Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Saturday August 29, 1925. p. 8. — Peeps at Parliament: A New and Painful Affliction — Flowers of Speech

The Dominion, Saturday August 29, 1925. p. 8.
Peeps at Parliament: A New and Painful Affliction — Flowers of Speech

"You sigh? For why?"
"I sigh because of my misfortunes." 384

That, gentlemen, is what our dignified Prime Minister looked, sounded, and, I'm quite sure, sincerely felt like during the course of yesterday afternoon's proceedings. And what in the world, you may ask, can these misfortunes possibly have been—you who really believe that a Prime Minister's life is, so to speak, "to sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam, and feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream."385 (Perhaps, on second thoughts, we'd better substitute treacle for sugar.) Well, the whole truth of the matter (you don't often get that concerning Parliament, do you?) is that the entire House is in the throes of a highly infectious, and, to Ministers at least, excruciatingly painful disease. The first symptoms are generally made manifest by a watery eye (the unfortunate victim is ready to weep over anything and anyone that comes his way), and an equally copious, one might almost say torrential, flow of language.

I have no doubt that the complaint has its proper scientific name, not to mention the many altogether improper and unscientific terms which Ministers see fit to use in speaking of it. But I think, for our purpose, it will suffice to call the disease "Amendmentitis." Mr. Sidey was, if I remember rightly, the first victim stricken of the plague, which, by the way, has frequently proved absolutely fatal—to a man's political chances. Mr. Atmore took the complaint with the readiness and cheerfulness of a small schoolboy who goes out and purposely catches the measles, in confident expectation of release from his home-lessons, and a period of blissful idleness and black-currant jellies.386 The disease is—need we say it?—absolutely rampant among our Labour-Socialists. In fact, the position is so bad that every time I hear the buzz of the division bell I am forcibly reminded of the death-carts which, in the days of the Great Plague, used to rumble along from house to house, to the accompaniment of a clanging bell, and a hoarse voice that cried, "Bring out your dead!"

If we hadn't been unwise—no, I mean humane—enough to modernise our institutions, by this time practically the whole of the Opposition would have been carefully removed and deposited in some suitably distant and isolated spot. This, of course, is altogether too drastic a proposal to gain much support in these somewhat effeminate days. But I do think that in the more aggravated, and yet more aggravating cases of amendmentitis, a policy of strict isolation might justly be adopted. The victim could be made quite comfortable in some suitably secluded place—say, a padded cell—and kept upon a strictly vegetarian diet until, under the tender care and loving kindness of supervising Ministers, he returned to health and sanity—or, anyhow, to normality—once again. In all seriousness, I ask honourable members whether they don't think that this measure would save them time and the country trouble?

Just for the moment I think we'll leave this really painful subject. Before we really settle down to being serious-minded and sober for the rest of the afternoon, I'd like to tell you about a little contretemps which seemed rather amusing to me, though it almost brought tears to the eyes of Mr. Forbes, the Leader of our unhappy Opposition. It was at that stage of the proceedings when, Mr. Speaker having made a hasty yet dignified exit from the House, members were composing themselves to look as if they were listening to the Estimates of the Customs Department. Mr. Forbes arose with a sob in his voice, and, judging by his elocution, a lump the size of a potato in his throat, and wanted to know why the Prime Minister hadn't let him know the ghastly details of the day's proceedings beforehand.387 Smiting the table with his fist in that fine old, almost Cromwellian way of his, Mr. Forbes demanded, in choking but impassioned tones, why the House didn't take matters into its own hands and compel—yes, compel—Ministers to make clear unto the Opposition the probable course of the day's work — or in some cases, would it be rude to say the day's shirk? You see, it's like this. A Minister, if he springs his reports, estimates, or other matter for Opposition obstruction, as a pleasant surprise on the House, has some faint hope of getting through the business of the day without having more than, say, half a dozen amendments moved against him. Almost any pretext would suffice a member who really wants to move an amendment against someone in particular, or just everyone in general, but, don't you see, there's always the public to be considered. Even the public has its limits, as members have occasionally discovered to their sorrow. One must therefore, if one wishes to move an amendment, prepare some pretext which, to the inexperienced eye, looks reasonable. And when one hasn't had time to study up one's subject—well, the whole thing's confoundedly awkward, don't you know.

