The Sketch: The hermetic order of Parliament where change is a strange word

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The Independent Online

A Scottish MP was telling the House about the poverty and joblessness that killed his constituents 14 years earlier than the national average and the place was rolling. They were jack-knifing over their thighs. The rooftrees were rising up off their rafters. That is to say, the MPs laughed throughout this catalogue of modern horrors, and thereby demonstrated one of the mysteries of the House of Commons.

A Scottish MP was telling the House about the poverty and joblessness that killed his constituents 14 years earlier than the national average and the place was rolling. They were jack-knifing over their thighs. The rooftrees were rising up off their rafters. That is to say, the MPs laughed throughout this catalogue of modern horrors, and thereby demonstrated one of the mysteries of the House of Commons.

The fellow had begun his remarks by saying: "I am 62 years old." This brought an immediate, spontaneous roar of "No!" from the entire Opposition. Their cleverness pleased them so much they started laughing unstoppably. He followed up with: "The average lifespan in my constituency is 63." This produced a clutter of heckles, none of which could be heard from the gallery but all of which pleased the hecklers even more than the original sally. He had lost his audience and no amount of disadvantage and early death could bring them back. The mood of the House had sprung up against him and therefore nothing he said could be heard.

That's what Peter Hain is up against in his campaign "to connect Parliament with the electorate in a modern way". It is the most peculiar place in Britain. It is a hermetic order, ruthlessly hierarchical, bound by ancient conventions and impenetrable to outsiders.

The size of Mr Hain's task can be gauged from the fact that much of his modernising efforts are taken up trying to remove the word "Strangers" from the parliamentary lexicon.

It can't be that hard, you would have thought, for a party with such reforming energy, such "passion" (technical term) and such a large majority to pull this off. Especially when the Oxford English Dictionary defines parliamentary Strangers as "presumptuous proletarian vermin whose legs may be pulled and eaten to entertain the committees at Christmas."

Or words to that effect.

Mr Hain has been at his work for more than a year, and yet this modest change has so far eluded him.

What about, Karen Buck asked, other odd customs such as MPs referring to each other as "honourable members" rather than by their names. This, Mr Hain described as "very revolutionary". And thought they would be wise "to take things one at a time".

Gwynneth Dunwoody observed mordantly that they were in danger of believing their own "gesture politics" (I thought I saw her fingers twitch at the phrase) and that many MPs were themselves strangers to the House. Indeed well over 600 MPs were absent at the time. Mr Hain again referred to the "huge advances" they had made in "reconnecting voters".

For my money, the best way to reconnect people to Parliament would be to allow them to throw things. But for all Mr Hain's pious protestations, he is the simpering, quivering, whimpering cream puff that allowed the glass screen to be put up in order to prevent constituents doing just that (oh, and to stop the heckling the Prime Minister during statements about Iraq).

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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