WITHOUT argument the ''nicest'' practitioner in British politics, a

prince among men, a lord on the green leather benches of commoners, Lord

James-Douglas Hamilton, Minister of State at the Scottish Office, stoic

holder of a wafer-thin marginal seat and utterly loyal to the true blue

cause, is going to court to scupper his cousin.

At stake is a cool half-million pounds -- largesse of the late 10th

Earl of Selkirk, which Lord James wants to see in his 16-year-old son's

blazer pocket: a fortune which the cousin, Alasdair Malcolm

Douglas-Hamilton, a banker, believes should go to his account.

The bizarre convolutions of heraldry and inheritance -- as well as

possession of the half million quid -- will be hammered out in the

country's most arcane court, that of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, Sir

Malcolm Rognvald Innes of Edingight, Commander of the Royal Victorian

Order, Baron Yeochrie, Member of the Queen's Bodyguard for Scotland, and

Secretary to the Order of the Thistle.

At a date yet to be determined, but certainly not before September at

the earliest, Lord Lyon, in baroque attire aspired to by few Scottish

Office ministers or bank staff, will stride into court to hear claim and

counter claim, fearlessly prepared -- if he so determines -- to

overthrow an alleged ruling on the succession by his late father who, as

Lord Lyon, was asked to determine the matter long before the question of

the cash came up. He came down, it is claimed, in favour of the banker,

now girding his loins to fight for his arms.

It is the banker, Alasdair Douglas-Hamilton, who has made the running

so far, having presented his petition to the Lyon office late last month

-- copies of which have yet to be successfully served on Lord James, his

brother the Duke of Hamilton, Scotland's premier peer, Lord James's

16-year-old son, and the Lord Advocate. The recent postal strike has

delayed the paperwork and the 21-day period for the lodging of answers

has yet to get under way. When due process has been gone through a date

will be set, sometime in the autumn legal term, for the

Douglas-Hamiltons' day in court.

Thus will the scene be set for a production that would be worthy of a

''house full'' notice if staged in Lothian Region's financially

challenged Festival Theatre . . . itself much in need of half a million

pounds. How has it all come about?

On Monday, November 28, last year, the House of Commons was, so to

speak, on the edge of its seat, poised to vote on the issue of Britain's

payments to the European Union and keenly aware that, for the

Government, it would be a close-run thing. As it was a confidence

debate, every Tory vote was vital.

But, as is so often the way when political parties stand on their

dignity and prepare to go to the wire, nature sticks out a leg to trip

them. Just four days before the big debate on Europe, Lord James's

uncle, George Douglas-Hamilton, 10th Earl of Selkirk, a former First

Lord of the Admiralty and childless, died, and the busy Scottish Office

Minister inherited the earldom -- on the face of it at any rate. The

next step, possibly, was a move to the House of Lords and a nail-biting

by-election for the Tories in Edinburgh West, where Lord James commands

a majority of just 879.

But what about the EU vote? With at least even chances of his becoming

an earl, Lord James would not be able to file through the Government

lobby in the Commons; would not even be allowed into the Chamber -- and

just when his vote could be crucial. Dismay in the Whips' office, a

tight timetable for salvation, family discussions far into the night at

Lord James's home in North Berwick. Should he or should he not?

Duty, the family decided, came first, and before there was time even

to take a tuck in the late Earl of Selkirk's ermine, Lord James saved

the day -- renounced his claim to the title, spared his party a hard

time in Edinburgh West and cast his vote to help the Government squeak

through with a slender majority. Gratitude was his reward as the Tory

party hailed him hero . . . splendid fellow, very decent thing to do,

selflessly loyal.

As he set off to lodge his Deed of Disclaimer at the Crown Office, his

uncle not yet buried, the four-day-earl himself put it thus: ''Having

discussed the matter with my family it is quite clear what I have to do.

I owe it as a duty to my constituents, whom I wish to continue to serve,

and as a matter of loyalty to the Prime Minister and to the Conservative

Party, to support John Major in the voting lobby.'' Unswerving duty to

the boy from Brick Lane at no small cost to himself. Noblesse oblige.

