Drunk At The Despatch Box

The pitfalls of addressing the House of Commons while seriously inebriated

Saintsbury

One of the memorable scrapes recounted in Alan Clark’s diaries was the occasion in July 1983 when he addressed the House of Commons while drunk. He was scheduled to speak late in the evening on the egalitarian subject of equal pay for equal work. It was simply a matter of reading out a prepared statement. So Clark devoted the earlier part of the evening to an extensive bout of claret tasting with a couple of friends — Palmer 1961 and 1975, and Pichon Longueville 1961 were all extensively sampled. 

When Clark got back to the House he was very much the worse for wear, and this was quickly noticed when he got up to speak. He raced through what he had to say, sometimes turning over several pages at once, causing dismay to his friends and giving those on the other side of the House an opportunity to feign indignation and outrage. 

Writing the event up in his diaries Clark berated himself — “Fool, Clark. Fool, fool, fool.” Was this an attractive moment of contrition on his part, or a moment of weakness even more reprehensible than the misjudgment that provoked it? After all, and to re-work a well-known phrase, there are few things so ridiculous as the House of Commons in one of its not infrequent fits of sanctimonious self-regard. Should Clark really have been so abashed?

Clark, of course, was not the first minister to speak in the chamber when drunk. A notable precedent had been set as far back as May 1767, when the mercurial Charles Townshend had, if anything, been even more reckless.

The spring of 1767 was a season big with imperial crisis. In America, colonial unrest had continued in the wake of a series of measures designed to take the wind out of the sails of the agitators. The Declaratory Bill and repeal of the Stamp Act had been passed into law on March 18, but the colonists were still irritated by the Currency Act of 1764 and the Quartering Act of 1765, which required colonies, particularly New York, to supply British soldiers with barracks and provisions. In India, relations between the administration and the East India Company were in a difficult state. In return for new advantages granted to them in relation to their trade in tea, the Company had agreed to pay the government £400,000 a year for the next three years. This was far below what the administration, led by Chatham, had hoped for. However the Company had protested the impossibility of their affording a greater sum. But then, with a sublimely insolent sense of timing, the court of proprietors had decided to award themselves a substantial dividend. The House of Commons was outraged, and the directors of the Company were summoned to the bar of the House on May 8, 1767 to give an account of themselves.

As the relevant Secretary of State, Townshend was deeply involved in these events.  Early in the day he had examined the conduct of the Company in a speech judged by those who heard it to be cool and sensible.  Aware of his reputation for levity and inconsistency, in this speech Townshend was even so bold as to express the hope that he had gone some way towards atoning for what he called “the inconsideration of his past life” by the care and thoroughness he had now shown in dealing with an important piece of business. 

Townshend then left the House and went home to dinner, returning about eight in the evening when summoned by the leader of the administration in the Commons, General Conway, to speak in support of a bill for regulating the East India Company’s power to pay dividends, which had unexpectedly run into difficulties.

Townshend arrivedhalf-drunk on champagne and spirits, and immediately rose to speak without giving himself a chance to learn the detail of what had been debated in his absence. He began his speech with a bold and naked lie, calling God to witness that he had not been consulted on the motion to regulate the East India Company’s dividends. This was a double blunder. On the one hand, it suggested that Townshend was unaware of the business of his own department.  On the other, the bill for regulating dividends had in fact been drawn up in his office that very morning and in consultation with him, as no fewer than a dozen men sitting beside him knew very well. When he sat down at the end of his speech, Conway asked him in a whisper how he could possibly have lied to the House so grossly. “I thought it would be better to say so,” Townshend replied airily.

But before he sat down, Townshend had delighted the House with a torrent of wit and buffoonery which for some days was the only thing spoken about in London, and which was immediately christened “Charles Townshend’s champagne speech”. About the regulation of dividends, he had said nothing whatsoever. Instead, he had painted a picture of the politics of the times both farcical and satiric, in which the parties and their leaders were cajoled and mocked. Horace Walpole witnessed the event, and, far from being affronted by it, could not contain his admiration:

It was the most singular pleasure of the kind I ever tasted. The bacchanalian enthusiasm of Pindar flowed in torrents less rapid and less eloquent, and inspires less delight, than Townshend’s imagery, which conveyed meaning in every sentence. It was Garrick writing and acting extempore scenes of Congreve.

The mood of merriment was sustained elsewhere until two in the morning, when over supper at Conway’s house Townshend had kept the table in a roar by doing imitations of his own wife and another woman with whom he believed himself to be in love.  He was eventually silenced by physical exhaustion, not the want of wit and new ideas.

Whether you prefer the synthetic indignation of the modern House of Commons at the spectacle of a drunken minister, or the refusal to be scandalised of their 18th-century predecessors, is now perhaps simply a matter of taste. But the contrast between the fates of these two drunken parliamentarians has deeper implications.

The imperturbability of Townshend’s contemporaries in the House in 1767, and their indifference to whether or not Townshend had been drinking before he rose to speak, opens a window onto what is now a very strange country — a moral and political landscape dominated by apparently impregnable and unchallengeable aristocratic power. 

Alan Clark affected and revived some of the outward manners of that world. But the fact that he put his head in his hands when narrating the escapade in his diary shows how far he was from actually inhabiting it, and how shallow his patrician roots in fact were, notwithstanding the castle, the pictures, the fast cars, and the sharp suits.

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