The Diary of a back Bencher
The following is the first instalment of a series of articles written from Ottawa for Busy Man’s. It is the Diary of a BackBencher, scribbled on odd bits of paper as he sits in the House listening, or trying not to listen, to somebody’s speeches. From his vantage point at the back of the Chamber he often gets a view of things that is interesting. This particular member is a Liberal, but that does not prevent him from saying what he pleases. In this month’s instalment he describes the “Making of a Back-Bencher.” He tells, in his own way, just as though he were merely talking to himself, or to his desk, hozo he came into the House of Commons, a new member, and how from being an ambitious youngster, anxious to mend all the cracks in the Nation’s affairs, he drifted into one of the good fellozvs in the last fez v rozos.
I’M going to quit whittling the top of this desk. It’s a nervous habit. Time I stopped. Remember I used to do that when I was a kid at school, —carving my initials and the initials of the little girl across the aisle. But when a man can’t smoke what can he do? There’s Ned Macdonald from Pietou talking, talking, talking—My word ! you’d think it was Mark Antony’s oration. You can’t smoke and you can’t play cards in here. The other fellows are mostly writing letters, although little “What’s His Name,” the French-Canadian from
Quebec, who sits beside me, he’s drawing horses on his blotter. He can’t bear sitting in here and listening to long speeches either. He draws good horses, that fellow does, only he doesn't draw their hind legs right, makes the knees bend the wrong way. Still, he makes a better horse than I can, so I needn’t say anything. Spent a whole hour last week while Fielding was talking about something, trying to draw one but I couldn’t. It looked like one of those vaulting arrangements they have in gymnasiums.
People have queer notions about members of Parliament. I used to
In Parliament there are three classes of men. There are the successful Parliamentarians, those who lead attacks and repel them; those who are masters of statistics, like George Foster, and those who can kill time pleasantly and hold off the ringing of the Division Bell. They are in the first class.
In the second,-—a pathetic sort of class, are the men who are trying to amount to something but the most of whom never will. They include the man with hobbies, the man with an impediment in his speech, the Frenchman who is trying to exercise his English,— and others.
have them. Used to think that what was wanted) in Parliament was honest men. Used' to figure out that I was fair to middling honest myself and I'd be a good) sort of an addition to the House of Commons. That’s why I let them put me up and elect me, although, I suppose I might as well be honest with myself and admit that my wife wanted the honor in the family and I wasn’t averse myself to having it said Pd been to Parliament and sat for the Seat of North-West Branfrew. That’ll be when I’m dead and that son of mine runs the mills. But it’s three years since I came,—came in on the last election, and you learn many things in Parliament in that space of time.
Remember coming up to Ottawa for the opening of the Session with miy wife. They didn’t introduce me to the House for a few days so we looked around. Neither of us had been in the town before. Saw “The Hill’’ and 'walked all around it. Went through Booth’s Mill and the Eddy Mill and held the wife by the shoulder when we looked over the bridge at the Chaudière Falls—she always says she’s afraid she’ll jump in, when she sees water running fast under a bridge. Booth people showed me their system for checking costs. I adapted it to my own mill down in Branfrew. Using it yet. Good system too, for—but then it’s bad policy to tell people how you run your business, and besides they are never interested in it as you are yourself.
In about two weeks they introduced me into the House. Maud wanted to stay in the Gallery and see me come in, so I let her, more fool ! Minute the green baize doors opened with me on Lauriers arm and Tommy
-, the Whip for my part of
the country, on my other side, I could just feel her eyes on me, watching how I walked, how I shoved my hand ouï to the Speaker, and how I took my seat. I know I was blushing like a little chit of a girl—and me a business man and forty! She told me afterward that she remembered that there was a button off my vest which must have showed. It worried me then but it wouldn’t now.
At that time I felt rather satisfied. The Chief (Laurier) has a way of taking your arm, or resting his long thin hand on your shoulder, that makes1 you feel easy. All the fellows on our side of the House pounded their desks as soon as I was inside the door, and it made me feel a little bit scared, like when you show a new broken colt the new set of harness. I tripped on the old ragged carpet going back to my seat, but when I got there I felt all right again and Maud said I looked all right, so I guess I didn’t make a fool of myself.
