Alex Massie

Tales from the House of Commons

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It's time for a new occasional series! I've been reading a collection of parliamentary sketches written by the Irish nationalist MP T.P O'Connor that chronicle the course of the Second Irish Home Rule bill through the Houses of Parliament in 1893. Much of it is delightful and, I thought, worth sampling from time to time here, both on grounds of entertainment and as evidence that many of the essential rules of political engagement remain unchanged.

Here, for instance, is O'Connor describing the general attitude and character of political life in the era of Gladstone, Disraeli, Chamberlain, Asquith and Balfour.

Mr. Gladstone had a notice upon the paper on Monday, February 27th, the effect of which was to demand for the Government most of the time which ordinarily belongs to the private member. There is no notice which has more hidden or treacherous depths and cross-currents. For when you interfere with the private member, you suddenly come in collision with a vast number of personal vanities, and when you touch anything in the shape of personal vanity in politics you have got into a hornet's nest, the multitudinousness, the pettiness, the malignity, the unexpectedness of which you can never appreciate.

I sometimes gaze upon the House of Commons in a certain semi-detached spirit, and I ask myself if there be any place in the whole world where you can see so much of the mean as well as of the loftiest passions of human nature as in a legislative assembly. Look at these men sitting on the same bench and members of the same party—perhaps even with exactly the same great purpose to carry out in public policy, and neither really in the least dishonest nor insincere. They are talking in the most amicable manner, they pass with all in the world—including themselves—for bosom friends; and yet at a certain moment—in a given situation—they would stab each other in the back without compunction or hesitation, to gain a step in the race for distinction.

Between two other men there intervenes not the space of even a seat; they are cheek by jowl, and touching each other's coat-tails; and yet there yawns between them a gulf of deadly and almost murderous hate which not years, nor forgiveness, nor recollections of past comradeship will ever bridge over.

And look at the House as a whole, and what do you see but a number of fierce ambitions, hatreds, and antipathies, natural and acquired—the play of the worst and the deadliest passions of the human heart? Above all things, be assured that there is scarcely one in all this assembly whose natural stock of vanity—that dreadful heritage we all have—has not been maximised and sharpened by the glare, the applause, the collisions and frictions of public life.

I have heard it said that even the manliest fellow, who has become an actor, is liable to be filled to a bursting gorge with hatred of the pretty woman who may snatch from him a round of applause; and assuredly every nature is liable to be soured, inflamed, and degraded by those appearances before the gallery of the public meeting, the watchful voters, the echoing Press, and all the other agencies that create and register public fame.

...It is no secret that there are in this, as in every House of Commons, a number of gentlemen who do not think that their services have been sufficiently appreciated by the Minister to whom the unhappy task was given of selecting his colleagues in office. This is the case with every Government, and with every House of Commons—with every party and with every Ministry.

You do not think that the favourite of fortune whom you envy has reached a period of undisturbed happiness when he sits on the Treasury Bench—even when he speaks amid a triumphant chorus of cheers, or drives through long lines of enthusiastically cheering crowds. He has to fight for his life every moment of its existence. He is climbing not a secure ladder on solid earth, but up a glacier with slipping steps, the abyss beneath, the avalanche above—watchful enemies all round—even among the guides he ought to be able to trust.

Do you suppose that every member of the Liberal party loves Mr. Asquith, and is delighted when he displays his great talents? Do you think that none of the gentlemen below the gangway do not believe that in their mute and inglorious breasts, there are no streams of eloquence more copious and resistless? No, my friend, take this as an axiom of political careers, that you hold your life as long as you are able to kill anybody who tries to kill you, and not one hour longer.

Aye, 'twas ever thus...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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