The Smoking Room of the House of Commons

Politicians in the smoking room of the House of Commons; representing the second reading on 24 October of the New Bill for the Representation of the People of the United Kingdom Chromolithograph by G. Pipeshank, 1884. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The smoking room of the House of Commons has long intrigued commentators on and spectators of politics.  The less formal spaces and facilities of parliament are, as Lord Norton has recently emphasised elsewhere, crucial to the operation of politics. Away from the stagey public drama of the chambers and committee rooms, these are the places where knots of members get together to weigh reputations, exchange gossip, spread discontent, foment revolts, hatch conspiracies.  Their significance is all the more obvious as access to the palace and especially to some of its darker and more comfortable corners is restricted in the current crisis. There are many such spaces – the bars, dining rooms, the terrace, the atrium of Portcullis House, among others – but the smoking room and the tea room have the longest pasts and have acquired meanings and mythologies of their own; and their histories illuminate not only the social worlds of politics, but the structure of politics itself. This blog will deal with the smoking room; the tea room will, eventually, be the subject of a separate blog.

Before the fire

One of the few descriptive accounts available of the warren of rooms around the chamber of the old House of Commons, before they were destroyed in the catastrophic fire of 1834 comes in the Random Recollections of the House of Commons by the journalist James Grant, published a couple of years after the fire. The smoking room was, he explained, immediately above the lobby of the Commons. It wasn’t only for smoking: ‘here also the members repaired to write letters, — the necessary stationery and every other convenience, being always kept in abundant supply for the purpose. Directly opposite, and only six or seven feet distant from the smoking room, was a letter bag for the reception of the letters of members. It may be said to have been a branch general post-office, as every person about the house, including the reporters, and even strangers in the gallery, were permitted to put letters and newspapers into it. It was always kept open till seven o’clock.’ Close to the door of the smoking-room, but a few feet higher, was the door of the library. ‘The library’, Grant wrote, ‘was chiefly frequented by those members who were in the habit of speaking. To them it was very convenient, as it contained the leading works in history, politics, and general literature. Those not in the way of enlightening the house and the country by their eloquence, always preferred the smoking-room, or the refreshment apartments, to the legislative and literary tomes in the library’. Grant must have misremembered a little, for by the time of the fire the library had been moved to occupy the site of the clerk’s house, which had been wrested from him in 1826 to accommodate a growing collection of books and papers, and even when it was next door to the smoking room it seems to have served as a committee room as well.

There is an earlier, and characteristically caustic, description of the smoking room in the Political Dictionary of 1792 attributed to Pearson, the doorkeeper. There it is said to be ‘formerly’ ‘a room for the Members to smoke their pipes in. Now the only use it is of, is for them to write franks for the reporters, by way of currying favour with them for good speeches. It is likewise used by the gallery people, to talk politics, when they are driven out of the house on a division’ – i.e. by members of the public when the gallery is cleared. Pearson is unreliable as a source (unreliability was part of the point of the Political Dictionary), but his account does support Grant’s in its sense of the informality of the surroundings of the old chamber, with members, the press and the public all occupying very poorly demarcated spaces.

The historian Thomas Macaulay left several sketches of the scene in, and more particularly the atmosphere of, the smoking room in letters to his sister in the early 1830s. It was, he wrote in one of them ‘a large, wainscoted, uncarpeted place, with tables covered with green baize and writing materials. On a full night it is generally thronged towards twelve o’clock with smokers. It is then a perfect cloud of fume. There have I seen (tell it not to the West Indians [i.e. the defenders of the slave trade]), Buxton [Thomas Fowell Buxton, the campaigner against the slave trade] blowing fire out of his mouth. My father will not believe it. At present, however, all the doors and windows are open, and the room is pure enough from tobacco to suit my father himself’. In another letter he talked about using it in less comfortable circumstances, ‘at eleven at night, in this filthiest of all filthy atmospheres’:

in the vilest of all vile company, with the smell of tobacco in my nostrils and the ugly, hypocritical, high-cheeked, gaunt, vulgar face of Lieutenant Gordon before my eyes … Lieutenant, you will not only bruise but break my head with your clatter. Mercy! Mercy!

A few days later he recorded a verse which was ‘in the mouth of every Member’, apparently referring to the same man:

If thou goest in the smoking room / Three plagues will thee befall /The chlorate of lime, and the bacco-smoke /And the captain who’s worst of all…

(Chlorate of Lime is a bleach and disinfectant.)

