Parliament, Then and Now

Our learned commentators had an interesting exchange about John Buchan (ennobled as Lord Tweedsmuir) following my recommendation of the movie The 39 Steps. This inspired me to visit the recollections so well-assembled in Pilgrim’s Way. In the course of his very productive life, Lord Tweedsmuir found time to serve for a period in Parliament. His political career was respectable but not much more than that. However, the observations about British politics in his memoir show remarkable insight. My favorite anecdote from this section of the book is from the year that the murderous Dr. Crippen was hanged.

A group of working class men were seated on the train, smoking their pipes and reading their halfpenny papers. At last, one of them flung down his journal in disgust. ‘Wot I says,’ he exclaimed, ‘is to ‘ell with the lot of ’em – Asquith and Lloyd George and Carson and Crippen – the ‘ole bleedin’ lot!” Upon which there was a general protest. “Ere, wot ‘arm’s old Crippen done?”

On to the present moment. My family and I move to London tomorrow, and I do not expect to post for some time as a result. However, the passing of the great Jim Wilson makes me want to reveal that I will be in Parliament all of next week, plumping for a 24/7 sobriety bill. My briefings for MPs and Lords always begin with an explanation of what’s wrong with our current criminal justice system, which I summarize using a memorable Wilson quote that everyone gets:

The current justice system is like a parent who wants a child to straighten up his messy room and therefore says ‘Johnny, if you don’t clean up your room tonight there is a 40% chance that 6 months from now I will ground you for a decade.’

Ta for now.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Parliament, Then and Now”

  1. It’s a wonder that Buchan’s anonymous Cockney didn’t include Churchill (then in his first, now forgotten career) in his roundhouse swing.

    The mention of Edward Carson (a truly vile person, if ever there was one) shows that the time frame of the quote is the period (1912 — 1914) when Britain came within a hair’s breadth of civil war over Ireland — purely and deliberately fomented by the Conservative Party. In fact, if World War I had not broken out when it did, Britain would have imploded within a further month or two, with incalculable consequences.

    1. There were viler people than Carson involved in what was then called “the Irish Question”, on both sides. Pearse had a great deal of respect for him. (Pearse was far from blameless himself, but given his Nationalist street cred, his opinion of Carson must count for something.) Indeed in some ways Carson is a tragic figure; Partition was a defeat for him as much as for any Nationalist. I might also have given him a few marks for being a talented hurler in his Trinity days, but then I’ve always been more a one for foreign games than for GAA, myself.

      For the period in question, I urge those who have not done so to read Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England.

      1. It is true and interesting that Carson was respected by most of his contemporaries. I have always wished that Churchill had written his obituary, as he did for so many other figures of the period. But Carson, in my view, was somewhat more to blame than Bonar Law. Law was just a pandering politician, who could ultimately have been bought off by Asquith (as he was in 1915) with the offer of a coalition. Carson, by contrast, was deadly serious: not just about the goal, but also about inciting disobedience among the military; that is what I cannot forgive him for. He was just bloody lucky that Gavrilo Princip had other ideas about exactly how to blow up the powderkeg. If England HAD gone to civil war, Carson is who we would blame today.

  2. The Dr. Crippen anecdote reminds my of the lyrics of Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm” (Allison is a bluesman who went to college and has a strong sense of irony):

    Well I’m sittin’ over here on Parchman Farm
    Well I’m sittin’ over here on Parchman Farm
    Well I’m sittin’ over here on Parchman Farm
    And I ain’t never done no man no harm

    Well I’m puttin’ that cotton in an eleven foot sack
    Well I’m puttin’ that cotton in an eleven foot sack
    Well I’m puttin’ that cotton in an eleven foot sack
    With a twelve guage shotgun at my back

    I’m sittin’ over here on Number Nine
    I’m sittin’ over here on Number Nine
    Well I’m sittin’ over here on Number Nine
    And all I did was drink my wine

    Well I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life
    I’m gonna be on this farm for my natural life
    Well I’m a gonna be here for the rest of my life
    And all I did was shoot my wife

    I’m sittin’ over here on Parchman Farm

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