George Kerevan: Freshers week in full flow
HAROLD Wilson said famously that a week was a long time in politics. On the contrary, my first week as a new MP has gone like an express train.
My new life as representative for East Lothian begins around 4:30am on Friday, 8 May, when Angela Leitch, the county returning officer, declares me the winner with a solid – if unexpected – majority of 6,803. Angela is a former student of mine, but thankfully exposure to my economics lectures has not stopped her becoming East Lothian’s chief executive.
I am secretly chuffed that I have garnered more votes than my mate Tommy Sheppard, SNP candidate in the neighbouring Edinburgh East constituency, where I stood (and lost) in 2010. I also discover that I have piled up more votes than Ed Miliband. Truly, the political world has turned upside down.
The first thing the returning officer does is hand the member a fat, sealed envelope from the House of Commons. This contains a map of the vast parliamentary estate, including at least 15 bars and restaurants, with the injunction to be at Westminster the following Monday, first thing. A break after the election campaign? You must be joking. Still, this is the life I have chosen for the next five years and a combination of fear and adrenalin will get me through.
Getting to Westminster and finding a hotel is no problem. The super-efficient parliamentary machine takes over instantly. On Friday afternoon (with only three hours sleep) I get a call from the Commons in-house travel unit which instantly organises plane tickets and accommodation. Later that weekend I realise these arrangements need to me modified. What can be done on a Sunday afternoon? No problem. The travel office is still working at 4pm and the changes are delivered in a trice. Parliament, as its authorities are quick to point out, is not a branch of the civil service but entirely its own operation – a smoothly efficient one.
I am bidden to be at Westminster by 1pm on what transpires to be a gloriously sunny day. The plane journey, via Heathrow, proves eventful. For starters, I discover the parliamentary travel service has automatically booked me business class. The process of cocooning an MP from the ordinary public has begun. Still a bit punch-drunk from tiredness, I compromise with my conscience. My business-class ticket allows me to use the fast-track lane and get to a much-needed caffeine injection in record time. I pay for this moral lapse when my plane is almost an hour late taking off. From now on, I take the train.
On arrival in London I go first to Portcullis House, which looks to my eye like a building from Gormenghast. This is where most MP offices are situated and where we new boys and girls are given our all-important parliamentary pass, the key to free movement around Westminster. We are also assigned a personal “buddy” from the House of Commons staff, who will act as our mentor and guide for the first few days at school… sorry, parliament.
My buddy is Caroline, who guides me from induction meeting to induction meeting, where I am crammed with knowledge covering everything from how to use my new, dedicated iPad to not falling foul of the rules on claiming expenses. Actually, I have to go back the next day to the IT induction course because I have so many new passwords, for so many websites, that (inevitably) I have lost track of which opens what.
And so to the Palace of Westminster itself, via the underground passage from Portcullis House. I actually adore the fairy-tale architecture of Charles Barry’s great confection by the Thames. However, I see irony in those Victorian entrepreneurs opting to build a mock medieval building to house the parliament of the world’s first capitalist industrial powerhouse. Shrouding modernity in such nostalgia suggests a deep social conservatism. And a transparent desire to promote political continuity, lest the plebeian masses brought into being by modern capitalism develop any notions of throwing off the old order.
Westminster is a veritable warren in which it is easy to get lost. The trick is not to worry but to deliberately wander around exploring. Staff are so friendly and helpful that you soon get re-directed towards your destination. The splendidly attired doorkeepers really run the show.
The new Scottish battalion chooses as its Commons howff the Sports and Social club (“sports and socialist” to Tories) located in the basement near the rubbish bins. Inside, this looks and feels like a Glasgow pub. It is also where the off-duty doorkeepers socialise. We get a warm welcome. The SNP contingent has always gone out of its way to be friendly and respectful to the Commons staff, unlike some.
Coming to Westminster in a group of 56 means no-one is particularly intimidated by the surroundings. Equally, we’ve come here to do a job of work, not act as prima donnas or the awkward squad. During a session in the chamber, for new members from all parties, our Conservative tutor says it is not good form to applaud. He is greeted with a spontaneous and good-humoured burst of clapping from the SNP ranks. The sheepish new Labour contingent joins in after a few seconds. We also dance to our feet to ask questions. Again, the Labour troops look uncertain. It is obvious, for the foreseeable future, while Labour licks its wounds, that the SNP will be the de facto official opposition to the Tory government.
On Tuesday evening all new MPs are invited to a service and a reception at the local church … Westminster Abbey. A sign: all of the SNP group turn up, though we were not “whipped” to do so. To me, this is proof that the SNP is here to be noticed, to make Scotland’s voice heard, and (if possible) to win friends. I have a jolly chat with John Hall, Dean of the Abbey, and wax lyrical about the William Byrd Magnificat, which the choir had sung. Byrd was an Elizabethan composer who wrote some of the most sublime choral music ever. I tell the Dean that, as far as I am concerned, any music written after 1620 is just pop. I can see he is fast reconsidering what he has been told about the nature of the Scottish invasion of Westminster. As is Lord Dannatt, former chief of the defence staff, who is in deep conversation nearby with my colleague Ian Blackford.
During the election campaign, I earned a front page denunciation from one of the pro-Tory London papers for (allegedly) citing Westminster as “the enemy”. What I meant, of course, is that there are aspects of the Westminster system which are arcane, anti-democratic and over-ripe for reform. But I am happy to distinguish between mere tradition and rank obsolescence. I don’t mind that in the Commons cloakroom there is a place to hang my sword. Some wit had already hung up a plastic Star Wars light sabre. However, I do mind that there are more than 800 unelected members of the House of Lords who get to make the law.
Night falls on our first week and the Scottish brigade colonise the famous Commons terrace overlooking the Thames and the London Eye. The chat turns from excited banter to serious discussion about the forthcoming Queen’s Speech and Chancellor George Osborne’s “emergency” budget.
Freshers Week is over. Term has begun.