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A tailor with thimble in pocket keeps order in British Parliament

By David K. WillisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 8, 1984


Overlooking the waters of the Thames in a corner of the glorious neo-Gothic profusion known as the Houses of Parliament is a comfortable living room almost directly beneath Big Ben.

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In it a gentle, unassuming man in a dapper suit and waistcoat pours a cup of tea and neatly slices a piece of cake.

As he hands both to a visitor with a murmur of welcome, it takes an effort to realize that apart from royalty, only five others in the entire United Kingdom rank higher than this quiet man.

Bruce Bernard Weatherill, known all his life as Jack (his twin sister Margery is known as Jill), is a former master tailor to royalty who still carries a thimble in his pocket at his mother's request ''to keep me humble.'' For four years he sat cross-legged on a workroom floor as a tailor's apprentice, specializing in riding breeches.

He also happens to speak Urdu from his years with the 19th Bengal Lancers in World War II. And today he is the 134th Speaker of the world's preeminent parliament, the House of Commons.

Speaker Weatherill, whose opening cry of ''Order! Order!'' is heard around the country in daily radio broadcasts of Parliament, is also at the center of a lively national debate about maintaining that order and discipline on the floor of the House of Commons itself.

The debate has wide ramifications. ''Bitterness in the Commons can sour politics in the country,'' says Peter Riddell, political editor of the respected Financial Times newspaper.

Keeping order is a stern test for a man who never dreamed he would occupy such an exalted position. He was elected to the elaborate Speaker's chair only last June and must carve out his own style and presence in the shadow of the previous Speaker, George Thomas, who is regarded as one of the most effective holders of the office in modern times.

Unlike the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington, the Speaker in Westminster is strictly impartial. He presides over 726 years of tradition: The first man to lead the House was Peter de Montfort in 1258.

Surrounded by ceremony and deference and clad in a full-bottomed white wig and black robes, he wields final authority in his own domain.

He may not speak in debates himself, but only he can decide who else can take the floor. He must know the names of all 650 members and each must try to catch his eye.

The whole House elects him, rotating the office between the major parties. Mr. Weatherill is a Tory; Mr. Thomas, now Lord Tonypandy, is a Labour man.

Some in the house and in the national press think Mr. Weatherill shows insufficient firmness to keep the house disciplined.

But ''it would be wrong to be too hard on Mr. Weatherill,'' Peter Riddell notes in the Financial Times.

Friends made in a 20-year house career as member, whip, and deputy speaker say he is utterly fair and devoted to upholding the reputation of Parliament.

Expert onlookers like Mr. Riddell and a number of MPs acknowledge he is having to deal with unprecedented rivalries and frustrations of four separate parties in a political system designed for only two.

The Labour opposition, led by the relatively young, ambitious, and outspoken Neil Kinnock, is frustrated at the size of the current Tory majority (about 140 seats). The still-new Social Democrats, who won almost 26 percent of the vote last June but only six actual seats, demand that the Speaker call on their members in each debate.