The scores of new Labour MPs arriving in Westminster this week will be getting advice from all manner of sources: some of it well-meaning, some of it malicious.
I always remind parliamentarians that most of the House of Commons is a fake. It is Augustus Pugin’s neo-gothic ‘Palace’ built in the 1840s. Pugin, who died aged 40, driven mad by syphilis, wanted his new ‘Palace’ to look like a medieval cathedral, and recreated one opposite the genuine one on the other side of the road.
But the Commons Chamber itself is even more fake – not 1840s, but 1940s. The Chamber was bombed by the Luftwaffe, and faithfully reconstructed after the war, thanks to donations from Commonwealth countries. If you look closely at the Speaker’s chair, or the dispatch box, you can see little signs showing which country donated the wood. It’s a little like the sponsorship on a sportsperson’s shirt.
The best advice to the new Labour MP comes from Aneurin Bevan, in his 1952 classic In Place of Fear. I’ll let Nye take over from here:
“‘The past lies like an Alp upon the human mind.'” The House of Commons is a whole range of mountains. If the new Member gets there too late in life he is already trailing a pretty considerable past of his own, making him heavy-footed and cautious. When to this is added the visible penumbra of six centuries of receding legislators, he feels weighted to the ground. Often he never gets to his feet again.
His first impression is that he is in church. The vaulted roofs and stained-glass windows, the rows of statues of great statesmen of the past, the echoing halls, the soft-footed attendants and the whispered conversation, contrast depressingly with the crowded meetings and the clang and clash of hot opinions he has just left behind in his election campaign. Here he is, a tribune of the people, coming to make his voice heard in the seats of power. Instead, it seems he is expected to worship; and the most conservative of all religions – ancestor worship.
“The first thing he should bear in mind is that these were not his ancestors. His forebears had no part in the past, the accumulated dust of which now muffles his own footfalls. His forefathers were tending sheep or ploughing the land, or serving the statesmen whose names he sees written on the walls around him, or whose portraits look down upon him in the long corridors. It is not the past of his people that extends in colourful pageantry before his eyes. They were shut out from all this; were forbidden to take part in the dramatic scenes depicted in these frescoes. In him his people are there for the first time, and the history he will make will not be merely an episode in the story he is now reading. It must be wholly different; as different as is the social status which he now brings with him.
To preserve the keen edge of his critical judgment he will find that he must adopt an attitude of scepticism amounting almost to cynicism, for Parliamentary procedure neglects nothing which might soften the acerbities of his class feelings. In one sense the House of Commons is the most unrepresentative of representative assemblies. It is an elaborate conspiracy to prevent the real clash of opinion which exists outside from finding an appropriate echo within its walls. It is a social shock absorber placed between privilege and the pressure of popular discontent.”
Photo: Paul Waugh