Extracts from memoirs and diaries show the current chaos is nothing newby Ian Irvine / July 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
1831 Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian and Whig MP, described the Commons vote on 30th March at 3am on the Great Reform Bill to clean up and extend the voting system:
“Such a scene as the division of last Tuesday I never saw, and never expect to see again. If I should live 50 years the impression of it will be as fresh and sharp in my mind as if it had just taken place. It was like seeing -Caesar stabbed in the Senate House, or seeing Oliver [Cromwell] taking the mace from the table… The crowd overflowed the House in every part. When the strangers were cleared out and the doors were locked we had 608 members present, more than 55 than were ever in a division before. The Ayes and Noes were like two volleys of cannon…
“We were all breathless with anxiety, when Charles Wood who stood near the door jumped on a bench and cried out, ‘They are only 301.’ We set up a shout that you might have heard to Charing Cross, waving our hats, stamping against the floor and clapping our hands. The tellers scarcely got through the crowd: for the House was thronged up to the table, and all the floor was fluctuating with heads like the pit of a theatre. But you might have heard a pin drop as -Duncannon read the numbers. Then again the shouts broke out, and many of us shed tears… And the jaw of [the Tory leader Sir Robert] Peel fell, and the face of Twiss was as the face of a damned soul, and Herries looked like Judas… We shook hands and clapped each other on the back, and went out laughing, crying, and huzzaing into the lobby. And no sooner were the outer doors opened than another shout answered that within the House. All the passages, and the stairs into the waiting-rooms, were thronged by people who had waited until four in the morning to know the issue.”
The bill was voted down in the Lords, leading to public unrest. A subsequent reform bill became law the following June.
1911 Following the House of Lords rejection of the 1909 Budget, the Liberal government fought two general elections in 1910 on reducing the power of the second chamber. Both results produced hung parliaments. However, in July 1911 the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, supported by Labour and Irish MPs,
persuaded George V to create as many new Liberal peers as required to pass a bill removing the Lords veto. The PM’s wife, Margot Asquith, wrote in her diary:
“On Monday, the 24th of July, we drove in an open motor to the House of Commons and were cheered through the streets. The Speaker’s Gallery was closely packed, and excited ladies were standing up on their chairs. My husband got a deafening reception as he walked up the floor of the House; but I saw in a moment that the Opposition was furious and between the counter-cheers I could hear an occasional shout of -‘Traitor!’ When the hubbub had subsided he rose to move the rejection of the Lords’ amendments; at this Lord Hugh Cecil and FE Smith [leading Conservatives] led an organised and continuous uproar which kept him on his feet for over 30 minutes. ‘Divide! Divide!’ was shouted by the Opposition in an orgy of stupidity and ruffianism every time he opened his mouth.
“Looking at the frenzied faces from above, I realised slowly that Henry was being howled down. Edward Grey [the Foreign Secretary] got up from his place far off from where my husband was standing, and sat down again close beside him. His face was set. I scrawled a hasty line from our stifling gallery and sent it down to him, ‘They will -listen to you—so for God’s sake defend him…
“Arthur Balfour [leader of the Conservatives] followed, and when Grey rose to speak the stillness was formidable. Always the most distinguished figure in the House, he stood for a moment white and silent, and looked at the Enemy: ‘If arguments are not to be listened to from the Prime Minister there is not one of us who will attempt to take his place,’ he said, and sat down in an echo of cheers. Smith rose to reply, but the Liberals would not listen to him and the Speaker adjourned the House on the grounds of grave disorder.”
Winston Churchill reported to the King: “The ugliest feature was the absence of any real passion or spontaneous feeling. It was a squalid, frigid, organised attempt to insult the prime minister.”
Asquith wrote to Viola Tree:
“I wasn’t ‘upset,’ not really, tho’ I confess I minded, for it was a squalid, degrading, humiliating scene.”
The bill passed in the Lords without the creation of new peers and the Parliament Act became law in August 1911.
1956 Following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by President Nasser of Egypt, the Conservative PM Anthony Eden secretly colluded with Israel and France to seize the canal. On 29th October Israel invaded Sinai. Two days later, under the pretext of separating the belligerents, British bombers attacked Egyptian airfields. On 1st November Tony Benn wrote in his diary:
“This morning’s news of the bombings added additional tragedy to the situation. The news contained an item that Egypt was contemplating withdrawal from the UN because of the failure of the UN to help her. This afternoon, after Questions, the prime minister made a statement. [Labour’s leader Hugh] Gaitskell asked him whether we were at war with Egypt. Eden would not reply. The House burst into uproar. I have never seen Members so angry…
[Labour MP Sydney] Silverman asked about the status of our troops if captured. Eden would not reply. The rage and passion reached such a climax that the sitting was suspended [for the first time since 1936].”