I spent several hours yesterday, and again this morning, in watching the proceedings of the House of Commons in Britain, the so-called Mother of Parliaments, as they embarked on the five-day debate during which they will presumably decide on the fate of the deal to leave the European Union that Prime Minister Theresa May has put before them. I was able to watch so much of it because The Guardian newspaper has obligingly been running the debates live on its web site.
Watching it all took me back to that time almost 60 years ago ---- never! It can’t be that long ago, surely ---- when, as a correspondent in London for The Montreal Star I conceived it to be one of my duties to cover debates in that institution given over to deliberation and decision-making. I was never ordered by my employer to do that. They were buying news services from most of the great London newspapers, as well as from the news agencies, so they would have been completely covered for any news arising from that source in an emergency, whether I wrote anything or not. Rather, I got into the habit of paying attention by going at least twice a week to listen to Prime Minister’s Question Period, and if the House was on a subject that interested me, I would stay to hear at least the leading speeches given from both sides. Another part of my duties was to write what might now be considered investigative journalism on subjects of unusual interest, and I quickly discovered that in doing such research, one of the simplest ways to get information about, for example, British liquor licensing laws, land ownership in Britain, the continuing elevated status and wealth of the noble families in spite of the attempts by previous Labour governments to curtail their powers, or some other similarly esoteric subject, was to consult the Hansard accounts of the most recent debates held in Parliament. The statements made by the government and opposition spokespersons, plus the inevitable speech from some backbencher who always turned out to have an absolute mastery of the subject, whatever it might be, usually provided an unrivalled overview of any subject you might like to name. For me, such a method --- which, readers may remember, was very similar to the methods of research undertaken by the famous radical reporter of American politics, I.F.Stone, a man who always read the published information wherever it was to be found, something that most reporters neglected to do ---- had the added advantage that it also revealed the high level of British political oratory and wit. (For example, I came across the statement of one Conservative member who said, during a debate on licensing hours, that “The British pub is an institution that has declined into a state of sordid neglect which I personally find immensely agreeable”).
Of course at that time, the traditional formalities of Parliament were kind of amusing, and as I began to watch yesterday I was expecting there to have been quite a few changes. In those days, approval was expressed by hanging the hands on he desks, accompanied by a guttural rumble of approval. Clapping was not allowed although later I believe it was encouraged at least in the Canadian Parliament.. Yesterday a woman MP got up and pleaded for a change in what appear to be the enduring formalities because, she said, she deplored that when some young person had been praised for some praiseworthy action the day before, MPs were not able to express their approval with applause. Mr. Speaker, John Bercow, explained that he allowed applause if it came as a spontaneous reaction to some item of interest, especially if it was not party-oriented in nature, and was not being used simply as an item of inter-arty animus.
I noticed that Mr,Bercow had made the considerable change that he no longer wears the heavy white wig that was customary for all Speakers before him: I looked up this Bercow, a very amusing fellow to judge by the way he carried himself in the Speaker’s chair, and discovered he was Conservative member who started his political life as a rabid right-wing agitator, strongly against modern social customs such as same-sex marriage, yet a man who had been turned by experience into such a liberal in his attitudes that he had for quite a long time been considered likely to defect to the Labour party. He had been elected Speaker on three occasions, the only man ever to have been so honoured, but in the process he had earned such obloquy from his won party that his two most recent elections had been achieved more from opposition votes than from the support of his own party.
What struck me yesterday as the five-days of debate got under way was the extreme politeness with which members addressed one another. Years ago it had been forbidden for any member’s name to be mentioned, so that members had to be addressed, or referred to as “the Rt. Honourable Gentleman,”, or “the Honourable member for Hampstead and Kilburn”, which left casual observers always wondering who was the particular person speaking, and from whence had he or sprung.
I don’t know whether the excessive politeness with which speakers yesterday gave way to interruptions from honourable members from all sides of hte House was exceptional because of the solemnity of the occasion, but it did seem that each speaker was limited to eight minutes.
