When Parliament Laughs

Beverley Baxter's December 15 1937


When Parliament Laughs

Beverley Baxter's December 15 1937


When Parliament Laughs

Beverley Baxter's

HUMOR IS a dangerous subject. Like beauty, it has an elusive quality. Just as a woman’s face will excite one man’s pulses and leave another’s untouched, so a joke will send one person into an abdominal roar of laughter while another will hear it and never raise an eyebrow.

In all my wanderings I have never yet met a person who did not admit to possessing a perfect sense of humor, although I have met very many people who showed not the slightest sign of so rich a gift. Men will boast about not being able to distinguish “God Save the King” from “Pop Goes the Weasel.” With their eyes glowing with a sort of secret pride they will say, “I cannot tell one note of music from another.” Others will admit that they cannot add, or cannot spell, or cannot tell one card from another. But humor, that subtle effervescence of the intellect, is apparently the common attribute of man.

AÍ1 this is really a prelude or rather an epilogue to a dinner which I had with the editor of Maclean's when I was last in Canada. With that glow of well-being which comes from eating ice cream and drinking ice water, I spent an hour telling him some of the things which had made me laugh in the British House of Commons. “You must write that some time,” he said vaguely.

Well, here it is. I intend to devote this letter to a critical and solemn study of the humor of the British Parliament. It may not be any good when it is finished, but at least it will be a change from the fume and fury of the European situation.

Let it be admitted at once that in the British Parliament we really laugh. It is not like the cheers which one reads about in the Parliamentary reports. We never cheer. We say “Yah! Yah! Yah!” in an ever-increasing volume, but we do not cheer or sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

This may seem elementary, but it would have saved a certain film company a lot of money had they known about it.

It was a historical film, and they were shooting the famous scene of Sir Edward Grey’s speech in the House of Commons on August 4, 1914. The official reports stated that the Foreign Secretary was loudly cheered, so the film people showed the M. P.’s cheering as if Alex James had just scored a Cup Final goal. They had to scrap it, thus adding another chapter to the tragedy of British film production.

On the other hand, the laughter in Parliament is absolutely genuine. It is never artificial and it is always spontaneous.

The strange thing, however, is that when we describe a humorous Parliamentary incident the same night at a dinner party, the only person who smiles is the hostess who has not listened.

Of course the old boys will tell you that the great days of Parliamentary humor were when Disraeli used to riddle Gladstone, or when the Irish Party held forth in their passionate determination to hold up English legislation until Ireland’s grievances were settled.

Like the great Queen, I am not amused—or even impressed. Therefore I intend to deal with humor as I have seen it in the present Parliament, and will conscientiously endeavor to explain why we laughed, even if it does not

raise so much as an echo of a smile from my Maclean s readers.

Technique of the Game

'T'IIE FIRST time I laughed was in an emigration debate in which I made my maiden speech. When I sat down with a sense of relief that was indescribable (and obviously shared by the rest of the House), a Tory M. P. who had never spoken before rose to his feet. Somebody must have told him that the acoustics were bad, for he began to shout. His voice was a loud one anyway, but he shouted more and more until his voice broke with the strain. Gathering in his full breath, he ended with a peroration that was so deafening that he nearly blew Mr. Speaker out of his chair.

At the conclusion Lord Apsley solemnly rose.

“I am sure,” he said, “that the speech we have just heard will reverberate throughout the Empire.”

That was perfect House of Commons humor, whether you like it or not. Lord Apsley had fulfilled the traditional task of congratulating a new Member on his maiden speech while enjoying the joke with the rest of the House.

Without this technique, humor in the House is apt to fall very fiat. It must conform to the niceties of the game and never be personal or malicious. Question time naturally supplies the best opportunity for the wits. To those who are not familiar with the procedure, the whole House submits the Government front bench to questions and supplementary questions each day from 2.45 to 3.45 p.m.

Ellen Wilkinson, the little red-headed and brave-hearted

Socialist, altogether, has some neat points to her credit.

Just after Hitler had run his last general election with no other candidates except Nazis, a Parliamentary question was asked and answered about the forthcoming Olympic Games.

“Can we be assured,” asked Miss Wilkinson innocently, “that when these Games take place there will not be more than one competitor entered for each event?”

