Chamber music: parliamentary string quartet brings harmony to the Commons

The Statutory Instruments included Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire and TV presenter Cathy Newman.

String quartet the Statutory Instruments playing in the Commons chamber
String quartet the Statutory Instruments playing in the Commons chamber

The House of Commons exchanged Brexit debate for classical music when an MP, a TV presenter and two parliamentary staffers performed as a string quartet inside the famous chamber.

Known as the Statutory Instruments, the ensemble of Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire, Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman, councillor Katherine Chibah and Emily Benn, former general election candidate and granddaughter of former Labour MP Tony Benn, were given permission to play in the chamber on Tuesday evening by Speaker John Bercow.

After the spectacle, in which they performed part of Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor, Mrs Debbonaire said music can encourage people to see “different perspectives” in politics.

“It’s a way of getting a different perspective on your life, and goodness knows politics could do with different perspectives at the moment,” she told the Press Association.

“Music really takes you out of yourself … It’s also there to comfort people and to bring people together, because you can communicate through music without speaking the same language.”

House of Commons string quartet
From left, Emily Benn, Cathy Newman, Thangam Debbonaire and Katherine Chibah (David Mirzoeff/PA)

The Statutory Instruments, who describe themselves as “probably the first UK Parliamentary string quartet”, are set to play a charity concert in the Palace of Westminster at 1pm on July 2.

“What I’m hoping for is that people will have the opportunity to be calm or uplifted,” said former shadow culture secretary Mrs Debbonaire. “Or to think ‘What can I get involved in?’

“I’m really hoping that other members of Parliament or members of staff will say ‘I would like to play with you’ as well.

“I think MPs of all parties, the staffers of all parties and the House of Lords, everybody’s welcome … if you can play a musical instrument and you’ve got ambition to play, come and talk to me.

“It would be fantastic if we can expand our ensemble so that the Statutory Instruments could become, maybe, the Statutory Instruments Orchestra at some point.”

House of Commons string quartet
Violinist Cathy Newman (David Mirzoeff/PA)

Mrs Debbonaire described the experience of playing in the Commons as a “special treat”.

“We asked the Speaker’s permission and he had to check in with the Sergeant-at-Arms to make sure all the doorkeepers were aware of it,” she said.

“I’m an opposition whip so I’m a real stickler for rules.

“I mean, it’s not the perfect acoustic but it was really special to play in there.”

House of Commons string quartet
Thangam Debbonaire plays the cello (David Mirzoeff/PA)

All four members of the quartet have a background as trained musicians and Mrs Debbonaire said they “sort of found each other”.

“Three years ago I became an MP, four years ago I had lunch with Cathy Newman – we found out she was a violinist and I was a cellist so decided to play together,” she said.

“Fast forward to Christmas last year and Emily Benn (violin) came up to me at a reception in Speaker’s House – in fact where we’re playing our first concert – and said we should play together.”

Labour MP Bambos Charalambous then introduced the others to his staffer and councillor for Bowes Ward Enfield Ms Chibah, who plays the viola.

“That was it, string quartet, two violins, a viola and a cello – it’s my favourite musical medium ever, so we got together,” said Mrs Debbonaire.

“It could have been dreadful and a horrible mistake but we just really gelled and we really love playing together.”

Mrs Debbonaire explained that the name of their ensemble stems from the fact she sits on Statutory Instruments committees.

“We had been struggling with a name for the band – Never Mind The Backstop was considered at one point, but we realised it might age,” she said.

“Then Cathy forgot her music stand (during practice) and I had to improvise one from objects in my office.

“I used the box files and a chair and they are labelled ‘STATUTORY INSTRUMENTS’ and she said ‘that’s it! That’s our name!'”

Statutory instruments are a form of legislation where parts of an Act of Parliament can be brought into force or altered without Parliament having to pass a new Act.

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