5 JANUARY 1974, Page 6

Political Commentary

Speakers of the House

Patrick Cosgrave

I argued last week that the centre, the beating heart as it were, of British politics is the main chamber of the House of Commons; that, for all the value and usefulness of work that is done elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster

and its environs, it is what happens there that is really crucial. It is true, as I suggested, that opinion is more than ordinarily divided on this question: many are the critics who want to get on with the building of a more elaborate system of specialist committees, who gaze uncomprehendingly and in distaste at some of the shenanigans got up to by members of all

parties in the chamber itself; and few indeed are those so confident of their own abilities as to be fairly certain of a capacity to base their careers principally on excellence displayed in general debate. But if the centre of your system is a debating chamber, then its members must be able to debate, and their capacity to debate will be crucial to the success and survival of the system itself. The House of Commons is

arranged, moreover, as an arena of combat, the speaker from whichever party having to stand and face the serried and hostile ranks of his rivals, rather than the reassuring visages of his own colleagues, or the neutral face of the chairman. Unless one is a front bencher, the support which one can receive from a text or notes is vestigial indeed: only ministers may actually read quotations in question and answer session; and the physical discomfort involved in rising in one's place and continuing to use a sheaf of paper is so great that even the most halting tend to learn to overcome the need for such aids. Front beichers, of course, have the table on which zo rest their material, and this can be very bad for them. Mr Denis Healey, for example, is incapable of going to battle on the economic front without the lavish support of much manuscript material and a positive army of clippings from the Financia.' Times. He flicks to and fro between whatev.'r folder he happens to be using and a pile of cuttings with disconcerting uncertainty for a man whose reputation was built largely on supposedly justified intellectual arrogance. But here, fortunately, a moral can be pointed: the chamber of the House is a cruel and testing arena, and when Mr Healey last contributed to an economics debate his own colleagues, towards the end of his fumbling contribution, simply began to converse among themselves, ignoring the Shadow Chancellor whom the Tories, even, regarded in embarrassed silence.

Excellence in the Chamber, then, can be achieved only with a minimum of aids. It is true, of course, that ministers, and to a lesser extent opposition front benchers, need the support of notes and texts more than do their backbench colleagues. What a minister says, after all, is the policy of the government of the day: it is important that he gets it right, and that no ambiguity, no inaccuracy, nothing that could subsequently be misrepresented, should appear in the Hansard report of his remarks. Unfortunately, this necessary crutch is over-used by too many ministers today: Mr Geoffrey Rippon, for example, and Mr Michael Heseltine, are both men who cling for dear life to their handsome ministerial clip folders and mutter away to them as though they were the audience. The Prime Minister, however, whose attitude to parliamentary formalities is more often distinguished by impatience than reverence, invariably re-writes in his own hand every parliamentary speech he is to make which he considers crucial. Pressmen

can accurately gauge his attitude to any occasion by looking down from the gallery and seeing whether his sheets are covered by the neat and large typing of the Civil Service or by the slanting and spidery hand that he himself uses for speeches.

Nonetheless, Mr Heath is not a distinguished parliamentary orator. He is not, of course, and never has claimed to be, a really first class speaker in any arena: at his best he conveys an impression of some real if crude power and force lying behind his banal constructions; at his worst boredom and lack of interest. But he was probably damaged as a parliamentary speaker by the long and silent years in the Whips' office, for the convention is that Whips do not speak in the House. On the government side the most formidable speakers are (on the front bench) the Chancellor, Mrs Thatcher, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Sir Keith Joseph and Mr John Peyton. For my money the best of these is Mrs Thatcher, though her brief of Education seldom gives her the opportunity to take part in a major occasion. The Chancellor is a superb tactical debater, but he leaves an uneasy impression of being too clever by half; Sir Alec, if put under severe pressure, as he often is, is too easily flustered; Sir Keith too often indulges his desire to speak at inordinate length: and the principal excellence of Mr Peyton is shown at Question Time, of which he is the master. The Secretary of Education and Science's complete command of her subject, however; the clear and bell-like quality of her voice, perfectly modulated to the difficult acoustics of the chamber, and the cool authority with which she handles even the most virulent opposition, make up together a perfect treat for the parliament watcher.

