Parliament takes a break after a week “under siege”

May 22, 2009 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

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Both Houses of Parliament went into recess yesterday.

In the past week a Speaker has been forced from office for the first time since 1695, all the party leaders have agreed the House of Commons will relinquish its historic right to govern its own affairs and two peers were suspended from the House of Lords amid bribery allegations.

The “Whitsun” recess coincides with the Christian commemoration of the Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit onto Christ’s disciples, which is described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Alan Duncan, Shadow Leader of the House, alluded to the “tongues of fire” at Business Questions.

“May I take this opportunity to offer you, Mr Speaker, the right hon. and learned Lady (Harriet Harman) and the House a happy—I should say happier—Whitsun recess.

“Perhaps we need to remember—the Deputy Leader of the House is an expert on these matters—that we are meant to be celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire and inspiration.

“We are all in need of a bit of inspiration at the moment, and perhaps as a result we can all once again harness those flames to become apostles for a better working democracy.”

The Deputy Leader, Chris Bryant, a former clergyman, picked up the theme towards the end of the day’s business when he rounded off the adjournment debate.

“The Whitsun recess debate is the oddest of all, I think,” he said.

“The vast majority of people who enjoy the holiday do not necessarily think of its religious significance.

“I used to be a curate and so it fell to me to preach the sermon on Trinity Sunday, which is the one that follows Whit Sunday.

“The concept of the trinity is a most complicated piece of theology, and very difficult to communicate to people.

“It was left to the curate to explain the inexplicable—not unlike what happens with these debates.

“I had some difficulty, since some of my own theology was a little random too; for many years I laboured under the misapprehension that the Lord’s prayer began, “Our Father, a chart in heaven, Harold be thy name.”

“Whitsun, of course, is about Pentecost: it is when the Holy Spirit, as the shadow Leader of the House mentioned today, descends on the apostles and they speak in tongues—hence the bishop’s hat is in the shape of fire on top of their heads.

“Of course, at the time everyone thought they were drunk; and the apostles replied that they could not be drunk because it was only 11 o’clock in the morning.

“That reminds me that we have had rather a lot of references to alcohol today—arguments in favour of a change in the Government’s position on beer duty and a difference of views about how we should support pubs and whether we should be cracking down on under-age drinking.

“I am conscious that George Bernard Shaw said of alcohol and Parliament that alcohol allowed Parliament to do at 11 o’clock at night what it would never, ever think of doing at 11 o’clock in the morning.”

In his closing remarks Mr Bryant reflected on this turbulent week for Parliament.

“I should like to extend my thanks and those of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to all the staff of the House and, in particular at the moment, because it has felt like we have been under siege over the past few days, to the police, who have been policing in Parliament Square,” he said.

“We also thank the Clerks of the House, whether wigged or not, the Doorkeepers and all those who serve us with food and drink.

“I extend my good wishes for Whitsun to all Members. Whitsun was originally always conceived of as Pentecost—as a moment for inspiration.

“For most people, it then became just a holiday. I should like to end by reciting “Whitsun”, a poem by Sylvia Plath:

“This is not what I meant:

Stucco arches, the banked rocks sunning in rows,

Bald eyes or petrified eggs,

Grownups coffined in stockings and jackets,

Lard-pale, sipping the thin

Air like a medicine…

A policeman points out a vacant cliff

Green as a pool table, where cabbage butterflies

Peel off to sea as gulls do,

And we picnic in the death-stench of a hawthorn.

The waves pulse like hearts.

Beached under the spumy blooms, we lie

Sea-sick and fever-dry.”

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