The novice MP

With the newest members of the House of Commons having just been returned for constituencies in Corby, Cardiff and Manchester, advice given to novice MPs in the mid-nineteenth century suggests that the stresses faced by new members may have changed little since the Victorian era.

In August 1851 The Times remarked that a seat in the Lower House was ‘not altogether the transcendental luxury’ that might have been anticipated by enthusiastic political aspirants. Looking forward to the ‘dazzling destiny’ which awaited him, a fledgling MP might choose whether to first content himself by ‘setting the House right upon a few points of business’, or to ‘burst upon his astonished audience in a set speech, which may either prop the fortunes of a falling Cabinet, or wrest the reins of power from a presumptuous Premier’. According to The Times, however, such dreams counted for little. After two months of the session had elapsed a new MP could expect to have been ‘bullied by the Whipper-in’, drafted into the committee room ‘and compelled to fag all day like a dog’. Each night he would have to listen ‘to tedious speeches, five-sixths of which might be stereotyped for constant use’. Indeed, success in the House of Commons of 1852 was, according to the journalist Edward Whitty, ‘only accorded to those who labour hardest’. He regarded a ‘great physique’ as one of the conditions of success in Parliament, members ‘with large heads (proportionate to the trunk), thick necks, and deep chests’ being the sort of men whose ability to overcome the fatigue of public life was sufficient to take them to the top. To Whitty’s experienced eye, members ‘who will not identify themselves with the House – who don’t sit through debates, who shirk committees, … and give themselves the airs of persons only condescending to be Members – signally fail’.

Without this capacity for sheer hard labour a new member’s efforts at self-promotion would be of little use. Rather than attracting the attention of the leading statesmen, the new member who sought the public eye might find himself speaking only to back benchers whose minds had already been made up ‘without reference to any oratorical rockets’ that he might discharge. In 1838, perhaps having recently witnessed Benjamin Disraeli’s disastrous maiden speech, the young Worcestershire East MP, Sir Horace St. Paul, justified his own failure to ‘break tongue’ in the chamber. He told his constituents that he regarded it as ‘an unpardonable presumption’ for any young and inexperienced man to address the House, recounting that he had seen ‘some young and ambitious’ colleagues make their maiden speeches ‘at great length’ only to leave the chamber ‘with very different countenances from what they had when they came in’.

It was thought to take ‘at the very least, two sessions to acclimate a new Member to the moral atmosphere of the House’. Even if a junior member did not disappoint or antagonise the senior men of his own party, life outside the Palace of Westminster might not be any easier if he failed to ‘satisfy the rapacity’ of his constituents, or balance the competing interests of town and country in a rapidly expanding borough or ancient county seat. All in all, it was a daunting prospect, and Whitty felt obliged to warn his ‘Freshman’ that those who managed to become conspicuous in the House of Commons would live ‘the hardest of human lives’.

Sources: The Times, 2 Aug. 1851; E.M. Whitty, St. Stephen’s in the Fifties. The Session 1852-3. A Parliamentary Retrospect (1906), 1-8.

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One Response to The novice MP

  1. Pingback: The History of Parliament in 2012 | The History of Parliament

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