Alex Massie

Tales from the House of Commons 2

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Time to return to TP O'Connor's Sketches in the House, his account of the 1893 parliamentary session. Back then, happily, the government could not yet guillotine a bill and so obstructionism - or filibustering - was a legitimate, if infuriating, parliamentary tactic. Much to Mr O'Connor's irritation...

Again I repeat, obstruction is a matter not of intellect, but temperament. Intellectually, I should put Jimmy in a very low place, even in the ranks of the stupid party. Temperamentally he stands very high. A brief description of his methods of obstruction will bring this home. First, it should be said that he is entirely inarticulate and, beyond rough common sense, destitute of ideas. He has nothing to say, and he cannot say it. There are men in the House of Commons who have plenty of thoughts, and who have plenty of words besides, and could branch out on any subject whatever into a dissertation which would command the interest even of political foes. But Jimmy is not of this class. He is capable, on the contrary, of bringing down the loftiest subject that ever moved human breasts to something stumbling, commonplace and prosaic. When he gets up, then, his speech consists rather of a series of gulps than of articulate or intelligible statements. But then mark the singular courage and audacity of the whole proceeding. There are traditions still in the House of Commons of the marvellously stimulating effect upon followers of leaders, who were proverbial for their oratorical impotence. Everybody remembers the scornful description* of Castlereagh which Byron gave to the world; and yet it has been said in some memoirs that the moment Castlereagh stood up and adjusted his waistcoat, there was a thrill in the House of Commons, and his followers bellowed their exultation and delight. In a more recent day, Lord Althorpe was able to bear down the hostility of some of the most powerful orators of his time by a bluff manliness which no rhetoric could withstand. And so also with Jimmy—his sheer audacity carries him along the slow, dull, inept, muddy tide of his inarticulate speech.

And curiously enough, it is impossible to put him down. On March 6th he was commenting on some item which he supposed was in a Post-office Estimate. It was pointed out to him that the item to which he alluded was not in that particular vote at all, but in quite another vote, which came later on. Jimmy, nevertheless, went on to discuss the item as if nothing had been said. Then the long-suffering Chairman had to be called in, and he ruled—as every human being would have been bound to rule—that Jimmy was out of order. Was Jimmy put down? Not the least in the world. He made an apology, and, as the apology was ample and his deliverance is slow, the apology enabled him to consume some more minutes of precious Government time. And then, having failed to find fault with the estimate for what it did not contain, he proceeded to assail it for what it did contain. Here again he was out of order, for the estimate was prepared exactly as every other estimate had been prepared for years. This answer was given to him. But Jimmy went on—gulping and obstructing, obstructing and gulping. It is amusing, perhaps, to you who can read this description as part of an after-dinner's amusement, but what is one to think of a Parliamentary institution that can be so flouted, and nullified by mere beef-headed dulness? This is a question to make any one pause who has faith in Parliamentary institutions.

*Of course you do. "Posterity will ne'er survey/A nobler grave than this:/Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:/Stop, traveller, and piss."

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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