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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Thursday, September 3, 1925. p. 10.419 — Peeps at Parliament: Concerning a Dormouse and the Work of the Party Whips

The Dominion, Thursday, September 3, 1925. p. 10.419
Peeps at Parliament: Concerning a Dormouse and the Work of the Party Whips

Once upon a time, in the dim and distant days of your early childhood, you were probably frivolous enough to enjoy the adventures of "Alice in Wonderland" as set forth by Lewis Carroll. You remember that particular chapter which referred to a certain Mad Hatter's tea party, and gave a graphic little account of the rude behaviour of a dormouse invited thereto? The dormouse, if you remember, had developed an annoying little habit of curling up and going to sleep inside the teapot when bored, and, worse still, of waking up to interpose cryptic little remarks at just exactly the wrong minute?420 Well, while I'm not going to describe Parliament as a Mad Hatter's tea party, because I feel in my bones that Mr. Speaker wouldn't like it, I do think that one can quite justly compare Mr. Witty to the delinquent dormouse. The only times when the hon. member seems, so to speak, to uncurl himself from his teapot, are when some member of His Majesty's Opposition has made a statement which he vainly hopes will slip past without comment or criticism. Mr. Witty apparently sleeps with both ears open.

Of course, there is no reason whatever why we should descend upon poor Mr. Witty, and hold him up as a horrible example of Parliamentary somnolence. It is a recognised thing in the House that any and every member can, if he feels so disposed, put his feet on his bench, settle a cushion yet more comfortably under his head, and, with the tacit consent of Mr. Speaker, link arms with Morpheus and descend into the poppy fields of sleep until forcibly ejected therefrom by the Sergeant-At-Arms.

But to return to our muttons—I mean to our dormouse.421 Yesterday afternoon, as I was gazing down at Mr. Witty, behold, the Heavens were opened, and I saw a vision.422 I seemed to see an assembly of gentlemen, in beautifully powdered periwigs, magnificent cravats, buckled shoes and silk stockings (legs were legs in those days, Messieurs!), sitting engaged in debate around the benches of the House of Commons as that House might have been two hundred years ago. Imagine, gentlemen, the horror that would have ensued if one of the truly honourable members had so far forgotten himself as to elevate his feet to a position of eminence on his bench? I vow, Mr. Speaker (was there a Mr. Speaker in those high and far-off times?) would positively have indulged in a fit of hysterics—or at the very least have swooned. And if one of the Cabinet Ministers (if there were any Cabinet Ministers) had presumed to snore—Odsfish, 'twere grounds for a duel! These are degenerate days, dear readers, and for that reason I have a proposal to put before the House (that is, if Mr. Speaker doesn't mind my omitting to give notice of motion), which may, I believe, tend to have a decidedly elevating condition on Parliamentary life if once carried into effect.

The proposal is this: Why doesn't some gentleman of the old school—the woods, as you know, are full of 'em—compile and publish a book of Parliamentary etiquette? It could be bound in vellum and issued in three volumes. By this means we could make sure that all the very best people would read enough of it to be able to talk about it—and, needless to state, M.P.'s must, whether they like it or not, be included among the very best people. For instance, a member desires (our book must prepare for the most remote contingencies) politely to indicate that an honourable colleague is, for reasons of policy, drawing a veil around that undraped lady, Truth. Instead of bringing down the wrath of Mr. Speaker on his head, and having to withdraw his rude statements and couch them in different language, he simply says, "Book of Etiquette, chapter so-and-so, verse thus-and-thus." His honoured friend, discovers the place, and, with the aid of spectacles and a lexicon, deciphers the phrase, "All men are …. "You see the idea?

Have you ever heard "the crack of the Party Whip?" You hear it at divisions. Talking of divisions has brought to my mind some of the most important factors in Parliamentary life, factors which, up to the present time, we have quite neglected to mention. I refer to the Whips of the House. Don't be alarmed. Mr. Speaker doesn't, much as he would frequently like so to do, indulge in corporal punishment for refractory members. The S.P.C.A. have absolutely no case at all. The Whips are simply those members of the three parties deputed to keep their fellow-members on the job. And that, if one can judge by the strained and harassed expression which sometimes flickers across their countenances, is quite a little task.