I used to listen to the speeches pretty close then. Used to read the blue books and dig up all sorts of data in the Library of Parliament. But I soon got over that. Listen ! There’s Ned Macdonald at it yet, and am I hearing what he says? Listen-
But in the third class are ‘‘the back-benchers,” the men wk# occupy the last rows of seats on either side. They never make speeches. They sit quiet in committee and take nobody’s side until it comes to a vote. Then, they stand up with the rest of the men on their own side, unless the matter be a local issue in their own constituencies and their vote will be noticed. How they hold their seats in the House is sometimes a mystery. But they do. They spend weeks in every session carefully going over the voters’ lists in their own districts, limiting letters of condolence to some obscure voter’s family when a death has occurred, and mailing tons of hand-selected
inig? My word1! he’s talking about the protection oí the rights of the people, the elimination of “sectional differences” or something and our duty to our King and our “glorious flag.” No sir! After the first two speeches* have been delivered on either side in the debate on a new topic nobody needs to say any more, so far as I’m concerned. That’s why all these desks are whittled to bits and all these other Back Bench men are writing so many letters home. And that's why little Francois Xavier keeps on drawing horses with bad legs.
Sit here three years and you’ll see the process of making great men and
back-benchers. I’m a back-bencher, but I’ve no regrets. I like sitting here and just watching things. Look at Laurier, look at little Mackenzie King. Look at George Graham—I like that fellow—and look at us fellows in the back row. There are three of us in the last string of seats that ought to amount to something; they’ve only been in the House a little while. But the rest of us are going to sit in these seats and say nothing till the crack of doom or until the Government gets beaten, or our people throw us down. Down in those seats a little nearer the front are some fellows who haven’t realized yet how hopeless they are. Nice fellows most of them, though I have my own opinion about that man from North Herbert, and they are allowed to talk whenever they won’t do any harm. There’s a sort of a “Children’s Hour” in the House of Commons when the little fellows are allowed to get up and talk their heads off without doing any harm. They think they are born to lead some great movement or do away with some terrib’e abuse. They conceive many private bills and deliver them as national saviours. They want to amend the Banking Vet or some other Act so as to protect the widbws or the orphans or the public. If such an amendment were passed it would probably mean that the economics of the country would be yanked forty different ways. There’d be panics and money famines and so on, but they can’t see it. They want that Act changed and they say
“Hansard’' to the most intelligent and the weakest-minded in the constituency for the ediñcation of the voter and the safety of the next election. They smoke and play an affable game of bridge or pinochle or something else. They can tell a good story in the smoking room and turn a huger at Billiards. But the Chamber of the House itself is to them bitter as Hemlock.
Sometimes they are forced to attend. That is, when the Whips expect a Division on some matter and come hunting through the corridors, the smoking rooms, the restaurant and the private rooms, to gather up the votes; or when he has to come in for company. But
so. They quote from all sorts of books and they make all sorts of comparisons. They play with the debate like a puppy biting a ball of wool. They chew at it weakly and roll on it as though it was catnip. They growl gurgly growls and pretend to be very savage, but after all they aren’t. Fielding or Laurier, or Graham or whoever has been left in the House to take care of things, waits till they get tired, or worn out, or till they are getting too dangerously near calling for a Division, and then gets up and says he thinks the honorable gentleman would probably accept “this amendment” to his motion, and suggests a six months’ hoist, which means—death to the bill. The member protests or tries to. He struggles a little bit under the chloroform but he takes it finally and1 becomes very quiet as he sees his little Bill—a really nice little Bill, too, the child of his Brain and his Conscience, with his Ambition for a God Mother—taken out and strangled and sent back to him, lifeless.
Those fellows never will learn. If they did they’d1 become Back Benchers with the rest of us.
The House of Commons is like an old-fashioned country school-house where all the classes sit in one room. There is as much difference between the head men and the little fellows as there is between the head boys at school and the infant class. And
wollen you first enter you have a great deal to learn.
People said I made a good speech on the platform. May say I thought so myself. I came to Parliament without any idea oí particularly upsetting the foundat ous of the country or anything like that, but. I thought I’d stand by, in ever/ question that wa~ bí ought up, and would delivei my own judgment on it, from the ne'chi of my ow.t common sense, so to >j.eak. I told my electors that. I wia party man, but that I’d v >;e on intelligence only and wouldn’t just be a party automaton. The Conservative candidate who was running against me had George Foster down to speak at one of his meetings and Foster
the trial of the Back Bencher is when he has to put out his cigar and file in—with the flock—ahead of the Chief Whip of his own side, and then sit there while the Leader of the Government and the Leader of the Opposition jockey up to the point where the Speaker orders the bell rung. The back-bencher takes his seat and waits for that time. If it is a serious debate he is bound to sit quiet and pretend to listen but, as a rule, he scribbles on his blotter, or zoritos a letter home, or carves his initials in the they have different ways of tilling in the time. If it is not a serious debate, or there is only some small fry addressing the Speaker, the back-benchers gather in little knots at the back of their respective sides of the House and chuckle over the latest story.
