The Tribulations of a British M.P.
MICHAEL MACDONAGH IN THE MONTHLY REVIEW
This is a portion of a charming article, which appears in the February Monthly Review, entitled “The Fascination of Parliament," wherein Mr. MacDonagh, seeks to discover why it is, that with all the trials and tribulations of his position, there is yet a fascination about parliamentary life that leads men to suffer these things notwithstanding.
THE tribulations of an M.P. are undoubtedly many. There are, to begin with, the torments of the post. Cobden, in a letter to a friend, early in 1846, when his name as the leader of the agitation for the repeal of the Corn Laws was in all men’s mouths, gives us an interesting glimpse into the contents, half laughable and half pathetic, of the letter-bag of an M.P. He says: “First, half the mad people in the country who are still at large, and they are legion, address their incoherent ravings to the most notorious man of the hour. Next, the kindred tribe who think themselves poets, who are more difficult than the mad people to deal with, send their doggerel and solicit subscriptions to their volumes,, with occasional requests to be allowed to dedicate them. Then there are the Jeremy Diddlers, who begin their epistles with high-flown compliments upon my services to the millions, and always wind up with a request that I will bestow a trifle upon the individual who ventures to lay his distressing case before me. To add to my miseries, people have now got an idea that I am influential with the Government, and the small place-hunters are at me.”
Cobden enclosed a specimen of the
begging letters he was accustomed to receive. It was from a lady asking him to become her “generous and noble-minded benefactor.” As she desired to begin to do something for herself, she hoped he would procure her a loan of £5,000 “to enable her to rear poultry for London and other large market towns.” In another letter, written July 14, 1846, after the taxes on bread-stuffs had been repealed, and the Corn Law League disbanded, Cobden says:
“I thought I should be allowed lo be forgotten after my address to my constituents. But every post brings me twenty or thirty letters—and such letters] ! I am teased to death by place-hunters of every degree, who wish me to procure them Government appointments. Brothers of peers— a}% ‘honorables’ —are amongst the number. I have but one answer for all. ‘I would not ask a favor of the Ministry to serve my own brother.’ I often think what must be the fale of Lord John, or Peel, with half the needy aristocracy knocking at the Treasury doors.”
Things have but little improved, if at all, since the time of Cobden. The ordinär}7 elector fails* to see that his representative deserves any gratitude or thanks for his services in Parliament. On the contrary, he
thinks it is he who is entitled to some return for having helped his representative to a seat in the House of Commons in preference to another who was equally eager for the honor. The spectacle of so many men competing for the voluntary service of the State in the capacity of a member of Parliament cannot but make the ordinary elector feel that he is conferring a favor on the particular candidate for whom he votes. Th:s being their state of mind, constituents are naturally exacting. As the representative, on the other hand, desires to retain his seat, he cannot afford to ignore a letter from even the humblest and obscurest of the electors. The general election may come round again with unexpected suddenness, bringing with it the day of reckoning for the member. Then it is that the voter, however humble, however obscure, can help to make or mar the prospect of his return to St. Stephen’s. But constituents will unreasonably persist in asking A)*' things impossible. In the post-bag of the representative appointments are greatly in demand. There was a time when the M.P. had some patronage to distribute in the way of nominations to posts in the customs, the excise and the inland revenue, for which no examination was required, should the party he supported be in power. But that good time, or bad, is gone and for ever. The throwing open of the civil service to competition ha$ deprived the M.P. of this sort of small change, which he once was able to scatter among the electors so as to reward past services and secure future support. Now he has absolutely nothing in his gift, except, perhaps, a nomination for any vacanf sub-posit-office in his constituency. Yet numbers of the electors still infagine there are many comfortable
posts which are to be had by their representatives merely for the saying of a word to some minister. An example of what the M.P. has occasionally to put up with is found in the following blunt and abusive epistle, sent by a disappointed office-seeker to the man he says “he carried in on his shoulders” at the last election:
Dear Sir,—You’re a fraud, and you know it. 1 don’t care a rap for the billet or the money either, but you could hev got it for me if you wasn’t so mean. Two pound a week ain’t any moar to me than 40 shillin’s is to you, but I objekt to bein’ maid a fool of. Soon after you was elected by my hard workin’, a feller here wanted to bet me that You wouldn’t be in the House more than a week before you made a ass of yourself. I bet him a Cow on that as i thort you was worth it then. After i got Your Note say in’ you deklined to ackt in the matter i driv the Cow over to the Feller’s place an’ tole him he had won her.