The smoking room was a place to go to sit out an inconvenient division or a boring debate. John Campbell II in August 1831 claimed in a letter to his brother that he had taken refuge in the smoking room to avoid the division on the reform bill; and Waldo Sibthorp suggested that an absent member was probably ‘snugly smoking upstairs’. It may also have been a place where the whips could marshal members for a division, in the knowledge that they were close to hand. A whip in Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 (but set in the 1830s) novel Sybil, worrying about a division being called five minutes early, notes that ‘the smoking room is quite full’ – implying that the other side had got their troops together.

How old was the smoking room, as an institution? The room above the lobby was there in 1604, and may have been inserted when the original chapel was converted for the use of the commons in around 1548-50. Then, it was used as a committee chamber; the connection with smokers – or ‘tobacconists’ – was, one assumes, due to the fact that they were banned from the chamber itself. One description of the events surrounding the army’s purge of the House of Commons in December 1648 referred (inaccurately) to Colonel Pride, the officer in charge, barring entrance to the chamber and sending the secluded ‘into the lobby where they used to drink ale and tobacco’ (Mercurius Pragmaticus 19/26 Dec. 1648). This seems unlikely to have been the lobby itself, and may have been the room above it. An entry from 1657 in Thomas Burton’s parliamentary diary talks about a ‘a pretty full House’, with ‘220 [members] at the least, besides tobacconists’, which might be read as a reference to smokers sitting outside or upstairs, rather than in the chamber itself. But there are, as far as I know, no other references to the room before Pearson.

The smoking room in the new palace

I haven’t established whether space for a smoking room was made available within the palace after the fire. There were certainly refreshment rooms and perhaps a smoking room was established as part of these arrangements. But the plans for the new palace certainly incorporated a very lavish new smoking room. The smoking room was, by the mid nineteenth century, a common feature of the Victorian country house, an area designed for male comfort and enjoyment along with the billiard room, gun room and library. Robert Kerr in his 1865 guide The gentleman’s house: or, how to plan English residences,emphasised the need for ventilation, ‘on the score of both health and cleanliness’, and that the ‘prospect ought to be a pleasant one for the evening’. A vaguely Moorish or Ottoman theme seems to have been a popular choice, perhaps partly because some association with smoking was thought to exist, and partly because the tiling made it easy to wipe down. Barry’s smoking room in the new palace of Westminster drew on the idea. The room was on the ground floor, in the centre of the commons end of the river frontage of the palace, providing the pleasant evening outlook and an opportunity to take one’s cigar out onto the terrace. An article published in several newspapers in 1858 described the ‘smoking room or cigar divan of the representatives of the people’

It is there that those members who delight in the weed congregate to fight their battles o’er again, and to arrange future movements. It is a handsome chamber, and very suitable for the purpose. The ceiling is pannelled oak, perforated at intervals to give to the smoke. The walls are lined with Dutch tiles, and there are well-stuffed seats, covered with green leather, in which the Honourable Members may sit or recline while they blow their clouds. The windows look on to the Terrace, and on a cool summer’s night, when the tide is up, it is exceedingly pleasant to loll upon the benches and enjoy the refreshing breeze, but when the tide is down, it is not so pleasant; for then, on occasions, there comes into the windows a compound of villainous smells that beats the twenty thousand stenches of Cologne. Here it is that Radicals and Tories and Whigs assemble, and under the soothing influence of the cigar forget their hereditary animosities, and amicably discuss the probabilities of the “ins” and the prospects of the “outs.” … In a box let into the walls there is bell, which, with some thirty others, rings when a division is called. And when this begins to tinkle, the scene is amusing. In a moment all discussion ceases. Cigars are laid down, hats are seized, and in a moment the chamber is empty, and its late occupants rush up-stairs. It is a trying run from the smoking-room to the House, there is a long staircase, longer corridor, and considerable stretch across the lobby. The lightweights do it easily, but the old and corpulent—the Old Admiral, for instance —are often distressed and blown not a little before they reach the door. On the whole, though some members talk disparagingly of this room, and think that it ought not to have been provided, we are disposed to look upon it as a useful institution. Smoking, judiciously enjoyed, refreshes the faded spirits, soothes the ruffled temper, and quickens the dulled apprehension. Many of the midnight quarrels in the House may be traceable to after-dinner potations, but none them to the soothing cigar. Is it not, in Indian phrase—the calumet of peace?

