( Originally Published 1907 )
WHEN Murray complained to Byron that some of his poetry was dull, Byron replied: " You can no more have poetry all gems than a midnight all stars." So it is with the House of Commons. Ordinarily it is a very dull place. There is a general air of lassitude and weariness. The benches are thinly peopled with men who seem tired of each other's company. They lounge about in every attitude of negligent inattention. Someone is droning away on a back bench, but he is unheard amid the babble of idle conversation; for, though you may not read a book or a paper in the House, you may chatter as fluently as a parrakeet at the Zoo. Superficially it is a gathering of the comfortable unemployed, waiting for something to turn up. Occasionally something does turn up, and then the House leaps to life as if by magic. It has moments more dramatic, more intense than any stage.
There was such a moment one afternoon in 1903. Mr. Chamberlain had just flung his bomb into the astonished country, and the House was reeling and reverberating with the concussion. It was as though the familiar continent of politics had been engulfed by the sea, and all the submerged politicians were struggling to find a footing in the new one that had suddenly come from the depths. On this afternoon the air was electric with a suppressed excitement; the benches crowded, the faces of men flushed and expectant. Most flushed of all was the swarthy face of Mr. Ritchie, Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had come down to deliver his soul a plain, bluff, honest man, conscious of the keen, unnerving presence of the bomb-thrower in the corner seat behind. A question was put. No, said courtly Mr. Speaker Gully, the general fiscal question could not under the rules be discussed. It was as though a cold douche had suddenly descended from the ceiling. The drama, then, was to be strangled by red tape. Mr. Ritchie moves from his seat along the front bench, whispers to the Chair, gesticulates to the Chair. A moment later the prim, clean-shaven lawyer quietly retires, and a jovial-looking country gentleman, ruddy and bearded, takes his place. And when Mr. Ritchie rises to speak, and plunges boldly into the fiscal question, there is not a murmur of rebuke from the Chair. When he sits down, Mr. Speaker returns with his red tape, and the House subsides into the atmosphere of formality that he loves.
The incident illustrates the difference between Mr. Speaker Lowther and his predecessor. Under Mr. Gully the House lived in a strait-waistcoat of legal technicality. It crackled with parchment. It was " cribb'd, cabin'd, and confin'd." Its air was the air of a lawyer's office, and Blackstone sat heavy upon its chest. It was a dry, arid place.
When Mr. Lowther succeeded to the Chair, he opened the windows and let in the fresh air. He came bringing a jolly breeze with him from the country. It is true that he wears a wig and knee breeches, and silver buckles on his shoes; but all that is make-believe. In his pocket, you suspect, there is a pipe, and you feel convinced that he has just come from tramping the moors in very thick boots, with a gun and a dog for company. Or, if that is impossible, then he has been having half an hour at the nets at Lord's, or a little sword practice with his maître d'armes, for he is still young enough to enjoy the matchless sensation of a " late cut " and the swift pleasure of the foils. The fact probably is that he has been stewing since nine o'clock over the "Orders of the Day," and the way he shall parry the strokes of those terrible Irishmen whose wits are swords. But I speak of the impression he conveys. It is the impression of the fresh air and the sunshine, of league-long furrows, and of the open sky on the rolling moor. He seems to be a casual presence in this dim chamber. He has strolled in in a moment of aberration, and has taken the seat nearest at hand a cheerful, bucolic man, sound in wind and limb, digestion excellent, brain clear and cool, temper unruffled.
The Speaker stamps his own personality inevitably upon the House. If he is acrid, the temper of the House will be acrid; if he is stiff and formal, the House will be stiff and formal; if he is jolly, the House will be jolly. To-day it is jolly. Mr. Peel ruled by awe, Mr. Gully by law, Mr. Lowther rules by a certain bluff common sense and good humour which communicate themselves to the members. He makes them feel at home. He is one of themselves. It is not a chill, rebuking figure that sits up there in wig and gown, ready to pounce on you and send you to the Clock Tower. It is a man and a brother. If he raps you across the knuckles, he does it with so much geniality that you feel that you ought to thank him.
He kicks you downstairs with such infinite grace,
" Grace " is perhaps not the word for that heavy voice and solid manner. It is rather the hearty good-will of a jovial companion who really loves you in spite of your frailties, and scourges you for your own good. Even when he came down with such a heavy hand on Sir Howard Vincent, that garrulous knight was able to share the enjoyment of the House. The question was the deportation of Lajpat Rai, and Sir Howard interpolated, sotto voce, " Why not shoot him? Low though it was spoken, it did not escape the terrible ear of Mr. Swift MacNeill, the watch-dog of the Parliamentary proprieties. " Mr. Speaker " —and the whispered words were boomed out on the ears of the indignant House. " I was only speaking to myself," said the discomfited Sir Howard. " The observation did not reach my ears," said the Speaker; that is all I am prepared to say as to that. I should like to add this that if the honourable and gallant member for Sheffield would control the observations which he is always interjecting, not only during question time, but during debate, it would be to the general advantage of the House." It was severe, it was just, and it was kindly said. That is the special grace of the Speaker. He is the antithesis of the gentleman in the song of whom it is said that " it is not so much the things he says as the nasty way he says them." He says unpleasant things in a pleasant way.
