Visitors to the British House of Commons often ask about the significance of a narrow pink strip of carpet in front of the first line of benches on both sides. The answer is quite simple. When the debate is in full blast no Socialist or Tory front-bencher can advance beyond that warning strip. If he does he is immediately called to order by Mr. Speaker. In fact the space between the two strips is the equivalent of no man's land.
The origin of this device is in the distant past. The actual rule is that members of opposing parties must be at least two sword lengths apart during a debate. We no longer bring swords into the Chamber but the basic idea of keeping our distance from each other remains as the inexorable law.
Actually there was a moment recently when this long-established rule might well have been useful. We were debating the bus strike with all its actual and potential dangers as well as its bad feeling. The Labor opposition had moved a vote of censure on the government for its failure to deal adequately or fairly with the demands of the transport workers, and the House was packed.
When the Opposition leader, Hugh Gaitskell, had ended his speech he was followed by Iain Macleod, the minister of labor. Macleod hit hard and we could sense the strain that he had undergone, but he was perfectly fair in his analysis of the causes of the strike and in his suggestions for bringing it to an end. But as his speech entered its final phase he suddenly paused and pointed to Socialist leader Hugh Gaitskell, who was sitting directly opposite.
In icy tones he said: “I agree with Mr. Gaitskell that the industrial situation is very serious indeed. I have deliberately not launched an attack on him or on the Labor Party, nor have I commented, as I thought at first I would, on the Trade Union Council statement that was issued yesterday.”
Macleod paused ominously. Something pretty tough was coming and we waited for it with mixed feelings. It was clear to all of us that the minister’s patience was at breaking point. Leaning across the dispatch box and fixing his gaze on Hugh Gaitskell he said: "The House may remember a spying of Mr. Marx—Groucho, not Karl—who said 'Sir, I never forget
a face but I will make an exception in your case.’ ”
The thrust raised a laugh but only for a moment. The minister’s anger showed that his jest was merely a prelude to something far removed from humor.
“Perhaps the House will permit me briefly one exception to this,” he said, in reference to the Groucho Marx pronunciamento. "However carefully 1 try to frame my words about the criticism which has been made against me by Mr. Gaitskell, I am bound to say that I cannot continued on page 52
London Letter continued from page 10
“The word spread quickly through the houses of parliament: Macleod was pummeling Nye Bevan”
conceal my scorn and contempt for the part that he has played in this dispute.”
There was a roar of anger from the Socialist benches and an even greater shout of approval from the Tories as Gaitskell’s face flushed with anger. Mr. Speaker, in his gown and wig, leaned forward as if to intervene but the minister was obviously not to be silenced.
“We are having this debate today.” Macleod rasped, “because Mr. Gaitskell, in a parliamentary scene on Monday, could not control himself. I do not believe that the leader of any other party would have allowed this particular debate to take place at the present time. But if the Opposition are to vote tonight in the lobby let us be quite clear where censure in this matter lies. Because of his refusal on Friday to say a single word that would uphold the authority of an arbitration award, because of his mischievous speech over the weekend, if we are to vote tonight then let the censure of the House be on Mr. Gaitskell tonight, and from the country tomorrow."
I have described this scene at some length because Iain Macleod is one of those men whose political future is based entirely upon his own personality and not upon his school or his social background. He has neither the grace nor self-satisfaction of the Etonian or Harrovian. His father was a Scottish doctor who. in the great tradition of his race, worked hard and spent little so that he could send his son to Cambridge.
But how, in the British parliament, does a man without influence or the usual Tory background rise to the position in his party that Macleod holds today? Nor is it likely that his climb will stop at his present post. Iain Macleod is another example of a man who saw' his opportunity and was ready for it.
It came on a day in the 1951 parliament when the Socialists were in power and Aneurin Bevan had opened the debate with his usual skill plus his Welsh eloquence. In fact Aneurin was in fine form and made great play with us on
the Opposition benches. As he reached his peroration and climax the socialists cheered themselves hoarse, but when it was seen that the next speaker was the almost unknown back bencher, Iain Macleod, the attendance slimmed as MPs from both sides decided that it was time for a cup of tea.
