Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
I knew Michael Martin was a wrong ’un when he refused to wear the Speaker’s wig. It might seem a small thing, but accoutrements of office serve a purpose, reminding the wearer of his responsibilities.
When you settle that old horsehair on your bonce, you step up to your role. You cease to be Mr Martin and become Mr Speaker, the latest in a long line of defenders of parliamentary supremacy.
The grounds on which Martin defied tradition were telling. “It’s just not me,” he declared – thereby inadvertently advertising his belief that he was bigger than the office he occupied. Sure enough, he went on to become the first Speaker in 300 years to be removed from the chair after MPs had tired of his bias, his inability to follow procedure and, worst of all, his constant backing of the executive against the legislature.
I urged his successor, John Bercow, to restore the wig. He laughed at my suggestion and went on, sadly, to politicise the office in an unprecedented and unconscionable manner. Rules were twisted, broken or made up on the spot in an attempt to overturn Brexit. Bercow, too, refused to recognise that he was passing through an office bigger than himself, and ended up plunging Britain into the worst democratic crisis of the modern era.
What a relief, after all that, again to have a Speaker who sees himself as the neutral servant of the House of Commons. Lindsay Hoyle is a practical and level-headed Lancastrian. At the beginning of his term of office, he appeared on Radio 4’s Today Programme. Hearing that he was “coming up after the news”, I texted the interviewer, Justin Webb, and suggested that he put The Wig Question.
Webb did so, in his polite but searching way, and Hoyle replied, without hesitation, that he’d gladly wear the eighteenth-century headgear on important occasions.
I knew then that he was the man for the job, and so he has proved. Hoyle is impartial among the political parties, but strongly partial in the defence of parliamentary sovereignty. Eloquent and personable, he has no desire to place himself at the centre of attention. Nor does he presume to know better than all his predecessors. He sees the traditions of the Commons, not as fusty anachronisms, but as default settings that should be altered only when there is a persuasive argument for change.
Wigs have started to appear on the heads of some of his officials, and the dress code for MPs has also been tightened. Again, this might seem trivial, but it serves to dignify Parliament. Having to wear a tie, like having to use correct forms of address, elevates proceedings, reminding MPs of how extraordinarily privileged they are to be speaking for their constituents in the highest counsels of the realm.
Indeed, ties may come to be seen as a kind of unofficial uniform for male politicians – rather as bow-ties used to be for medical doctors. I can’t help noticing that, as people return blinking to their offices after the lockdown, ties have almost disappeared everywhere else.
Not for the first time, Parliament may end up trailing years behind the rest of the nation. I spent a whimsical afternoon last week looking at the pictures in the corridors: portraits of various heroes and villains and an occasional panorama showing some great debate. I’d Google what men were wearing at that time and, in general, I’d find a ten- or 15-year lag.
MPs and peers were slower than the population at large to get out of powdered wigs, to swap their knee breeches for trousers, to shrug off their frock coats, to doff their top hats. They were occasionally seen in stripy grey trousers and black jackets after the Second World War, when almost no one else affected that style. Indeed, I remember seeing Enoch Powell in his spongebags in the late 1980s.
On one level, I’m enough of a conservative to approve. Continuity, formality and, yes, a certain stiffness of style have their place in a legislature. MPs should not carry themselves in Parliament as they do in their homes. We want them to be our representatives in the sense of having a fiduciary responsibility to defend our interests; but that doesn’t mean we want them to dress the way we do when we’re lounging about.
At the same time, though, I’m slightly irked. You see, I have always hated wearing ties. I find them constricting, rash-inducing and useless – the only item of male dress with no function whatever. Yet I have ended up in almost the only place in Britain where wearing the bloody things is still expected. And, because I support the concept of formal attire as a general principle, I can’t in conscience complain. Ah, the burdens of being a conservative.