The President in Parliament

Preident Obama this afternoon addressed members of both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall.  He is only the fourth foreign dignitary to do so following President Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela and the Pope. 

The Hall was packed.   I got an aisle seat.  This was deliberate as I saw on the programme that the President would leave by the North Door, which meant he would be walking the length of Westminster Hall, so I thought I would get a close-up view.  What I didn’t anticipate is that he would shake the hand of virtually everyone sat at the end of of each row, me included.   It is the first time I have been introduced to a serving President. 

The speech kept everyone rapt, but there was a problem when an MP, sat towards the back of the Hall, collapsed.  The doorkeepers immediately went to his assistance.  Baroness Finlay of Llandaff – a doctor – was sat next to me, realised what had happened and went to provide medical aid.  The Member was then taken out by wheelchair.  (Apparently, he will be fine.)   Baroness Finlay got back in time for the President walking down the aisle, but she had a problem when he reached us as she wasn’t sure if she should shake his hand – she had not had time to wash her hands since attending to the medical emergency and didn’t want to run the risk of giving the President of the United States an infection!

Sat behind me during the ceremony were Lords Carrington and Heseltine.  While we were waiting for proceedings to get under way, Lord Carrington recalled the occasion that President de Gaulle spoke in the Hall.  He said translations of the speech were available on each seat before de Gaulle arrived and that when he spoke he did so without notes and said, word for word, what was on the printed script.  As Lord Carrington noted, clearly a remarkable memory.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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6 Responses to The President in Parliament

  1. tory boy says:

    I watched the speech and was impressed. However i was sad that Baroness Thatcher was not there with all the other former PM’s. Who was the MP who collapsed? What did you say to the President? It seemed to take him ages to get through Westminster Hall. There seemed to be people in the hall who were not MP’s or Peers, are they researcher’s or parliamentary staff?

    • Lord Norton says:

      tory boy: Baroness Thatcher has not been well enough to attend formal events recently: she missed the royal wedding as well. I don’t recall saying much, if anything, to the President. I was worried I might produce once of my Gielgudisms (‘Where did you say you were the President of?’). It certainly took him some time to get through the Hall. Some parliamentary clerks were in attendance; I gather some other parliamentary staff were able to attend, with the seats being allocated by ballot.

  2. Frank W. Summers III says:


    It is a remarkable distinction. For those who read such things the signals as to goings on between the governments and establishments of the UK and USA have never been more mixed in our entire history. Unless you isolate the single conversation when Ambassador John Adams was introduced to George III which is a rahter remarkable example of two cautiously speaking men trying to say all sorts of overdue hostile, conciliatory and laudatory things years over due in a few bref exchanged phrases.

    As far as the collapse goes. It may be callous to say so but this is a bit of a pattern. I am sure it must be a coincidence of the speeches I have had an opportunity to know about — but someone keeling over in distress seems a part of the rhetoric. I haven’t the dates but I have seen at least four of these. On the other hand I heard Pope John Paul II speak in person in Mexico before avery large crowd and imagine several dozen may have collapsed — so what is normal?

    I have spoken in public for pay or otherwise a few thousand times I imagine and can think of three collapses in total. It ought to be a record kept perhaps…

  3. Bedd Gelert says:

    Lord Norton, You probably have a better grasp of the facts on this anecdote.

    Didn’t Margaret Thatcher once remark to Ronald Reagan about his remarkable memory, having seen him deliver a speech without notes. Ronnie then chuckled and introduced her to the technology of the autocue, which she promptly adopted in Britain ?

    May be apocryphal, or urban legend… but Max Atkinson has some views on this…

  4. Gar says:

    It’s one thing being introduced (or introducing oneself) to a serving president; it is quite a
    another being so, before or after their terms of office.

    Excluding General Franco 1962 (such a happy event), along with a good many other Brits, I met both Sarkosi and his immediate predecessor at least 8 years BEFORE they became President, and Jimmy Carter 20 years or so, after. Oh and of course not least Hamed Khazai of Afgh, some what before taking up office as well.

    I won’t relate the many and splendid places at which these memorabilia collector item events took place.

    Hand shaking amongst politicians!

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