It is quite amusing, just before the division time, to hear the Party Whips cracking—jokes. Mr. Dickson, Whip of the Reform Party, when shepherding his sheep past the Labour-Socialist benches to the lobbies, reminds me of Moses conducting the Children of Israel through the Red Sea.423 Sometimes the waves of the Red Sea surge up in a most unruly fashion, but, under Mr. Dickson's skilful424 piloting, not one of the Reform members has so far succeeded in getting his feet wet—or his fingers burned. The reason for this may be deduced by the observant (that means you and me). Mr. Dickson, had he lived in the Middle Ages, would undoubtedly have been burned at the stake, with 'orrid tortures, as the possessor of the evil eye. I don't mean to imply that Mr. Dickson's eye is evil—far from it. But I do say that its effect on mildly refractory members reminds me of those charming lines in425 the "Ancient Mariner":—

"He held him with his glittering eye
The wedding guest stood still,
And listened like a three-years child
The Mariner had his will." 426

Members listen just exactly like three years' children when Mr. Dickson turns the full power of that hypnotic eye upon them. Sometimes, indeed, they look even smaller.

Then, of course, there are the Whips of the Nationalist and Labour Parties, both of whom deserve a full chapter to themselves, if only we had space. Mr. Ransom, Nationalist Whip, rounds up his little flock with the bustle, enthusiasm, and general excitement of a young, hard-working, and earnest sheep-dog. Of course, divisions aren't the only times when party Whips come in extremely handy. If there is any little matter to be arranged—if, say, the House is tired, and just longing to go home and forget all about politics, the Whips must attend to the matter. It is quite one of the novelties of Parliament to watch the tentative proposals for an adjournment slowly crystallising into "arrangements." For instance, many a time and oft have we looked down from tower and battlements, and noticed the Labour Whip, Mr. Sullivan, who is patently, not to say blatantly, of Irish extraction, "putting the comether" on some would-be talkative Minister.427 The Minister, who has a Bill or other business which he desires to discuss, is—how shall we put it? —coy. He absolutely declines to be gently taken by the hand and led away from his bench. Mr. Sullivan leans yet more ingratiatingly over his bench, and talks until the unhappy Minister, in sheer desperation, relents. Slowly, unwillingly, gradually, a smile, like the first rose-pink flush of dawn on a mountain top, spreads over the Ministerial countenance, and the tired House knows that all is well. Members rise in their seats—I think, ladies and gentlemen, that we'll profit by their example.

419 Given the lack of specific comment on the previous day's debate and the gap until the next "Peeps at Parliament" column appeared, it seems likely that Hyde actually missed the sittings on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th of September.

420 Cf. Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 60-68. See also Robin Hyde, Journalese (Auckland: National Printing Company, 1934), p. 10.

421 Cf. François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel.

"To returne to our wethers".

The phrase is a translation of the proverbial French phrase "Revenons à nos moutons," meaning to return to the subject at hand.

Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Sir Thomas Urquhart and Pierre Le Motteux (London: David Campbell Publishers, 1994), p. 26. See also column for 6 August 1925 and 20 August 1925.

422 Cf. Acts 7 v. 55-56.

But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,

And said, behold, I see the Heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

423 Cf. Exodus 14 v. 21.

And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.

424 Dominion: skilfull

425 Dominion: in re

426 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," lines 13-16.

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The wedding guest stood still,
And listens like a three year's child;
The Mariner hath his will.

Poetical Works, ed. J. C. C. Mays, vol. 1.2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).See also the columns for 8 July 1925, 17 September 1925 and 31 March 1932.

427 To put one's comether on: to exercise persuasion or coaxing on (Oxford English Dictionary).