Another Pint of Claret
Simon Hoggart wonders whether the House is dumbing down
I've been working in parliament, one way or another, on and off, for nearly 30 years now. I ought to be able to tell you whether the standard of our legislators has declined over that time. Unfortunately I can't.
The very first MP I met when I went to work there was Spencer le Marchant, the Tory MP for High Peak, who was a charming man with something of a drink problem. My boss introduced us in Annie's Bar and Spencer asked what I'd like. 'A pint,' I replied. It came in a pewter tankard, and when I took the first swig I almost choked being Spencer he'd had it filled with claret. He was a gentle and kindly man, but not tremendously clever. The joke was that he had to be sent home on a train with a placard round his neck saying, 'please put this MP out at Buxton'. Perhaps surprisingly, the poet James Fenton was once the lobby correspondent for the New Statesman. The House had returned after the summer break, and he asked Spencer what he had done in the summer.
"I went game fishing off Florida. I caught a marlin!" he said.
"And what do you do with a marlin once you've caught it?" asked James.
"You throw it back!"
"D'you know, Spencer, you might just have hit on the solution to the Cod War," James said.
What made this moment so poignant was the long pause for thought before Spencer replied, "Ah, no, James, you see, it's not the same "
Or there was Sir Waldron Smithers, a grand old knight of the shires, who also liked to arrive in the Chamber well refreshed for the tasks ahead. On one occasion Speaker Selwyn Lloyd asked the clerk what day some bill was to be debated, and the clerk bellowed out the date. Sir Waldron said, in high excitement, "thash my birthday!" Sir Walter Bromley-Davenport was the Tory MP for Knutsford, and an opposition whip shortly after the war. Once, seeing an unfamiliar figure leaving the building, he assumed this was a Tory MP trying to evade a three-line whip. When the man refused to stop, Sir Walter kicked him downstairs. It turned out to be the Belgian ambassador. The consequent vacancy in the whips' office was filled by Lt. Col. Edward Heath, in his first front-bench job.
Not that the Labour ranks were much better. Scores of trade union placemen, given the semi-retirement of an MP's job, did little but sit in the bar and drink, occasionally breaking off to vote. Some had the wisdom brought by age and lack of ambition. My favourite was always Bill Stone, a former miner, who sat in the corner of the Strangers' Bar, drowning the pain in his lungs with draughts of Federation Ale. Once he overheard someone at the bar complain that the Commons was full of cunts.
"There's plenty of cunts in t'country," said Bill, putting down his pint, "and they deserve some representation."
So it's easy to imagine, wrongly, that 30, 40 or 50 years ago the House was filled with statesmen: the Churchills, Butlers, Gaitskells and Attlees. In fact there was always a great doughy mass you can't call them 'lumpen' in the Marxist sense, because they were well organised by the whips of members who had little to say and less to do. I catch their obituaries now and again, having forgotten for the most part that they ever existed. "MP with strong views on the death penalty," the headline might read. Or "Labour loyalist who fell out over incomes policy."
But I suspect that in spite of all this, the standards are lower now. Look at the Tory front bench. Admittedly they have half the seats they had in April 1997, and admittedly a lot of the big beasts have escaped back to the savannah: Clarke, Portillo, Redwood, Lilley and Hague for instance. But even so, I catch sight on the front bench of MPs I had marked down on their arrival as mere jokes, fodder for the sketchwriters, now gravely giving their judgements on the great issues of the day, as if they had the faintest idea.
The problem is, I suppose, that with the decline in prestige all politicians have suffered partly their own fault, partly ours in the media few people except anoraks want to be MPs. There are still long queues for safe seats, but then you still see train spotters jostling on Crewe station; it doesn't mean the rest of us want to join them. Universities report that almost no students are seeking careers in politics. Instead they want to join the media. They might start as trainees on nine grand a year, but they all dream of becoming Paxman or Ian Hislop. The media is where you go if you want influence. Who's more famous, John Humphreys or John Whittingdale? Whose opinions on Iraq matter more to you John Simpson or John Bercow? And if you want money, you go into the City or the law.
I don't despair. There are people of real talent in parliament still. Bob Marshall-Andrews may now be the best orator we have. David Cameron on the Tory side is coming along nicely. The Commons is not a lost cause, and it was never the fabled Athenian institution of myth. But it ain't what it was.