But the British parliament possesses a psychic quality and the news began to spread that Macleod was making a remarkable speech. The tidings filtered to the smoking room, to the libraries and even to the terrace. Soon the empty benches were packed. In fact there was not sitting room for all the members,
One Man’s Pain Is Another’s Gloss
Becoming bald Is no disgrace: You’re losing hair But gaining face.
and it was literally a case of Standing Room Only and precious little of that. Even the peers heard about it and crowded the special bench in the gallery which is reserved for members of the House of Lords.
Yet Macleod had neither the manner nor the voice of a successful career politician. His voice was hard, rather metallic; and his round face and head gave no suggestion of aristocratic lineage. But he had the breeding which has produced so many of Britain’s leaders in every walk of life—the breeding of the Scottish hills and moors.
Macleod was studying for the law when Hitler set the world on fire, and he dropped his books and took up a rifle. From the ranks he gained his commission and had risen to the rank of major when he took part in the
D Day Landing. He was wounded in 1940 but returned to his unit.
There was nothing startling about either this military career or his earlier scholastic attainments at school and at the university, but they revealed two things—he had tenacity and a stubborn courage. And now in the greatest parliament in the world he was giving a terrific punishment to the Welsh spellbinder, Aneurin Bevan, the man with the gift of words and the aura of drama. (Although perhaps the bravest thing Macleod ever did was publish a book called Bridge is an Easy Game. Incidentally he was for a time bridge editor of the Sunday Times and is one of the best players in Britain.)
Yet the fame that centred on him after his pummeling of Bevan was to be clouded by domestic sorrow. His wife was stricken with an illness that threatened paralysis. For months she was confined to her home, and the flashing eyes of Iain Macleod were dimmed and shadowed. He had been given the toughest job in any Conservative government —minister of labor—and he spent his time between his heavy political tasks and his stricken wife’s bedside. But the gods were kind. Mrs. Macleod began a steady recovery and when her condition permitted Iain plunged into politics with renewed vigor.
Few of the sons of Scotland have inherited money and Macleod is not an exception. There were no roses strewn upon his path, but plenty of thistles. It was the basic decency of his character, plus his courage, that made his recent attack on Hugh Gaitskell so crushing. If Macleod had been no more than a brilliant debater his speech might have been regarded as a fine parliamentary performance and no more, but character and sincerity still rank high in what is sometimes called The Talking Shop.
There is a cynical saying that the houses of parliament are full of former future prime ministers and, therefore. I must not venture on a prophecy that some day Macleod will enter No. 10
Downing Street as its tenant. Yet Macleod has the advantage of being mature without being a relic for he is only forty-four.
The First World War now divides the House of Commons on lines that have nothing to do with party, but purely with age. It is true that the prime minister served in the trenches in 1914 and we still have Churchill in our midst but so swift is the flight of years that already the MPs who fought against Hitler are being looked on as veterans even though they lack the venerable quality of those of us who did our fighting against the Kaiser’s Germany.
In politics the British distrust youth even though Anthony Eden captured the imagination of the world when he entered parliament as the handsome crown prince of the Conservative political kingdom. At the same time the Tories dp not overvalue the ripeness of years when, it comes to leadership, for they remember Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Ramsay Macdonald who were destroyed by the strain of events.
As I see it the battle of the next ten years in the British parliament might resolve itself into a struggle between Iain Macleod and Aneurin Bevan. It may be that Macleod has dreamed of this—and even politicians are entitled to their dreams—for he spends much of his time off duty with the younger Conservative members, dining with them, talking with them and drilling them for the battle that may be on us sooner than they think.
As for those unheavenly twins— Gaitskell and Bevan—they are deeply courteous to each other in public and I have no reason to believe that this courtesy departs when they privately discuss the state of their party. But if either of them was run over by an omnibus the grief of the survivor would not drown the world in tears.
One thing, however, unites them. They fear the man Macleod with his background of porridge and the Scottish hills. ★
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