All the world’s a stage, and nowhere more than the Commons despatch box. Every Wednesday, the Prime Minister turns up to give a special performance to her front and backbenchers, in a similar arrangement to that of a television panel show: the Prime Minister responds to input from all corners of the room in an ostensibly improvised way, while her audience laughs on command (and jeers, and brays like a herd of wounded donkeys, often enough to lower Prime Minister’s Questions below Mock the Week on the sophistication charts).
Even more than Cameron before her, Theresa May often resorts to jibes at Jeremy Corbyn’s struggles within his own party – the particularly sneering, ostrich-necked “remiiind him of anybodayy?” comes to mind – and largely meaningless soundbites to avoid answering difficult questions (Surely “He can lead a protest, I’m leading a country” describes the essence of how the UK’s government/opposition system should work?). Something that seems to be lacking in UK politics, that the US has ingrained, is the idea that the leaders of the country should be role models for its citizens. That’s not to say Trump is doing anything of the sort, but since PMQs began being televised we’ve been treated to a weekly exhibition of insults, screechingly bad jokes and attempted humiliation of the other side. What’s the point?
Clearly in a representative democracy there is a need for some sort of performance by its representatives, especially in order to stand out against other candidates. We’ve seen a lot of punditry recently comparing ‘Candidate Trump’ to ‘President Trump’, suggesting that his public actions have hardly changed since he was saying outrageous, terrible things at rallies – rallies that he is continuing to hold several months post-inauguration, but dictatorial habits aren’t our main concern here – and he is still acting as if desperately harvesting votes, which does nothing for the confidence of those who voted against him. The best-regarded and most conscientious politicians often seem to be those who shy away from the limelight, so it’s a testament to the nature of our system that we continue to elect those who evidently relish it. And of course, an incumbent politician needs to keep up their image too, whether that’s simply choosing their words and actions carefully or a cynical attempt to identify with a class they couldn’t be further from – witness Blair’s accentual transformation from trilling boarding schoolboy to almost cockney geezer, or George Osborne’s equally bad Mockney inflections in a speech of last year. Pragmatically, one must admit that a certain amount of posing is necessary in today’s climate.
On the other end of the spectrum of acceptability, we find possibly the worst example of the dick-waving contest that is most modern politics: House of Commons backbenchers’ habit of roaring and screaming across the chamber at their opposition during Prime Minister’s Questions. Labour and the Conservatives are guilty of this – both parties reportedly have MPs who hide out of the Speaker’s sight and shout as loudly as possible in order to put off the other side – although the Tories’ shrieking displays of paper-waving and unbelievable rowdiness doesn’t exactly distance them from their Bullingdon Club backgrounds. One would think that the job of a politician – a representative of thousands of people – is to be a considerate thinker essentially for the people, not a zoo animal trying to one-up all the others in its enclosure.
It’s not only pure performance that taints the effectiveness of parliamentary debates – tactics, of course, come into play as well. In October 2015, Tory MP Philip Davies spent an hour and a half speaking in opposition to a bill that would have given free hospital parking to all carers – once he’d finished speaking, there was no more time to vote on the law. While clearly morally dubious (reprehensible in this particular case), the popular accusation that all politicians are full of hot air isn’t helped when they enthusiastically expel zeppelin-loads of it for hours on end to filibuster away a bill that doesn’t suit their party’s, or even their personal, interests.
The idea that the political efforts – national and local – of thousands of people must converge upon the pantomime stage of the House of Commons, to have a chance of enactment, is a farce, especially when an upper-class MP can then spoil it all by endlessly waffling. An element of performance of course has its place in politics, but the distortion, filibustering and manipulation in modern politics seems an injustice against any electorate wishing to make an informed choice in an election or referendum.
[Ciaran McQueen – @_delareine]