The Autocratic House of Commons


The Autocratic House of Commons


The Autocratic House of Commons


Mr. Low is the Washington correspondent of the London Post and in the current numbers of Appleton's Magazine, he is contrasting the British and American legislative assemblies. From his article on the British House of Commons in the December num er of Appleton's we extra-1 this very entertaining description of the House.

TIME first impression of the House of Commons is disappointing. It is smaller than one expected; the limited gallery space, with room for only 120 strangers, is noticeable and explains why members to secure orders must wait their regular turn; and the floor proper is clearly inadequate to seat the 670 members. As a matter of fact there are seats for only 340, AAT1IO must be present at prayers to secure a seat for the day. The remainder must either stand or sit in the two side galleries, from Avliich members have been knoAvn to ask a question, but never to make a speech. It is only on very rare occasions, hoAvever, that the seating capacity of the floor is taxed. But the House is very beautiful Avith its Avails and ceiling of paneled and carved oak, and to one Avho is familiar Avith Congress or a State legislature, the dignity, the decorum, the ceremonial is impressiAm.

The Speaker in his high, canopied chair surmounted by the arms of Great Britain, in wig and gown; the clerks below him in Avigs and gowns; the table covered with books and the two famous brass-bound dispatch boxes; the great mace glistening like gold ; the sergeant-at-arms Avith his small sAvord ; the door-keepers and messengers in evening dress and their badges of office, who bow to the chair every time they approach the bar—are exactly the personnel and the mise en scene so appropriate that one Avould be disappointed if the smallest item Avere missing.

And then one looks at the members and rubs his eyes in astonishment, for in this august assemblage, in the presence of the Speaker in all the majesty of Avig and gOAvn, undeterred by the sergeant-at-arms and his SAvord, fully half the members are Avearing their hats ! And they Avear them in the most devilmay-care sort of way ; not at all as if they were ashamed, but rather as if it was a matter of pride with them to have cultivated the most

acute angle at which a hat could be worn and still remain on the heads. They wear them almost touching their noses; they wear them almost touching their necks; they wear them tilted far back on their heads; they wear them well over their ears ; and they loll back against the benches and fold their arms and in quiet times gently slumber ; but the hat is always there. It is very peculiar.

A member may wear his hat in the House so long as he is sitting, but the moment he rises he must uncover; and of course no one remains covered when lie addresses the chair. But here is one of those paradoxes that make the House always so delightfully interesting and its rules so unlike those of any other legislative body. When the House is dividing* and a member desires to raise a point of order, the rules require that lie must “speak sitting and covered.” On one occasion Mr. Gladstone raised a point of order and for the moment forgot the rule. No sooner did he begin to speak than the House shouted at him “Hat! hat!” Every cabinet member has a private room where he leaves his hat, and Mr. Gladstone as usual entered the House hatless, and so had all the other ministers around him. There was a frantic search for a hat, much to the malicious delight of the opposition, and finally a hat was snatched up and Gladstone put it on his head. But Gladstone’s head was the largest in the House and the lint belonged to a member with a

very small head, and it perched on his head like a vaudeville artist’s “tile.” Gladstone was always a man of tremendous energy in speaking, and as he spoke the little hat wabbled all over his crown and was in danger of falling off. To prevent this catastrophe a member sitting behind leaned over him and carefully held the hat in place until Mr. Gladstone has stated his point of order. Last summer a member raised a point of order and, like Mr. Gladstone, found himself without a hat. A fellow-member quickly folded up his order paper into a cocked hat, such as children wear when playing soldier, and offered it to his friend, who graveb7 wore it, much to the amusement of the House, and thus complied with the technical requirement of the rule of being “covered. ’ ’

The House likewise has its own code in regard to the partaking of liquid and solid refreshments. A member making a long speech may take a drink, and the House is liberal enough not to care whether the color of the contents of the glass is white or brown or black, whether, in fact, the glass holds water or whiskey or beer. Mr. Gladstone’s egg* flips, which his wife carefully compounded for him and he brought to the House in a bottle, are classic. But woe betide the man who scorns drink and must have meat. Contemporary recollections only recalls one member rash enough to disregard this rule. It was about fifteen years ago in the stormy time of the home-rule debates, that an Irish member, in the small hours of the morning, produced from liis pocket a paper bag and drew out a bun, which he proceeded calmly to eat. The house was instantly in an uproar, there were loud cries of “Order ! Order !9 ’ and that bun was never finished.

