Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A day in parliament

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Goodness, I am an old lady. Two lunches and one dinner in London and I am a wreck. (That reminds me, I must take my iron tonic.)

There are so many things I want to tell you, but I cannot fit them all into one post. Perhaps just one parliamentary sketch.

Those of you who read regularly will know I am a politics geek. Luckily, one of my very old friends, one of the ones who goes back 26 years, recently became a politician. He is known in these pages as the Political Operative; he has been a councillor, started a think tank, and now is on the back benches. He is very tall and very clever and I love him.

We were fixing up a lunch when the possibility arose of a ticket to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. To most people, this would be a form of punishment; to me, it is like going backstage at The Rolling Stones. I am not sure I could have been more excited by any other invitation. I hung, on tenterhooks, wondering if such a miracle might be possible. Eventually, the confirming text came. I was in.

I was so thrilled, I dashed out to buy a special pair of House of Commons boots. I rang my mother: ‘I decided,’ I said, ‘that the suede shoes with the pom poms that cost fourteen pounds from Dorothy Perkins in Cirencester would just not cut it, in the House.’

‘No,’ she said gravely. ‘They certainly would not.’

‘And I do need some winter boots,’ I said. (This is empirically correct.) ‘And,’ I said, ‘I’m doing my bit to keep the economy going.’

‘Yes, you are,’ she said, staunchly.

The boots are very splendid indeed. They are black patent, to the knee, with two shiny silver buckles on each side. As an added bonus, the man in Peter Jones, who sold them to me, was the nicest fellow in London. He told me all about the joys of working for the John Lewis Partnership, and how he felt part of a family, and how good the company was. A tiny little silver lining of good news, in the dark doominess that is Blighty PLC, I thought. I slightly longed to tell him I was taking the boots to the Mother of all Parliaments, but I decided it might sound a bit swanky, just when we were getting on so well.

I did very much love getting into a cab and saying: ‘The House of Commons, please’.

I loved smiling at the stern policemen on the door, and making little jokes with the security people at the X-ray machines.

The Operative came to collect me, and we walked through Westminster Hall, the high, dim room at the heart of the whole place. Nothing much happens there any more, except for the odd state occasion, but it is nine hundred years old; it is where the entire shooting match started. It is the mighty room in which Charles I was tried.

I said, as we walked through: ‘You can just smell the history.’

I said: ‘Does this make you think of what it is you are here for?’

The Political Operative, who is less starry-eyed than I, laughed, and said, ironically: ‘You mean executing kings and not being very nice to the Catholics?’

‘Yes,’ I said, going with the joke. ‘That's it. That’s the important stuff.’

He left me for a moment in the central lobby. ‘I’m going into the Chamber for prayers,’ he said. ‘Back in five minutes.’

I stood up straight in my new House of Commons boots. Crowds were milling about, talking, gazing, meeting. There was a school party, a group which looked like tourists, some youthful types whom I was sure were special advisers, older, respectable looking people, whom I thought might be proud mothers and fathers of MPs. Suddenly, there was a great shout: ‘THE SPEAKER. Hats off for the Speaker.’ On cue, the two bobbies by the statue of Gladstone took off their domed helmets.

I had never seen this before. The whole place felt quiet. The Speaker walked through, preceded by his officials in their black uniforms, holding the mace. The old Speakers used to dress up in eighteenth century type dress, with lace jabots and stockings and breeches; this new one did away with all that, and just wears a sort of donnish gown. He smiles and nods to left and right; he looks exactly like a popular lecturer in geography at a provincial university, the sort of character Malcolm Bradbury used to put in his novels. But the ceremony remains, and I know some people might think it outdated and odd, but it has something wonderful about it.

Then, the Operative came back and took me up to the gallery. There were more tremendous officials, in white tie and black tails. They were very charming and also very strict. I had bought my notebook, to record the Momentous Event, but you are allowed to take nothing into the gallery. It was just me and my brain cells.

The Foreign Secretary and his ministers were answering questions. I was rather impressed by the range. There were queries about the trade relations with Turkey, the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the governance of Egypt, the Iranian nuclear programme, Israel and Palestine, the situation in Somaliland. This is my democracy in action, I suddenly thought, in high excitement. This is not what you read about in the papers. Someone, in that palace of Westminster, really, really cares, and knows, about what is happening in Bosnia.

There was no knockabout, or shouting and pointing; the foreign officer ministers bobbed up and down to the despatch box, with their ring binder files, for all the world as if they were doing their geography prep. William Hague himself was a serious figure, fully in command of his brief, easy in front of the massed ranks.