The room is now the Servery of the Terrace Cafeteria, and is still recognisable as the room shown in an Illustrated London News engraving in 1853, with an accompanying text which explained how the centre panels in the ceiling were painted with alternate roses, fleurs-de-lis and portcullises; the lower part of the walls were lined with encaustic tiles of pale green and white; there were arched recesses in which there were long seats covered with dark green leather; in the centre of the room was a large cast iron stove; there were ‘handsome rugs’ on the floor. (There is also a photograph from 1910, by which time it was the alternative smoking room where members could take their guests.)

It might have been handsome, but it wasn’t big enough. By the 1880s members were grumbling that it was entirely inadequate given that guests were allowed in. One member was annoyed that he had been unable to get in himself because ‘it was crowded, not with hon. Members, for whose use he imagined it was intended, but crowded by strangers, friends, probably, of hon. Members, and properly introduced into that portion of the building. But their presence in the Smoking Room rendered it quite impossible for hon. Members to discuss, as they might desire to do whilst taking refreshment, questions which might afterwards arise in debate in that House. It must be apparent to hon. Members how exceedingly difficult it was for them to go downstairs into the Smoking Room, and to confer upon questions which would afterwards arise in debate, in the presence of strangers whose interest in the subjects, through their not being Members of the House, it was difficult adequately to estimate.’ (He was also unhappy about the service.)

Lord Randolph Churchill was exercised enough about it to raise the issue in a debate on the Estimates for the House of Commons in March 1881. He referred to an earlier proposal by the government minister concerned, George Shaw-Lefevre, the first commissioner for works, to convert the Tea Room into an additional smoking room. The downstairs smoking room was left for members to use with their guests; a room previously used for receiving deputations was supposed to be transformed into a new tea room. The proposal, Churchill complained, with typical indignation and chutzpah, had been derailed by a protest from ‘Members who were in the habit of drinking hot tea at 5 o’clock in the afternoon’, who were, apparently, ‘the only persons who opposed the general wish of the House’. These individuals, he went on, had created what he called ‘a kind of “round robin”’, which they presented to the minister. He was outraged by what he alleged had gone on in obtaining signatures to it:

The names of hon. Members were inserted in the “round robin” who had no sympathy whatever with the movement, and every kind of artifice was resorted to in order to procure a number of imposing signatures to the Memorial. When the Members who first moved in the matter heard of this document, they took steps to get up a real ‘round robin,’ and the Memorial which they presented—for he would not call it a ‘round robin’—was signed by some 220 or 230 Members of ​ the House. No doubt, it would have been signed by a great many more if it had not been for the fact that the Memorial was got up at a time when urgency prevailed in regard to Public Business, and hon. Members were being suspended every day in large numbers, so that it was difficult to get their attention to the preparation of a document of this kind. Yet, notwithstanding these unfavourable circumstances, they obtained 230 signatures; whereas he believed the promoters of the counter-Memorial, with all their artifices, which were very unusual and not those ordinarily adopted by Members of that House, were only able to obtain 150 or 160 signatures.

Faced with this onslaught, the first commissioner of works had understandably dithered, which made Churchill even more furious. Having been tipped off about the alternative plan with which the commissioner of works had been toying – taking some rooms from the House of Lords to satisfy the demand for space from both tea-drinkers and cigar-smokers, Churchill suggested that there was something to be said for it, given the disproportionate amount of space taken up by the lords,

it was just possible that a matter of this kind might go a little further, and might produce a great Constitutional struggle between the Lords and the Commons. Such a result they would all wish to avoid, particulary hon. Members on that side of the House. They would be sorry to lend themselves to anything which might appear to be an attack upon the privileges of the House of Lords. But at this moment the inconvenience to smokers had reached such a pitch that they were disposed, regardless of the Constitution, to support the right hon. Gentleman in carrying out the promise he had distinctly made to provide better accommodation for the smokers.

Shaw Lefevre’s response, mildly and sensibly enough, pointed out that while the number who had signed the smokers’ ‘round robin’ was greater than the number who had signed the tea-drinkers’, ‘there was still evidence that a large minority were opposed to the plan he had suggested’; ‘that when a change of this kind was proposed, it would not do to bring it about against the will of a very strong minority’; and that ‘in this case the minority included a considerable number of the older and most important Members of the House. He found that the average age of the non-smokers was about eight years more than that of the smokers. Therefore, it seemed that the older and more experienced Members of the House were generally opposed to the arrangement’. As he argued, the complaint was in fact just one instance of a more general problem, the lack of adequate accommodation for all purposes: the ‘Dining Rooms were too small; the Library was often overcrowded; the Tea Room was very much overcrowded; and, indeed, all the rooms occupied and frequented by Members of the House at certain periods of the evening were inconveniently crowded’.