Some of the best men in Parliament are back-benchers. Some of them are masters of the passing art of reasoning by “horse sense.”
said, says Foster: “You just ought to see haw loyal those Grits are to their leaders. Why if a certain bill comes in that the Leaders ¡want ¡put through, through it goes. If he doesn’t, out it goes. It’s a case of Simon says thumbs up ! and all the thumbs go up ; or Simon says thumbs down! and down they go.”
I laughed at Foster then. But I know better now. Mind you that is no more a Liberal practice than a Conservative practice. It is part of the party system in this country and the only way that a member can get along in the House is to be loyal to it, unless and until, he is able to step out and lead the House 'successfully in some other direction than the one in which the accredited leaders want it to go. You have to follow the leader or take his place yourself. That’s what’s the matter with the Tories at this minute.
It was a Scotchman who had been eating onions who caused me to make my first speech. I’ve made three in three years. I’ve listened to others. A fellow on our side would get up and make a speech and it would sound convincing. It’d have me converted for as much as five minutes— until some other man on the far side would answer it. 'If the men were evenly matched you’d find that there was as much “for” the bill as “against” it unless you went out into
the corridor and had a smoke so as to coax up your own judgment again and get your own opinion on the thing. But that sort of thing worried me. Platform speeches are all very well but I knew that the speech I would need to make would have to hold water and stand bombarding.
I wrote home and asked Maud about it. She said, “Billy, you make a speech !” but I hung off. I asked the Chief Whip and he said “Sure, Bill ! What do you want to talk about ?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, rather uneasy-like, “Any old thing, I guess.”
“How’d the Seed Law do?”
“Seed ! Why I don’t know one plant from another, much less the seed.”
“Yes, but Bill m’ boy, if a man’s going to be a good debater he’s got to be able to dig something interesting about anything—rats, or telegraph poles, or bead-work for ladies, or railroad construction.”
“Oh, I know,” I replied, “but I guess I’ll leave well enough alone just at present.”
So I did. But MacPherson came. IV.
MacPherson is a Scotchman with red hair and a red beard, who lives like a sort of a hermit back in my riding. He sent a dirty piece of
paper into the House one day with his name scrawled on it and the smell of onions coming from it. When I looked up, after the page had handed it to me in my seat, I saw MacPherson’s red head sticking through the swinging .baize doors behind the speaker’s chair, just under the Press Gallery, and the Major—that’s the old door-keeper with the side-whiskers, was tugging at him from behind, trying to pull him out without making a scene, for MacPherson’s unholy boots were profaning forbidden territory.
“Would you like to see the buildings?” I asked my constituent, after having led him into safer regions.
“No.” he says, “but I’m wantin’ t’ meet some of the great men, and I’m wantin’ t’ know why ye never make any speeches in the House.”
He spoke as my moral and physical mentor.
I was up against it. I made uip lies for all the Cabinet Ministers excepting Graham—and Graham has such a good sense of humor that I knew he would not mind. He didn’t. He told MacPherson some stories, traced up a family connection somewhere or other and gave MacPherson a prescription for his sick horse, which made the party strong with MacPherson for life.
But suddenly the man whisked out a question.
“Why disna’ our member make speeches, big speeches?” he demanded.
I tried to laugh it off and Graham sought to help me out by telling how hard I’d been working in the committees. But MacPherson wanted to know about the speeches.
“Y’ know, Mister Graham,” he said, “This man can make better speeches than I ever haird in my life and I’ve heard1 quite a many.”
I saw that I really owed it to my .constituents, and I saw, too, for the first time that every Member of Parliament is the personal chattel of every voter in his riding.
I made the speech. It was on factory inspection. After that I made other speeches. But every one of them it seemed to me was lame. My stuff was always old. If I left myself go I was sure to forget my most important points and if I didn’t I was wooden. The Press Gallery laid down their pencils when I stood up and a tall fellow with a moustache and spectacles near the end of the Tory side of the Gallery used to pass remarks to a little plump fellow with a long nose from one of the Toronto papers. It was evidently something witty, and something about me, but I didn’t care, I didn’t pretend to make speeches and I was only doing my duty. I sent Hansard copies home to MacPherson and a few others and that was all. I soon dropped out of the habit of making speeches. MacPherson didn’t seem to mind, and I saw that unless they were speeches that would cause the other members to follow my leadership there was no use advancing anything in them that was at all at variance with what the Government proposed to do, I might as well jam my head into a stone wall, for not only would I probably lose my own case but I would be lessening my prestige with the party.
(To be continued.)