Tag Archive | UK parliament

The Sentry’s Song: Politics are Crazy!

Gilbert’s drawing of a singing soldier – probably Private Willis

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 hit Iolanthe, a troupe of flighty, gauzy fairies go toe-to-toe with Britain’s venerable House of Lords. Guess who wins?

(Spoiler alert: They both do.)

Act II of this charming opera begins with a quiet interlude as Private Willis stands on sentry duty. He is dressed as a soldier (although it seems  that is an inaccuracy, for the Houses of Parliament are actually guarded by police officers and not the army).

We meet him as he’s standing at the door in Palace Yard, at the eastern (or Whitehall) end of Sir Charles Barry’s great neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament – which was only completed five years before Iolanthe was written.  He sings:

When all night long a chap remains

On sentry-go, to chase monotony

He exercises of his brains,

That is, assuming that he’s got any.

 

So the poor fellow, while on his solitary sentry duty, has nothing to do but think – and he assures us that he does have a brain to think with:

Though never nurtured in the lap

Of luxury, yet I admonish you,

I am an intellectual chap,

And think of things that would astonish you.

 

Although the best education may be reserved for the children of the wealthy, that doesn’t prevent a person from developing actual wisdom. So here are the fruits of Private Willis’ mental labors:

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!

 

Gilbert, with his love of wordplay, indulges himself “a little” here – using little in the sense of “small,” and also in the sense of “slightly.” This makes me happy.

When Gilbert wrote these lyrics circa 1882, the British parliament had a strong two-party system—Liberals and Conservatives. Nowadays, the Labour Party occupies the liberal end of the spectrum. Annotator Ian Bradley, in The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, commented that “[s]ubstitution of ‘a little Socialist’ for ‘a little Liberal’ would have provided a more accurate description of the prevailing political climate for most of the twentieth century, although in our present era of mould-breaking goodness knows what a modern Private Willis should sing. Perhaps it is best, after all, to leave him in those happy days when there were just Liberals and Conservatives.’

However, this has not been the case in some productions of Iolanthe – for example, this performance in Southampton Operatic Society’s 2005 production of Iolanthe changes the word “liberal” to “Labourite.”  From the comments, you can observe that some people objected to this change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B55YgD1gr0c

However, he continues:

When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.

 

This is a practice that many Americans may not be familiar with: the Division of the Assembly. Here’s an explanation from the UK Parliament’s official website :

Members of both Houses register their vote for or against issues by physically going into two different areas either side of their debating chambers. This is known as ‘dividing the House’, while the areas concerned are ‘division lobbies’. Therefore, a vote is called a ‘division’.

 

According to Wikipedia,  this is  a more accurate way of counting a vote than a voice vote. Typically, a division is taken when the result of a voice vote is challenged or when a two-thirds vote is required. Moving on:

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M. P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.

 

This passage above is a cynical Gilbertian comment – although it’s bad that Members of Parliament should be required to stop thinking and vote as their party leaders tell them to, it would be much worse to let all those mentally dull MPs think for themselves! Nobody could face such an alarming prospect with equanimity (i.e., calmly).

Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la – Fal la la!

That Nature always does contrive – Fal lal la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal lal la!

Therefore, it’s a good thing that the system is the way it is, because it works out for the best in the end.

 

What do you think? Should our elected representatives follow their leaders or follow their consciences? It certainly does sound like a choice between order and chaos.