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Drunk on duty: Charles Townshend,  circa 1765

One of the memorable scrapes recounted in Alan Clark’s diaries was the occasion in July 1983 when he addressed the House of Commons while drunk. He was scheduled to speak late in the evening on the egalitarian subject of equal pay for equal work. It was simply a matter of reading out a prepared statement. So Clark devoted the earlier part of the evening to an extensive bout of claret tasting with a couple of friends — Palmer 1961 and 1975, and Pichon Longueville 1961 were all extensively sampled. 

When Clark got back to the House he was very much the worse for wear, and this was quickly noticed when he got up to speak. He raced through what he had to say, sometimes turning over several pages at once, causing dismay to his friends and giving those on the other side of the House an opportunity to feign indignation and outrage. 

Writing the event up in his diaries Clark berated himself — “Fool, Clark. Fool, fool, fool.” Was this an attractive moment of contrition on his part, or a moment of weakness even more reprehensible than the misjudgment that provoked it? After all, and to re-work a well-known phrase, there are few things so ridiculous as the House of Commons in one of its not infrequent fits of sanctimonious self-regard. Should Clark really have been so abashed?

Clark, of course, was not the first minister to speak in the chamber when drunk. A notable precedent had been set as far back as May 1767, when the mercurial Charles Townshend had, if anything, been even more reckless.

The spring of 1767 was a season big with imperial crisis. In America, colonial unrest had continued in the wake of a series of measures designed to take the wind out of the sails of the agitators. The Declaratory Bill and repeal of the Stamp Act had been passed into law on March 18, but the colonists were still irritated by the Currency Act of 1764 and the Quartering Act of 1765, which required colonies, particularly New York, to supply British soldiers with barracks and provisions. In India, relations between the administration and the East India Company were in a difficult state. In return for new advantages granted to them in relation to their trade in tea, the Company had agreed to pay the government £400,000 a year for the next three years. This was far below what the administration, led by Chatham, had hoped for. However the Company had protested the impossibility of their affording a greater sum. But then, with a sublimely insolent sense of timing, the court of proprietors had decided to award themselves a substantial dividend. The House of Commons was outraged, and the directors of the Company were summoned to the bar of the House on May 8, 1767 to give an account of themselves.

As the relevant Secretary of State, Townshend was deeply involved in these events.  Early in the day he had examined the conduct of the Company in a speech judged by those who heard it to be cool and sensible.  Aware of his reputation for levity and inconsistency, in this speech Townshend was even so bold as to express the hope that he had gone some way towards atoning for what he called “the inconsideration of his past life” by the care and thoroughness he had now shown in dealing with an important piece of business. 

Townshend then left the House and went home to dinner, returning about eight in the evening when summoned by the leader of the administration in the Commons, General Conway, to speak in support of a bill for regulating the East India Company’s power to pay dividends, which had unexpectedly run into difficulties.

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