The House was half full. I saw David Laws, scribbling away, as if he were doing a quiz. Rory Stewart, looking absurdly young, had the appearance of the cleverest schoolboy in the class, grinning and passing notes. On the Opposition front bench, Douglas Alexander had his arms crossed, and was making naughty in-jokes across the despatch box, as if teasing his opposite number. A faint ripple in the air occurred, as Dennis Skinner, the old Labour stalwart, came and took his place, swaggering in like a riverboat gambler.

As the time grew near for the Autumn statement, the place started to fill up. Some of the big beasts arrived. Ken Clarke, looking healthier and much more attractive and louche in life than he does on television, sank down onto the front bench. Yvette Cooper came in, very neat and contained. Alan Johnson and David Blunkett and Dianne Abbott sailed in. Alastair Darling sat down on the back bench, and fell to texting on his Blackberry. I never saw anyone so happy not to be Chancellor any more.

Nick Clegg and Oliver Letwin were having a tremendous chat behind the Speaker’s Chair. In front of the Speaker sit his three clerks, in their white horsehair wigs, looking for all the world like high court judges. There is a serious man at the Speaker’s side, who writes things down on pieces of paper, and passes notes up to Mr Berkow. The really funny thing is that at the edge of the great throne on which the Speaker sits are low ledges, and this appears to be where the cool kids sit. They are not official seats, but the naughty boys come and perch there, instead of going into proper places on the green benches, and it gives them an air of ownership, as if they were the kind who brought the teacher an apple at school, but still managed to be a bit funny and raffish at the same time.

Now there was an air of anticipation. Suddenly, the Chancellor arrived, followed by the Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor took their places. There was a moment of hush. Then they were off.

The statement itself was an impossible piece of rhetoric. The news is all bad. Growth figures are being revised downward; unemployment is being revised upward; the Eurozone smash is the elephant in the room. All policy aside, the Chancellor did pretty well. I was concentrating on the thing itself, rather than the wide ramifications, and he’s not bad at it.

What you don’t see on television is that, all the way through, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are staring beadily at George Osborne, shaking their heads ostentatiously back and forth, rolling their eyes, raising their eyebrows, doing what the hell are you on about faces. Then they nudge each other, whisper into each other’s ears, giggle like schoolchildren, write something on a piece of paper and point at it so the other can see. As if this theatre was not enough, the back benches are howling and oohing and ahhing; one or two backbenchers are just heckling constantly. ‘The Chancellor MUST BE HEARD,’ roars the Speaker. And: ‘One honourable member has done enough shouting for one day.’

Up in the Lobby gallery, the scribes are scribbling, at high desks, like Dickensian clerks. I get very excited about this too, and start doing parliamentary sketchwriter and pundit top trumps, with myself. There is Benedict Brogan from The Telegraph, Gary Gibbon from Channel Four News, the very tall and elegant figure of James Landale from the BBC. Michael White, whom I worship, the brilliant veteran from The Guardian who has seen it all, appears to be tweeting the whole thing on his Blackberry. James Forsyth, from the Speccie, is high up in solitary state in the far left hand corner, scribbling away in longhand and sending quizzical looks down on the chamber.

Quentin Letts of the Mail, with whom I have never agreed on anything, but who still makes me laugh, looks about ten years old in life, and comes and sits next to Simon Carr of the Indy. I wonder if they are having a competition about who can be funnier. (I wonder too if Simon Carr remembers that I once played croquet with him, on a rough lawn in Suffolk, a hundred years ago, and wonders what I am doing in my black velvet in the gallery.) I look in vain for my other favourite sketchwriter, the dry, wry Ann Treneman, but I cannot see her.

Down in the chamber, Ed Balls is on his feet. He is much bigger and beefier and crosser in life than he is on Andrew Marr’s sofa. Goodness, he is cross. It’s all a shambles, he says; if only they had followed our plan. When he says things about debt, the Tories on the backbenches all point their fingers, in unison, as if to say: well, who spent all the cash? I see Liam Byrne raising his eyebrows and doing pantomime no, no, no faces, and wonder if he regrets that note he left on the Treasury Desk for the incoming government, which said: ‘Sorry, there’s no money left.’

After it all, the Political Operative and I have a quick lunch in Portcullis House. I am insanely excited by the whole performance. The Operative, who knows that politics is real and difficult and complicated, rather rues the Punch and Judy aspect. ‘It’s not always very edifying,’ he says. I am rather carried away by the theatrical aspect, so new to me; to him, it is his daily bread, and he wants to make things work. He shakes his head. We use the word utilitarian more than once.

I have a very old-fashioned belief in the political system, in democracy, in the good faith of most elected representatives. Of course there are charlatans and shits and phonies, but there are also many good men and women who really do want to leave the world a little better than they found it. I may be wrong about this. I may have too much stardust in my eyes, a stupid naivety. The state of the nation now is a profoundly difficult one, and I, for all my historical knowledge and political geekery, would not begin to know how to fix it. I’m not saying those six hundred in the chamber are perfect, but I do think they are trying. I hope they are.

