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UK Parliament – Parliament as an exclusive ‘Club’

The Victorian House of Commons was designed as a gentlemen’s club of the sort that the well to do male Member’s of Parliament who made up most of Parliament were used to.

MPs, exclusively male, did other things in the morning as company directors or barristers and then came to Westminster to listen to debates and vote in the late afternoon and evening. Therefore business didn’t really get going until about 4 pm and the Commons had smoking rooms and bars for them to enjoy.

They were seen as gentlemen who obviously behaved properly and so there was no attempt to establish a code of conduct or police MPs’ outside interests. MPs were often friendly across the political divide even though they kept up the party battle in Parliament.

MPs of the interwar and postwar period, coming to Parliament after a career elsewhere and happy to support their party were only to ready to settle down into the club atmosphere.

Facilities and procedures were little changed by the 1980s. Business still started at 2.30. MPs had to wear a top hat to raise a point of order and fold up top hats were kept below the benches.

When Paddy Ashdown arrived he was given a hanger with a red sash and when he asked what it was for was told that it was to hang his sword on.

When Glenda Jackson arrived there she commented that the Commons had a shooting gallery and no crèche.

Harold Wilson in the Smoking Room

Michael Brown was elected in 1979 as the Conservative MP for the steel town of Scunthorpe, normally a Labour seat but in the general election in which Thatcher was victorious he had just managed to win. Not given any induction or information about what he should do, when he got to Westminster he was wandering around the corridors and peered into the Smoking Room wondering if new MPs were able to go in there.

At that moment Harold Wilson, no longer Prime Minister but still an MP, came along the corridor and Wilson, a kind man, spotted Brown and said “New MP are you, where are you the MP for?”. Brown told him and, assuming he was a Labour MP, Wilson took him into the Smoking Room, sat him down on the plush leather sofa and ordered for both of them what looked like a triple whisky and start to talk about Callaghan and the election.

About two-thirds of the way through the whisky, Michael Brown plucked up the courage to tell Wilson that he was actually a Conservative MP. Wilson paused and said, ‘Won Scunthorpe did you, you have done well lad, have another whisky’.

The story illustrates how easy it was for MPs to settle into the club atmosphere and be inducted by the whips and older MPs into the way that things worked. But this led to a conservatism in the Parliamentary system that has only really been challenged since 1997.