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Tuesday, 21 October 2008

"I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place..."

My Japanese guests are here to learn about our government, about our culture and to improve their range of professional English. So I relish the fact that in a world of contested meanings and constructed narratives it no longer seems portentous - when I am with them - to be passing on and sharing moments from the tableau that is Our Island Story - the 'once upon a time' history of England that I so enjoyed reading as an eight-year-old. Thus 55 years later I can even play my students a YouTube record of 'Jerusalem' at the Last Night of the Proms - with wide screen and full speakers via the lecture room WiFi, unashamed of the tears in my eyes. "That should really be our National Anthem!" we say - fervently. We had a formal sort of meal in Staff House the other night, talked about everything and enjoyed the food and wine and I made a sort of speech that was passed round my colleagues before we gave gifts. So to Parliament yesterday with two of my students, as well as staff from the Japan Local Government Centre in Whitehall, and enduring colleagues Chris Game, Alex Kendall and Fay Wilson. Tight security passed, we roamed - entertainingly guided - through both Houses and their surrounding corridors and ante-rooms, sat in the Strangers' Gallery of the Lords for part of a very dry debate on planning law, and had an hour's conversation on the mysteries of the British Constitution with Gisela Stuart in Committee Room 8, before going out on the Terrace - "the most exclusive café in London" - where Gisela told the students about the old Greater London Council building, in the background beyond Westminster Bridge, that used in the 1980s, under the leadership of Ken Livingstone during Margaret Thatcher's premiership, to display a great banner on its roof showing the latest unemployment figures. This vexatious message from across the Thames minded her as much as anything to handbag the GLC, and the other Metropolitan Counties. I love being a tourist in this place bringing guests from another land. I first visited the House of Commons when I was a townboy at Westminster School. Some time in the 1950s I peered down from the Strangers' Gallery on the stooped back of Sir Winston Churchill standing at the Bar of the chamber. It was good also to be reminded by our guide of that historic moment in 1642 when a king’s wish to be told the names of five rebellious MPs was foiled by Speaker Lenthall:
“May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here, and I humbly beg Your Majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me"

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