No member may read a newspaper in the House. If lie had the temerity to smoke, the seargent-at-arms would quickly place him under lock and key. This is no jest. Few members of Parliament are aware of the fact that there is a prison, a very comfortable prison it must be admitted, but nevertheless a prison especially built for the incarceration of members and strangers who have offended against the privileges or violated the decorum of the House. This place of confinement is in the clock tower, which is surmounted by “Big Ben,” perhaps the most celebrated clock in the world. Access to the prison is obtained only through the residence of the sergeant-at-arms, who is held personally responsible for the safe custody of a prisoner of Parliament. The last commoner committed to the care of the sergeant-at-arms was in 1880, when Mr. Bradlaugh, the member for Northampton, a professional atheist, refused to take the oath of allegiance with the formula “So help me God,” and for his contumacy was placed in confinement for twenty-four hours. In the old days the prison was one of the perquisites of the sergeant-at-arms, since before the prisoner could obtain his freedom he was compelled to pay a substantial fee to his jailer.

In the past the offender was not only punished but he was humiliat-

ed. The prisoner at the bar had to receive his sentence kneeling, but that indignity is no longer inflicted. Toward the end of the eighteenth century the proprietor of a London newsnaner was brought to the bar of the House and severely censured for the heinous crime of having published a report of the proceedings of the House. As he rose from his knees he brushed the dust from his clothes with the contemptuous remark: “What a damned dirty

House!” And ever since, perhaps because the House did not Avant to run the risk of having casual remarks made about its house-keeping, the prisoner at the bar is alloAved to receive his sentence standing. Many persons have been brought to the bar of the House, as the Commons have ahvays been jealous of their dignity. A man named Hyde was jostled by a policeman detailed for duty at the House, and Hyde summonsed him for assault. For this lie Avas arrested by the sergeant-atarms and arraigned at the bar and committed to prison for a breach of privilege in having attempted to bring an officer of the House before the ordinary legal tribunals. The most amusing case of breach of privilege Avas in the early years of the last century, Avhen Dick Martin,, a Avell-knoAvn Irish member, brought an Irish reporter to the bar for having misrepresented him in a report of his speech. The reporter pleaded that the publication Avas absolutely correct. “It may be,” Martin replied, “but I defy the gentleman to proA^e that I spoke in italics.” The House roared, and the reporter was alloAved to go.

Technically it is a violation of the rules for a member io read a speech, although the rule is not strictly enforced, and is frequently violated. The congressional practice of sending books and reports to the clerk’s desk and having that official read voluminous extracts is unknown. So also is the American custom of “leave to print,” because there is no English publication corresponding to the Congressional Record. Its nearest approach is Hansard, which, unlike the Congressional Record, is not a verbatim report but is merely an abridgement of the proceedings. The speeches of cabinet ministers in both Houses and the rulings of the Speaker are reported verbatim; the remarks of other members are summarized, and the space allotted to them is a matter entirely within the judgment of the editor, who, perhaps it is unnecessary to add, is guided by precedent. A neAV and untried hand must be content Avith a line or tAvo, a man of longer years is gÍA7en a paragraph, and so the scale ascends until a man has arriA7ed and reaches the dignity of being stenographically reported. Hansard is supposed to appear tAvo days after the sitting, but as Parliament is a leisurely body, nobody makes a fuss i,f there is a delay of four or five days. Members are given the privilege of revising their remarks, but they may not extend them.

To a person familiar with Congress, the air of the House of Commons is almost solemn and impressively dignified. There are no page boys in knickerbockers dashing up the aisles or playing marbles on the steps of the Speaker’s chair, but in

their place are these sedate, clericallcoking messengers in their dress suits and chains of office, quietly moving about with their soft tread and respectful air, never daring to pass in front of members as messengers do in Congress, and never forgetting to bow to the chair as they enter the House. This ceremony of acknowledging the presence of the* Speaker becomes in a little while a fixed habit; it is similar to the lesson inculcated on the youth when he first enters the navy, ahvays as he sets foot on deck in the morning to turn to the flag and salute it. And the pose of the messengers is the keynote of the assembly. At Westminister, unlike Washington, members do not look upon the chamber as their club. They do not read or write, because bers donot read or Avrite, because they are not provided with desks, but sit on benches running at right angles to the Speaker’s chair; they do not talk or tell boisterously funny stories and droAvn the voice of a speaker; they do not smoke, or walk about, or lounge round the clerk’s table.

