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An essay by Max Beerbohm

The House Of Commons Manner

Title:     The House Of Commons Manner
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

A grave and beautiful place, the Palace of Westminster. I sometimes go to that little chamber of it wherein the Commons sit sprawling or stand spouting. I am a constant reader of the `graphic reports' of what goes on in the House of Commons; and the writers of these things always strive to give one the impression that nowhere is the human comedy so fast and furious, nowhere played with such skill and brio, as at St. Stephen's; and I am rather easily influenced by anything that appears in daily print, for I have a burning faith in the sagacity and uprightness of sub-editors; and so, when the memory of my last visit to the House has lost its edge, and when there is a crucial debate in prospect, to the House I go, full of hope that this time I really shall be edified or entertained. With an open mind I go, reeking naught of the pro's and con's of the subject of the debate. I go as to a gladiatorial show, eager to applaud any man who shall wield his sword brilliantly. If a `stranger' indulge in applause, he is tapped on the shoulder by one of those courteous, magpie-like officials, and conducted beyond the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. I speak from hearsay. I do not think I have ever seen a `stranger' applauding. My own hands, certainly, never have offended.

Years ago, when to be a member of the House of Commons was to be (or to deem oneself) a personage of great importance, the debates were conducted with a keen eye to effect. Members who had a sense of beauty made their speeches beautiful, and even those to whom it was denied did their best. Grace of ample gesture was cultivated, and sonorous elocution, and lucid ordering of ideas, and noble language. In fact, there was a school of oratory. This is no mere superstition, bred of man's innate tendency to exalt the past above the present. It is a fact that can easily be verified through contemporary records. It is a fact which I myself have verified in the House with my own eyes and ears. More than once, I heard there--and it was a pleasure and privilege to hear--a speech made by Sir William Harcourt. And from his speeches I was able to deduce the manner of his coevals and his forerunners. Long past his prime he was, and bearing up with very visible effort against his years. An almost extinct volcano! But sufficient to imagination these glimpses of the glow that had been, and the sight of these last poor rivulets of the old lava. An almost extinct volcano, but majestic among mole-hills! Assuredly, the old school was a fine one. It had its faults, of course--floridness, pomposity, too much histrionism. It was, indeed, very like the old school of acting, in its defects as in its qualities. With all his defects, what a relief it is to see one of the old actors among a cast of new ones! How he takes the stage, making himself felt--and heard! How surely he achieves his effects in the grand manner! Robustious? Yes. But it is better to exaggerate a style than to have no style at all. That is what is the matter with these others--these quiet, shifty, shamefaced others they have no style at all. And as is the difference between the old actor and them, so, precisely was the difference between Sir William Harcourt and the modern members.

I do not desire the new actors to model themselves on the old, whose manner is quite incongruous with the character of modern drama. All I would have them do is to achieve the manner for which they are darkly fumbling. Even so, I do not demand oratory of the modern senators. Oratory I love, but I admit that the time for it is bygone. It belonged to the age of port. On plenty of port the orator spoke, and on plenty of port his audience listened to him. A diet-bound generation can hardly produce an orator; and if, by some mysterious throw-back, an orator actually is produced, he falls very flat. There was in my college at Oxford a little `Essay Society,' to which I found myself belonging. We used to meet every Thursday evening in the room of this or that member; and, when coffee had been handed round, one of us read an essay--a calm little mild essay on one of those vast themes that no undergraduate can resist. After this, we had a calm little mild discussion `It seems to me that the reader of the paper has hardly laid enough stress on...' One of these evenings I can recall most distinctly. A certain freshman had been elected. The man who was to have read an essay had fallen ill, and the freshman had been asked to step into the breach. This he did, with an essay on `The Ideals of Mazzini,' and with strange and terrific effect. During the exordium we raised our eyebrows. Presently we were staring open-mouthed. Where were we? In what wild dream were we drifting? To this day I can recite the peroration. Mazzini is dead. But his spirit lives, and can never be crushed. And his motto--the motto that he planted on the gallant banner of the Italian Republic, and sealed with his life's blood, remains, and shall remain, till, through the eternal ages, the universal air re-echoes to the inspired shout--`GOD AND THE PEOPLE!'