That may not seem very funny to readers of this article. In fact, these notes 1 am writing probably read like all other articles on “Humor in Parliament.” Nevertheless the House laughed delightedly at Miss Wilkinson's supplementary. It was quick, it was topical, it was disarmingly guileless and she got in a dig at her arch-enemy, Hitler. Not bad

for one question. And if you think it is easy, try it on your debating society some time. Remember—it is easy to think of these things five minutes after it is too late.

Of course some questions supply too easy a chance. For example, Mr. Geoffrey Mander (the Liberal M. P. who, like Miss Rosa Dartle, always wants to know) asked the Home Secretary if it was proposed to keep a supply of gas masks for M. P.’s in case of an air raid. The Home Secretary said he was not in a position to reply. Then up rose Mr. Mander.

“As a matter of fact.” he asked, “is it at all likely that any enemy Government would want to destroy this Government?”

That was a good score for Mander, the Liberal, but it was quickly erased. Young Tory Duncan Sandys rose lazily to his feet.

“Are these masks of such a nature,” he enquired, “that Members can ask supplementary questions through them?” And Mr. Mander was quiet for one day.

Almost the biggest laugh 1 have heard in the House was the day when Mr. Chamberlain withdrew his famous Profits Tax. The House was packed and tremendously excited. Before announcing his decision, the Prime Minister reviewed the history of the tax and said rather ruefully that the only Member of the House who had supported it had been Mr. Gallacher, the Scottish and sole Communist in the House. We all smiled, including the Premier and W’illie Gallacher. The explanation went on until finally Mr. Chamberlain looked around the House. “I have, therefore, decided to withdraw the tax.”

There was a dramatic pause. Then from across the floor came Gallacher’s broad Scottish reproachful voice:

“Man! You’ve let me down.”

It broke the tension like a knife, and the House literally shook with laughter in which Mr. Chamberlain joined.

Now, in dissecting that little anecdote one must recall the basic drama of the situation. A Premier of a few days driven to cover by his own supporters, the possibility of his defying the House and challenging us with the Party Whips—

all that plus the absurdity of the one solitary Communist and the Conservative Prime Minister being in partnership.

So if no one has choked to death so far in reading this article, do not blame the author. Like the pianist, he is doing his best. And besides I am not trying to make you laugh. I only want to explain why tve laugh.

So far, the examples I have quoted have all been strictly within the Parliamentary code. Occasionally an unintentional bit of humor will send the Old Mother of Parliaments into an abandonment of hilarity.

One afternoon we were debating the reform of the House of Lords and Sir Thomas Moore was speaking. Sir Thomas is a dapper, neatly dressed Irishman with a voice that has the humor of Dublin and the music of Killarney rolled into it. To the accompaniment of a mild uproar from the Socialist benches, he was defending the Lords.

“And I say all that,” he declared, “although I am a Democrat.”

The Socialists let out a chorus of jeers. “What do you know about democracy?” they shouted.

Sir Thomas turned upon them with a magnificent gesture. His voice positively dripped Celtic emotion and trembled with Celtic defiance. The House grew silent. Some portentous utterance was coming.

“I swear.” he cried, “that I am a Democrat from my top to my bottom!”

And so it appeared in Hansard next day. But it was a full minute before the House stopped laughing and crying.

Last year we had a general debate on the B. B. C. Major Tryon, the Postmaster General, was making a speech. A Russian journalist of my acquaintance was watching carefully from the balcony, although I don’t know why he was there.

Major Tryon’s speech was sparkling with wit and common sense and the House was enormously interested. He came to television. He admitted that it was a little difficult to know how the announcer should address a television audience. “He might say, ‘Good evening, lookers,’ but that does not seem quite right. Of course he could fall back on ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ but that does not seem in keeping with modern ideas. No doubt some Honorable Member will be able to suggest a happier form of salutation.”

“Comrades!” shouted a Socialist M. P., and the Labor Party joined with the rest of us in a delighted roar of laughter. The poor Russian journalist looked deeply puzzled. The British are a hard race to explain.

