A young fogey's guide to the House

THE LITERARY COMPANION TO PARLIAMENT ed Christopher Silvester Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 16.99
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IN THE autumn of 1973 I went up to Oxford to "read" Modern History. Two things prevented me from reading very much of it. The first was the fact that I managed to stay only two terms before the University had had enough of me. The second was that Oxford defined Modern History as having finished in 1914. Everything after that was Politics.

Something in Christopher Silvester's book puts me in mind of my brief spell by the banks of the Isis. Most obviously there is the substantial bias in this collection against the recent or the contemporary. Picking two chapters at random - "Arrivals and Departures" and "Great and Terrible Occasions" - there were 15 gobbets dealing with events in the half-century 1800-1850, 13 for 1850-1900, 16 for 1900 - 1945 and only eight for the half-century between 1945 and the present day.

True, the first period saw the Great Reform Act and the Repeal of The Corn Laws, the second encompassed Home Rule, while the third took in two world wars (which is quite a lot of world wars). But our own era has not been an undramatic one. The reforming Labour administration of Attlee (barely a mention, except insofar as Churchill commented upon it), the loss of Empire, Suez, the crisis of 1960-1979, and, above all, Britain's first woman Prime Minister and her impact upon the House - all might have been expanded on at the expense of yet another anecdote about Gladstone or Robert Peel.

Silvester is a terrific anthologiser, as his Penguin Book of Interviews proves. Why then, has he opted for a selection which makes the Oxford History faculty circa 1973 seem faddish by comparison? To take one example, the chapter on the Irish in Parliament has no entries after 1919, and thus contains no mention of the extraordinary assault in the Chamber by the young Bernadette Devlin on Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, in the wake of Bloody Sunday.

The result of this bias against the new is to suggest a salience for Parliament that it no longer deserves. Much of the Commons' self-perception, even now, is based on the era of its glory, on all-night sittings, on characters and orators. These are held to justify the clubbiness, the public school atmosphere, the maleness, the amateurishness, the lack of modern facilities. So Orwell's "collection of mediocre-looking men in dingy, dark suits, nearly all speaking in the same accent and all laughing at the same jokes" can be balanced against Virginia Woolf's: "one has to say to oneself severely, `This is the House of Commons. Here the destinies of the world are altered'." She was being ironic. Up and down Whitehall destinies are being altered; in Westminster little is changed.

Nevertheless, the same tug that drew me to an archaic Oxford course pulls many to the House. Once inside, the gossip, the cosy discomforts, become habitual. Many a lobby correspondent never leaves. It is hardly surprising that a mythology persists which transforms Prime Minister's Question Time, for instance, from the preposterous piece of willy-waving it actually is, into a test of leadership under fire. I cannot help wondering whether Silvester may not have fallen for some of this.

His final and most perfunctory chapter, entitled "Ladies Last", looks at women in the House almost entirely through the eyes of the male club- members already there. The last paragraph quotes Viscount Chandos: "The lady Members seldom get the tone or mood of the House right." If Silvester has subversive intentions here, they are well buried. Still, should Labour win the next election by a substantial margin, the effect will be an enormous increase in the number of women MPs. Nothing would do more to shake the House out of its 19th-century Smoking Room stupor than the advent of nearly 100 unclubbable, unslippered political women, dedicated to lowering the tone and changing the mood. It has begun to work at Oxford.