That’s ori I got by howlin’ meself Hoarse for you on pole day, an’ months befoar. I believe you think you’ll get in agen. I don’t. Yuré no man. An’ i doan’t think yure much of a demercrat either. I lowers meself ritin to so low a feller, even tho I med him a member of parlerment.
Electors also argue that as M.P.s are law-makers they should be able to rescue law-breakers^ from the clutches of the police. Accordingly there are appeals to have fines imposed on children for breaking windows remitted, and even to get sentences of penal servitude revoked. The respectable tradesman on the verge of bankruptcy, who could be restored to a sound financial position by the loan of £100, sends many a cadging letter. He usually declares, that he not only voted for his representative, but attended every meeting that gentleman addressed in the course of the election. The best reply the M.P. could make to such an
attempt to fleece him is to advise his correspondent to attend more to business and less to politics); but he probably never makes it, for he can rarely afford to speak out his mind to a constituent. Inventors are also of the plagues from which the M.P. suffers. The man who has\ discovered the secret of making soap out of sawdust writes glowing letters about the fortune to be made if a company were formed to work the process. Almost every post brings bottles of mixtures and boxes of lozenges, calculated to transform the harshest voice into the clearest and mellowest. “Send me a testimonial,” said the maker of one mixture, “that, after you had used my specific, the house was spell-bound by the music of your tones. ’ ’ Tradesmen are also most importunate. Quite recently the announcement of an interesting event in the family of a member appeared in the Press. Next day a van pulled up at the entrance to the Houses of Parliament. It contained three different kinds of perambulators; and the tradesman who brought them was extremely indignant because the police refused him admission to the House to display their good points and advantages to the happy father. Poets ask for subscriptions to publish their works, or, enclosing some doggerel verses as samples, appeal for orders for odes for the next general election.
“If you would quote in the House a verse from my volume, “Twitterings in the Twilight,” what a grand advertisement I’d get! [wrote one rhymester to his representative]. You might say something like this: One of the most delightful collections of poems it has ever been my good fortune to come across is Mr. Socrates Wilkin’s ‘Twitterings in the Twilight.’ Could the situation in
which the Empire finds itself be more happily touched off than in the following verse of that eminent poet? — and then go on to quote some lines from my book, which I enclose.”
Members who are lawyers and doctors are expected by a large section of their constituents to give professional advice for nothing. If one of these unreasonable persons has a dispute with his landlord as to the amount of rent due, or finds it impossible to recover a debt, he expects, as a matter of course, his, representative, if a gentleman learned in the law, to help him out of his difficulty; or, if a doctor, he favors him with long and incoherent accounts cf mysterious complaints from which he has suffered for years. The M.P. is also expected to throw oil on disturbed domestic waters. Here is a Specimen of a communication which is by no means uncommon :
Dear Sir,—Me and the wife had a bit of a tiff last Saturday night, and she won’t make it up. If you just send her a line saying Bill’s all right, she will come round. She thinks such a lot of you since you kissed the nipper the day you called for my vote.
But pity the poor M.P. who receives such a letter as the following:
Honored Sir,—I hear that Mr. Balfour is not a married man. Something tells me that I would make the right sort of wife for him. I am coming to London to-morrow, and will call at the House of Commons to see you, hoping you will get me an introduction to the honorable gentleman. I am only 30 years of age, and can do cooking and washing.
P.S.—Perhaps if Mr. Balfour would not have me, you would say a word for me to one of the policemen at the House.
During the evening the member who received this strange epistle
cautiously ventured into the central hall, and, sure enough, espied an eccentric-looking woman in angry eonstroversy wTith a constable, who was trying to induce her to go away. But she refused to leave, and ultimately found a sympathetic companion in the crazy old lady who has haunted the place for years in the hope that some day she will induce the Government to restore the £5,000,000 of which she declares they have robbed her.
The Member of Parliament is liable to receive other communications of even less flattering and more exasperating character. Bribes are occasionally dangled before him through the post. Will he allow In -name to be used in the floating of a company, or in the advertising of some article of common use or patent medicine? Will he use his influence in obtaining a Government contract for a certain firm? If he will, there is a cheque for so-and-so at his disposal. In a recent debate in the House of Commons on the payment of Members, Mr. John Burns evoked both laughter and applause by reading his reply to an offer of £50 if he obtained for a person in Belfast a vacant collectorship of taxes. “Sir,” replied Mr. Burns, “you are a scoundrel. I wish you were within reach of my boot.”
