By Paul Seaward
A short article on the BBC website, written after SNP members burst into applause when their leader in the Commons, Angus Robertson, spoke on 27 May 2015, pointed out that while clapping is not regarded as proper in the House of Commons, there have been a number of occasions on which it has happened. It cited Tony Blair’s last speech in the House of Commons on 27 June 2007, and the speech by Charles Walker on the debate on the conduct of the Speaker on 26 March 2015. Since then, there have been more: a tribute to Jo Cox on 20 June 2016; and David Cameron’s last Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday 13 July 2016. There have been other, earlier, incidents: Robin Cook’s resignation statement on 18 March 2003 was strongly applauded in some quarters of the House, with some Members trying to convert it into a standing ovation. It’s tempting to argue that this tendency to ignore old conventions, and burst into applause, is new – the product perhaps of a society more apt to wear its emotions on its sleeve. It’s notable that the Modernisation Committee of the Commons considered the question of applause in 1998 in response, as it said, to some new Members, who, they said, found it ‘incomprehensible’ that applause was not allowed.
No doubt there is something to be said for the view that customs have changed. But there is also a long, and very interesting, history of clapping in the House of Commons, which says much about changes in the culture both of the House, and, more generally, of British society. Before one starts on this, it’s important to make some distinctions. A first is to establish what, exactly, people mean when they use words other than ‘clapping’. Applause and clapping are often assumed to be synonyms, as indeed, in many contexts, they are: but applause often has a metaphorical use, and one can’t assume that the statement ‘the prime minister sat down, to much applause’, necessarily means that people clapped. Something similar may be said about the phrase ‘standing ovation’. The second is the distinction between clapping and other enthusiastic signs of approbation, such as shouting, cheering, waving order papers and so on (the latter being generally regarded as acceptable in the Westminster context). A third is a distinction between the chamber of the House and other sites in the Palace. It has been said, for example, that Harold Nicolson records a standing ovation given to Churchill on 8 May 1945, following Germany’s unconditional surrender. What actually happened in the House was that, when Churchill came in ‘The House rose as a man, and yelled and yelled and waved their Order Papers’. It was afterwards, when Churchill went through Central Lobby, that the crowd broke into ‘loud clapping’. (The occasion echoes another, on 14 December 1797, when Charles James Fox made a rare appearance in the Commons following his decision to secede from Parliament because of its enthusiasm for the war against France: as he ‘passed through the lobby of the House, which was full of strangers, there was a great burst of applause and clapping of hands’).
It is true both that the taboo on clapping in the chambers of both Houses is quite an ancient one; and that the practice is pretty much as ancient as the disapproval of it. The earliest reference I’ve found to clapping comes in the published version of a speech made (or said to be made) in the House of Commons in 1645 by Serjeant Wilde, in a speech defending the journalist Marchamont Nedham. At the end of his speech, after a silence, his audience ‘all were pleas’d (after some particular favourable coughs and hums) to applaud him with a respective venerable general Hum, (in token of approbation) and withal clapping their hands (with an unanimous acclamation) they gave such a shout that the noyse was heard, from Westminster to Wapping, and Saint Thomas Waterings’.
There are few references to clapping in either the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. But since it was said in March 1777 that ‘several of the members, in a transport of approbation, forgot themselves so far, as to testify it in accents of bravo! Hear him! Which they accompanied with a clapping of hands’, it was clearly disapproved of by then. Sheridan’s speech on Warren Hastings on 7 February 1787 is reported as having been received ‘with the most animating and even tumultuous enthusiasm’, which another source, Willam Townsend’s 1843 History of the House of Commons (p. 451), glosses as being expressed ‘by a new and wholly irregular method—by loudly and repeatedly clapping their hands’. Sir Gilbert Elliot referred to ‘a universal shout, nay even clapping for half-a-second’. It was again Sheridan whose speech on 21 April 1798 was reported to have been greeted with ‘Loud and universal cries of hear! Hear! accompanied with clapping of hands’ (Speech of Mr Sheridan, in the House of Commons, on Friday the 21st of April 1798, On the Motion to Address His Majesty on the present alarming State of Affairs, p. 6). One commentator, deeply opposed to the motion of censure passed by the House of Commons on 8 April 1805 on Henry Dundas, Lord Melville, was outraged by the reaction the passage of the vote received:
it might … be proper for some of those who can speak with authority upon what passes in the House, to contradict a rumour which has been in circulation, but which cannot be true, (being probably nothing more than an anecdote of the National Assembly of France, transferred to a British House of Parliament,) that after the Speaker had announced the vote from the Chair, on the 8th of April, some persons ratified the judgement upon Lord Melville by a clamour of applause, accompanied by an expression of approbation unprecedented in Parliament; viz. a clapping of hands. (Brief Remarks on the Proceedings of the House of Commons, concerning Lord Melville, on the 8th of April, 1805 (1805))
There are many other instances when Members are recorded as having received ‘applause’ or ‘ovations’, among them those accorded to William Wilberforce on the passage of the slave trade bill on 23 February 1807, Viscount Castlereagh on 6 June 1814, and the earl of Derby in the House of Lords on 24 February 1857, though the nature of these demonstrations aren’t clear.
