Whenever the Speaker, John Bercow, rebukes rowdy MPs for setting a bad example, it is hard to avoid the thought that the representatives of a free people ought sometimes, when they think the Government is doing something intolerable, to behave very badly.
Bercow himself used to behave atrociously in the days when he was one of the handful of backbenchers who kept the Chamber alive. He has throughout his life displayed a “gift for giving unnecessary offence”, as the ConHome profile of him put it, and has himself said that during his first five years as an MP – he entered the House in 1997 – “my behaviour was spectacularly bad – I mean not just sort of bad but bad on an industrial scale.”
If MPs did not behave badly, they would fail in their duty to reflect public opinion, and our democracy would die of boredom. As Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party and to the Carlton Club, told ConHome yesterday:
“It would almost be a breach of the constitution if the Commons failed to exhibit its historic practices of disorder at a time of great national crisis. MPs have been almost shamefully well behaved during the Brexit debates. Churchill in his Liberal days wore with pride the scar inflicted on his forehead by the bound copy of Commons Standing Orders hurled at him by an enraged Tory in 1912. Where are the free fights and suspended sittings of yore? The verbal pugnacity of Speaker Bercow is a poor substitute for the ancient traditions of the House.”
The disturbances by Opposition MPs early yesterday morning during the prorogation ceremonies, condemned as “mob rule” by some Conservatives (for example James Cleverly, the Party Chairman, on Twitter), were of a relatively minor order.
In the present Commons, we see a battle between those who received their political education at the Oxford Union, and those who got it from the National Union of Students. On both sides, a degree of bogusness is apparent, underlain by deep feeling.
Chips Channon, Conservative MP for Southend since 1935, relates in his diary for 4 April 1938 the reaction of Manny Shinwell, a fiery Labour MP and son of a Polish Jew, who reckoned, almost certainly correctly, that another Conservative MP, Robert Bower, had directed an anti-semitic remark at him:
“An incident in the House of Commons. Mr Shinwell made himself highly objectionable, and unfortunately, Commander Bower, the member for the Cleveland Division of Yorks, shouted ‘Go back to Poland’ – a foolish and provocative jibe, though no ruder than many that the Opposition indulge in every day. Shinwell, shaking with fury, got up, crossed the House and smacked him very hard across the face! The crack resounded in the Chamber – there was consternation, but the Speaker, acting from either cowardice or tact, seemed to ignore the incident and when pressed, refused to rebuke Shinwell, who made an apology, as did Bower, who had taken the blow with apparent unconcern. He is a big fellow and could have retaliated effectively. The incident passed; but everyone was shocked. Bower is a pompous ass, self-opinionated, and narrow, who walks like a pregnant turkey. I have always disliked him, and feel justified in so doing since he once remarked in my hearing ‘Everyone who even spoke to the Duke of Windsor should be banished – kicked out of the country’. But the incident does not raise Parliamentary prestige, especially now, when it is at a discount throughout the world.”
Luciana Berger MP, great-niece of Shinwell and this month a recruit to the Liberal Democrats, referred last year to this incident in a speech in the House about the monstrous anti-semitic abuse to which she has been subjected.
The Speaker, Edward Fitzroy, reckoned Shinwell and Bower were as bad as each other, and once they had apologised, decided to take no further action.
In the age of photography, this prudent decision would be harder to make. But the Speaker quite often has to deal with such problems, and not just in the period before the First World War when the country trembled on the brink of civil war.
Wikipedia provides a rather dull list of “incidents of major disorder in the British House of Commons” – dull because a bare summary does not convey the drama of these occasions.
But the list does have the merit of reminding one that the House had to be suspended in 1976, when Michael Heseltine brandished the mace, and in 1988, when Nigel Lawson cut the top rate of tax from 60 to 40 per cent, as well as on many other occasions.
There is an admirable tradition in British public life of respectability. For most of the time, our public figures know how to behave, and for most of the time we like it that way. This code of manners is one reason why parliamentary government has endured.
But good manners are not enough. They cannot convey the strength of feeling when great issues are at stake.
Great parliamentarians have to be capable, for good or ill, of expressing and channelling popular passion. It is better, generally speaking, for such emotions to be vented on stormy days and nights in the Commons, than for the Chamber to preserve a dry remoteness from the issues of the day.
Brexit is a profoundly emotional question which is taking years to work out. The protesters come to Parliament to make their noise and wave their banners, and this is a very good thing.
We are having the necessary argument in the right place, the Commons Chamber, a process which Bercow, for all his faults, has facilitated.
The storm of protest raised by prorogation was a healthy sign. Only in the Commons can the great decisions which are impending be scrutinised and then endorsed or rejected.
The EU referendum, though instituted by Parliament, was also a direct challenge to representative democracy.
But it is our sometimes ill-behaved Parliament – whether the present House of Commons or a newly elected one – which now has to interpret and deal with the consequences of the referendum.
And in this sense, the acknowledged primacy of Parliament, one might say that Brexit has already happened.