Michael Brown: Were we all alcoholics in Parliament back then?

I ordered a gin and tonic. 'Give the lad a large one,' Harold Wilson said kindly
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The Independent Online

I first met Charles Kennedy in the Members' Smoking Room of the House of Commons shortly after the 1983 general election. I had entered Parliament, aged 27, four years earlier and was the youngest MP. But I was mildly put out to find that, overnight, with the election of several new MPs at the subsequent election, I had suddenly aged and slipped to 10th youngest.

Mr Kennedy had usurped my unique status in the Smoking Room that, after the chamber, was my second parliamentary home. More political discourse and parliamentary deals took place in this magnificent room than in the debating chamber.

The former Prime Minister, Sir Harold Wilson, had introduced me to its delights and charms a few days after my first election in 1979. Seeing me hovering nervously outside he inquired if I was new and which constituency I represented before taking me in.

"That's where Churchill sat, and this is my seat," he grunted, beckoning me to a deep leather couch. The steward brought him his "usual" large brandy, and I ordered a gin and tonic. "Give the lad a large one", he said before giving kindly advice on everything under the parliamentary sun, telling me how to handle the arcane workings of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

At this point I was obliged to tell him that, though I represented Scunthorpe, I was on the other side. "My goodness, did we lose Scunthorpe to the Tories? You've done well, lad - have another drink."

And so began a normal 18-year early evening routine. This was followed by dinner with wine in the Members' Dining Room. My office room-mate, the late Ian Gow (Margaret Thatcher's Parliamentary Private Secretary), would whisk me off for a "bowl of sherry" or a "white lady" Most Tory MPs would then gather back in the Smoking Room for brandies and nightcaps.

My whip, the late Sir Spencer le Marchant, kept silver half-pint tankards at the bar. Recalcitrant MPs like me who voted against the Government were frogmarched into the Smoking Room, where a champagne bottle would be poured into the tankards. Punishment would be meted out according to my ability to consume the champagne. On one occasion I escaped, but was summoned for a dressing down over breakfast and a jug of Bloody Mary the next morning.

Companies with factories in the constituency would invite me to city boardroom lunches - pre-lunch drinks, wine and brandy. When I did my deal with Nicholas Ridley, the Environment Secretary, to get my constituency removed from the nuclear waste dump list, it was done at 10pm without officials in his Commons room - suitably lubricated from the contents of his well stocked drinks cabinet.

Were we all alcoholics? Most of us would certainly have failed breath tests, and many a political career foundered while driving under the influence of alcohol. Broken marriages were more often caused by drink than adultery, and a number of inconvenient by-election losses were caused because Tory MPs died of drink.

The comparison with today's parliamentary scene could not be starker. First Labour's large majorities have meant that there is no incentive for the Opposition to keep the Government up all night. MPs are now in their beds at a respectable hour. Second, the hours of sittings have been reformed, with the consequence that on most nights there is no one in the bars after 7pm. Because the Commons is no longer the centre of political discourse, the Smoking Room is also empty. And when I entertain an MP, it is water rather than wine that usually accompanies lunch.

Mr Kennedy was one of the few opposition MPs who was known to Tories and liked across the political spectrum. We normally only drank with our own party colleagues. John Reid also stood out among the Labour intake of 1987 as a rare convivial chap who would occasionally join Tories in the Smoking Room - although it is years now since I have seen him drink. Since I left the Commons nearly a decade ago, my own alcohol consumption has collapsed. I suppose I was lucky to be there only as a young man - at 46, Mr Kennedy is now the age I was when I was defeated.

I have no doubt that the new culture of political sobriety and excessive fitness makes for more healthy MPs. There are certainly far fewer by elections than in the 1980s and 1990s. And the climate is far more conducive for women members, who were often excluded from the club atmosphere. But the standard of speeches, repartee and wit has certainly suffered. And, in the absence of much of the previous social and collegiate heavy drinking, who knows how much is consumed in the privacy of lonely offices or Pimlico bedsits?