It isn’t generally known that there is a vet permanently attached to the Houses of Parliament. His post dates from the days when many if not most members and peers would arrive on horseback, often bringing their dogs with them, and it was imperative to have someone on the premises who could deal with them. Nowadays the Queen’s Ostler-General, as he is still known, has very little to do. There are stray cats to look after, and rats and mice to deal with, but on the whole Forsyte Gordon finds time hangs heavy on his hands.
“Parliament being Parliament, and very traditional,” he says, “they have never got round to abolishing me. I’m a bit of history, I suppose. I’m also one of the few neutral people who mingle on equal terms with the MPs, and they like that – they don’t know what party I would vote for and they don’t care. They just want someone to drink with."
As a matter of interest, which party would he vote for?
“I think that’s a matter of confidentiality. I can tell you, though, that it wouldn’t be for any of the ones in parliament. When you’ve actually mingled with the people, they seem somehow less worth voting for,”
But mingling with MPs close to also gives Forsyte Gordon a chance to study them closely, in a way which is given to very few other people. And what he sees at the moment worries him a good deal.
“Remember, if you ever see MPs close up, you automatically see them from your own point of view. The lobby journalists see them as political animals, and are interested in the way they vote and think. Gossip columnists see them as social animals, and want to know only who is sleeping with who and talking to people they shouldn’t be talking to. I’m a vet. I see them as animals.”
And what does he see?
“I hesitate to say this, but as a vet I see MPs, especially Tory MPs, as subject to a virulent and unidentifiable disease which, if prevalent in herds of cattle, would lead to calls for slaughter and quarantine.”
These are strong words, even when uttered by a vet on his fourth whisky, being plied with drink late at night by an unscrupulous newspaperman. (Myself.) But they seem to be justified by what he has observed over the last decade. Briefly, he thinks that the behaviour pattern of MPs has become radically altered recently. The noise and rowdyism in many sessions has increased to hitherto unknown levels. The incidents in which individual MPs have behaved so badly that they have been ejected from the Chamber are also at an unprecedented frequency. Physical violence is not unknown, the breakdown of ordinary communication is so common as to pass uncommented upon.
“Ordinary commentators merely deprecate the lowering of standards and leave it at that, “ says Forsyte Gordon. “As a trained vet, though, I find it more sinister. These are exactly the same symptoms displayed by cattle, or pigs, or indeed, any farmyard animal, when herded together in impossibly crowded circumstances. Pigs fight each other, even eat each other, when placed in confinement, even though they are meant to be the brightest beasts in the farmyard. Well, these MPs are meant to be the pick of political society, but they are behaving like overcrowded pigs. Maybe it is simply because they are overcrowded.”
Their conditions are, certainly, atrocious. Like Victorian prisons, the Houses of Parliament were built to accommodate less than half the present numbers. This means that our representatives in Parliament work under battery conditions – no privacy, no space for research or secretarial back-up, no chance to express themselves, no opportunity to take exercise or think for themselves. They are forced to stay awake, late at night, under bright lights, in a Chamber where many of them do not even have room to sit down.
“Technically, I’d say that as a result of this pressure, they’re gradually going round the bend. But as they’re going round the bend together, none of them notices.”
Forsyte Gordon has also noticed something more sinister.
“It’s hard to pin down, but they’ve also become a different sort of animal. In the farm world we’ve seen an awful lot of selective breeding recently, which gives you productivity, but takes away variety. Well, ten years of uninterrupted rule by the Tories has been breeding a different sort of government MP, one that can only think in terms of giving orders and preserving secrecy, not of engaging debate or defending decisions. At its worst this is seen at Prime Minister’s Question Time, where the Opposition leader is now incapable of asking a straight question and the PM cannot give a straight answer. It seems to be genetic.”
And what is this strange disease they are all suffering from?
“It’s not unlike BSE, the Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis that make cattle roll their eyes, go mad and act uncontrollably. There’s one peculiar thing about BSE. No-one knows where it comes from. My theory is that they may have caught it from their local MP.”
And will Forsyte Gordon make his information known to anyone?
“I daren’t, old boy. Probably be had up for breaching national security. But if you could sort of float the idea in your newspaper, get it leaking around a bit…”
I am delighted to.
The Independent 1991