Sir Charles Gordon: Clerk of the House of Commons who also assisted new parliaments in the Commonwealth
Friday 06 March 2009
No one who ever met Charles Gordon was likely to forget him. He had a truly magisterial appearance – sporting a fine beard – and a look of penetrating intelligence. But despite his formidable intellectual qualities, he was an utterly charming and unaffected man in an age when the latter quality was not always in great supply. Gordon's abilities took him to the top of his profession when he became Clerk of the House in 1979. By then, after a career that had already spanned more than 30 years, he had made a significant contribution both to the working of Parliament as an institution and knowledge about it abroad.
Charles Addison Somerville Snowden Gordon was the son of a Liverpool barrister who was educated at Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford, a scholar at both places. After active service in the war (in the Fleet Air Arm, serving at one time on HMS Indomitable) he joined the House of Commons Clerk's Department in 1946 in a period of some political upheaval. His analytical skills and his articulacy (even if his advice was sprinkled with Latinisms which classicists had to translate for others) made him a "natural" Clerk; soon he became a first-class proceduralist.
His ability to grasp procedural intricacies and his early training in public bill work equipped him well for what was his greatest challenge when, as Clerk Assistant (which he became in 1976), he had to advise the Chairman of Ways and Means on dealing with the Bills establishing the assemblies for Scotland and Wales in Committee of the Whole House. Not only did the marathon and sometimes rumbustious sittings night after night (something that Members would now find unimaginable) attest to his stamina but they earned him the respect of all parties in the House as a completely fair and impartial adviser.
Before he became Clerk Assistant, Gordon had spent some years in charge of the Overseas Office from 1963-69, where he had responsibility for advising and helping new parliaments evolving in the Commonwealth. It was a task that the magister performed with consummate skill both because of his deep knowledge and his infinite patience and kindness to overseas colleagues. In carrying out his duties in that manner he made an important contribution to exporting the Westminster model in a friendly and acceptable way.
Gordon's tenure of the Clerkship of the House coincided with the establishment in 1979 of the House of Commons Commission, a new authority for supervising the internal affairs of the House which marked the legislature's assertion of its independence in matters of administrative and financial control. No mean organiser, Charles was doubtless happier in the other task which fell to him as Clerk, editing the 20th edition of the parliamentary "bible", Erskine May, having played an important part in the previous edition. He also wrote parliamentary pieces and was co-editor for a decade of The Table, the professional journal of Commonwealth Clerks at the Table.
Gordon was a benign, even avuncular figure to junior colleagues. His appearance and addiction to Latin tags could on first acquaintance intimidate them but they soon realised that he was entirely open-minded and quite approachable. Members, too, came to realise that it was better to have him on side than to engage in dialectics with him. While always expecting the highest standards of colleagues, he was quite prepared to encourage their particular talents and idiosyncrasies. The recreation he claimed in his Who's Who entry – "dolce far niente" [carefree idleness], suggesting what now might be regarded as a sensible statement of work/life balance, was deliberately self-deprecating and the perfect disguise for a man of considerable intellect and personal warmth. His wife died in 1995, and his last years were spent very happily with Pamela Fernant, his partner.
Charles Addison Somerville Snowden Gordon, civil servant: born 25 July 1918; Assistant Clerk, House of Commons, 1946, Senior Clerk, 1947, Fourth Clerk at the Table, 1962, Principal Clerk of the Table Office, 1967, Second Clerk Assistant, 1974; Clerk Assistant, 1976; Secretary, Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments, and co-Editor of its journal, The Table, 1952–62; married 1943 Janet (Jane) Beattie (died 1995, one son and one daughter deceased); CB 1970; KCB 1981; died 1 March 2009.
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