The Opposition front bench is much less gifted, less because of any lack of talent, than because of self-indulgence. Mr Wilson, nowadays, invariably speaks for far too long, and he plays so much off the cuff that his sentences become byzantine. Mr Foot is essentially an orator, rather than a cut and


Spectator January 5, 191 thrust debater. Mr Peter Shore has never quite adjusted his magnificent voice to those difficult acoustics, and to the intimacy of the Chamber. Mrs Williams is too easily caught out on her facts; and too many of the other front benchers are, quite simply, past it. The best performers are Mr Callaghan, Mr Jenkins, Mr Benn and Mr Crosland. Mr Callaghan has never quite lost the folks)' authority he gained at the Home Office; Mr Jenkins is magisterial whatever he speaks on though there seems invariably to be a Toll conspiracy to treat his every contribution with respect; and Mr Benn, when well briefer' is still a very fine speaker: his difficulties arile not merely from the extravagance of h's utterances, but from the extensive contradictions between what he is saying now ahd what he said when he was a minister: h's reputation as a trend hopping wild men,' gained outside Westminster, often affects his reception inside it. Mr Crosland, for authority and knowledge, is the best-rounded of all; all his instinct for the jugular is well develoPe as he showed in an onslaught on Mr Walker's record at the Department of the Environnleh' Does all this matter very much? Yes, for it is still true that mastery of the chamber is ani Bur essential preliminary to a really large politica career outside it. It is true, of course, that tha! general requirement has been much weakene° in recent years. Mr Whitelaw, for examPle' who is not at all a distinguished speaker, hal won his reputation by the shining efficacy ° his bi-partisan character, and by doing eg, traordinary things in Ulster. Mr Carr's ts ° reputation built on like foundations, but that has faded a good deal recently. onet nobody who has regularly seen Mr Pete,' Walker, for example, stuttering his 0, through a Commons speech, or Mr Healey in likewise, could easily imagine thel' colleagues voting either in as leader. And this is exactly as it should be. An hh: portant part of the usefulness of the charnhe' of the House is the way in which its smallness and the critical nature of the audience cored' pels a,politician to go through a searching all„ sometimes searing experience every time o`, gets up. Mr Woodrow Wyatt, Mr Bernal', Levin and others have frequently attacked, example, the whole business of Questiorl, Time, for the reason that the hour allowed f°' questions rarely produces any informatiorle' That is a false reading of its purpose. Th member who wishes to acquire informad°11/ or trap civil servants with a multitude °e inquiries, does so through the medium of 111„ question for written answer. The oral questi°i hour is a sort of personality test in which 09, and thrust goes on in a very limited tactic 'e area, and success or failure in which can Matt or break a reputation. It is a most importai'

part of parliamentary procedure. but

Things are not, then, what they were; ,e the basic lineaments of what is required a,' e still there. The depressing things are, first, 0,5 lack of conviction on the part of new entra% to the House that their career is essentiallY be built there. On the whole British politics 'it still lucky in the calibre of the young attracts, but there are fewer rebels among41 L' young than there used to be, fewer rf,.?"4 prepared to consider the idea that their loyalty on some matters of real moment ol'i„ not to lie with the Whips. Second, the de of mination, which I noted last weelc,,o, governments to consider practically ev",ce vote in the House as a matter of confide",„ imposes enormous burdens on the indep, dence of members. And thirdly the boorrii displays of bad manners frequently to be out in the chamber, especially from the La100 benches, too often brings the whole sYst into disrepute. It is as yet too early to say what the Bri_tit5I' i/ parliamentary system will look like in twe,Ptil or even ten, years' time, assuming tr exists. But for the moment there is powe' but fitful, life in the dog.