11 MARCH 1943, Page 10

MARGINAL COMMENT

By HAROLD NICOLSON

THE House of Commons on Tuesday was able—without violating tradition, good feeling or common sense—to solve a constitutional problem of some complexity. The death of the Speaker while in office created a situation for which there was no exact or helpful parallel. The Cromwellian precedents were in- applicable and obscure ; the precedent of Charles Wolfran Cornwall was inauspicious. Speaker Cornwall died on January 2nd, 1789, and his successor was elected three days later. The Royal Assent could not on that occasion be obtained, since George III was segregated at Kew, unable to deal with public affairs ; the obvious candidate, Michael Angelo Taylor, had become a controversial figure ; and when, as an improvisation, Pitt proposed his own cousin, young William Grenville (at the time under thirty years of age), his election was opposed by 14.4 votes against 215, and he retained the Chair for a short and unfavourable period of only five months. The late Speaker, Captain Fitzroy, is said to have suggested to the Government in the first months of the war that a Bill should be prepared empowering the Chairman of Ways and Means to preside over the House pending the formal election of a new Speaker. This Bill was never laid on the table. The result was that on Wednesday of last week the House of Commons suddenly found itself unable to function constitutionally and was obliged to adjourn. The intervening days were devoted to discussion between the three main parties, and on Tuesday the election of Colonel Clifton Brown was proposed and carried with unanimous approvaL The pulse of parliamentary life now beats again with its accustomed rhythm ; and the solemnity of the occasion has not been marred by any hurried innovation.

have heard it said that for the House in war-time to suspend urgent business in deference to historical formulas was to display a lack of realism. Such criticism shows ignorance of the part played by the Chair in the correct conduct of the parliamentary system. The Speaker of the House of Commons is no mere chairman elected for the convenient supervision of debate ; he is the champion. of the Legislature against the Executive ; he is the custodian of rights and liberties acquired in a long history ; he is one of the main pillars of our constitution. Occasions have arisen in the past, and may well arise again, when it is the responsibility of the Speaker to defend in his own person the principles of parliamentary government. It is necessary and fitting that this high office should be endowed with a solemnity different in quality and scope from that accruing to a chairman of debate. It is right that the election of a new Speaker should be carried out with the considered approval of all parties and should not be treated as a matter of day-to-day convenience or improvisation. And it is important that the death of a Speaker should be viewed as an interruption in continuity and that the ordinary business of the House should be suspended in deference to the solemn consti- tutional function which he fulfils. Even were this general principle invalid, the present House of Commons would have wished to mark by some formal act of respect their sense of personal and corporate loss in the death of Captain Fitzroy. The tributes paid to him were in no tense formal tributes. He has presided over the House of Commons during fifteen years of fierce party contro- versy, of revolutionary internal change, of grave external danger ; and his imperturbable dignity has been to the House a constant reminder that behind the alarums of the moment stretch seven centuries of history.

Only gradually did the office of Speaker become a post of con- stitutional responsibility; in the past it was often one of personal ambition and personal danger. Since the days when Sir William Hungerford, who 'resided over the "Bad Parliament" of 1376-1377, was first recognised as having " les paroles pour les communes d'Engleterre," since the days when C.haucer's son became the "Commons parlour " ; seven Speakers have been beheaded, one killed in battle and one expelled for taking bribes. The impartiality

of the Chair (which today is taken as an axiom) was not openly defined till the eighteenth century, when Arthur Onslow, whJ ruled the House of Commons for thirty-three years, laid it down that the primary duty of a Speaker was "to be impartial in every- thing and to show respect to everybody." Even in the nineteenth century Manners Sutton was accused of abusing his high office a in the interests of his own party. The integrity of the Speaker, his .immunity from all material ambitions, was even more slowly established as a guiding principle. Audley, Rich and Wingfield amassed huge fortunes while occupying the Chair, and only in the eighteenth century did the custom become recognised that the Speaker could not draw a salary from any other office or sinecure of State. The dignity of the Chair was not always either exercised or respected. When Sir John Eliot, against the Speaker's ruling, insisted upon raising the question of poundage and tonnage, his supporters seized upon the Speaker's person and forcibly prevented him from rising in the Chair. Speaker Rich, on that occasion, burst into tears and sat there blubbing while Sir John Eliot made his speech. Nor in earlier days was it universally accepted that one of the most important of a Speaker's qualifications was an intimate knowledge of the rules of Parliament. "The House," wrote Speaker Denison, "is always kind and indulgent. But if the Speaker should be found often tripping his authority would soon be at an end." For in fact no Speaker can depend too often or too obviously upon the tactful promptings of the Clerks.

In the long line of 138 successive Speakers certain names stand out—Arthur Onslow, Shaw Lefevre (whom Lord John Russell defined as the ideal holder of the Chair), Brand, Peel and Lowther The prominence given by popular legend lo Speaker Lenthall is not .deserved. It is true that on January 3rd, 1642, he was inspired to a resounding phrase when ousted from his Chair by Charles I. The phrase, which the Clerk Rushworth took down in shorthand, is in fact most memorable: "May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House please to direct me." Yet in fact William Lenthall was not an admirable man. He was weak, hesitant and unpunctual; his authority over the Long Parliament was ineffective ; he relied too much upon the advice whispered to him by the Clerk at the Table, Henry Elsynge ; he made no protest against Pride's Purge; and, after all, he twice allowed himself to be pulled out of his Chair, once by -Charles I and once by Cromwell's soldiers. Yet the main charge against William Lenthall is one of avarice. He secured many sinecures and accumlated so large a fortune that he v was able to buy Goring House on the present site of Buckingham 'Palace. And it was rumoured even that he had looted many of the King's pictures from Whitehall.

Sir Christopher Yelverton, in making the conventional disclaimer when elected to the Chair in 1597, defined the qualities necessary to a Speaker as follows : "Your Speaker ought to be a big man and comely, stately and well spoken, his voice great, his carriage majestical, his nature haughty and his purse plentiful." Captain Fitzroy possessed many of these qualifications. In addition, he was just, authoritative, resourceful, humorous, patient and tactful beyond compare. His influence was founded, not upon the legalistic inter- pretation of precedents, not upon any intellectual subtleties, but on the fact that he was regarded as the custodian of the common sense of the House. Mr. David Grenfell was apt in referring to "a manner and demeanour we shall always remember." For in fact the figure of Captain Fitzroy will for ever be associated in our minds with the tremendous dramas of the present Parliament. Aloof and stately, majestic and unperturbed, he sat there as the symbol of continuity ; and when the House of Commons was reduced to dust and ashes he was able by his simple grandeur to maintain, without one instant's incongruity, the "well-ordered inheritance of seven hundred years.