To return to Oliver Cromwell—no, I mean to Mr. Forbes. Something about his speech seemed, in some inexplicable way, to get upon the nerves of the Minister for Health, who, by the way, doesn't strike one as being a particularly nervous person. I mean to say, he doesn't give a close and realistic imitation of a cat on hot bricks every time an Opposition member criticises the policy—or non-policy—of his much-maligned party. I have even seen him drop quietly off to sleep during a speech by the Leader of the Labour Party. Unthinkable, isn't it? But on this particular occasion, something—perhaps it was the weather—affected his philosophic calm to such an extent that he was moved to reply with some vigour to Mr. Forbes. He declared, amid a shocked silence (yes, silence) from the Labour-Socialist benches, that the hon. member had snivelled from the beginning to the end of his speech, and that a pet name which would just fit the afore-mentioned hon. member nicely would be "Snivelling George."388 Mr. Forbes was so taken by surprise that he actually sat up straight, blinked three times, and swallowed the lump in his throat, along, I presume, with the Minister's comment. Amid shocked cries of "Don't be rude!" from the Labour benches, Mr. Young, Chairman of Committees, arose and informed Sir Maui that he mustn't talk like that—really now, he mustn't.389 I wouldn't like to swear to it, but I have a sort of suspicion that there was a twinkle in Mr. Young's eye—the one which is visible from the Ladies' Press Gallery. Sir Maui explained that he hadn't even dreamed of meaning any harm, his remark having been "said with a smile."390 Might we suggest to the hon. Minister that next time he should say it with flowers? He might just pass Mr. Forbes a sprig of weeping willow, and—er, if it wasn't quite too far beneath his dignity, he might wink. I'm sure that Mr. Forbes would, after some thought upon the matter, see the point.

However, leaving Mr. Forbes all alone with his injured dignity, let us proceed with the next disorder of the day—Mr. Veitch. Mr. Veitch is a very cross man indeed. His idea is that one might just as well, if not better, be the father of a particularly noisy set of twins as adopt a Parliamentary career. A member has, as a general thing, to stay more or less awake—mostly less—until the small hours of the morning, and then, like as not, return home to find himself locked out, and forced to spend the remainder of the darksome hours on a cold, hard doorstep.391 Mr. Sullivan, member for Avon, firmly supported this opinion. His idea was that, what with correspondence, divisions, delegations, and the like, a member would be just as happy and much more comfortable dead.392 You know, there's some element of justice in all this talk. I, for one, firmly believe that, notwithstanding all that has been irrefutably proved to the contrary, our members really do earn their—what do we call them?—their salaries. A Parliamentarian's life appears to me all work and exceedingly little play—that is, during the session. But perhaps they make up for lost time during the recess.

Talking of the member for Avon. I regret to inform you that he is the latest victim of that peculiarly catching complaint referred to at the beginning of this little discourse. Within the last two days he has, to my certain knowledge, moved two amendments with the view of reducing estimates—and goodness only knows how many others while I have been—er—unavoidably absent.393 The idea of all these amendments is, as I believe I've told you before, that the mover should endeavour to persuade the House to reduce the Government's estimates for a certain Department by anything from £5 to five shillings. This is done, not because the mover believes that the extra five shillings is unwarrantable extravagance, but because he wants to enter a protest about something. Well, I'm quite willing to admit that women, and myself in particular, know nothing whatever about politics, but goodness me, if a member feels that he really has to explain just what's wrong with the world, why can't he do so without putting the House to the bother of a division which can have only one possible result? It's a queer world, my masters!394

384 Gounod’s Faust, act II, scene I, lines 175-76.


You sigh! For why?


I sigh because of my misfortunes.

See Gounod’s Opera of Faust in a Prologue and Four Acts (Philadelphia: Ledger Job Printing Office, 1867).

385 Cf. "Curly Locks, Curly Locks," lines 1-8.

Curly locks, Curly locks,
Wilt thou be mine?
Thou shalt not wash dishes
Nor yet feed the swine,
But sit on a cushion
And sew a fine seam,
And feed upon strawberries,
Sugar and cream.

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, ed. Iona Opie and Peter Opie, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

386 It is unclear exactly which speeches of Sidey's and Atmore's Hyde is referring to but it seems likely that they occurred during the debate on supply for the railways. See for example Sidey's speech (Hansard 207: 708-11) and Atmore's question (Hansard 207: 745).

387 Forbes "wished to protest against the very little notice given to members of that side of the House [i.e. the Opposition] in regard to the classes that were going to be taken on the estimates" (Hansard 207: 817).

388 These were Pomare's exact words; see Hansard 207: 817. Hyde relates the anecdote again in Journalese, p. 39.

389 Young ordered Pomare to withdraw the remark; see Hansard 207: 817.

390 These were Pomare's exact words; see Hansard 207: 817.

391 Veitch complained passionately about the way the Opposition was treated and said that he could "see no reason why the House should be driven so hard" (Hansard 207: 818).

392 Sullivan protested to Coates that "it was not necessary to drive the House to the extent that it was being driven, and keep members there for several hours after midnight at this period of the session" (Hansard 207: 819).

393 Sullivan moved for a £5 reduction to the Customs Department estimate on 28 August (Hansard 207: 821) and a £4 reduction to the railways estimate on 26 August (Hansard 207: 744).

394 The phrase "my masters" is an echo of Kipling. See for example the story "Railway Reform in Great Britain" in The Collected Works of Rudyard Kipling, vol. 23 (New York: Ams Press, 1970). See also the column for 11 July 1925.