I was having a quiet little nap at about four o'clock on Wednesday afternoon when the telephone rang. It was a mate of mine, calling from his office in the House of Commons. "You'll never guess," he said. "They're asking about you in Points of Order. By name, I mean, by name." "What?" I said. "Not expressing boundless admiration for the deathless prose again, are they?" "No, no, better, much better," he said. "They're slagging you off." And then affairs of state seized him and he had to go.
It wasn't until I got hold of Hansard yesterday that I saw what it was all about. A few days ago I went on Radio 4's Today programme to set them right about some minuscule leak that was causing a tiny fuss that day. A clerk, the head of the administrative team to a select committee, had been discovered to have sent a list of draft questions to a government department in advance of an evidence session. There's a great deal of jitteriness about at the moment as soon as the word "leak" is mentioned, and plenty of MPs could be found to denounce this dreadful interference with a committee's sovereign rights, this appalling act of collusion, etc etc etc.
Well, years ago I used to be a clerk on a select committee, and if this was a violation of a committee's rights, it was certainly one I used to carry out blithely twice a week, as did everyone else I ever worked with. I mean, select committees are not sessions of Mastermind; they are there to establish information, and a committee or a chairman who wants only to make witnesses look ignorant or foolish - stand up Gerald Kaufman - is wasting everyone's time. So, of course, we used to tell witnesses roughly what the committee was interested in, just as we told the committee what to be interested in. The point was to try to keep the whole thing more or less on the rails.
No public official, of course, could say this once MPs had started to express outrage about it, and the House of Commons rather weedily didn't try to defend a universal and indispensable practice. Indeed, they claimed in the newspapers that the official had been disciplined. I don't believe this for a second, but if I had been her I would have been pretty furious to read in print that I had been reprimanded for doing my job. Anyway, I went on the radio to say how stupid and damaging it was to call these negotiations "leaking". Even Members of Parliament, in the end, ought to be able to understand the difference between this and, say, sending a draft of a report critical of a government department to the relevant ministry and asking them what changes they would like to suggest.
In a way, the tiny row typifies the regular spectacle of the House of Commons at its worst. It has no effective means of defending its own procedures, so it is easy to assume that when they fail to resemble, say, the German Bundestag's, they are quaint, pointless, a waste of time, or even corrupt. In fact, little of all this is eccentric spectacle; most of the apparent pantomime, like the game of musical chairs as a Bill goes into committee, or the slamming of the door in Black Rod's face, is there to announce constitutional principles. I'm not saying that the House's daily practices should not be questioned, but it is extraordinary at what length discussions can be sustained in the House between people who frankly have no idea what they are talking about. The authorities in the House have the sense, you expect, to make a show of throwing up their hands in horror and then continuing exactly as they did before. But you can't help feeling that a robust response of "this is how things need to be done" would, from time to time, be more appropriate.
Parliament is wrong and deplorable and silly, and its activities are largely routine, or even a waste of time. Of course this is the case, and no one should be more interested in Parliament than in the great world that streams swiftly through its intricate mechanisms. It is customary to announce that nowadays life is elsewhere, in the regions, or in continental Europe. But all the same, I bet you know what I mean about the thrill and excitement of being named on the floor of the House. Anyone would want to boast about it. It still matters, and still counts in a way in which Europe doesn't yet, in a way in which the Church doesn't any more; and it isn't just nostalgic sentiment that says so.Reuse content