Great democracies enjoy such pictures as this: a large room contains the press of flesh, serge trouser hard alongside trailing skirt, one's nose under another's armpit, an open mouth here, a finger waved aloft there, women of destiny, men of fashion, knots of anxious faces in the background; the whole vivid canvas alive with the noisy movement of the people's representatives.
In France the painting is entitled The meeting in the tennis court at Versailles, 1789, and it depicts the creators - abbes , deputies and citizens - of the Revolution meeting and arguing long before the Terror comes, and some of the infant Jacobins depicted turn executioners, while others (usually older and better dressed) become executees. The American version - more staid - is of the founding fathers busy founding. In the foreground Jefferson sits writing the new constitution with a sharpened quill, while Washington and others variously declaim, proclaim and spectate.
Now let us in Britain add to that list. For we too have a revolutionary scene worthy of an epic artist; this to be entitled Electing the Speaker: May 7th, 1997. But even before a brush is wielded or a colour mixed, the raw mathematics tells much of the story: three-fifths of Conservative MPs either retired or gone in the Great Cull; 260 new members present, most of them Labour, many of them women.
So, occupying barely one quarter of the unfamiliar Opposition benches, sit or stand the sad remnants of a defunct dynasty. With what sullen looks they contemplate the seats where once they - and their departed comrades - made comfortable camp.
Like old, crusty men ejected from their favourite armchairs in an exclusive (though decrepit) gentlemen's club, they resent or lament the loss of the best place by the fire, of fart-strewn corners, of first choice of the periodicals and first pick of the cigars. Crushed, they mutter that they will be back, but they do not really believe it.
The awful truth, as they can now see, is that the kindergarten has taken over the smoking room. For, frolicking, chattering and smiling all over the old haunts, are gangs of fresh-faced kids. Decked out in their party frocks - their hair brilliantined - these children overflow up the aisles, down the corridors, occupy the balconies, sit on one another's knees, lean against each other and laugh innocent laughs.
Student leaders joke with journalists, young women giggle with young men! There is no containing them. When the food is finally served, what a glorious mess there will be!
In front of these innocents - the only man with space around him - is the spunky guy who knocked open the gates, barged past the surprised porters and led the little ones into the room. They idolise him, for he is himself the stuff of their storybook fantasies: Tonetone the boy Prime Minister. Tonetone, aided by his trusty sidekicks (that kind but irascible old seadog, Captain Prescott, the eccentric but brilliant Professor Cookulus and - of course - a clever little snow-white dog called Peter), is about to set off on great adventures: Tonetone and the Minimum Wage; Tonetone in Europe; Tonetone and the Seven Pillars of a Decent Society.
In high spirits they elect as Speaker a nice, motherly lady called Betty, and listen to all the speeches, and whisper to each other about what an odd place this is, and how - given time - they will do things very differently to those whose mouldy smells still cling to the upholstery. But they forget that - once upon a time - their wizened, feeble opponents were also children, and smiled and chattered.Reuse content