The freshman had begun to read his essay in a loud, declamatory style; but gradually, knowing with an orator's instinct, I suppose, that his audience was not `with' him, he had quieted down, and become rather nervous--too nervous to skip, as I am sure he wished to skip, the especially conflagrant passages. But, as the end hove in sight, his confidence was renewed. A wave of emotion rose to sweep him ashore upon its crest. He gave the peroration for all it was worth. Mazzini is dead. I can hear now the hushed tone in which he spoke those words; the pause that followed them; and the gradual rising of his voice to a culmination at the words `inspired shout'; and then another pause before that husky whisper `GOD AND THE PEOPLE.' There was no discussion. We were petrified. We sat like stones; and presently, like shadows, we drifted out into the evening air. The little society met once or twice again; but any activity it still had was but the faint convulsion of a murdered thing. Old wine had been poured into a new bottle, with the usual result. Broken even so, belike, would be the glass roof of the Commons if a member spouted up to it such words as we heard that evening in Oxford. At any rate, the member would be howled down. So strong is the modern distaste for oratory. The day for oratory, as for toping, is past beyond redemption. `Debating' is the best that can be done and appreciated by so abstemious a generation as ours. You will find a very decent level of `debating' in the Oxford Union, in the Balham Ethical Society, in the Pimlico Parliament, and elsewhere. But not, I regret to say, in the House of Commons.

No one supposes that in a congeries of--how many?--six hundred and seventy men, chosen by the British public, there will be a very high average of mental capacity. If any one were so sanguine, a glance at the faces of our Conscript Fathers along the benches would soon bleed him. (I have no doubt that the custom of wearing hats in the House originated in the members' unwillingness to let strangers spy down on the shapes of their heads.) But it is not unreasonable to expect that the more active of these gentlemen will, through constant practice, not only in the senate, but also at elections and public dinners and so forth, have acquired a rough-and-ready professionalism in the art of speaking. It is not unreasonable to expect that they will be fairly fluent--fairly capable of arranging in logical sequence such ideas as they may have formed, and of reeling out words more or less expressive of these ideas. Well! certain of the Irishmen, certain of the Welshmen, proceed easily enough. But oh! those Saxon others! Look at them, hark at them, poor dears! See them clutching at their coats, and shuffling from foot to foot in travail, while their ideas--ridiculous mice, for the most part--get jerked painfully out somehow and anyhow. `It seems to me that the Right--the honourable member for--er--er (the speaker dives to be prompted)--yes, of course--South Clapham--er-- (temporising) the Southern division of Clapham--(long pause; his lips form the words `Where was I?')--oh yes, the honourable gentleman the member for South Clapham seems to me to me--to be--in the position of one who, whilst the facts on which his propo--supposition are based-- er-- may or may not be in themselves acc--correct (gasps)--yet inasmuch--because--nevertheless...I should say rather--er--what it comes to is this: the honourable member for North--South Clapham seems to be labouring under a total, an entire, a complete (emphatic gesture, which throws him off his tack)--a contire--a complete disill- -misunderstanding of the things which he himself relies on as--as--as a backing-up of the things that he would have us take or--er--accept and receive as the right sort of reduction--deduction from the facts of...in fact, from the facts of the case.' Then the poor dear heaves a deep sigh of relief, which is drowned by other members in a hideous cachinnation meant to express mirth.

And the odd thing is that the mirth is quite sincere and quite friendly. The speaker has just scored a point, though you mightn't think it. He has just scored a point in the true House of Commons manner. Possibly you have never been to the House of Commons, and suspect that I have caricatured its manner. Not at all. Indeed, to save space in these pages, I have rather improved it. If a phonograph were kept in the house, you would learn from it that the average sentence of the average speaker is an even more grotesque abortion than I have adumbrated. Happily for the prestige of the House, phonographs are excluded. Certain skilled writers--modestly dubbing themselves `reporters'--are admitted, and by them cosmos is conjured out of chaos. `The member for South Clapham appeared to be labouring under a misapprehension of the nature of the facts on which his argument was based (Laughter).' That is the finished article that your morning paper offers to you. And you, enjoying the delicious epigram over your tea and toast, are as unconscious of the toil that went to make it, and of the crises through which it passed, as you are of those poor sowers and reapers, planters and sailors and colliers, but for whom there would be no fragrant tea and toast for you.

