Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

It is a continuing pleasure of our parliamentary life that no one really quite knows what the rules are. In the Damian Green affair, learned opinions differ about whether or not Parliament can exclude the police from the premises when pursuing a crime, whether the police need a warrant etc, etc. No one has yet mentioned the time some of this was tested in the courts. A.P. Herbert, who, by the way, was the Member of Parliament for Oxford University in the balmy days when that post existed, wrote a oncefamous book called Uncommon Law. It is the record of a series of court judgments in cases involving Herbert's fictitious (and vexatious) hero Albert Haddock. In the index, under 'Felony and Misdemeanour', it says 'Difference between, is not important in the House of Commons, where all crimes are lawful', and refers the reader to the case of Rex vs Haddock in which Haddock is indicted under the Betting and Lotteries Act 1934 for selling a ticket in an Irish sweepstake to a Member of Parliament while waiting to see another Member in the central lobby. Haddock cites a real case, brought by Herbert himself in 1935, against some MPs for selling liquor without a licence in the Palace of Westminster. The court found that, in the matter of the Licensing Acts, 'in relation to the House of Commons, the King's Courts surrender jurisdiction and decline inquiry'. Hearing this argument, Mr Justice Wool decides that the jurisdiction of the King's Courts 'does not come and go, like summer lightning'. If it is expelled from the Commons by the Licensing Acts, it is also expelled by all other Acts. He names all the things he can think of that MPs can get away with ('... they can play roulette in the Central Hall... They can invite loose women to frequent the lobbies') and he does not like it, but he concludes that the law is clear: 'The vital point... is that in the last resort the law... must be enforced by... sending the King's officers... to enter premises, if necessary, by force. I suspect that the Legislature would resent the apparition of a constable armed with a searchwarrant under section 82 of the Licensing Act of 1910. But if they can resent the forcible pursuit of one crime, they can resent the pursuit of another.' Haddock is freed and the Commons are inviolate. Neither the judge nor Herbert, of course, imagined a Speaker so abject and ignorant that he would allow his officers to let the police pursue a possible crime on the premises without even asking for a warrant at all.

But one must not be nostalgic about the great days of former Speakers. There weren't many. The late George Thomas was widely admired for his mellifluous tones, but in fact was a toady to the executive (led, through most of his time, by Mrs Thatcher, who duly made this old Labour man a viscount). Once, I had tea with him. 'Where did you go to school, Charles?' he asked. 'Eton, ' I said. 'Eton, eh?

Well, a fellow like you probably spends the evening at his club, so it may surprise you to know that I often spend the evening on my knees.' For a moment, I thought he was describing some unusual private peccadillo, but then I realised he claimed to be praying all through dinner-time. He was one of the last of those unlamented canting Wesleyans (I have nothing against Wesleyans, by the way, only against the canting ones). He prided himself during his time in the Chair on avoiding calling Roman Catholics who wanted to speak. A Speaker who strongly reasserts the rights of Parliament is an unfamiliar figure. But now, perhaps, his hour has come. …

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