Parliaments Politics and People seminar: Richard Toye, ‘The rhetorical culture of the House of Commons in the interwar years’

Dr Kathryn Rix of The Victorian Commons reports back on the latest ‘parliaments, politics and people’ seminar

The final paper of 2012 for the ‘Parliament, Politics and People’ seminar was given by Professor Richard Toye, of the University of Exeter, who spoke on ‘The rhetorical culture of the House of Commons in the interwar years’. Richard’s excellent talk, which drew on research undertaken for a project funded by the AHRC, considered the practices of parliamentary speaking in this critical period in which parliamentary politics was notably contentious. He demonstrated the importance of paying attention not only to the substance of MPs’ speeches, but also – as he put it – ‘how they argued, and how they argued about how they argued’. While Westminster politics has sometimes been regarded as inherently confrontational due to the layout of the debating chamber, MPs were influenced not simply by the physical space they occupied, but by assumptions about how they should behave within it. As the membership of the Commons changed after 1918, so too did its practices.

Richard’s paper focused especially on the experiences of Labour MPs after 1918, considering how they adapted and reacted to the expected codes of parliamentary behaviour. The restrained style of parliamentary oratory seemed at odds with the more vigorous ‘street-corner’ speaking style with which many Labour politicians were associated in their political campaigning. John Buchan, the renowned novelist who was at this time a Conservative MP, suggested that the ‘flashy platform demagogue’ had to modify his style to win the favour of the House. While historians have generally seen Labour MPs as seeking to accommodate themselves to parliamentary traditions, Richard’s research presented a more nuanced picture of the ways in which they acted. There was, for example, a difference in approach between the 1920s and the 1930s, in part because the dramatically reduced number of Labour MPs returned at the 1931 general election made it more difficult for them to use disruptive tactics and ‘make a scene’ in the House. The demands of being in power rather than being in opposition also affected the behaviour of the rival parties.

Of particular interest was Richard’s discussion of the ‘rowdyism’ which took place in the Commons chamber in the early 1920s. The Conservatives sought to make political capital out of the Labour party’s conduct in debate, either by deploring the threat to parliamentary democracy posed by ill-disciplined socialist MPs or alternatively by belittling their opponents as untrained politicians who would eventually be contained by parliamentary norms. These themes were strikingly illustrated by an entertaining selection of contemporary cartoons. The Labour party was depicted in one as a naughty puppy chewing up a copy of Erskine May’s handbook on parliamentary practice, and in another as a recalcitrant child being given a bath in ‘parliamentary manners’ by the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

Richard’s paper also assessed the role of the Speaker, J.H. Whitley, who came in for criticism from Conservatives for his perceived partisanship. Another important issue which emerged was the highly topical subject of the relationship between Parliament and the press. Finally, his paper made it clear that the discussion which took place in the interwar years about how parliamentary politics was conducted also opened up broader questions about what parliamentary politics was for, feeding into wider debates about the changing nature of the state in the first half of the twentieth century.

Those wishing to explore this fascinating topic further should look out for Richard’s forthcoming articles. The first of these, ‘“Perfectly Parliamentary?” The Labour Party and the House of Commons in the interwar years’, will be appearing next year in 20th Century British History.


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