I was particularly struck by the silky eloquence of women members who spoke. One after the other, be they former journalists or barristers, accountants, doctors or what have you, one member after another rose to deliver a masterly, coherent statement of his or her beliefs. For example, the first speaker I heard was the Rt.Honourable Margaret Beckett, an 11-year Cabinet member in various Labour administrations, whose demolition of Ms. May’s negotiated deal left no doubt as to its deficiencies. She was followed from the other side of the House by an brisk, active-looking woman called Anna Soubry, who astonished me by saying her speech could be shorter than she had supposed because she completely agreed with the argument just heard from the last speaker. That these two women were on opposite sides of the House seemed to matter little, and when I looked her up I found she was another member who had gained a reputation for free-thinking, independence of mind, and sound judgment.
After listening for several hours, I have heard only two members say they were prepared to support Mrs, May’s deal, which she had insisted was the only possible deal to be expected from he EU, and the alternative of which could be only a no-deal exit with all the dangers it posed.
I turned it on this morning, in time to hear a few routine subjects being discussed before getting back on to the Brexit negotiations. First, a handsome young woman spoke eloquently, without any reference to a single note, in favour of her private member’s bill designed to prevent asylum seekers from being held in indefinite detention, as was the practise. Only refugees were treated in his way, she said, criminals having to be released after 28 days if no charges had been laid. She said her family had arrived in 1977 as refugees, and she was so extremely proud to represent her constituency which had a notable record for accepting immigrants, as well as refugees. She apologized for “my very long speech,”, was warmly applauded with that guttural expression of approval that is heard only in the House of Commons, I believe, and was commended by Mr. Speaker Bercow for having completed her remarks within the ten minutes which were allotted to them, so she had no reason to apologize on that account. Then he called, who will present the bill, and the young woman stepped down into the corridor between the two sides, and as she did so the Speaker called dramatically, “Tulip… something or other” I did not hear. The young woman took up her position at the far end of the House, bowed to Mr. Speaker, advanced halfway along towards him, stopped and bowed again, and upon reaching the bench, bowed a third time and handed in her bill for consideration. Mr. Speaker asked which date had been fixed for its consideration, she said January 29, 2019, and he called for a vote. “I think the ayes have it. The ayes have it,” he intoned in the traditional form. He then delivered a little homily in which he called upon any member who had spoken in the debate during the day to turn up when the summing up speeches are delivered by both sides. He had observed yesterday that certain members who had spoken had apparently had other things to do than to listen to a summing up of the day’s proceedings, and he wanted to ask that for the rest of the debate until the vote on Tuesday, he expected everyone who had spoken to be in the House for the day’s summing up.
I had time to look up Google for any British MP who might be called Tulip, and sure enough, up came the name of Tulip Saddiq, the member since 2015 for Hampstead and Kilburn. And an exceptionally active member she had been having spoken in Parliament 216 times, having asked 950 questions of the government, and having written more than 500 letters to Ministers. So evidently more to this honourable member than just her good looks and her silky eloquence.
Mr. Speaker then called on the government spokesman for the day, the Home Secretary Sayid Javid. I could not help but contrast this man, son of another immigrant with the Home Secretary of Harold Macmillan’s government, Rab Butler, the essence of plodding British solemnity. Mr. Javid yielded to honourable members so often he almost found it difficult to make his points.
Mrs May suffered defeats in three votes taken on this first day of debate: one was to find the government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to give members the full legal opinion they had deceived from the Attorney-general; the second was in an amendment proposed by one of her own members, Dominic Grieve, establishing that in the event of a defeat for Mrs. May’s motion on Tuesday, the House of Commons would be permitted to follow alternative options; and that the members voted down a government compromise which would have referred the dispute about contempt of Parliament to parliament’s privileges committee, that would not have had time to vote on it until after next Tuesday’s definitive vote.
So Mrs.May is off to a rocky start, but the argument now is that enough Brexit-favouring Conservative members might realize from the figures so far provided that a no-deal might be the only result of their defeating Mrs.May’s deal, and possibly with that realization could swing behind her at the last minute.
We will wait and see.