LONDON LETTER

Come Into Our New House!

BEVERLEY BAXTER November 15 1950
LONDON LETTER

Come Into Our New House!

BEVERLEY BAXTER November 15 1950

Come Into Our New House!

LONDON LETTER

BEVERLEY BAXTER

I REMEMBER the day well. It was Friday, May the 9th, in the year 1941. About 10 young air

force pilots, including Hindus, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians had arranged that I should show them around the Houses of Parliament and we had reached the Commons just after it had adjourned at 4.30 p.m. _

With reasonable accuracy I pointed out the features of interest and described the procedure; then we slowly made our way out. For some reason we paused at the exit and stood gazing at the chamber. A ray of sun came in from a window wearing a halo of dust particles. Papers and torn-up memos were strewn on the floor. The silence was ghostly.

“Well,” I said, “that is the House of Commons. Take it all in all we shall not see its like again.” Then we parted and went our different ways.

The next night the Luftwaffe struck savagely at London. More than 500 planes came over and hurled their bombs at the very heart of the ancient capital. Queen’s Hall was destroyed, Westminster Abbey was struck, and hundreds of people were killed and mutilated. At 2 a.m. a bomb fell upon the House of Commons but did not explode. Half an hour later a shower of explosives and incendiary bombs hit the Commons again. Like the death of the gods in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” the whole district seemed to be in flames. Near Lambeth Bridge a gas main was blazing; Westminster School was burning; angry flames were jetting from Victoria Tower.

The firemen fought desperately to save Westminster Hall where Charles I was tried. Its ancient beam roof was on fire and likely to collapse. The hall survived but when daylight came the Commons was nothing more than a heap of rubble. The barbarians had won a great victory.

By the time you read these words we shall be in the new House of Commons which has risen upon the ashes of the old. As we enter the chamber from the members’ lobby we shall pass under the Churchill Arch, constructed from damaged stones from the old chamber and placed there in memory of that night of fire and fury in 1941, and in tribute to the unconquerable spirit of the man whose name it bears.

Every dominion and colony has contributed something to the new Commons, ranging from the paneled oak table presented by Canada to Zanzibar’s gift of a solid silver ash tray. As we do not smoke in the chamber the ash tray should remain as unblemished as the generosity which promoted it.

After the large area of the House of Lords Chamber, where we have been sitting since 1941, the new Commons will look strangely small and compact. Actually the seating capacity is approximately the same although, to the puzzlement of our overseas guests, there are not enough seats for all the M.P.’s. The reason is peculiarly English and not easy for visitors from other lands to understand.

Winston Churchill has always argued that a great occasion needs a sense of excitement which can only be attained by every available inch of space being occupied, including the area beyond the bar of the house where the overflow can stand and listen. Another reason is that on an ordinary day only half or a third of the members attend the debate at one time, others being on committees or attending to their correspondence, or speaking in the country. Thus if there were seats for everyone the place would have to be so large that the attendance would look more meagre than ever.

In other

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Come Into Our New House

words the British, who are supposed to be a shy race, know all about pageantry. That is one reason why the British Houses of Parliament draw visitors from the four corners of the earth, while some other parliaments remain remote and detached from public interest.

The enormous advantage of the new Commons is that because of the cleverness of its design the member on his feet has a sense of intimate contact with his listeners, which does away with the temptation to treat them like an audience in a public hall. In other words you can speak as a director to his fellow directors, rather than to the shareholders. This is a subtle distinction but an important one.

Now I propose that, in celebration of this happy event, I shall take you on a personally conducted tour of the Houses of Parliament which have the official title of the Palace of Westminster. There is much to see and much to think about. When eventually you visit in London and make your way to Westminster you will not feel that you are visiting a strange or unfamiliar place. The great advantage of doing this on the basis of a correspondence course is that we shall be able to go right into the debating chambers instead of having to wait until Parliament has risen.

Perhaps then in this article we can approach the palace as an imaginary conducted party with the readers as the sight-seers and myself as the parliamentary guide.

Having gathered at the public entrance, which is just opposite St. Margaret’s Westminster, we meet according to plan and are accompanied on the tour by a plain-clothes policeman in case any of the visitors entertain unusual ideas of parliamentary reform such as those held by Guy Fawkes.

On our way to what is called the public lobby we pass through St. Stephen’s Hall, now part of the corridor. This was originally St. Stephen’s Chapel, founded by King Stephen early in the 12th century and partially destroyed by fire in 1298. Edward III rebuilt it but it was suppressed, like other free chapels, by Edward VI and given to parliament for its use.

Hats Off, Strangers!

In this hall (it is 95 feet long and 30 feet wide) took place many of the great parliamentary battles which were the birth pains of a mighty nation. It was here that parliament fought the longdrawn-out feud with Charles I. It was here that Burke pleaded the cause of the American colonists. Pitt and Fox measured swords in this place and Wilberforce fought the evils of slavery.

