Go get ye to your Chamber, and choose a fit and proper man to be your Speaker, and bring him unto us for our inspection and approval."
It was thus, in the days of long ago, that "Good Queen Bess" addressed the faithful Commons, and led to the institution of a parliamentary office which carries with it an unique distinction. For the holder of the office of Speakership at St. Stephen's takes precedence as "The First Commoner of the Realm," lives in Westminster Palace, receives a salary of 5,000 a year, and enjoys numerous privileges.
The post, however, is no sinecure, although to some it may appear to be ornamental more than useful. The Speaker is responsible for the arrangement of the daily business of the House, and is in constant consultation with the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition regarding the parliamentary programme. He controls the issue of all parliamentary papers laid upon the table, sanctions the rules applying to private members' bills, and he has considerable powers regarding the taxation of costs incurred in this branch of parliamentary business.
"Mr. Speaker" is supreme ruler over the debates in the House. Tact, firmness, and strict impartiality, however, must govern his rulings. It is he who must settle all points of order in parliamentary procedure; who must pour oil on troubled waters when the excitement of debate tends to lead to personalities, and who must see that the dignity of the parliamentary assembly is always maintained. Members invariably obey his orders and bow to his rulings, for they recognise in him a strictly impartial chairman, whose one wish is to be scrupulously fair to all parties.
Whatever the private political views of "Mr. Speaker" may be, in the House he must be a man of no party and no politics. This places not only himself, but also his wife, in a peculiar and delicate position at times. For, quite apart from his work in the Commons, "Mr. Speaker" has many social duties to perform. He gives no fewer than seven full-dress parliamentary dinners in the course of a session, in addition to two levees. To the first dinner prominent members of the Government sitting are invited. At the second, the leading members of the Opposition, while at the third banquet Privy Councillors and members of former Ministries not hitherto invited are included among the guests. Then follow three mixed banquets for the "rank and file" of the House, and, finally, the Speaker entertains the officials of the House, of whom there are over fifty.
And here it might be mentioned that the Speaker's invitation, like the King's, is a command, which must be obeyed, except in the case of sudden illness or death. Indeed, it is said that if he chose to do so the Speaker could have a man arrested for failing to come to dinner when invited. At all these dinners the guests appear in levee dress - the Privy Councillors in their dark blue uniforms with elaborate trimming of gold lace and acorn leaves; members of his Majesty's household are gorgeous in
Court uniform, with red collars and cuffs; while the Speaker receives his guests in a black velvet Court suit, with lace ruffles round neck and wrists, knee breeches with silk stockings, and steel-handled sword.
Ordinary evening dress is strictly forbidden except when the Speaker has an "At-home" on the beautiful terrace overlooking the river. And at dinners and levees the table and huge sideboards are spread with magnificent old plate belonging, ex officio, to the Speaker, while from the walls look down portraits of many famous "First Commoners," of whom there have been one hundred and thirty-nine in a long and distinguished line from the first - Sir William Hungerford, in the year 1377. There are no speeches at the Speaker's dinners, and but one toast, the King, proposed by the Speaker without remark.
In addition to arranging and partly presiding over these banquets, "Mrs. Speaker" holds quite a number of afternoon receptions to which the female relatives and friends of members of all parties are invited. Her position in the political world is unique. The salons of political hostesses like Lady Lans-downe.lady Crewe, and Mrs. Harcourt, for instance, are not, of course, frequented except on rare occasions by members of opposite parties. For, as a world-famous politician once remarked, "more laws are made and unmade in my lady's boudoir than at St. Stephen's." The political hostess has only one section of our legislators to meet and to please, in order that the interests of their particular party may be advanced.
It is the duty of "Mrs. Speaker," however, to entertain with equal cordiality and grace the members of all parties, and this she does at a series of receptions and dinners held in the magnificent apartments in the Palace of Westminster which form the Speaker's house, and which occupy the whole north-eastern angle of the palace. The Speaker's house, in all its stately dimensions, can be seen advantageously from Westminster Bridge, and in the same wing of the House are the residences of the sergeant-at-arms - the gentleman to whom falls the unpleasant duty of removing members who refuse to obey the ruling of the Speaker in the House - and the chief clerk of the House, "Mr. Speaker's " principal assistant.
