SPEECH IN THE HOUSE OF LORDSCategory: Politics
… I could not excuse myself from Gilbey’s speech in the House of Lords.
It was not an occasion made for drama. There were perhaps forty men lolling on the red benches, under the elaboration of stained glass, the brass and scarlet of the galleries, the chamber more flashy than the Commons, the colours hotter. If Roger had not asked me, I should not have thought of listening. The Government spokesman was uttering generalities, at the tranquillizing length which Douglas Osbaldiston judged suitable, about the defence programme after Suez. The Opposition was expressing concern. One very old peer muttered mysteriously about the use of the camel. A young peer talked about bases. Then Gilbey rose, from the back of the Government benches. He was looking ill, iller than he really was, I thought. It occurred to me that he was doing his best to emulate the elder Pitt. But I hadn’t realized what he was capable of. Speaking to an official brief, he was fumbling, incompetent, and had embarrassed us for years. On his own, he-was eloquent, and as uninhibited as an actor of his own generation playing Sydney Carton.
“I should have liked to speak before your lordships in the uniform which has been the greatest pride and privilege of my life,” he told them in his light, resonant, reedy tenor. “But a man should not wear uniform who is not well enough to fight.”
Slowly he put his hand on his heart. “In recent days, my lords, I have wished devoutly that I was well enough to fight. When the Prime Minister, God bless him, decided with a justice and righteousness that are as unchallengeable as any in our history, that we had to intervene by force of arms to keep the peace, and our own imalienable rights in Suez, I looked the world in the face as I have not been able to do these last ten years. For a few days, true Englishmen were able to look the whole world in the face. Is this the last time that true Englishmen will have that privilege, my lords?”
As usual with Lord Gilbey, it was ham. As usual with his kind of ham, it was perfectly sincere. -
But Gilbey, despite his sincerity, was not so simple as he seemed. This speech was a threnody for his own England: but it turned into an opportunity for revenge on thos£ who had kicked him out. He was not clever, but he had some cunning. He had worked out that the enemies of Suez within the Government had been his’own enemies. As the rumours that Roger was anti-Suez went round the clubs, Gilbey had decided that these were the forces, this man the intriguer, who had supplanted him. Like other vain and robust men Gilbey had. capacity for forgiveness whatsoever. He did not propose to forgive this time. Speaking as an elder statesman, without mentioning Roger by name, he expressed his doubts about the nation’s defences1 about “intellectual gamblers” who would jet us all go soft. “This is a knive in the back,” an acquaintance jn the gallery wrote on an envelope and passed to me.
Gilbey was finishing. “My lords, I wish for nothing more than that I could assure you that the country’s safety is in the best possible hands. It is a long time since I lay awake at night. I have found myself lying awake, these last bitter nights, wondering whether we can become strong again. That is our only safety. Whatever it costs, whether we have to live like paupers, this country must be able to defend itself. Most of us here, my lords, are coming to the end of our lives. That matters nothing to me, nothing to any of us, if only, at the hour of our death, we can know that the country is safe.”
Again, slowly, Gilbey put his hand on his heart. As he sat down, he took from his waistcoat pocket a small pill-box. There were “Hear hears”, and one or two cheers from the benches round him. Gilbey took a capsule, and closed his eyes. He sat there with eyes closed, hand on heart, for some minutes. Then, bowing to the Woolsack, leaning on the arm of a younger man, he left the Chamber.
When I had to report this performance to Roger, he took it better than other bad news. “If it comes to playing dirty,” he said, “aristocrats have got everyone else beaten, any day of the week. You should see my wife’s relatives when they get to work. It’s a great disadvantage to be held back by middle-class morality.”
He spoke with equanimity. We Jboth knew that the enemies, both as people and as groups, would become visible from now on. The extreme right, he was saving, was bound to be ten times more powerful in any society like ours, or the American society, than the extreme left. He had been watching them before this. It was not only Gilbey who would be talking, he said.
(From Corridors of Power by C. P. Snow)