As we pass through St. Stephen’s you will notice statues of these historical parliamentary antagonists facing each other as though still engaged in ideological exposition and bitter controversy.

Now we are at the door of the public lobby and the policeman on guard, seeing you are properly escorted by an M.P., will offer no obstruction. Otherwise he would ask your business and indicate a desk where you could fill up a green card to send to your own M.P., although this would not necessarily ensure the immediate appearance of the gentleman in question. He may be making a speech, or he could be on a committee upstairs and unable to leave. There is also the possibility that he is not in the house at all, for parliament does not demand unbroken attendance.

The public lobby is like a neutral zone between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. From it are two corridors leading to the members’ lobby of each house, but the public cannot enter these secret places unless escorted by a peer or an M.P. as the case might be.

On the other hand lobby correspondents of newspapers are permitted to mingle here with members and discuss the background to the legislation in hand. When a division is announced— that is, when a vote is to be taken—no stranger, not even a lobby correspondent or a member of the other house, is allowed to remain. This is to prevent undue pressure on members about to record their vote.

Each day’s sitting of the House of Commons is begun by the procession of the Speaker, preceded by a messenger in official dress, the Sergeant-at-Arms wearing his sword and carrying the Mace over his shoulder, and by his train-bearer, his chaplain and his secretary. As the procession nears the public lobby the police shout, “Hats off, strangers!”—and to set a good example, remove their own helmets. Fortunately the order applies to men

The Speaker then passes down the corridor, through the members’ lobby and into the chamber where the members bow to him. Then the chaplain reads the prayers. When the Lord’s Prayer is reached the M.P.’s recite it with the chaplain. Neither the public nor the Press is admitted to prayers because the filling of the galleries would disturb the quiet and solemnity of the occasion. The prayer that is used today dates back to 1660.

No Seat for the Sovereign

You can imagine how the significance of this prayer is affected by the impact of events. There was a special poignancy as we listened to it on the day when Stanley Baldwin was to announce the abdication of Edward VIII. It was deeply moving on the Sunday morning of September 3, 1939, when we met to receive the announcement that Britain was at war with Germany.

After prayers Mr. Speaker, in his wig and robes, takes his seat with three clerks in attendance. To the immediate right the Prime Minister and his cabinet ministers sit on what is known officially as the treasury bench but which is normally called the government front bench.

The bench immediately behind the ministers is occupied largely by parliamentary private secretaries. The P.P.S. is an M.P who receives no extra pay for his work but regards it as a training for ultimate promotion. The P.P.S. keeps his chief informed of the feeling of the house, attends to much of the minister’s correspondence and accompanies him to functions or inspections. The remaining Government supporters occupy the rest of the benches on that side of the house, and if they are in a big majority, as in 1945, they are apportioned certain benches on the Opposition side as well.

The second largest party forms what is known as “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,” with a shadow ministry on its front bench. Thus the Leader of the Opposition, as a potential prime minister, sits directly opposite the existing P.M. If there is a foreign affairs debate the former or the likeliest future foreign secretary in the Opposition leads his party against the actual Foreign Secretary and the Government supporters.

There are many separate galleries, although accommodation is very limited; they are known as the public, diplomats, peers, distinguished stran-

gers, Dominions and Mr. Speaker’s galleries. There is only one man in the United Kingdom who is automatically excluded from the House of Commons debates—the ruling sovereign. The House of Commons has a long memory and it has not forgotten that Charles I once entered the house with an escort of soldiers and demanded the names of five members whose votes had offended him.

It Was Europe’s Best Club

Now we shall make our way down the corridor to the House of Lords. First we reach the Princes’ Chamber, where the King and Queen and their entourage gather before entering the House of the Lords each year to open Parliament. You will be interested to note that in the chamber there are the portraits of all the wives of Henry VIII. Just why these unfortunate women should have such a place of honor I could never understand unless it is a warning to women to be careful whom they marry.

Follow me please and we shall have a look at the Royal Gallery which adjoins the Princes’ Chamber. This is a grand place which the government of the day uses when it has to put on a show. When the two houses want to combine to do honor to a distinguished visitor this gallery is usually chosen. During World War II that gallant and great man General Smuts addressed us there. Later in the war W. L. Mackenzie King was our guest and spoke wise words to us. Although I detest

preciseness in all things I must tell you that the Royal Gallery is decorated not only with the portraits of recent Kings (excluding so far Edward VIII) but facing each other are two gigantic paintings representing the death of Nelson and the meeting of Blücher and Wellington at Waterloo. Each painting is 45 feet by 12 feet and the figures, including the horses, are supposed to be life size. They are impressive rather than artistic. We found them rather embarrassing last spring when we gave a reception in the gallery for the French President and his entourage. History often lacks delicacy.