He is at his best when the waves run highest. Then he is like oil on the troubled waters. Take that memorable afternoon when the militant Suffragists stormed the Ladies' Gallery, which is over the Chair and invisible to the Speaker, and flourished their banners, with the legend " Votes for Women," in the face of the astonished House. There followed a sound of scuffling and disorder behind the grille which effectually screens the ladies from the vision of the members. Everyone knew what it meant. The police were dislodging the invaders. Instantly the storm reacted on the House. Brave hearts below answered to the cry of distress from above. " There were girls in the gold reef city," and Mr. Willie Redmond was not the man to hear their cry of agony unmoved. Up he sprang like a knight of old romance. " Mr. Speaker, Sir, is it in accordance with your will that a barbarous police should be called in to assault our wives and daughters? " and his voice shook with chivalrous passion. It was a great moment. The House was rent with the passion of a sudden issue. Forked lightnings flashed about the Chamber. Any-thing might happen. There was a breathless pause. What would the Speaker say? Would he defend the police? Would he denounce the women? Would he—? Whatever happened, the storm must break. " Unfortunately," said the Speaker, rising with great solemnity, " I seem to be the only member of the House who is unable to see what is taking place," and he looked up pathetically at the canopy that overhangs his chair. The tension broke in a roar of universal laughter, and the storm passed in summer lightnings. There will never be a fight on the floor of the House while Mr. Lowther is in the Chair.
I do not know what the quality of his fencing, which he practises twice a week with his French maître d'armes, is, but I should imagine that, if he has less Gallic swiftness than Sir Charles Dilke, who is the swordsman of the House, he is nevertheless a difficult man to disarm. For he never loses his head and he never loses his temper. The harder he is pressed the cooler he becomes. A duel between him and Mr. " Tim " Healy, the maître d'armes of political fencing, is the greatest luxury the House affords. The thrusts of Mr. " Tim are sudden as lightning, flashing now from that region of the sky, now from this. You look to see whether the stroke has fallen. Ajax, in his full-bottomed wig, stands solid and imperturbable. He takes his time, coughs drily, starts perhaps a little haltingly, but he comes round with a heavy sweep of his weapon and the thrust is turned. It is the English and the Irish mind in conflict, directness against swiftness, stubbornness against subtlety, rock against flame. I think the Speaker enjoys these moments. And it is the best tribute to his impartiality that he commands the entire respect of the Irishmen, as of the whole House.
It is said that when he was offered the Speakership he replied, The Speakership will give me three things I don't need. It will give me a peerage, which I don't want; it will give me a house in town: I have that already. It will give me a salary of £5000 a year, and my income is already sufficient." It gave him something else that he did want. It gave him the fulfilment of a wholesome ambition. It enabled him to put the crown upon a Parliamentary record which is, I believe, without parallel. A Lowther has come from Westmorland to Westminster more or less continuously for some six centuries. During a century and a half there has been no break in his direct Parliamentary ancestry. Mr. Lowther's great-grandfather sat for half a century, his grandfather for half a century, his father for a quarter of a century; he himself entered the House in 1883 for Rutlandshire, after a few years' practice at the Bar. He is a hereditary legislator in the best sense. The spirit of Parliament is in his blood, and the honour of Parliament is to him something of a personal possession.
He will abandon none of its ancient forms or etiquette, but he tempers them with thoughtful concessions. When the poorer members of the House appealed to Mr. Speaker Gully to make the wearing of Court dress at his functions optional, they were met with refusal. When they made the same appeal to Mr. Speaker Lowther, they were met with refusal too ; but he promptly took the edge off the refusal by inaugurating a series of luncheons where the democratic " sansculottes " might be free from the tyranny of velvet and gold buttons and silver buckles. It was a wise compromise. No man in broadcloth and trousers can feel quite happy beside a man who is a sartorial poem. It is like pairing a stump speech with a song of Herrick.
Mr. Lowther's success is comforting to the plain man, for it is the success of his own russet-coated virtues. It is the success of one like himself of a plain man without a touch of genius, almost without a touch of brilliancy, but with all the qualities of the average man in perfect equilibrium. He has culture, loves painting almost as much as stalking the deer, has since the Cambridge days when, as Mr. Lowthian R. Cade, he used to share the theatrical exploits of Lord Crewe, Mr. Alfred Lyttelton, and others retained his interest in the drama, tells a good story, enjoys a good book. But he is essentially the ordinary man that is, the ordinary man in an extraordinary degree, his mind full of daylight, the range of his thought limited by the daylight vision, his instinct for justice sound, his spirit firm and masculine as the strong, well-tended hand that he rests upon the arm of the Speaker's chair. He is not one of those who bring new light into the thought of men or add to the sum of human effort. He is the type of the practical man who does his task honestly, firmly, and good-humouredly. That is why, taken all in all, he is the greatest Speaker of our time. For the office of Speaker does not demand rare qualities. It demands common qualities in a rare degree.