The English are a naturally silent race. The most popular type of national hero is the `strong silent man.' And most of the members of the House of Commons are, at any rate, silent members. Mercifully silent. Seeing the level attained by such members as have an impulse to speak, I shudder to conceive an oration by one of those unimpelled members... Perhaps I am too nervous. Surely I am too nervous. Surely the House of Commons manner cannot be a natural growth. Such perfect virtuosity in dufferdom can be acquired only by constant practice. But how comes it to be practised? I can only repeat that the English are a naturally silent race. They are apt to mistrust fluency. `Glibness' they call it, and scent behind it the adventurer, the player of the confidence trick or the three-card trick, the robber of the widow and the orphan. Be smooth-tongued, and the Englishman will withdraw from you as quickly as may be, walking sideways like a crab, and looking askance at you with panic in his eyes. But stammer and blurt to him, and he will fall straight under the spell of your transparent honesty. A silly superstition; but there it is, ineradicable; and through it, undoubtedly, has come the house of Commons manner. Sometimes, through sheer nervousness, a new member achieves something like that manner; insomuch that his maiden speech is adjudged rich in promise, and `the ear of the House' is assured to him when next he rises. Then is the dangerous time for him. He has conquered his nervousness now, but has not yet acquired that complex and delicate technique whereby a man can produce the illusion that he is striving hopelessly to utter something which, really, he could say with perfect ease. Thus he forfeits the sympathy of the House. Members stroll listlessly out. There is a buzz of conversation along the benches--perhaps the horrific refrain `'Vide, 'Vide, 'Vide.' But the time will come when they shall hear him. Years hence--a beacon to show the heights that can be sealed by perseverance--he shall stand fumbling and floundering in a rapt senate.

Well! I take off my hat to virtuosity in any form. I admire Demosthenes, for whom pebbles in the mouth were a means to the end of oratory. I admire the Demosthenes de nos jours, for whom oratory is a means to the end of pebbles in the mouth. But I desire that the intelligent foreigner and the intelligent country cousin be not disappointed when they visit the House of Commons. Hitherto, strangers have expected to find there an exhibition of the art of speaking. That is the fault partly of those reporters to whom I have paid a well- deserved tribute. But it is more especially the fault of those other `graphic' reporters, who write their lurid impressions of the debates. These gentlemen are most wildly misleading. I don't think they mislead you intentionally. If a man criticises one kind of ill-done thing exclusively, he cannot but, in course of time, lower his standard. Seeing nothing good, he will gradually forget what goodness is; and will accept as good that which is least bad. So it is with the graphic reporter in Parliament. He really does imagine that Hob `raked the Treasury Bench with a merciless fire of raillery,' and that Nob `went, as is his way, straight to the root of the subject,' and that Chittabob `struck a deep note of pathos that will linger long in the memory of all who heard him.' If Hob, Nob, and Chittabob happen to be in opposition to the politics of the newspaper which he adorns, he will perhaps tell the truth about their respective performances. But he will tell it without believing it. All his geese are swans--bless him!--even when he won't admit it. The moral is that no man should be employed as graphic reporter for more than one session. Then the public would begin to learn the truth about St. Stephen's. Nor need the editors flinch from such a consummation. They used to entertain a theory that it was safest to have the productions at every theatre praised, in case any manager should withdraw his advertisements. But there need be no such fear in regard to St. Stephen's. That establishment does not advertise itself in the press as a place of amusement. Why should the press advertise it gratuitously?

For utility's sake, as well as for truth's, I would have the public enlightened. Exposed to ruthless criticism, our Commons might be shamed into an attempt at proficiency in the art of speaking. Then the sessions would be comparatively brief. After all, it is on the nation itself that falls the cost of lighting, warming, and ventilating St. Stephen's during the session. All the aforesaid dufferdom, therefore, increases the burden of the taxpayer. All those hum's and ha's mean so many pence from the pockets of you, reader, and me.

[The end]
Max Beerbohm's essay: House Of Commons Manner