5 July 2019
Before I joined Right Angles, I was a clerk in the House of Commons for 11 years, one of the faceless bureaucrats supporting the bewigged individuals who sit, hunched, in front of the Speaker. If describing to others what my job as a clerk entailed was difficult and tortuous, imagine what it was like actually doing it. There is no professional qualification for being a clerk; you are taken, probably with a good degree or two, and dropped into this mad partisan maelstrom in the midst of which your number one job is to maintain strict impartiality. Normally you will start working for a select committee, but as a junior clerk you will move around every year or two in order to absorb the range of functions that the House Service performs.
In 2009, as a grizzled veteran of three-and-a-half years, I was moved to the Public Bill Office. The PBO essentially deals with the passage of legislation through the Commons; it supervises the line-by-line scrutiny of Bills, it advises on and drafts amendments, it sometimes drafts Private Members’ Bills, it organises votes in the House. Basically, if it’s a matter of Parliamentary procedure on the floor of the House, your best friends are probably the PBO clerks.
When I arrived, Alan Sandall was formally Clerk of Grand Committees. That meant little; what was important was that he sat at the top of the long, narrow office (I sat at the bottom), and was the most experienced member of the team. He was not, at first encounter, an easy man to get to know. He could be laconic, if not quite taciturn; if you asked him a question, he would descend into silent thought for seconds or minutes at a time while his remarkable brain formulated a watertight answer, reasoning from first principles; and his sense of humour was so dry it was desiccated.
The brain, yes. Alan was one of the cleverest people in a department renowned for its intellectual rigour. He was a Durham- and Oxford-educated Arabist, and that was his passion. His mouse mat was a miniature Arabian carpet, and he spent long holidays in Mesopotamia, a devotee of Gertrude Bell. He was, they said, the “best proceduralist in the House”, quite a claim when the corridors were stalked by many who gave the impression of having ingested at their mother’s breast Erskine May, the Parliamentary ‘bible’.
Of his formidable intellectual gifts there was no doubt. He knew Parliamentary procedure backwards, and could cite precedent from the high Victorian age as if it had happened when he was a junior clerk. Yet he was not remotely hidebound, no jobsworth. For him, it was all about flexibility and service. “You see, Eliot,” he intoned to me seriously one afternoon, “Our purpose is to help Members do what they want to do, within the rules of the House.” I never found a pithier or more apposite description of the duties of a clerk.
Alan was a colleague, a formidable support and an invaluable defence. But principally, he was, and he remains, my friend. He always had time to explain what must have been to him the daftest of daft laddie questions to young and inexperienced colleagues, he was never patronising or superior, and I remember most of all his sense of humour. When one particularly intellectually modest MP announced he was stepping down from the House, Alan took the news with equanimity. He caressed the teapot with a long-fingered hand, waiting for the leaves to steep, and looked up at the ceiling. With a sigh, he said, “However, will the House cope without him?” If there was the ghost of a smile, I didn’t see it.
So that’s what I learned from Alan. Know your job, and excel. Always be ready to share your expertise with others, especially junior colleagues who are trying so hard to learn. Be generous with your time when faced with the most difficult and demanding client. And always, always keep a sense of humour. We’re all going to hell in a handcart. We might as well have a laugh on the way.