From Eatanswill to Foot's last stand
Robin Cook listens to the shining wits of Westminster: The Literary Com panion to Parliament edited by Christopher Silvester, Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 30 The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations edited by Anthony Jay, Oxford, pounds 15.99
Saturday 14 December 1996
Anyone who shares our obsession to the extent of producing 600 pages of memoirs about Parliament starts out with our prejudices behind him. I began by really wanting to admire the monumental fruits of Christopher Silvester's labour, but even a mutual obsession could not sustain my enthusiasm.
He produces some interesting facts for addicts of Trivial Pursuit - for instance, that the tea room consumed 224lbs of bacon rashers in an all-night sitting. But the overall effect is curiously lifeless and does not capture the passion, the venom or the grandeur of Parliament.
The first problem is that his Companion is not at all literary. I could find not any extract from the many novels that flit through Parliament. Dickens is cited as a sketch writer, but there is no quotation from Our Mutual Friend of the satirical dash to take the mood of the nation in Central Lobby, or from Pickwick Papers about the election for the Borough of Eatanswill. Incredibly, Trollope has not a single entry, although no literary figure has written more about Parliament or appeared more famously as the favourite reading of Conservative Prime Ministers.
Silvester's chief sources are MPs writing diaries for their own entertainment; but people writing privately about their own obsession tend not to produce great literature. It is unnecessary for him to include a spectacularly tedious chapter on great bores when most chapters provide adequate proof that MPs can indeed be bores. The second problem is that Silvester appears to be under the impression that Parliament was suspended at the time of the Suez Crisis and never reconvened. The half century in which the bulk of his potential buyers grew up is missing.
The chapter on ladies in Parliament leaves the reader with the nagging suspicion that he regards that phrase as a contradiction in terms. Most of the quotations are about women in the Ladies' Gallery, with only two entries for the period after the suffragettes succeeded. Yet, by anyone's standards, one of the dominant parliamentary figures of this century was Margaret Thatcher. It is impossible to understand the excessively adversarial character of the Commons now without reference to her confrontational personality.
The chapter on "Great and Terrible Occasions" contains neither the fall of the previous Labour government, otherwise remembered as Foot's Last Stand, nor the resignation speech of Margaret Thatcher. Yet everyone can agree that one of those events was Great and the other Terrible, even though there may be different views as to which way round the descriptions fit.
No-one who was there on the day of Mrs Thatcher's last speech at the Despatch Box will forget how a weary, defeated woman was transformed into the familiar handbagger when she rounded an a heckler. One of the reasons she survived so long in office, despite dishing out a diet of unpopular policies, was that she could command the Commons. Conversely, one of the reasons why the present government is in terminal decline is that it is saddled with a PM who cannot even command the respect of the Press Gallery. Yet the significance of Parliament as the crucible of our political system is lost among this encyclopaedia of gossip and trivia.
By contrast, Antony Jay's Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations provides a sharp insight into the heat of political exchange. Mrs Thatcher is vividly portrayed, in Matthew Parris's sketch of her introduction into the House of Lords, as "a big cat detained briefly in a poodle parlour, sharpening her claws on the velvet". And the best of the past is here - Tom Paine, for example, more acerbic than any modern sketch writer, reporting the failure of Burke in debate: "He rose like a rocket, he fell like a stick".
Yet the collection is also absolutely contemporary with generous entries for both Tony Blair and John Major. Iain Macleod's entries express better than any others the wit and invective of debate. How could an opponent recover from this charge: "I cannot help it if every time the Opposition are asked to name weapons they pick a boomerang"?
The success of the Dictionary is that most entries were intended for publication, and many are polished gems. This is indeed a companion with which to while away a late-night sitting. I would not be entirely surprised to detect some of the quotations being recycled to adorn the occasional speech. There is, after all, no greater praise a parliamentarian can offer than a threat to plagiarise.
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