The Great Palace: The Story Of Parliament
by Christopher Jones, B.B.C., London 1983, 256 pp., and Playing The Palace: A
Westminster Collection selected by James Naughtie, Mainsteam Publishing Co.,
Edinburgh, 1984, 209 pp.
Books on historical buildings often sound
like a tour guide on cassettes interspersed with vague, dusty facts forgotten
from Grade Eleven. The fact that a history of the Palace of Westminster shares
the advantage of chronicling the often bizarre succession of British Monarchs
and the development of parliamentary democracy is, for the average reader a
questionable advantage at best. It takes a particularly gifted writer to raise
this genre above the level of coffee table history and to import an accurate
feeling for what Westminster stands for and what it means today. Christopher
Jones has given us a marvellous example of how this can be achieved, largely
through his sparkling, ironic and anecdotal prose. Because the text accompanied
the BBC TV series on the subject and is written to be heard rather than read
silently, the style echoes an immediate voice. jones is actually interested in
claiming the reader's ear while he relates the imaginary details of historic
events in Westminster. Jones' insistence on the flavour of detail throughout
his account of the development of the British Parliament consistently inspires
a potentially dull account with actualities of daily life in England during any
When MPs moved into St. Stephen's in 1547...
they sat in the chair stalls and made speeches at each other across the chancel
of the chapel; they have been sitting in those same straight lines facing each
other ever since.... It was the fashion in Tudor times for men to wear enormous
pantaloons stuffed with wool and hair which simply could not be squeezed into
the pews recently vacated by the, monks. So... holes, two inches square, were
cut in the walls for posts which would take scaffolding on which... they could
lean.... [p. 55]
Perhaps Hollywood has accustomed us to an
imaginary grandeur which, for centuries, the realities of Westminster belied.
Until the introduction of electricity in the 20th century, the greatest
problems MPs faced were the lack of fresh air and adequate lighting. Coal fires
and draughts designed to expel "unhealthy vapours" made the place
hotter and stuffier than it already was, despite the first no smoking law in
Britain in 1723 forbidding the use of tobacco in the House: It was all rather
squalid. The place was dirty and it smelt; these were rats about it and it was
grubby with bits and pieces of biscuits and fruits scattered around by
Members." [p. 581
The author's best chapters recount the fire
of 1834 that destroyed most of Westminster, and the subsequent reconstruction
of the New Palace. From the viewpoint of architectural and interior design, the
new Palace of Westminster was by far the most ambitious undertaking ever
completed in Britain, and Jones' account of the details of construction, the
designer's problems and MPs' anxiety about the delays makes excellent reading.
Included as well are remarkable photographs of the interiors of both Houses.
Mr. Jones and the BBC obviously had access to parts of Westminster few people,
save the Lords and MPs themselves, could ever have.
The final chapters are taken up with an
explanation of the daily workings of Westminster as a modern parliament,
including an historical sketch of the Press Gallery. The book is mercifully
free of footnotes and includes a brief index.
Before Hansard became the accurate record of
debate it is now, words spoken in the British Parliament were jotted down as
best they could by scribes, correspondents and journalists, and made public
through journals and letters, broad sheets, newspapers, essays, diaries and
magazines. The authors of these publications were some of the best prose
writers in England Dickens, Trollope, Dr. Johnson, and more recently, James
Fenton of The New Stateman, Roy Hattersley of The Listener and Harry Boardman
of the Manchester Guardian, among others. It is to all these sources that James
Naughtie has gone for much of the material in his book, Playing the Palace: A
What we are given is more than a simple
collection of snippets from great parliamentary speeches anthologies of
"greatest hits" of anything tend to be a little dull. Instead, we are
invited to look down onto the floor of the House from the Press Gallery, and to
read this selection of astonishing political oratory in conjunction with
accounts by contemporary journalists of the day, who give to the proceedings a
sense of immediate interest which the speeches out of context could riot.
One example from recent times is the account
of the Falklands debate that appeared in The Scotsman on 5 April 1982, after
Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands, and before Britain had retaliated.
Other selections – from Elizabeth 1, Cromwell, Wm. Pitt the Younger and
Disraeli to Asquith, David Lloyd George, Churchill, Enoch Powell, Michael Foot
and Bernadette Devlin, to name a few, are divided into 10, more or less random
chapters: "Wars", "Four Spies", 'A Government Falls"
and so forth, prefaced by a short summary of the historical or political
context o~ each. Among the stirring old chestnuts one expects are some
surprisingly animated passages from lesser known Members. John Bright's speech
against the Crimean War in 1855 is particularly passionate, as is Lord Byron's
against a bill imposing capital punishment upon tradesmen who willingly destroy
machines (1s there not blood enough upon your penal code, that more must be
poured forth to ascend to Heaven and testify against you?").
It all makes wonderful reading, especially
in an age such as ours, when the level of political rhetoric is almost as low
as the ability of the press to recognize and report it.
Garnet Barlow, Table Research Branch, House of Commons