Unable now to enjoy the peerage, Lord James could console himself with

the fact that, on his death, it would pass to his son, John Andrew.

During the lacuna that had now fallen on the North Berwick branch of the

Douglas-Hamilton family, Lord James's cousin, named as heir-apparent to

the earldom in Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, likewise in Debrett,

would enjoy the title and keep the family name forward in the Upper

House; or so it seemed.

Then came the reading of the will. To renounce in haste can be to

repent at leisure. Distributing his bounty, the late 10th Earl laid it

down that whomsoever succeeded him would get a sum of #500,000, as well

as family portraits and, as Henry Clark, the 10th Earl's executor, puts

it, ''a few other items''. Tabards and tricorn hats were immediately

brushed and sponged in the elegant offices of the Lord Lyon in

anticipation of action to come.

It was not long in coming. Lord James instructed counsel to stake a

claim on behalf of his son, retaining Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw, Bt,

to fight his corner before the Scottish College of Heralds -- an arena

in which Sir Crispin should feel at home, being Rothesay Herald in the

Court of the Lord Lyon.

The cousin who also claims -- Alasdair Douglas-Hamilton -- a

specialist in trustee work for the Bank of Scotland and known as the

Master of Selkirk, although he makes his home in St Boswells, has

appointed John Murray, QC, the former Lord Dervaird, as his second for

the duel before Lord Lyon, determined to fight for the title, the cash,

family portraits, and the ''few other items''.

Mr Douglas-Hamilton says he always expected to inherit, and claims to

hold the clincher in the battle ahead, already locked up in his lawyer's

office safe -- ''a letter from a previous Lord Lyon stating in

reasonably clear terms that I would succeed when my uncle died''.

Notwithstanding the court battle ahead, relations with his cousin James

are, he says, ''fine''.

If the letter now in close custody sets anything out in reasonably

clear terms it will shine like a beacon over the murky waters of an

action where heraldry, stripped of its finery, will appear to the

un-enobled public to be the practice of muddle, confusion, and


Lord James's renunciation of his claim to the title may have saved the

day for John Major and established him in the public mind as

heir-apparent-historic, but the core question which Lyon Court will have

to resolve is just this: was the title his to renounce? Should it not be

Alasdair, the old pretender -- James's senior by a very few years -- who

is installed in the Lords?

Avoiding a single word which might hint at prejudging the issue, Lord

Lyon has been at pains to explain to all who ask, how the

Douglas-Hamilton double whammy has come about. Rules governing the

succession to the earldom, bestowed in 1646 by Charles I upon his cousin

Lord William Douglas, younger brother of the 1st Duke of Hamilton, are,

says Lyon, ''extremely complex''. Further, they are written in Latin.

Their thrust, explains Lyon, was to ensure as far as possible that the

titles of the Dukedom of Hamilton and the Earldom of Selkirk stayed

apart -- requiring that the Selkirk title would pass to the younger

brothers of successive dukes.

Late last century however, nothwithstanding the original arrangements,

the earldom and dukedom were merged and when, in 1940, the 13th Duke

died, the 14th Duke's younger brother, George, became the 10th Earl. He

it was who died inconveniently last November, leading Lord James,

immediate younger brother of the present and 15th Duke, to make his

disclaimer. Clear so far? Possibly not for long.

Step forward and be recognised, Alasdair Douglas-Hamilton, cousin of

James and contender for the prize whose father, a former Tory MP, was

the younger brother -- after George -- of the 14th Duke. Alasdair's

father died in 1962; the 14th Duke in 1973. Had Malcolm survived, George

Malcolm could have been expected to inherit the earldom.

What Lyon is certain about is that when it comes to heraldry --

half-a-million-pound fortunes regardless -- there can be no quick fix.

''You cannot hatch it up. The parties have to prove it,'' he says. Lord

James Douglas-Hamilton, a boxing blue, is ready in his corner. Mr

Alasdair Douglas-Hamilton, in his, is prepared to give a banker's

account of himself. Seconds out -- may the best man win, to the victor

the spoils.