One reason, perhaps, why members do their Avriting and reading and talking outside the chamber, is that Parliament provides very luxurious accommodations for them, and it has often been said in derision that St. Stephen’s, Avhich is the popular name for Westminister, is the finest club in London. And in addition to all the other appointments of a firstclass club, Parliament has the most celebrated al fresco teà room in the Avorld. The back of the House looks on the Thames, from which it is separa ted by a wide stone terrace and breast-high balustrade. This is the world-renowned “Terrace.” On this pleasant afternoon in June, and on every fine afternoon during the season, the Terrace is crowded with the prettiest, the best-dressed and the most fashionable women in London. And this is where woman revenges herself on arrogant man for the indignity of being shut up behind a screen. The wives and cousins and sweethearts of members come to the Llouse and are taken to tea on the Terrace, where in their dainty frocks and their high-bred air they toy with strawberries, which are not more luscious than the red lips that delicately eat them, nibble thin slices of bread and butter, and drink tea. The Terrace has been called the smartest tea room in the Empire, and it does not belie its reputation. I have seen no prettier sight in London than the Terrace on a fine day in the height of the season. The perfectly proportioned facade of the palace accentuates the life and gayety and beauty of the hundreds of groups at the small tables. In the foreground is the river, little steamboats and other small craft making an ever-changing panorama full of color; and on the opposite bank, to serve as a sort of memento mori to this gay and frivolous throng, is the grim pile of St. Thomas’s Hospital, symbolic of the hand’s space that separates joy from suffering and life from death.

There is a marked difference in the manner of speaking between the English member of Parliament and the American member of Congress; it is the differenec of racial tempera-

ment which finds its expression. The English parliamentarian speaks more slowly, less fluently, with less aggressiveness and cocksureness than the American, his voiec is pitched at a lower key and is better modulated. The effect is conversational rather than oratorical. Somehow or other you seem to feel that the Englishman rather scorns elocutionary effects; that lie thinks it isn’t quite the thing for a gentleman to have the manner of an actor; that no gentleman would speak merely to show he had mastered the tricks of the professional elocutionist. But the practice of the House—and what applies to the House of Commons applies with equal force to the House of Lords—offers no opportunity for the silver-tongued orator to display his powers. Long speeches are unknown and will not be tolerated. In the last session the government reduced the strength of the army by 20,000 men and made several radical changes in the military establishment. Mr. Haldane, the secretary of war, explained the scheme—which was very complicated and technical and full of figures—to the House in a speech of two hours and a half, which contained no extraneous matter but was simply a businesslike presentation of a subject of vital importance to the country. Yet for a member of the cabinet to speak for two hours and a half was regarded by his opponents as entirely too long, and by his admirers as an achievement remarkable enough to be chronicled. Thus one newspaper, politically opposed to Mr. Haldane’s party but which treats him with respect, commented on the speech by saying, “A speech of this length must necessarily lose some of its audience before it reaches its conclusion,77 and it added: “Very long speeches and statements, without being absolutely rare, are, at any rate, infrequent in the House of Commons.77 A paper politically opposed to Mr. Haldane frankly tells him that he talks too much; while a paper of his political faith is lost in admiration of his “imperturbable calm,7r “as though the making of a three hours7 speech were the easiest and simplest thing in the world.77

And as the long speech is tabooed, it follows as a matter of course that the House is not a factory where campaign material is turned out by the page. hifalution-Vourth-of-Julymake-the-eagle-scream speech ; the speech that gentlemen from the rural districts delight to make in Congress so as to be able to send franked copies of the Congressional Record to their constituents; the speech in which weird and remarkable statistics are rained on a defenceless audience which is told that America is the land of the free and the brave; the speech in which there is always poetry and always a “perforation 7 7 with applause in brackets as the tag—is unknown in Parliament. One reason it is unknown is that the rules require a member to address himself to the subject before the House, and that rule is strictly enforced. But the latitude of debate permitted a member will be more particularly explained in a succeeding article.

