David Natzler: Why it's time for the Clerks to hang up their wigs
Like Members’ top hats and tailcoats before them, the wigs worn by House of Commons Clerks are being retired. For practical and financial reasons it is the right thing to do, writes David Natzler
Quite a number of parliamentary staff wear uniform of one sort or another. So it is by no means exceptional that the House of Commons Clerks who sit at the Table in the Chamber every day should wear a dignified official uniform. This currently comprises a form of Court dress: for men, black tailcoat with waistcoat and wing collar with white bow tie, for women black suit and high collar blouse with bands. It is similar to the outfit for a QC– and supplied by the same legal outfitter. Clerks also wear a long gown. And they wear a small “bob” wig.
As announced to the House on 6th February this uniform is changing. Court dress will be worn by the Clerk of the House on State occasions, but otherwise will be replaced by a dark suit for men and women. In fact that process began several years ago, so that most of those Clerks who sit at the table on the weekly rota have only ever worn a suit. The wing collar will be replaced by an ordinary collar, but we will retain the distinctive white bow tie or bands, with a white shirt.
The gown will most emphatically be retained. It is the core part of the uniform, ensuring that Clerks are visibly distinct from Members and others, and denoting that Clerks, like lawyers or doctors, are a learned profession. I believe that the first known Clerk Robert de Melton 650 years ago would have worn a similar gown.
But Robert de Melton would certainly not have worn a wig! It was probably only in the late 17th century when Clerks starting wearing wigs, not to distinguish them from Members, but because that was becoming the fashion. As fashions changed in the early 19th century the Clerks – then of course exclusively male – stuck to their wigs; they would have looked foolish in top hats. The wigs will now be retired.
Some readers may by now have turned in mystification to the next story, but I do acknowledge that for others, this may be a moment of sadness. Of course after 40 years, 14 of them at the Table, I share some of the sadness at the passing of another bit of parliamentary lore.
I draw strength from recalling that Speaker Boothroyd gave up the Speaker’s wig in 1992: yet the House seems to have survived and indeed flourished. The top hat, which used to be required to raise a point of order during a Division, is now defunct and I think unregretted.
There are practical reasons to dispense with the wigs now. Partly it is about the preferences of my colleagues, the vast majority of whom find it at best irksome and at worst a real distraction from their work in the Chamber to have to balance a wig on their head. Most have a fuller head of hair than I do.
They do not wear a wig when attending the House at sittings in Westminster Hall. And then there is the cost: we now have the prospect of over 30 Clerks serving at the Table at some point in the course of a month. We share a pool of wigs now among less frequent attenders, but more will be needed and I struggle to justify the cost at a time of continuing austerity.
There are also reasons of principle. As public servants we are all well aware of the need for the House to connect better with the public. It has been suggested that removing the wigs may help demystify proceedings without endangering the required formality and dignity of the House. Many other parliaments of the Commonwealth certainly think so. And I understand that wigs are now not the norm even in public civil court proceedings.
I am grateful to Mr Speaker and the House of Commons Commission for agreeing to my proposition that now is the time to introduce this small but not insignificant change.
David Natzler is the Clerk of the House of Commons