My final impressions –

Everyone says the chamber is much smaller than it looks on television, and it is. What people do not say is that it is much, much brighter than one expects. I suppose it’s for the television cameras; the lights are harsh and cruel and beat down on the gathered throng. The MPs are wedged up on tiny, narrow benches. There is theatre, and some silliness; there is also a sense of seriousness and history. I see, just from my three hours in that space that it might, indeed, be easy to get caught up in the Westminster bubble that the pundits write of with such scorn.

It is all very familiar, and at the same time, very alien. For someone like me, who has studied the Reform Acts and the repeal of the Corn Laws and Catholic Emancipation, it is filled with ghosts. The Operative and I even spoke of Spencer Percival, as we ate our lunch. I thought of Peel, and Gladstone, and Disraeli; of Canning and Castlereagh; of Palmerston and Wellington and Charles James Fox.

Oh, and it is, as that old, old complaint goes, very white, and very male, even now. At first, there is something smart and formal about so many men in their suits. After a while, you start thinking: but I can only see three brown faces. I can only see twelve women. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an Anglo-Saxon fellow, but it would be nice to see a slightly more representative collection. I wonder what the schoolchildren think, when they come to visit, the new generations who are not used to pale gentlemen running the show.

But for all the drawbacks, it was a wonderful thing to witness in many ways, and I felt very privileged to have seen it.

And when I got back, tired from the train, there was the Pigeon, who cares more for biscuits than politics, jumping up and down on all fours, greeting me with the kind of joy that says: I don’t care at all who is running the country, you are my Queen of the World. Sometimes I think that’s what the canines are for.

One picture only today, but then, sometimes one picture is all one needs:

29 nov 1 27-11-2011 16-52-30.ORF

And may I say that as well as coming home to the dear face of the Pidge, I also came home to some astonishingly lovely comments from the Dear Readers. Your kindness, as always, is overwhelming.

Oh, and I should say: sorry this is so long. It's just it was so interesting to me that I wanted to give it all to you. I understand some of you will have no interest in politics and rely on your enduring patience.


  1. As usual, a most interesting post although as I have lived in New Zealand since 1965, I didn't know most of the people mentioned.

    Your post did bring back memories of when I was about 12 or 13 and my parents decided to take us to see the Houses of Parliament. We arrived to be told only people in arranged groups were allowed in.

    Not to be daunted my mother tagged us all onto a group led by an M.P. It ended up with him ignoring the rest of his party and giving us the full tour.

    The problem came when he wanted to see us onto the tour bus. I cannot quite remember how my father handled that as my mother, brother and I left him to it and watched from a distance.

  2. Truly impressed and thoroughly amused by your account of today in the House. And not just any old day at that, but for the Autumn Statement!
    As a politics addict like you, it sounds to me like 'the' Dream Day.
    And now you have a nice new pair of patent boots to show for it.
    So glad to know you were there when I was watching. :)

  3. None of the names mean much to me either but I like the descriptiveness of your post so much.

  4. A riveting read from our woman in new boots on the spot.

  5. It's all so reminiscent of The Coliseum and Circus and Pantomime.

  6. At last, an Internet connection. And here I am, two weeks behind the rest of you. I will burn midnight oil and catch up, but at last, finally, once and for all, I am back in my wonderful artsy-fartsy little town which I dearly love. So glad to be back -- here and with you, dear Tania.

  7. What Mystica said. I pay scant attention to most matters political (to my shame); but your description, worthy of Dickensian court reporting (not forgetting the boots) makes it bearable.

  8. No interest in politics, I'm only here for my daily fix of Pidge. 8-)

  9. I usually follow politics ~ more American than British, but one still likes to be aware of what's up in the UK. Lately, though, the news has been so depressing that it is hard to want to learn more about either system. Your account, though, is stirring. It reminds me that we have a democracy, and just because there are some idiotic or corrupt practitioners of it, that does not mean that the system is bad. Those old traditions and ceremonies are a reminder not of what we have exactly, but what is possible. Thanks.

    PS And as political junkie, love all the detail!

  10. You captured it wonderfully. I still remember the frisson of when I got to attend parliament for PMQs and though I did always moan when I had meetings at Millbank and in the Cabinet Office and so on it was also quite thrilling.

    I could not help but have Radio 5 on yesterday to ensure I could listen. It is no longer my job to know these things, nor has it been for years but I hate to feel out of the loop.

    I love how you captured it. It describes it the way I have always tried to.

  11. What a wonderful blog. I really, really enjoyed reading your "insider" account.


  12. Ooh how exciting it must have been. New boots were an absolute necessity for such an occassion. Thank you for sharing your fabulous day.


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