Magazine article The Spectator

'Order, Order! the Rise and Fall of Political Drinking', by Ben Wright - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Order, Order! the Rise and Fall of Political Drinking', by Ben Wright - Review

Article excerpt

In 1964, a newly elected Labour MP was put in charge of the House of Commons kitchen committee. (An unpromising start to a review, I appreciate, but bear with me.) His idea of selling off the House's rather splendid wine cellar duly appalled some MPs, but was accepted as a useful money-making scheme. Only later did it emerge that he'd bought/ripped off a collection of the best bottles for himself at a bargain price, and that this was not untypical behaviour -- because the Labour MP was Robert


Order, Order! is packed with memorable tales like this. Ben Wright does give us all the old drinking-story classics, as George Brown once again propositions the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima (sadly, we're told, unlikely to be true) and Winston Churchill amusingly informs Bessie Braddock how ugly she is. But he's also dug out scores of unfamiliar gems -- largely, it seems, through the simple method of having read every conceivably relevant book, article and diary entry of the past 300 years.

Thus, The Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliott, Volume I (London, 1874) is the source for a 18th-century Scottish MP writing home to his wife that 'the men of all ages drink abominably... but it is a much more gentleman-like way than our Scottish drunkards'. More straightforwardly, there's the 1983 Hansard report of a long and wildly incoherent speech by Labour's Edwin Wainwright -- a report which reads in full, 'Mr Wainwright made a number of observations.'

And, as a BBC political correspondent, Wright is also well placed to add some observations of his own, including one of the great backhanded compliments of recent times: 'Nigel Farage's drinking is not a political affectation. He's been boozing heavily for years.'

The trouble is that, having assembled all this terrific material, Wright never seems sure either how to structure it or what it all means. In theory, the book comprises eight chapters with different themes (Commons bars, drunken cabinet members, drunken prime ministers and so on). In practice, there are so many overlaps that the same stories are often repeated, sometimes in rather different form. Tony Blair's admission, for instance, that his stiff G&T and half-bottle of wine a night became 'a prop' gets several mentions: usually to demonstrate how comparatively little today's politicians drink, but once to show that he was 'something of a lush'. …

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