The House of Commons is a more somnolent, a quieter, a less electri-

cal body than the House of Representatives. In the Commons there is no such thing as a running debate ; a member is not interrupted, and if the attempt should be made, the Speaker would quickly cry, ‘ ‘ Order! Order!77 But lie does not enforce order by vigorously pounding a mallet and making as much noise as a cooper tightening the hoops on a barrel. A speech is not applauded, but it is frequently punctuated by cries of ‘ ‘ Hear, hear !7 7 When the speaker finishes, members do not crowd about him and congratulate him; he sits down and pulls his hat over his eyes or shoves it on the back of his head, and the House listens to the next man. In the House of Representatives, owing to the noise and confusion, the constant interruptions, the pounding of the Speaker’s gavel, the never-ending passage of members and messengers across the floor, and the general air of informality and disregard of the strict adherence to rules and traditions, the unexpected is always the anticipated, the air is always surcharged with electricity, and the spark and the mine are always in close contact. The House of Commons has not been without its scenes of passionate excitement, it has witnessed turbulence and violence, the emotions of men have been aroused by appeals to their prejudice and selfishness, the authority of the Speaker has been defied. The House of Commons, like the House of Representatives, is intensely human; beneath the veneer of civilization is the primal man, prejudice and passion are there although they lie dormant ; but convention exercises its influence. One can hardly imagine in these days the dignified and reposeful air of the Commons being rudely shaken by disorder.

A composite photograph of the Commons would show a marked variance from a similar photograph of the House of Representatives. As individuals the pattern of the Commoner is more stereotyped than that of the Representative ; facially and sartorially there is no such wide difference between the Scotch and Irish and English member, the representative of a great city or a small rural constituency, as there is between the man from New York and the man from Texas: the city man from the East and the farmer from the West. And the uniformity of physical type finds its counterpart in the uniformity of dress. It would not perhaps be strictly accurate to say that the Commons as a body is better dressed than the American lower house, but in the Commons one sees more black coats. A rather more punctilious regard is shown for attire than in Congress. But, alas ! the black coat is fast disappearing, according to the plaint of the older members and the sticklers for form. Since the incursion of the workingman in politics, the informal ■“lounge coat” has taken the place of the more stately frock and cutaway. Grays and browns and blues are now seen where once only black prevailed, and the red necktie, for which the labor members appear to have a peculiar weakness, is to these «.critics the crowning sign of the decadence of style in the House, once world-noted for the exquisite fashion.

council tram to far-away Battersea ; other labor members foot it or take

We have been so busy watching the men and their surroundings that we have paid no attention to the proceedings, but to-morrow we will come to see Parliament at work. The Elouse is about to rise. The Speaker leaves the chair and the membeis troop out, and as they stream through the lobbies, the England of the twentieth century is rolled up on the canvas of time and! we are once again living in the days of the Stuarts. When the Speaker leaves the chair the constable in tlm lobby calls out, “Who goes home? Mr. Speaker will take the chair at the usual time to-morrow.” And then man after man takes up the cry, “Who goes home?” which echoes and re-echoes through the now rapidly deserted corridors and is the fitting benediction of the marble effigies of the great dead who keep jealous watch over the living.

This nightly salutation :s another survival of a custom which had a meaning. In the days when Westminister was divided from the city of London by a marsh which is now the Strand, and the way was dark and dangerous, infested with highwaymen and cutthroats and roistering blades, the members, for protection, formed a bodyguard about the Speaker, and the cry of “Who goes home?” was the signal for-them to fall in. Now Mr. Speaker is leisurely escorted through an electrically illuminated passageway to his residence ; members whirl away in their motor cars or carriages or the more plebeian hansom; John Burns walks across the bridge to take a county a penny ’bus or the “tuppenny tube. ’ ’ London at mid-night is as brilliant as day and almost as full of life. But in the fast darkening, palace of Westminister, now given over to its guardians in marble and the blue-coated Bobbies, where tra-

dition is venerated and the old is loved for its age, the belated sightseer hears the call for the last time and realizes, perhaps as he never realized before, the part that tradition plays in the molding of a nation.