Now we shall return through the corridors and take a glimpse at the committee rooms, the dining rooms and the libraries whose windows overlook the restless Thames. Before the Hitler war the House of Commons used to be called the best club in Europe. It certainly had great advantages of a social nature, with private dining rooms for small groups, with the imposing terrace where guests would stroll after dinner or come in their most attractive clothes for tea with strawberries and cream. Of course, no guests are allowed in the members’ dining rooms or in the holy of holies known at the smoke room. There is an unwritten law that anything said in the smoke room is private, a decree which permits the frankest conversation between opponents as well as friends. Because the whole edifice is a royal palace there are no restrictions as to drinking hours, a merciful dispensation when during an all-night sitting an

M.P. wants a reviver at 4 a.m.

By a wise self-imposed regulation the only game permitted is chess. Cards of any kind are forbidden.

The east front of the palace facing the river and including the terrace is 678 feet long. At the north end of the terrace is the Speaker’s House and beyond it is the tower which houses Big Ben. Since 1885 a light at the top of the tower indicates that parliament is sitting. Only during World War II was this custom stopped, when even the illumination of Big Ben’s face was extinguished. Very few Londoners

and not many M.P.’s know the origin of the clock’s name. It was called after Sir Benjamin Hall who was the then First Commissioner of Works. The chimes are identical with those erected in the Church of St. Mary the Great at Cambridge in 1793 and are associated by tradition with the words:

Lord, through this hour,

Be Thou our Guide,

That by Thy power,

No foot shall slide.

On occasion Big Ben is used for other purposes than marking time. It was

tolled for the first time for the funeral of King Edward VII and subsequently for the funeral of King George V. For a short time at the beginning of World War II Big Ben was silenced but later it resumed and was heard throughout the world. Between its last stroke at 9 p.m. and the broadcasting of the BBC news a minute’s silence was observed, dedicated to prayer. There was universal relief when the old fellow withstood the attack of the Luftwaffe and rang out defiantly, even while the House of Commons crumbled and burned to

Incidentally, on the first floor of the tower is the room where an M.P. is confined when Mr. Speaker, with the approval of the house, commits him to the Clock Tower. Charles Bradlaugh in 1880 was the last parliamentarian to be subjected to this indignity, although Sir Alan Herbert, himself an M.P., sent one of his characters there in his operetta, “Big Ben,” produced in London in 1946.

Now our tour is nearly over. We walk through the palace yard, used as a parking place for members’ cars, and enter Westminster Hall which was erected by William Rufus at the end of the 11th century. It is a huge hall built originally with a double line of columhs for, although the Normans conquered England, they did not know how to roof so wide a space. Richard II did away with the columns in 1394 and built a magnificent oak roof which was about the only successful thing he ever did.

No other part of the Palace of Westminster is so rich in historic association for some of the greatest and most grim dramas in England’s story were played in this stone-flagged hall. In 1265 Simon de Montfort’s Parliament assembled here—the first parliament of all time. It was here that another parliament gathered for the pitiful scene when Richard II ceded the crown to his vigorous rival who was to become Henry IV. Guy Fawkes was tried for treason; Charles I stood his trial here; here Gladstone’s body lay in state.

Horses In the Chapel

It was at Westminster Hall that they brought the body of George V to be received by both Houses of Parliament. Behind the coffin walked the wistful, lonely figure of Edward VIII who was never to be crowned King of England.

And now, just to end our journey, we shall go down to the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft, built in 1292. This little chapel is a thing of beauty for, though it has been restored, it is as it was built. Pride of craftsmanship flowered to the full in those far-off centuries.

There are no seats in the chapel, but a long, narrow bench on each side for the sick and the aged—hence the expression “The weak to the wall.” Stained glass windows depicting the life and martyrdom of St. Stephen, Gothic dragons in the roof, a marble floor with Minton tiles, and the cross at the altar—these create a moving and fascinating temple of the spirit.

Yet its sanctity has not always been observed. Cromwell is said to have tethered his horses in the chapel during the civil war. In 1885 Fenians placed a bomb in the chapel, which was carried out by a brave policeman, the bomb exploding in Westminster Hall. In lighter vein a suffragette concealed herself in the chapel to evade the census of 1910, but she was discovered and was put down on the returns as a resident of the palace.

Our sentimental journey is over. The story I have told is not complete, for the palace holds many wonders that you must seek out for yourself on subsequent visits. But perhaps you will realize how it is that we, who are elected to this parliament, come under its spell and cherish its traditions.

And perhaps you will realize, too, why an M.P. who has been defeated in an election is like a lost soul even though he stoutly proclaims that he is delighted to have a rest from it all.

Long live the new House of Commons! May the greatness of the past give lustre to its future. And when the ghosts walk at night let us hope that Disraeli and Gladstone and Pitt will say: “We did not labor in vain.” ík