With the state opening of Parliament just days away, it is worth recalling a ritual connected with the government’s address in reply to the Queen’s speech which for many years was a regular source of entertainment. The address followed the speech from the throne, which outlined government plans, and the Members who moved and seconded it were expected to provide its ‘echo and key’. Those selected to undertake the task were usually novice MPs ‘just good enough not absolutely to break down’, as the Saturday Review put it, ‘but not good enough to be insulted by the offer’. It provided an opportunity for Members who were not habitual speakers to make a successful debut before a full House. When the House opened, therefore, everything resembled an ordinary debate except that seated behind the Prime Minister would be ‘two stiff, pale figures, in gay colours, looking the pictures of abject and ghastly misery’.
The choice of speakers presented ministries with an opportunity to foster party unity. The mover was usually a county Member, often a young aristocrat, while the seconder was a borough Member, usually a merchant or manufacturer. For example, the first address of the reformed parliament in 1833 was moved by the Earl of Ormelie, MP for Perthshire, and seconded by John Marshall, the son of an industrialist and junior MP for Leeds. Prior to composing their speeches the candidates could only expect to be coached by the junior whip in ‘such fragmentary revelations of the Ministerial mind as it may please the great men to drop from the Cabinet table’.
While the 1833 address was immediately denounced by Daniel O’Connell as ‘bloody, brutal, and unconstitutional’, in the mid-1830s the opposition began to refrain from moving hostile amendments to the address, and it was generally understood that these speeches were not fair subjects for criticism. They were usually indulgently received both by the House and the press, although exceptions were made. In 1837 the experienced Scottish advocate William Gibson Craig, MP for Midlothian, was judged by The Times to have been an ‘unparalleled failure’, his disgrace heightened both by his ‘ostentatious display of written preparation’ and the ‘gaiety of his court dress’.
Craig’s flamboyant appearance was determined by a rule of the House which ordered the mover and seconder to appear in court dress, uniform, or whatever official garb they were, according to the press, ‘more or less remotely… privileged to don’. Those lucky enough to belong to a rifle corps or regiment of militia might rest easy, while Members who were deputy lieutenants could in their ‘hideous combination of silver and red’ at least pass muster as military men. One such was Thomas Bazley, a ‘gigantic’ cotton-spinner who sat for Manchester, whose ‘half-moon cocked hat surmounted with a bunch of white feathers’ made a ‘very grand’ addition to his 6ft. 4in. frame. Less fortunate was Joseph Firth Bottomley Firth, a Huddersfield manufacturer and Radical MP for Chelsea. A description of his ordeal in 1882 was reproduced by his local newspaper which gleefully recounted that no one could have
‘looked more miserable or guilty than did Mr. Firth when, on Tuesday night, he slunk up the floor of the House in Court dress. The knowledge that his trousers did not descend below his knees was as plainly stamped upon his blushing brow as if it had been engraved by a ticket-writer; and nothing could have been more pathetic than the manner in which, having reached his place, and finding himself seated directly under the Ladies’ Gallery, he opened his copy of the Orders to their widest limits, and spread them over his knee’.
There was much speculation about the uniform worn by his better-attired colleague Edward Marjoribanks, MP for Berwickshire, before it was identified as that of the Royal Scottish Archers. The heavy epaulettes and tight-fitting tail coat did not, however, seem ‘especially suited for archery practice’, which led MPs to conclude that Scottish archery differed ‘as widely from Robin Hood’s style as does Scotch law from that practiced at Westminster’.
The speakers, if not embarrassed by their ill-fitting garments, were often condemned to deliver unexciting speeches devoted to ‘hypothetical praise of possible measures’ which they had not helped draw up and had never seen. Their orations often descended into a ‘string of platitudes’ so that after the House had sufficiently examined their attire, its ‘pity was exhausted, and ennui began to take its place’. By 1897 the address was regarded as a formality that might ‘with advantage’ be abolished. However, in true British style, tradition continued to co-exist with innovation and in 1936 the first woman to move the address, Florence Horsbrugh, MP for Dundee, sought to establish a precedent by opting for ‘a black evening gown and white gloves’.
While in more recent times the dress code has been relaxed, the MPs nominated for this duty on 8 May might wish to reflect on the sartorial trials undergone by some of their predecessors.