But the sane and the righteous give the M.P. more annoyance than the knavish and the crazy. Think of the numerous local functions —religious, social, and political—to which he is invited. When a meeting is being organized in the constituency, naturally the first thought of its promoters is to try to get the Member to attend. The more conspicuous he is in Parliament, and therefore the more likely to attract an audience, the greater is the number of these
invitations, and the more widespread is the disappointment and dissatisfaction among his constituents if he fails to accept them. He is expecte 1 to preside at the inaugural meetings of local amateur dramatic societies and local naturalists field clubs and “to honor with his presence” the beanfeasts of local friendly associations. The literary institution, designed to keep young men out of the publichouses, must be opened by him. He must attend mixed entertainments of a political and musical character, at which his speech is sandwiched between a sentimental and a comic s.ong.
But perhaps the Member of Parliament is most worried by the appeals to his generosity and charity which pour in upon him in aid of churches, chapels, mission halls, schools, workingmen’s institutes, hospitals/, asylums, cricket and football clubs, and in fact societies ,and institutions of all sorts and sundry. Of course it is only natural that if money be needed for an excellent local purpose the local represtntative should be included in the appeal. In some constituencies, however, many of these calls on the purse of the representative can only be described as barefaced extortions. Not long ago, Mr. Robert Ashcroft, one of the Members for Oldham, in his annual address to the electors, made a remarkable disclosure of the rapacity with which the M.P. is often preyed upon by constituents. He said:
“In my hands I hold a roll of paper, which is nearly twenty feet long, and it is covered with the names of applications for subscriptions since I became your member. The late Mr. Fielden, a week before Parliament rose, while we were sitting having a chat in the House of Commons, said to me, “However do you manage in
Oldham?” And I replied, “As well as I can.” He remarked, “Would you believe it, the first twelve months that I was elected I was asked to give’9 —and the sums were mentioned—“ no less than £27,000.” Now (continued Mr. Ashcroft) I simply mention this because I made a rule to send a cheque when I could afford to send it. But I am not an African millionaire, and I have no shares in Klondike. Therefore you must please to understand that when I do not answer these letters, and do not enclose a cheque, it is for the simple reason that I cannot afford to do so. I think that it is time one ought to speak out, and though one, as a Member of Parliament, is willing to do one’s share for every good work in the constituency, do not forget that there are other men in the constituency, and of great wealth, from whom you ought to get a thousand times as much as you ought to get from me.5 ’ If a Member of Parliament should refuse to help his constituents in providing themselves with coals, blankets, footballs, cricket-bats; big drums, billiard tables, church steeples, sewing-machineSi, he is set down as mean; and numbers vow he shall not have their votes at the General Election. The representative is, by all means, to be commended in resisting these illegitimate demands. But there is something to be said for the constituents. Surely they may very properly ask, “From whom can we more reasonably seek aid for our deserving local charities than from our Member of Parliament?” They recall to mind his accessibility and graciousness while he was “nursing” the constituency. Was he not ever ready to preside at the smokingconcerts of the Sons of Benevolence, to sing songs or recite at the mothers’ meetings, to hand round the cake
at the children’s tea parties, to kick off at the football contest? Did he not regard service in the House of Commons more as a distinction and privilege than as a public duty? His speeches also are remembered.
Did he not tell the electors! from a hundred platforms that for all time he was absolutely at their service? Did he not come to them literally hat in hand begging the favor—mind you, “the favor”—of their vote and influence? Yet to this cynical end has it all come, that badgered by requests for subscriptions to this, that or the other, he replies—to quote the prompt, emphatic and printed answer which one representative has sent .;«> all such appeals—“I was elected for
*--as Member of Parliament, not as
In the House of Commons itself some disappointments also await the M.P. The motives which induce men to seek a seat in Parliament are. perhaps, many and diverse, but there is no doubt whatever that the main reason is an honest and genuine desire to serve the State and promote the happiness of the community. In the first flush of their enthusiasm after election our representatives zealously set about informing themselves of the subjects that are likely to engage their attention in Parliament. They soon find, however, that to do this properly would leave them very little time for anything else. The breakfast table of the M.P. is heaped every morning during the session with parliamentary papers, consisting of Blue booksj, Bills, reports and returns. Blue Books—ominously ponderous and protentously dull — are by universal admission not attractive reading, yet eighty of them are, on an average, issued every year, demanding the attention of the conscientious representative. The Bills
are more inviting perhaps, embodying as they do, the fads and hobbies of the 670 Members of the House of Commons. About three hundred of them are introduced every session. After the first reading they are printed and circulated among the Members, who are expected to make themselves acquainted with their provisions. Most of the representatives, perhaps, give up the task in despair: and instead of attempting to arrive at independent conclusions by personal investigation and study, they rely on their political leaders to! direct them on the right path in regard not only to the measures dealing with the main public questions of the day, but to the Bills of private Members. But it is not all plain sailing even when that lazy course is adopted. “The worst effect on myself resulting from listening to the debates in Parliament,” writes Monckton Milnes, “is that it prevents me from forming any clear political opinion on any subject.”