Peers, in fact, had no smoking room themselves, about which Lord Rosebery complained bitterly on 5 May 1884. Churchill, and the smokers, did get an additional smoking room upstairs at the expense of the lords. But the arrangements were complicated and temporary; and when they became more permanent, with a large room looking out not on the river side of the building, but into one of the dingiest of the palace’s courtyards, the smokers were still very unhappy, and the clamour for further rooms to be allocated continued. In a debate in 1888, George Cavendish Bentinck suggested

that the Office of Works should cover over either a portion or the whole of the centre enclosure of St. Stephen’s Cloisters surrounding that part of the building now used as a Cloak Room, and that it should become a Smoking Room. There might be seats placed there, and so forth, and the alteration would be found to be a great convenience to hon. Members, especially to those who came in smoking a very good cigar and did not wish to throw it away. And, as a matter of fact, this Cloister was habitually every day used by hon. Members as a Smoking Room. If the right hon. Gentleman chose to visit it when an important Division was about to be called, he would find that there was always a large smoking company assembled there at that end of the East Cloister.

Which was all very well, Henry Labouchère responded, but he wanted a better smoking room on the same floor as the chamber, rather than downstairs. His bright idea had a familiar ring:

Either they ought to have the Tea Room, which was a very large room, and the tea people sent to the present Smoking Room, or same other arrangement should be made. … It was recognized that in every public assembly smokers had their rights. He could assure the Chairman that if they had proper Smoking Room accommodation it would lead very much to the peace and quiet of the House. There were a great many Members who felt soothed if, during a debate, they could indulge in tobacco smoking; he (Mr. Labouchere) always returned to the House in a calmer and more agreeable spirit after a cigar, and he was sure there were a great many Members in the same position as himself. He believed that if they had really good Smoking Rooms attached to the building the debates would be so much shortened that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House (Mr. W. H. Smith) would hardly ever have to move the Closure.

There were further debates along similar lines, in 1893; in 1897, and in 1901, when John Dillon grumbled that the room was so crowded that he had found it impossible to get in: moreover, the atmosphere was ‘absolutely unhealthy, and calculated to make one weary and ill, instead of making Members refreshed to return to business in the House’, and, being situated over a kitchen ‘or some other subterranean place where fires are kept up in the summer time’, and looking into a closed courtyard, ‘when summer comes it is absolutely intolerable, and I have seen the thermometer there standing at 90 degrees day after day, so that it was, practically speaking, uninhabitable’.

These debates made it evident how powerful and determined the smoking lobby was. Members who wanted to smoke were also taking over a newspaper reading room and parts of the library. Smoking was well on its way to infiltrating all corners of the House. An article in the Guardian from 1919 suggested that members were pushing the boundaries of the ban on smoking in the chamber by surreptitiously bringing their cigars from the smoking rooms  into the division lobbies when there was a division ‘with a view to keeping them alight till their return to the smoking room’; though the serjeant at arms had ticked off a member whom he met on his way to the division lobby with a lighted cigar in his hand. The same article referred to Lord Randolph’s approval of a practice in the parliament of the Boer Republic in 1891 of banning smoking in the chamber while it was in session, but taking frequent smoking breaks.

The smokers did get their way. Very shortly after the debate in 1901, a committee on accommodation in the house of commons recommended that one of the three dining rooms on the river frontage, next to the House of Lords, be converted into a smoking room. This room has remained the smoking room ever since.

The culture of the smoking room

The discontent in the 1880s and 1890s over the smoking room revealed a deep and rather significant divide among members: between those who preferred to smoke, and those who preferred to have their tea unbothered by the fumes. Shaw-Lefevre’s shrewd point, that the non-smokers tended to be older, and the fact that the most virulent agitators for smokers’ rights were among the fastest-living and most aggressive of contemporary politicians, suggests some sort of cultural distinction between the two camps: there is a subtle note of contempt evident in Churchill’s references to the tea-drinkers, the attitude of the carnivore towards the vegetarian. A newspaper in 1897 commented on how ‘Sir Michael Hicks-Beach is never, unlike Mr Chamberlain, seen in the smoking-room of the house of commons. His favourite place in the precincts of the house outside his own room is the members’ tea room, where he assiduously reads the leading daily and weekly papers.’ (Huntly Express, Saturday 17 July 1897, p. 8). (it was ironic, then, that Hicks-Beach, along with Lord Salisbury – who, as a member of the house of lords had never been into the smoking room either – were forced in October 1885 to write letters to the papers to deny that they had held a pre-general election meeting with Charles Stewart Parnell there.) Chips Channon mused in 1935 as he was getting used to being a member of the Commons ‘am I to sit and smoke and drink myself to death in the smoking-room, thus making myself better-known and, perhaps liked? Or shall I burrow in the library for the next five years and re-become what I once was, well educated and well-read?’. The unhappy conservative misfit, Douglas Johnson, first elected in 1955 after migrating from the Liberal party, described how he tried to assuage the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach with glasses of cold milk in the tearoom: ‘The cold milk eased my queasy feelings, but I cannot say that it brought me further benefit than that—it would perhaps have been better for my career, if not for my health, if I had penetrated a short distance further as far as the Smoking Room and started on whisky’.