I have said that the humor of the House must not be personal. Perhaps it would be more accurate to state that it must only be personal if it is so adroit that there is at least a suggestion of an alternative meaning. The best example of this occurred when a not too popular young Tory made a long and disjointed speech which ended with a peroration in wffiich he declared. “It is clear that in the Socialists’ house there are many mansions.”

Lloyd George spoke next. Taking off his glasses, he waved them gently toward the young man who had just sat down. “It may be,” he said suavely, “that in the Socialist Party there are many mansions, but it is also clear from the speech we have just heard that in the Conservative Party there are many flats.”

That was pretty nearly a foul. There was laughter, but it was not of the fullblooded heartiness that greets a thrust completely without malice.

Churchill’s Wit

\v[R. WINSTON CHURCHILL hits hard but, unlike Mr. Lloyd George, he surrounds his attacks with such genuine benevolence that even if his victims squirm, they do not bleed internally. One of Churchill’s most famous efforts in sustained irony was when Parliament assembled for the first time after the crashing victory of the National Government in 1931.

Gazing in assumed perplexity about the House, the famous descendant of the great Marlborough began:

“Little did I expect to see Mr. Lansbury as leader of the Socialist Party, but, Mr. Speaker, it is not inappropriate that the Right Honorable Member should lead

what is left of the Parliamentary representation of the Labor Party. More than anyone else he has, I think, stood for the dole, the whole dole, and nothing but the dole. He has, with perfect sincerity and many agreeable turns of phrase and fancy, held up to us always that dim Utopia which would reduce our civilization to one vast national soup kitchen surrounded by innumerable municipal bathing pools.”

Mr. Churchill, always the supreme actor, turned to the Government front benches as if searching for familiar faces. With a benign smile and an upward movement of both hands, he paused at sight of the Premier, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald.

“On a recent occasion,” he said, “I was so indiscreet, as it now turns out, to refer to the Prime Minister as the ‘boneless wonder.’ It is surprising now to see that he has become the main, if not the sole prop of our harassed state, to see him the savior of the Gold Standard—no, I beg pardon, the pound sterling—to see him at the head of all the talents—well, I suppose I ought to say nearly all the talents— as I want to he respectful to my right honorable friends behind me (Sir Robert Home and Sir Austen Chamberlain) and see him leading a House which contains the largest majority of Conservatives and Protectionists in history.”

This is a good example of the Churchillean style, although not as uproarious as some of his other excursions. Mr. Churchill makes a great play of parenthesis. He says something and then, like a Greek chorus, he comments on it. His asides are perfectly timed, nor does he disdain the deliberately rehearsed verbal error. For instance, in the Budget before last when Mr. Chamberlain, like every preceding Chancellor, had raided what was left of the balance of the Road Fund, Mr. Churchill congratulated him.

“I felt.” he said, “that this doom was certain some day for the Raid Fund.” And no better piece of acting has been seen in the House than Churchill blushing with feigned embarrassment at his own “slip” of language.

Humor Dependent on Personality

'T'HERE ARE moments of humor that depend absolutely on the personalities involved. In the mouths of other M. P.’s there would he neither fun nor wit. The most interesting case I remember involved Jimmie Maxton. the cadaverous leader of the I. L. P., and the Marquis of Titchfield, who visited Canada this summer.

Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister, and a furious debate was raging concerning the hunger marchers. Feeling was mounting higher and higher until Maxton, who combines sincerity and opportunism to a remarkable degree, swept to his feet and arraigned the Government and especially the Prime Minister with a fury that swept everything before it. With his black hair down over one eye and his long bony finger pointed at Mr. MacDonald, one felt that at any moment he would call for volunteers to man the barricades.

“The basis of autocracy,” cried Maxton, flushed with anger, “is ‘Do not listen to reason! Crush the voice of the other fellow!’ That is what the Prime Minister announced tonight.” (Cries of “No, no!”) “I say yes. The right honorable gentleman says, ‘The voice of these unemployed marchers is a voice we do not like.’ ” (Renewed cries of “No! It is not true!”) “Yes, yes! That is what he says. He says, ‘We shall not listen to it.’ That is autocracy. Today we have got from the Democratic Prime Minister, the man thrown up by the people ...”

The Marquis of Titchfield’s voice broke in:

“We’ve all been thrown up by the people.” There was a gasp of relief from the House. Then a crash of laughter.

