We voted up to 30 times last week on the Lords Amendments to the Brexit Bill. Some were closer than others. All were stressful. And in a curious way it was physically quite demanding too (not that I am complaining about it.)
The Speaker calls for a vote by shouting “Division.” Bells ring all around the Palace of Westminster, and indeed within pubs and restaurants and private flats within the “Division Bell Area”. MPs then have eight minutes to get into either the ‘Ayes’ or the ‘Noes’ lobby, after which Mr Speaker instructs the doorkeepers to ‘lock the doors’. We then file past clerks on high Victorian desks ensuring that they score our name off as having voted, and then in single file through two half closed doors outside of which stand two tellers. They count the MPs filing past, and report the result in the main chamber. It may sound an antiquated way of voting, but, incapable of corruption, or obscurity, it really works; and it gives also backbench MPs their vital opportunity to ‘lobby’ Ministers and the PM. Each vote takes around 15 minutes, so 30 would take about eight hours, which can be quite demanding.
It was a week of drama, with whips and ministers scuttling around doing deals, persuading, cajoling. A junior Minister and six Labour shadows resigned; the Scot Nats made fools of themselves with a silly stunt of storming out of PMQs which rather backfired on them. And in the end, the Government got its way, the only compromise being over what happens if a deal is not done by the end of the negotiating period. That is now being discussed by the Lords, and will be back in the Commons shortly. (Parliamentary ‘ping-pong’.)
I stopped off on a bench on College Green to ponder these matters on my way home at Midnight that evening. I let my mind wander back over the 1000 years or so of democratic and governmental history in this place. The political battles, the seismic decisions, the geniuses and the failures. I thought of the great trials - of William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and King Charles 1; the huge parliamentary battles – women’s suffrage, reform of the Commons itself, the end of the hereditary peers, the abolition of slavery, the battle over the Corn Laws; Wars, terrorism, protests, strikes; the great speeches and plots and events and troubles. What a swirl of ghosts there was around the ancient pinnacles and towers as I sat there.
It helped to put Brexit and our current tribulations into perspective. Our ancestors have been there or thereabouts for 1000 years. Yet ordinary British life has carried on throughout for better or worse; three meals a day, Births, Marriages and Deaths. Like every generation of politicians we tell ourselves that what we are doing is more important than ever before, will fundamentally affect the lives and liberties of our constituents for generations to come. Yet the fact is that we are minnows in the great sweep of history; our battles are but eddies and whirlpools in that tide. We are at best dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. And perhaps if we come to realise that we will take both ourselves and our great battles just a tad less seriously.