'Full of rare insights': Baroness Stuart reviews 'Travels with Members'
Bill Proctor’s wry and self-deprecating memoirs of life behind-the-scenes as a parliamentary clerk are a must-read for Members of Parliament
Bill Proctor was the man who, back in 2002, in less than two weeks succeeded in finding office space, computers and money to support me and David Heathcoat-Amory in our work as representatives to the Convention on the Future of Europe. At the time I thought it a miracle. Reading the book, I now know that Bill was as surprised that he managed to make it all work as I was.
Parliament and its committees work in time-honoured, mysterious ways. They say traditions are solutions to problems we’ve forgotten. Government couldn’t function without a permanent civil service, but we rarely hear from those who make Parliament work. Politicians and journalists write their memoirs but there is hardly any contemporary history penned by those who served as clerks. It’s important for us to know what it looks and feels like behind the oak panelled walls.
For some the summer of 1968 was about student revolts and Russian tanks rolling into Prague; for Bill it was the beginning of a 40-year career serving parliamentarians here and on committees abroad.
He wrote the first manual for MPs who had to travel to Strasbourg to take up their duties as we joined the Common Market. Getting travel sorted and finding hotels within budget – not to mention the more innovative ways in which some national representatives collected their “allowances” – all make good reading. He manages to sound indiscreet without actually being so and he reminds us of just how much things have changed. One hotel is preferable to another as it’s possible to pay there without using up sterling allowances. Currency restrictions, long forgotten, were significant at the time.
He charts the way we edged our way towards investigative committees and ended up with our current structure of select committees – taking some ideas from other parliaments, as well as passing on some of our tried and tested practices.
There is much talk about alcohol in the workplace, but judging from Bill’s recollections, our current conduct is positively puritanical. Habits have changed, as have the working hours of the Palace of Westminster. But it wasn’t alcohol which put an end to his literary ambitions. An exploding carton of long-life orange juice, stored in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s safe, together with the notebooks for his novel, did the damage.
He manages to sound indiscreet without actually being so
We know about former Labour MP Tam Dalyell’s strong views on the events surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano – but what is it like to have to deal with such events as a committee clerk? Arguments over the legal status of papers, committee members who leak to the press, government ministers trying to interfere; we never hear from those who are also in the room and at the end of the day have to produce the reports and manage hearings.
From Members falling ill abroad, to being caught out by the United States’ invasion of Grenada, it’s all part of a clerk’s job.
On rare occasions committees can do things neither the prime minister nor the Foreign Office can do, like inviting Mikhail Gorbachev when he was still a mere member of the Politburo.
He reminds us of the significant work done by Parliament’s representatives in the Council of Europe and the Nato Parliamentary Assembly; work which is rarely discussed and too often seen as a means for whips to ensure rebellious backbenchers are abroad.
It’s comforting to know that the Foreign Affairs and the Defence Committee argued over who should look into what – and that the role of specialist advisers was contentious. But above all these are rare insights into a world which looks so familiar. For that reason alone MPs should read it, but it’s also written in a wry and self-deprecating manner which made me chuckle.
Baroness Stuart is a Crossbench peer
Travels with Members: A Clerk in Parliament, from Wilson to Blair
Written by: Bill Proctor
Publisher: New Generation Publishing
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