Titchfield sat back and surveyed Maxton with an engaging smile. He looked like Porthos of the Three Musketeers, with almost a Ouida mustache and a highpitched voice that would win him a triumph on the stage.

Maxton stopped. The House leaned forward, for “Tich” and Maxton are great friends.

“The noble lord,” he said, “will hardly claim to be one of the proletariat?” Titchfield nodded. “I have been thrown up to be a Member of this Plouse,” he said.

Poor Maxton felt the tide of his triumph receding. With a last attempt to be dramatic and scornful, he cried: “The noble lord will not claim to have been thrown up from such great depths to such lofty heights as the Prime Minister?”

The heir to the Dukedom of Portland stood up to his great height, looking rather like the wicked baronet of the Lyceum melodrama, and glanced toward the unhappy Ramsay MacDonald.

“No,” he said with a self-deprecatory shake of his head, “not to such lofty heights certainly. At the same time, in my humble way, I have been thrown up.”

The House rocked with almost hysterical laughter. Maxton tried to go on, but the debate collapsed. “Tich” had destroyed Maxton’s golden moment with the use of a fantastic but quite sincere social argument.

Rhythm and Ridicule

THEN AGAIN there is the humor of the sound of words almost divorced from their meaning. Maxton was the hero of one of these incidents.

Sir John Baird (now Lord Stonehaven), as the First Commissioner of Works, was answering the charge that no work was being provided by his department.

“We are engaged,” he said rather pompously, “in raising the level of the Serpentine by one foot, and thereby shall provide work for no fewer than one hundred men.” Jimmie’s soft Scottish voice floated across the floor:

“Why don’t you raise it by three feet and provide employment for three hundred men?”

I claim that this is funny, although I cannot explain why. Yet you will find in both Shakespeare and Shaw that same repetition of the rhythm of sentences which sound alike yet convey a curious sense of ridicule.

Of course, the House has its occasional joke which is as broad as a fifty-foot walk and needs no discernment to appreciate.

When Sir Henry Fields (the prototype of Mr. Punch) was called for his maiden speech he began: •

“I believe in circumstances like this it is usual for a new Member to claim the indulgence of the House, and I may say that such indulgence was never more necessary than at this moment. For the first time in my life, I appreciate to the full the pathos of the letter which a soldier boy in Palestine wrote to his mother:

‘Dear Mother:

I am in Bethlehem where Christ

was born, and I wish I was in Wigan

where I was born.’ ”

When Comedy Covered Tragedy

T DO NOT know what impression I have -*■ given of Parliament in this article. If it seems that we laugh frequently, that is true. If it seems that we laugh easily, that 1 also is true.

Remember, though, that the hours are long and the intensity of many of the debates is so great that, without the saving grace of humor, the judgment of the House would not be so sane, so tolerant, so British.

And if, when you visit London, you see us from the gallery laughing for no obvious reason, remember that the audience is not always in on the joke.

When we came down to the House on ¡ that fateful Thursday when Mr. Baldwin was to announce King Edward’s abdication, the Whips found themselves in a dilemma.

Mr. Baldwin had arranged to make his speech exactly at 3.45 o’clock so as to synchronize with the Dominion Premiers’ announcements in their own Parliaments. Unfortunately, the abdication crisis had dried up the normal curiosity of the M. P.’s, and there were only about twentyfive questions on the order paper instead of the usual sixty or seventy.

The Whips asked our assistance. “Ask supplementaries on everything,” they said. “We’ve got to keep questions going until the P. M. gets up.”

So with the most poignant drama waiting to be played before the audience of the whole world, we joined in the game— Socialists and Tories alike—of asking any kind of question to keep the ball rolling. Mr. Speaker, who was not in the joke, grew more impatient all the time. One after another we were called to order until he said, “Really, I do not know what the j House is coming to.” The ambassadors of \ foreign countries looked down from the ¡ packed galleries, wondering what kind of a place this was that could laugh on such a day.

But we kept it up until the clock pointed to the allotted time. Then came the hush. The very heart of Parliament seemed to have stopped beating. There was no laughter on our lips or in our hearts. Tragedy, sheer stark tragedy, had taken possession of us all.