Lembit Öpik, former MP for Montgomery, looks back at his day in the sun of British democracy
Just as I recall my first day at school, I remember my first week in Parliament as if it were yesterday. It was May 1997. My change of career came with a change of Government. Tectonic plates were shifting in Westminster – and in my life. Now here I was, seeking directions in a bewildering, labyrinthine building – my crisp new suit making me feel like an awkward out-of-place schoolboy under the ancient portals of St Stephens Entrance.
We all felt that way, the new ones, clasping bags and satchels stuffed with information which did nothing to temper the overpowering aura of this citadel of democracy. And we looked lost, searching for the library through an oak panelled-door only to end up in the Gentlemens’ toilet. Our boldness and confidence were unconvincing. After months campaigning in the warm embrace of our familiar, distant constituencies, this Palace seemed other-worldy – not the territory we’d fought to secure. Indifferent to our disorientation, the Palace of Westminster towered above even the greatest of characters.
Guardians were there to help us. Well dressed doormen checked the ‘new boys and girls’ didn’t run into the wrong rooms. Formal, courteous staff gently shepherded us through ‘the right channels’ for our identity badges, offices, computers and email addresses. With ironic grace, in these First Days the institution itself commanded control of those aspiring to be its new masters.
My immediate fears weren’t political – they were, well, more human, than that. Where do I work? Where can I eat? Where should I sleep? Many MPs furtively bedded down in their own offices, this being less daunting than facing the financially crushing prospect of a Fancy London Hotel. So established was this practice back then, that the etiquette was: ‘if you’re sleeping in your office, leave your bin outside the door. The staff will know you’re in there and won’t embarrass you by conducting their cleaning regimen around your slumbering torso at dawn.’ Few would admit to such a feral strategy today. But you can be certain that, in the first weeks, new MPs will ‘sleep rough’ – until they can stand it no longer, or finally make sense of the insanely over-prescriptive new expenses system.
That was the other thing – the non-political paperwork was initially more frightening than the job itself. Back in 1997, it was bad enough. Working out what you could – and could not claim – was something of a black art, a nightmare of vague definition. The Class of 2010 have it worse – their problems compounded by their own political stupidity. Many made heady promises to claim virtually nothing, hoping this implausible largesse might circumvent public anger. It’s a precarious strategy. They’ll likely spend these first days machinating over what they said back then versus what they claim back now. A week on the office sofa may be all they dare afford.
The zenith of my first week was far from these tribulations. My heart raced as I joined the queue of fresh-faced Parliamentarians waiting to swear allegiance in the Heart of Democracy, the House of Commons itself. As a confirmed Monarchist, I was honoured to say the words of the oath. For others, this same oath to the Queen was a resented necessity. But until they declared their loyalty, they wouldn’t get paid. As they said their vows, some crossed their fingers in silly rebellion. The vigilant Clerk who managed the ‘swearing-in’ process seemed unperturbed, and un-motivated to report these delinquents to Her Majesty.
After that, we talked of the week ahead and what we had all come for: the Business of the House: The Queen’s Speech. That’s when it begins in earnest – a Majestically delivered menu of dreams which all new Governments seek to turn into reality. A manifesto of hope! A better future. Their unblemished canvass is revealed by the Queen Herself in the gold-leafed glory of the Lords. At the very next opportunity for debate this agenda will, of course, begin to tarnish under the corrosive and incessant attacks of Her Very Own Majesty’s Official Opposition. But not yet. In the administration’s early light, everything looks positive, and everything is possible. Only later will new recruits discover the Laws of Human Nature apply as much inside the haloed House of Commons as they do everywhere else on earth.
For me, that almost naïve delight brought with it a camaraderie – a cross-party lightness of spirit, and a heartfelt collective self-belief within each of us. ‘I’ will do better for ‘my’ constituents than all those who’ve gone before! ‘I’ WILL fight as a local champion dedicated to ‘our’ cause. We ‘WILL’ bring Nirvana a little closer.
Nostalgia does not expunge the memory of true events. Unbeknownst to me – or to any new Member, then or now – darker forces are always watching. Beyond one’s Maiden Speech – a necessary Rite of Passage before being allowed full speaking rights in the Chamber – a devil gets to work on every Member. It watches for weaknesses, and silently prepares to exploit each one in turn on the day the new Member’s halo slips enough to facilitate vulnerability. Further ahead, in the impenetrable fog of fortunes unknown, a media hoard loiters, growling, biding its time, for this is not their week. But they’re hungry to share shock news – indifferent to veracity and the harm their persistent vilifications of human foibles do to the cause of public service.
Yet, in that first week, for my new-found friends and me, all those muddy troubles lay far ahead, out of sight and out of mind. For now, we were in the Mother of Parliament, ready to do business, not battle. And, candidly, in that sublime moment, I felt I had truly arrived at a destination of sorts.
Like any political warrior who’s fought and won on Polling Day, I stood proud, temporarily released from the fight. I knew that, whatever would happen in years to come, no-one could ever take that wondrous week away from me. And no-one ever will.