It might have been, because the smoking room did, by then, tend to be more associated with the heartier end of the conservative party than with labour or the liberals. The fact that Winston Churchill was virtually a fixture in the room no doubt contributed to that impression, certainly after the end of his premiership. But it was certainly not a hard-and-fast association. The famous counter-example was the Bevanites in the early 1950s – the acolytes of Nye, including Dick Crossman, whose early diaries are full of endless sessions in the smoking room, chewing over the internal divisions of the labour party. Sir Richard Body, in his History of Parliament oral history interview, describes the ‘Bevanite corner’ of the room, overlooking the Thames, and one memorable occasion, when Edward Heath, as a junior whip was told by the chief whip to look into the room to find out the cause of a huge row going on there:

So he went in and there was a group of members around Winston Churchill, and another group surrounding Nye Bevan, and they were shouting at each other. Terrible noise. Heath didn’t quite know what to make of that. He eventually found out by listening. There was an argument going on which was the most decisive period in history: the Reformation or the Civil War. Churchill had said, and [so did] all around him, it was the Reformation. Nye Bevan said the Civil War. Poor Ted Heath, who was never much of a historian I don’t think anyway, he was very puzzled by this, and he went back and reported it to Buchan-Hepburn. (Sir Richard Body, HoP interview at BL, C1503/31)

The smoking room was, by then, an institution in itself. In the 1890s, the room acquired its talisman in a pair of armchairs which had belonged to Gladstone, re-upholstered and placed at either side of the fireplace. For its habitués, it became an important principle that it should be a member-only space, with officials of any kind excluded. There is a revealing little discussion in one of the sessions of a 1953 select committee on house of commons accommodation. Its chairman, Richard Stokes, complained to the serjeant at arms that ‘When I first became a Member of the House of Commons it was the unwritten custom, at any rate, that no strangers at all, except for the Smoking Room waiters, were allowed in the Smoking Room, and that police officers were not allowed in there at all. Now it quite often happens that a police officer wanders in to fetch a jug of water, and we think that is quite improper’. Three years before, a retiring member, Sir Patrick Hannon, had described it in his local newspaper in 1950 as ‘one of the most fascinating institutions in the public life of any nation’. Hannon talked nostalgically about how new members should quickly make use of it:

In a friendship-making atmosphere, Members rapidly become acquainted, and with all that enthusiasm which attaches to the “new boy”, exchange views on the thrilling experience of the contest through which they have passed. I have a profound respect for the smoking room o the house of commons and although members speak to one another quite freely of matters which are perhaps confidential to themselves or to their party, I have never known an instance in which intimate conversation has been revealed outside the smoking room.

Though he did remark that ‘somehow or other, in the last parliament, the sense of friendship and freedom in mutual confidence was on a lower level than in the previous parliaments in which I served. I make no complaint of this, and I can only regret detachment of members from one another owing to party prejudice was not on the level of days gone by.’ It was, perhaps, a natural comment for a conservative to make about the overwhelming change that had come over the house of commons in 1945.

