My Speaker’s Lecture on 21 January addressed the relationship of Parliament and political parties. My argument was that parties need Parliament and Parliament needs parties. Parties are necessary, but not sufficient, for Parliament to fulfil its key functions. I addressed the problems deriving from the nature of party competition today – essentially simply attacking the other side – and the bidding war between the parties to gain electoral support.
As those who were present or who have watched the lecture will know, one part did raise a laugh. In illustrating the problems with having members who have no party commitment, and hence receive no voting cues from the whips, I used the example of Vernon Bartlett, Independent MP for Bridgwater from 1938 to 1950. He took the high-minded approach that he would only vote on matters he understood. Unfortunately, a great many issues came to a vote. When he was busy sat in the Library, dealing with constituency correspondence, and the division bells rang, he had no idea which way to vote. The policeman on duty outside the Library used to put his head round the door and shout ‘Division’, even though it was obvious there was a division. Bartlett admitted in his autobiography: ‘This so embarrassed me that occasionally I went and locked myself in the loo until I guessed that the vote was over and the debate had been resumed.’ He went on: ‘It was not for this, I admitted to myself, that the electors of Bridgwater had sent me to Westminster, and I learned to neglect the policeman’s warning.’
Parties do have their uses.