Today marks the end of this Parliament. So it is not a bad time to glance back at its last big setpiece – the day in which Charles Walker wept, the Speaker nearly did so too, and Labour MPs clapped, stood and cheered.
Were I Walker, I would also have felt that I had been “played as a fool”, as he put it. William Hague and Michael Gove both had opportunities to tell him (at the former’s leaving drinks and during conversations with the latter) that the Government was planning to bring to the Commons an important procedural plan – and the very next day too. Since Walker is the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, he should undoubtedly have been told before the proposal was made public.
But he wasn’t – and the rest is part of history. Were I in his shoes, I would also have had no option but to speak in the debate and support the Committee’s position. I might also have showed anger. I could even have shed a tear. In other words, he wasn’t at all wrong either to make the speech he made – and the Westminster Village loved it.
For all my sympathy for his position, this was not my reaction. Why? Because the focus of the Commons should be not on the feelings of MPs, but on the people they’re selected to serve. It is bad news when there is a shift from the second to the first. Such scenes make for great Parliamentary drama. However, they can’t be the norm if real emotion is not to collapse into self-indulgence.
They may become so. Soon after the debate on the Speaker’s future (for that, at least in part, was what it was), when the media spotlight had swung elsewhere and the sketchwriters had packed their bags and gone, the Commons held its first-ever “Valedictory Debate”, in which departing MPs could address the House for the last time.
Many of those speeches were from first-class Parliamentarians – John Randall, Nick Raynsford, David Willetts, Austin Mitchell. A few came from some of the casualties of the last five years: Aidan Burley and Brooks Newmark (who also had much to offer, and still do). Some of the speeches were rather fine; a few less so – the way of the House at all times.
But there was bound to be an air about the occasion of “I did it my way”. Again, this surely isn’t what the Commons should be for. Such events will soon find a way of lapsing into back-slappery. And it is when MPs congratulate each other and come to a consensus that voters should watch their pockets – and the country’s interests. If you doubt it, look up Chips Channon’s diary for September 28, 1938.
There have always been histrionics in Parliament. Edmund Burke once threw a dagger at the chamber’s floor, crying “There’s French fraternity for you! Such is the weapon which French Jacobins would plunge into the heart of our beloved king.” Sheridan’s response lives on: “The gentleman, I see, has brought his knife with him, but where is his fork?”
The reason why the House saw through Burke’s gesture – an unusual lapse from one of the finest Parliamentarians who ever lived – was that it struck a false note. It may be my imagination, but we have seen more of these since the advent and coming of Tony Blair – whose fireworks once dazzled and impressed, but has since disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving behind a faint smell of sulphur.
The events that followed the death of Diana – and the cultural changing-of-the-guard of which they were a sign – have been raked over often enough. So I won’t labour the link between that shift and Thursday’s events. Perhaps I would be unwise to, since their effect may reach deeper that I had thought. After all, most of this article has been about my feelings about someone else’s feelings about something that happened. Cast the beam out of thine own eye, Goodman. Or should that be onion?
But there may be more to it all than that. A new Commons is coming. Unless the polls about-turn or are wrong on the day, a phalanx of MPs from Scotland will enter it determined to tear up the country. Those who want to stop them will need wits, not tears.