The note of decline may be significant, for perhaps the culture of the smoking room already seemed a little outdated. The association with raffish behaviour and gentlemanly pursuits may have declined since the days of Randolph Churchill and Henry Labouchere, for it was certainly used by the grandest and most senior of MPs in the 1930s (though it is Randolph’s son, Winston, who is the obvious example, as well as Stanley Baldwin). But it was certainly a sozzled place. Channon wrote in his diary of the atmosphere in the chamber as members waited anxiously for a statement from the prime minister on 2 September 1939: having quenched their thirst in the smoking room they returned ‘full of “Dutch Courage”: ‘one noticed’, he wrote, ‘their flushed faces’. The atmosphere was uncongenial enough for the early cohorts of women members, for whom it was a place of leers and sneers, heavy drinking and heavier innuendo. Thelma Cazalet-Keir, who was elected in 1931 and lost her seat in 1945, wrote that, during her time, ‘Not one of the dozen or so women MPs ever entered the smoking room where, so rumour has it, as much constructive business is transacted as on the floor of the House. I am told that our successors are wiser and that no smoke is thick enough to keep them out’. She was probably not quite right about that: Jennie Lee talks of visiting it after her maiden speech (which would have been in 1929), to be congratulated by Churchill; Lee was defeated in 1931, but became a frequent visitor after she returned in 1945, no doubt partly because of her marriage to Bevan, an even more frequent one. There was what Brian Harrison has called a ‘steady female advance’ into conventional male spaces such as the smoking room; but it was proceeded rather slowly. Shirley Williams recalled being leered at by a Smoking Room ‘veteran’ when she went into the place with a Labour colleague after her election in 1964. In her interview for the History of Parliament Oral history project, Jill Knight (Baroness Knight of Collingtree) who was first elected in 1966 recalled ‘one Member saying to me when I went in the smoking room for instance (I don’t smoke, I never have, but that was where you had a glass of wine or whatever) this very much sort of old fashioned conservative said “Jill, I thought you were a nice girl!”; “I am”, I said, smiling winningly, and he said “Not if you go in here, this is the smoking room”. Knight went in regardless

If the smoking room could be an unpleasant place, in its heyday it couldn’t be easily ignored. The Irish members would even in the 1860s and 1870s from time to time convene their meetings there, advertising them in the Irish press in advance, presumably because unlike members of the other two parties they had no grand London residences that could easily accommodate them. This must have been unusual, and later on quite impossible, given the crowding and the noise. Its importance lay not in being just another meeting room, but in the fact that for many conservative members, for much of the time, it lay at the centre of their political lives, was the point at which their social lives met their political lives. Alan Clark gives a flavour of the subtle social and political manoeuvres of the smoking room, how it registered factions and hierarchies within the conservative party, in an entry in his diary in February 1982. Clark was a backbencher, Willie Whitelaw the home secretary. They had a strong mutual antipathy, on political and personal grounds. Ian Gow, Margaret Thatcher’s PPS, was a friend and ally of Clark. Whitelaw was holding court, as senior politicians often did in the smoking room:

Later that evening I went into the Smoking Room with Tony Buck and was frozen out of Willie [Whitelaw]’s circle with that technique at which he is such a master. Buck and I sat adjoining but were pointedly excluded, even with the tacit connivance of Ian Gow who was also in the group, from the jollity and conversation. A little later we were joined by Billy Rees-Davies, making it a real duds table. Tony, who is a genuine habituated social and political climber, became increasingly uneasy and kept looking over to their table. It got worse when we rose to leave. With split-second timing (i.e., just as I had my hand on the door but Tony was a couple of paces behind) Willie hailed Tony with that great roar of greeting and hauled him over into the group.

But only a few years later, in January 1990, Clark remarked on how the smoking room was not what it was, even in his own time. ‘In former days there was spirited discussion, conviviality. Friends and colleagues spoke ill, or, very occasionally when they hoped it would get repeated, good, of those who were absent. But now it is frequented only by soaks, traditionalists, and memory-lane buffers’. It certainly wasn’t dead. Gyles Brandreth’s diaries of the early 1990s mention it frequently enough. But it certainly progressively lost much of its attraction. It is hard to say when and why exactly; but during the debates in the 1970s over the provision of offices for members it had certainly been argued that offices, new services and facilities for members might ‘undermine the quality of parliamentary life’, ‘that the “club” atmosphere of the House would be destroyed, that social interaction between Members would markedly decline, that camaraderie across party divisions would disappear’. The argument was dismissed at the time, but it was probably true that once members had decent offices the demand for the sort of facilities represented by the smoking room would diminish. No doubt the main reason, though, is that the ‘club’ atmosphere is itself no longer fashionable: while the smoking room is empty, the coffee shops in Portcullis House are always crowded. The smoking room is still there though, and still called the smoking room, though no-one has actually smoked in it since 2007; it’s still used from time to time – members gathered there to watch the 2018 World Cup match between England and Colombia; and it’s hired out sometimes for public functions. I don’t suppose it still has Gladstone’s chair.

With thanks to Jeremy Musson and Kathryn Rix


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