So it’s evident from these examples not only that clapping was disapproved of in the House, at least from late eighteenth century, but that it did, from time to time, happen. But there is plenty that isn’t clear: first, when, exactly, it came to be regarded as improper (if this had not always been the case), and, second, why. On the first point, it is possible that attitudes to clapping may have changed over time, though as Ephraim Chambers wrote in his 1741 Cyclopedia, that ‘The ancient way or applauding by clapping the hands, is scarce retained anywhere but in colleges and theatres’ it was presumably regarded as not the done thing in Parliament before then.
On the question why, perhaps some clues may be found in the history of the theatre. No-one, so far as I have discovered, has written a history of audience reaction in the British theatre. But histories of plays and playgoing do offer some helpful perspectives. Here, for example, is the comment of a dramatist writing in 1616 upset by the boorish behaviour of the audience when his play was originally put on the London commercial stage:
Clapping, or hissing, is the only meane
That tries and searches out a well writ Sceane,
So it is thought by Ignoramus crew,
But that good wits acknowledge’s untrue;
The stinkards oft will hisse without a cause,
And for a baudy jeast will give applause.
(quoted in Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (2004), 53 and 54). The impression is not that clapping is regarded as improper, exactly, but at least a bit vulgar: appropriate at the end of a performance, perhaps, but not during it. Other references in the eighteenth century reinforce the impression that though clapping was normal, there was something enthusiastic about it which may have been seen as not quite genteel.
It is also interesting that the 1805 complaint cited above linked clapping to turbulent behaviour in the proceedings of the French National Assembly. The French revolutionary legislatures and their unruly behaviour had long been the subject of highly censorious comment among British parliamentarians and others. Clapping may have seemed associated with practices creeping into British politics from the other side of the channel. The appalled reaction in Britain at behaviour in the French National Assembly attached even more to the unruly activities of the public admitted to their galleries. It’s noticeable that even before the French Revolution outbreaks of clapping in the gallery seem to have been singled out as particularly annoying. An incident of enthusiastic clapping on 24 November 1783 in the Irish House of Commons was referred to as ‘a gross and indecent outrage’ and the House made a point of inserting a reference to clapping in their motion disapproving of it. This case suggests a link with Ireland, and it’s noticeable that references to clapping crop up rather more frequently where Ireland is being discussed. One case which makes a link both to Ireland and to the French Revolution is the discussion in the House of Lords on 22 June 1869 of a disturbance that had taken place the previous week. Lord Romilly, then master of the rolls, introduced the subject, by complaining of the outburst of stamping of the feet at ‘the touching peroration’ of the Earl of Derby, and of clapping ‘at the somewhat more elaborate and laboured peroration of Lord Cairns’ [of Garmoyle]. ‘Your Lordships will remember’, he went on,
that the persons present in the Galleries during the sittings of the National Assembly took a great interest in the discussions, and there gradually grew up a sympathy between the occupants of the Galleries and some of the orators, which eventually came to overawe the Assembly. Sometimes the sentiments and sympathies of the Assembly were not in accordance with those of the Gallery — on one occasion indeed, a speaker remarked that though the Assembly did not sympathize with him, the public did — and the Gallery, in point of fact, was used for the purpose of overawing the Assembly. HL Deb 22 June 1869 vol 197 cc400-10
Romilly’s respondent, Earl Granville, mentioned that during the debate he had in fact been asked to move that the Gallery be cleared: ‘I hesitated, however, to take that course, for I felt that probably the great majority of the persons in the Gallery on that particular occasion were from a part of the United Kingdom where the people are supposed to be peculiarly impulsive’. He meant, of course, the Irish: debates on the Irish Church bill had been proceeding all of the previous week.
None of this completely explains the taboo against clapping in the chambers of the two Houses. One might say that a perfectly adequate practical explanation is given by the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons in its 1998 report: the danger that there might be ‘orchestration of what would amount to standing ovations with the success or failure of a speech being judged not by its content but by the relative length of the ovation at the end’. But even admitting that might be so, why should clapping have been singled out as unacceptable, but cheers, shouts, loud murmurs of ‘hear, hear’ never have been banned in the same way (the Modernisation Committee itself pointed out the ‘growing misuse of the traditional cry of “hear, hear”’)? My guess is that the answer lies in eighteenth century notions of what was or was not genteel; and any thoughts from historians of gesture, the theatre or masculinity (or, for that matter, anyone else) would be very welcome.
Paul Seaward is Director of the the History of Parliament.
Please note that this blog piece originally appeared on the History of Parliament: Director’s Blog on 15 January (here) and has been cross-posted here with permission.