Dickens’s Parliament is oddly familiar

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 7 February 2012 in Diary
He might be celebrated as a novelist, but Dickens started off as a parliamentary sketch writer, and Parliament in his day sounds remarkably similar to it is now

In case you hadn’t heard, today is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth. My colleague Amber has already posted the full story of which cabinet ministers received which novels from culture secretary Jeremy Hunt in celebration of the day, but I thought I’d highlight Dickens’s parliamentary, rather than literary, output.

Early in his career, he held the position of parliamentary sketch writer for the Morning Chronicle. It’s not hard to imagine how the flair for character and description everyone loves in his novels worked well in this most creative of journalistic formats. He devoted a chapter of Sketches by Boz to it, letting his political sketch-writing exploits have full rein across the parliamentary estate.

It’s available online to read in full here (or you can get all of Sketches by Boz at Project Gutenberg), but here are a few extracts that really resonated with me, not least because they demonstrate that very little has changed in Westminster since the 1830s.

First, security. Early on the sketch, Dickens recounts the tale of ‘some unfortunate individual appears, with a very smirking air’, who attempts to elude the vigilance of the special constables and the clerks to gain entrance to the corridors of power:

‘'Here, Wilson!--Collins!' gasps the officer, actually paralysed at this insulting expression, which in his mind is all but high treason; 'take this man out--take him out, I say! How dare you, sir?' and down goes the unfortunate man five stairs at a time, turning round at every stoppage, to come back again, and denouncing bitter vengeance against the commander-in-chief, and all his supernumeraries.’

Next, the elder statesmen. Dickens describes a Member of long experience, who rather looks down on his newer colleagues. The MP in question ‘has a great contempt for all young Members of Parliament, and thinks it quite impossible that a man can say anything worth hearing, unless he has sat in the House for fifteen years at least, without saying anything at all’. Given the size and enthusiasm of the 2010 intake, some of our current veteran parliamentarians may have inclinations in the same direction.

Dickens’s account of the whipping operation, too, is familiar. Then, as now, if an important issue was at stake, parties would go to any lengths (think Huhne flying back from the other side of the world to vote on tuition fees in late 2010) to get bodies in the lobbies: ‘He is an excellent authority on points of precedent, and when he grows talkative, after his wine, will tell you how Sir Somebody Something, when he was whipper-in for the Government, brought four men out of their beds to vote in the majority, three of whom died on their way home again.’

Devolution raised hackles then as well: ‘We discovered the secret at last; the metropolitan Members always dined at home. The rascals! As for giving additional Members to Ireland, it was even worse--decidedly unconstitutional. Why, sir, an Irish Member would go up there, and eat more dinner than three English Members put together.’ Irish MPs causing resentment by eating all the steak since they couldn’t go home for dinner could be an earlier forerunner of the Westminster-Holyrood tensions we’ve got now.

Food, was obviously a major concern in the Parliament of the 1830s. Never mind the rows over subsidies and strange menu choices we have now – the MPs of Dickens’s day were able to load up with brandy ‘to sustain them during the division’, or even gorge themselves as this MP did:

‘A second solid mass of rump-steak has disappeared, and he eat the first in four minutes and three quarters, by the clock over the window. Was there ever such a personification of Falstaff! Mark the air with which he gloats over that Stilton, as he removes the napkin which has been placed beneath his chin to catch the superfluous gravy of the steak, and with what gusto he imbibes the porter which has been fetched, expressly for him, in the pewter pot. Listen to the hoarse sound of that voice, kept down as it is by layers of solids, and deep draughts of rich wine, and tell us if you ever saw such a perfect picture of a regular gourmand.’

In many ways, I think the current inhabitants of the parliamentary estate would feel rather at home in Dickens’s Westminster. Apart from the abundance of good-quality steak, that is.

Tags: Charles Dickens, Parliament, Sketches by Boz

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