So supreme has the Ministry become in the House of Commons that the power of the private Member to initiate and carry legislation has been reduced to a nullity. Only the Bills of the Ministers have any prospect of reaching the Statute Bock. That is a cruel disappointment to the M. P. who desires to be a real legislator aud thinks he has an infallible scheme for putting straight some twist in the the scheme of things. The M.P. who aspireg “the listening Senate to command” also soon discovers that the opportunities for discussion and criticism are outrageously restricted in the interest of the Government. Perhaps he has devoted days to the manufacture of flowers of rhetoric for his speech in a gerat debate. Night after night he sits impatiently on the pounce to “catch the Speak-
er’s eye,” but fails to fix the attention of that wandering orb; while nc hears his arguments and his epigrams used by luckier men, who had prooably got them from the same shelf of the library ; and the debate is brought to an end leaving him with a mind oppressed by a weighty unspoken speech. Then his constituents say unpleasant things because they do not see his name in the newspaper reports. They think he is neglecting his duty or else he is a foolish “silent Member.” There only remains for the representative the cold consolation of the old saying that “they are the wisest part of Parliament who use the greatest silence”; or the opinion of his' leaders;, should his party be in office, that he is the most useful of Members who never speaks, but is ever at hand to vote when the division bells ring out their summons.
The man who always votes at his party’s call and never dreams of thinking for himself at all is to be found no doubt in the House of Commons. But to many an M.P. it must be a very sore trial to find his opinions often dictated by his leaders and his movements always controlled by the Whips;. Party discipline is severely strict, and violations of it aie rarely condoned. The speech of the Member, sufficiently sincere and courageous to take up an attitude independent of party in regard to some political question of the day, is received with jeers b}^ his colleagues, and, what is, perhaps, more disconcerting, with cheers by the other side. Such a line of action is often conclusive evidence of a good patriot. Bur he who takes it is commonly regarded as a crank and a faddist, and his only reward is to be “cut” by his party. On the other hand, there are
representatives of the people to whom the House of Commons is but a vastly agreeable diversion. Imagine the feelings of such a Member when, on a night off, a strongly worded an 1 heavily underscored communication from the Whips demanding his immediate attendance at St. Stephen’s is delivered to him at some inopportune moment, perhaps as he is just sitting down to a pleasant dinner or is leaving his house for the Frivolity theatre. If, prone as he is to yield to the temptations of the flesh, he should ignore this peiemptory call of party duty, like the crank, he is held guilty of a grave breach of discipline. His past services in the division lobby —on nights when the proceedings in the House were a regular Siolemn lecture from the Chief Whip on the enormity of his offence. Woise still, his name is published in an official 11 black list” of defaulters, or he meets with a nasty litt’e paragraph exposing his neglect of duty in the local newspaper which most wi lely circulates among his constituents.
And yet, with all his attention ro the desires, the whims, the caprices of his constituents, with all his surrender of private judgment to his leaders, of personal pleasuies to the Whips, what M. P. can confidently feel that his s¡eat is safe? It is hard to get into Parliament. To remain a Member is just as difficult. The Insecurity of the tenure of a seat in the House of Commons is perhaps the greatest drawback of public life. Many a man with ambition and talent for office does years of splendid service for his party in Opposition. The General Election comes.; his party is victorious at the polls. But he himself has been woi sted in the tight; and he has the mortification of seeing another receive the portfolio which would have been his in happier circumstances. To such a man, with his keen enjoyment of the delights and exultations of the Parliamentary career, life outside the House of Commons must be barren and dreary indeed. Yet never again may he cross its charmed portals.