One of the privileges enjoyed by "Mrs. Speaker" is that of being present at all important debates, and she usually sits, not behind the grille, where other ladies are relegated, and from which point of vantage, high above the Speaker's chair, they can only obtain a partial view of the House, but in the Speaker's Gallery, which commands a perfect and uninterrupted view of the assembly. It is in this gallery that the Speaker's wife often acts as hostess to privileged and distinguished visitors, and Lady Selby, the wife of the late Lord Selby - better known, perhaps, as Mr. Gully, who died in 1909, and who retired from the Speakership of the House of Commons in 1905, being succeeded by the present Speaker, the Rt. Hon. J. W. Lowther - more than once acted as hostess to Royalty in that gallery.
Mrs. And Miss Lowther Photo, Haines
Mr. and Mrs. Gully
Mr. Gully was Speaker of the House of Commons for ten years, from 1895 to 1905, and was fortunate in possessing a wife whose charm, tact, and discretion were no less marked than her accomplishments. Unlike Mrs. J. W. Lowther, who cares little for society, Lady Selby was often to be seen at fashionable functions, and prior to her husband being appointed to the Speaker's chair took a lively interest in politics. A striking illustration, by the way, of the regard in which the Speaker is held by all parties is furnished by the fact that while Lord Selby, who was Speaker during the time Conservatives were mostly in power, was a Liberal, Mr. Lowther, who has been Speaker during the Liberal administration, is really a Conservative.
The Speaker, however, does not cease to hold office when a dissolution terminates the existence of Parliament. Once elected, he is Speaker until he retires or is raised to the peerage, unless, of course, a party strongly objects to him retaining the office. A peerage is invariably bestowed upon the Speaker after a number of years. It is one of the rewards of the office, together with a retiring pension of 4,000 a year. This recalls a story to the effect that when Mr. Lowther was offered his present dignity he is said to have remarked: "This means a peerage, which I don't want; a town house, which I have already; and 5,000 a year, which I can do without."
At times of political crises, the Speaker's wife has cause for no little anxiety, for, although her husband takes no sides in legislative warfare, the country looks to him for the smooth running of the parliamentary machine, and the least slip on his part in the House, or on hers in connection with social duties, might give rise to further bitterness between the respective parties.
Take the time, for instance, of the Home Rule split, 1885-86, when Viscount Peel, Lord Selby's predecessor, was Speaker of the House, "Mr. Speaker" was then in a most remarkable dilemma, and had to take the extraordinary but undoubtedly wise course of leaving one of the very greatest statesmen of the day out of all his parties, because he would not fit exactly into any of them. This was the late Duke of Devonshire, then the Marquis of Hartington. Similarly, his wife, who died in 1890, during the time her husband held the Speakership, had to use very careful judgment in the selection of her guests; for feeling ran high at that time, and by inviting two people antagonistic to each other she might have set a spark to an explosion in the political world, the result of which might have been very serious.
It is just the same to-day. While adopting an impartial attitude to all, it is, of course, Mrs. Lowther's duty to bring together at her receptions only those people who, although they may be enemies in politics, are quite friendly in private. We have not yet reached that ideal state of things when all political enemies can say that enmity ends when social functions begin, and it is in consequence of this that each particular reception or dinner at the Speaker's house is set aside for certain people.
Many were the exciting episodes which marked Viscount Peel's Speakership. He was once told by the secret police that a man with bombs entered the Ladies' Gallery one day disguised as a woman. On another occasion he saw the House of Commons after a bomb had exploded in the Peers' Gallery.
"The woodwork hung in shreds," says the viscount. "The back of the Speaker's chair was pierced with a piece of metal, and it would have passed through the Speaker, but, fortunately, he was not sitting there."
It is generally admitted by men of all parties that the House has not for many years had a more popular Speaker than "Jimmy" Lowther, as he is known to his intimates. He is a man whose quiet, tactful, and pleasant ways have earned for him the esteem of all members. To his sporting proclivities, however, as well as to his patience and humour, "Jimmy" owes much of his popularity. He combines hunting with golfing and fencing, being an adept with the foils, while indoors he finds recreation in caricaturing his friends.
Many are the stories told of how Mr. Lowther has "saved the situation," by his quiet humour. One day the Unionists were pressing Mr. Winston Churchill to answer a question which he preferred to ignore. The Speaker was appeale'd to by a member, who demanded to know whether the Minister could not be made to give an answer. "You can't get blood out of a stone," came the prompt reply; and there the incident ended.
On another occasion, a Liberal member put a question to a Minister, who ignored it. "Is it not a fact, Mr. Speaker," he said, "that a private member has a right to ask any question of a Minister?"
"Certainly," replied the Speaker gravely, "members have the right to ask any question" - cheers from the Liberal benches - "but," he continued after a pause, ' that does not necessarily mean that Ministers are compelled to answer them."