The Wednesday morning congregation in Parliament Square usually puts out satirical pop on its loudspeakers – Money, Money, Money or You Don’t Get Me I’m Part of the Union or Yes, We Have no Bananas. Today it was choral music, a sacred choir, singing of some aspect of heaven, redemption, godliness.
It was apparent that something was afoot.
Having come down the back way from PMQs and landed in Speaker’s Court, your correspondent found himself at the ring side of a small ceremony of welcome for the arrival of President Zelenskyy.
The Speakers of the Commons and Lords, the Serjeant, Black Rod were there – all fabulous in their gold ornaments, white ruffs and wrist-ruffles. Black Rod gives off a particularly commanding air, like a friendly general. They presented themselves with sort of formality that – rather than alienating ordinary people – dignifies an occasion and gives honour to the guests.
Are these people often honoured? The big men with shaven heads. Men in battle fatigues? Who knows what incomprehensible horrors they’ve come from.
Mr Speaker crossed his court to talk to a man in a wheelchair who’d been terribly knocked about. Veterans minister Johnny Mercer was looking after him. A couple in pale combat fatigues were filming the Palace facades on their mobile phones. They come from a different reality. For us, it is beyond imagination that these buildings of ours would ever be occupied, overrun, shelled by psychotic foreigners.
A couple of Ukrainian photojournalists pointed their cameras up at the great clock face, intricate and brilliant in the sun, and one murmured “It’s so beautiful!”
A grey Range Rover came through the archway into the Speaker’s Court and stopped in front of the steps. Zelenskyy got out, was greeted, turned, stood between the Speakers. The efficient between the dignified. He was dressed in olive drabs and work boots – the sort of military casuals that also gave honour to the occasion. He was expressionless.
It’s been a year since he declined safe passage from his war zone. He had come to address the Houses of Parliament and his presence caused a remarkable session of PMQs. Half an hour earlier, the Leader of the Opposition had used all six questions to give non-partisan support to the Ukraine effort.
Perhaps taking note of the recent shroud-waving in the Commons, Keir Starmer did well with a confident Speak-For-England-Arthur note. “Every time Putin has been appeased he come back for more,” he said. He also talked about “the only way to ensure Putin’s defeat.”
That was very far from left-wing talk of a negotiated peace; of the need to preserve Putin’s amour proper; of the tremulous posture that can be taken when Putin makes another of his appalling threats.
Starmer mentioned his time at the International Criminal Court at the Hague and said how essential it was that “Putin and his cronies must stand in the Hague and face justice.”
Anyway: Starmer may have said these things before but they are sounding quite fresh, as the situation evolves and the rhetoric escalates. We even heard Rishi say that he wanted to supply enough support so that Putin would be defeated this year. That’s quite an ambition. Unless it’s just an aspiration.
Starmer also said that Russian assets must pay for the reconstruction of the country.
That may or may not be a good idea. It was tried by the French at Versailles with mixed results. But then Russia is pretty good at suffering. They’re more used to it than is Germany.