at the bar, he accompanied Judith to newly independent Zimbabwe and assumed a legal post in the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs. The Mugabe government’s steady violations of the constitution left Acton no choice but to resign. He returned to London, while Judith remained to assist anti-Smith guerrillas to integrate into the post-war society. The marriage was dissolved, and in 1988 Richard married Patricia Nassif, a professor of law at the University of Iowa.
When his father suffered a stroke, Acton was constantly at his bedside. He wrote later, “For hours each day I would tell him tales that I had heard or incidents that had happened. Sometimes we would reminisce about our family. Often I would draw on short stories I had read by Somerset Maugham or O Henry or Guy de Maupassant. I have a test of a good short story. Would I have told it to my father?”
When his father died in January 1989, Acton took his seat in the House of Lords and became an assiduous parliamentarian on the cross benches. This began a particularly happy and productive period in his life, divided between writing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and attending the Lords in London. Having given up both gambling and drinking, he wrote prolifically for the Des Moines Register, where he was effectively English-Lord-in-Residence, The Spectator, North American Review, The Palimpsest and other publications. He and Patricia published a history of law in Iowa, To Go Free, in 1995. Acton’s own book, Brit Among the Hawkeyes, was published in 1998. The same year, Acton joined the Labour Party and became one of its most cherished and irreverent adornments in the Lords.
Even his critics appreciated his humour and conviviality. Notoriously, and innocently, flirtatious with the waitresses in the Lords’ dining room, he was never shy about shouting above the din to let another Noble Lord know what he thought of his politics. Before Labour came to power in 1997, he gave me in a loud voice over lunch his thoughts about the Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard’s proposed limitations to rights of silence and trial by jury, saying, “There is only one man in parliament who admires Michael Howard – Jack Straw.” Straw, then Labour’s home affairs spokesman, went on, as Acton saw he would, to outstrip Howard in imposing draconian legislation.
In 1994, his friend and fellow Catholic Lord Longford asked him for advice on family values for an upcoming debate. “I don’t think I can,” Acton confessed. “I’ve had three wives. Why don’t you try the Earl of Kimberley? He’s had six.” When Labour Health Minister Lord Hunt gave a speech in 2003 condemning smoking in public, Acton rose and intoned, “Is my noble friend aware that a very eminent parliamentary under-secretary of state for health was in the guest room bar smoking a very, very large cigar, and blowing the smoke in my direction?” Hunt, as the offending party, was aware. Thanks to Acton, so was the rest of the House, and the two remained friends.
The Acton family motto is Valliance avance l’homme, “valour advances the man”. In Richard Acton’s case, it was the man who advanced the valour.
Richard Gerald Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, banker, barrister, writer and parliamentarian: born Aldenham Park, Hertfordshire 30 July 1941; s. 1989 as fourth Baron Acton and 11th Baronet of Aldenham; cr. Baron Acton of Bridgnorth 2000;married 1965 Hilary Cookson (one son; died 1973), 1974 Judith Todd (divorced 1987), 1988 Patricia Nassif; died 10 October 2010.