The British Parliament is fairly unique in Europe with its tradition, ritual and adversarial debates. As disillusionment with the political class has grown, the party loyalties have broken down in the nation and people no longer see the point in the tribalism of Parliamentary events such as Prime Minister’s Question Time.
The Speaker of the House, who has little respect for tradition but a great deal for himself, has asked the three leaders of the political parties to consider ways to change the atmosphere of PMQs. And yet really this misses the point, because the tribal politics of Parliament worked when people were engaged with the system and trusted their politicians. The sometimes raucous atmosphere was described by Ang San Suu Chi during her address to both Houses as “the sound of democracy”. We ought to consider why she said that and imagine how controlled the parliaments of authoritarian regimes must be. A powerful political class likes a quiet Parliament.
The new dislike of Prime Minster’s Questions is due to a twofold and interlinked cause. First politicians have become more careerist and political conviction and ideology have diminished. This means that there is less conviction to the adversarial approach. The new type of politician has aggravated the public, not through his opinions but through who he is – the slippery careerist only interested in the greasy pole, who treats politics as a path to high office. Therefore the public also no longer believe in the adversarial clashes in Parliament. It seems empty and meaningless. So, on the one hand the politicians no longer believe in it and on the other, the public no longer believes in the politicians taking part.
If a primary concern of the voters is immigration but a primary concern of our politicians is same-sex marriage, then there is a disconnection between the public and their political representatives. Not only that, but as a rule, most politicians take one view on Europe, immigration and the family and the public tend to take another view. So people no longer feel represented in Westminster. It may be because of this break in a connection between the political class and the voters that the Nationalists in Scotland have gained some traction (rather than a rejection of our common history by the Scots being the primary cause of nationalism).
Interestingly John Bercow is in many ways the incarnation of much of what voters distrust about politics. A man whose views changed as the electoral fortunes of his party diminished: A man who has dispensed with tradition by declining to wear the wig, thereby taking attention away from the office and increasing the focus on himself and a man who seems to have an aversion to the aspects of Parliament that depend on conviction to function effectively. For example, if PMQs was still a way of addressing the breaches in our own nation then the adversarial nature of it would strike a chord. It is when the people going through the motions all seem to share a liberal, metropolitan outlook that the clashes in Parliament seem rather to be about going through the motions than sincere debate.
Prime Minister’s Questions should work well by allowing political divisions in society to be brought out and aired with the passion and confrontational nature that means people can go about their lives, knowing their own grievances, passionate beliefs, fears and concerns are being fought out in Parliament, not on the streets. Instead, parties outside the system are growing to cater for the voicelessness that the public is experiencing.
There is something slightly self-important about MPs fearing that they look ridiculous. The best thing about the adversarial nature of politics is that it puts the ordinary voter in the position of being the reasonable judge, weighing up both sides.
Just as in the criminal court, everyone expects prosecution and defence to push their case as far as they can, because the person who is trusted to make the reasonable decision is the juror; so with PMQs the voter can observe with a detached air and cast himself in the role of the reasonable man looking at two caricatures.
Politicians’ concerns about how PMQs make them look are not just about vanity though, changing PMQs would also be a power grab by the political class. If parliamentary debate moves towards a more consensual tone, it becomes politicians patting each other on the back, not putting their opponents under scrutiny and pressure, but instead looking at the demands of the voters as an unreasonable force to be mitigated and addressed. The whole political process would be turned on its head, with the political class becoming more incestuous, more self-regarding and less respectful of the voter, who would no longer be regarded as the reasonable judge of their arguments, but an unreasonable agitator whose anger must be assuaged by politicians working together.
It is no accident that a Speaker who cannot see the importance of the wig, cannot see the importance of adversarial and tribal politics. A consensual form of politics would suit the political careerists rather than the conviction politician. Change the atmosphere of politics and we will see yet more of the more slippery sort of politician prospering – the sort of politician who prefers to cast aside tradition and swagger in the empty openness of classical architecture, rather than understand he is only a part of a thousand years of history when surrounded by the Gothic of Pugin. Such politicians are of course already there, but they must not be allowed to reshape Parliament in their own image.
Parliamentary tradition is there for a reason. Politicians should stop worrying so much about how they look and worry more about whether the current parties are representing the country at large or just metropolitan London.