Wednesday, 16 September 2015

And How They Would Portray It

Peter Hitchens writes:

I am deliberately writing this without listening to or reading anyone else’s opinions on Prime Minister’s Questions today (Wednesday 16th September).

This weekly performance has for many years been a nonsense, a pretend substitute for the adversarial parliament we have lost.

It’s not actually a moment which the Prime Minister is seriously questioned. Many principled MPs have long despised it. The fake roaring and howling of backbenchers, and the attempts to manipulate the appearance of the event to suit TV, are just part of a general phoniness.

Americans like it because their Senate and the House of Representatives  lack anything of the kind and are extraordinarily dull to watch, and their own President rarely faces any disrespect at all.

Also they know so little about our politics that they don’t notice the cardboard controversies and mistake the whipped-up bellowing for real emotion.

I’m genuinely unsure whether the public care.

For years, William Hague regularly trounced Anthony Blair week after week, but the media classes at the time favoured Blair and despised Hague, so it made no difference to anything at all.

Margaret Thatcher, an uninspiring performer, never did especially well at it during her long years in office.

It was when she faced Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock that I first experienced the real thing, in a pre-televised House.

The racket, which then contained some genuine hostility, was so great that you couldn’t hear much of what was going on.

I and many others used to leave a tape recorder running next to the radio, which broadcast the 15-minute exchanges each Tuesday and Thursday at 3.15, so that we could find out what had actually been said.

The radio microphones, as the TV ones do today, picked up far more than we could hear from the gallery directly above the Speaker’s chair.

During all my years in the Lobby, somebody’s dropped Bic biro, its blue cap still in place, lay amid the dust on the canopy above the Speaker’s head. I’ve often wondered who dropped it.

These days , if anyone did such a thing, gun-draped robocops would probably abseil immediately down from concealed pods in the ceiling and drag him off to Belmarsh, while alarms shrilled and the Cabinet were ushered away to a bunker.

And the next day they’d put up yet another armoured glass screen, shielding our lawmakers from the dangerous press.

When the Blair creature merged two post-lunch Question sessions into one pre-lunch half-hour, he knew what he was doing.

Unless a genuinely clever backbencher asks a really good question (rare – Blair was caught once when one of his own MPs, Tony McWalter,  cruelly asked him to outline his political philosophy), the whole thing becomes a bore.

Backbenchers cannot follow up their questions with a supplementary, so their attacks are never pressed home.

The only drama, such as it is, now comes during the Opposition Leader’s questions, which will generally have been foreseen and rehearsed for by the Prime Minister, whose answer will generally amount to ‘Your lot did it too’ or an irrelevant snowstorm of statistics about alleged government achievements.

And you may be sure that the government has achieved some great statistics every week. It is one thing we do well in this country.

The rest is filled by outbursts of nauseating sycophancy, orchestrated by the government whips who plant questions on the weak, the pathetically ambitious and the pliable.

The Opposition leader won’t win many of these exchanges. And if he does, nobody will remember it.

So how did Jeremy Corbyn do? No doubt the phalanx of disgruntled lobby journalists, furious with Mr Corbyn for messing up their tidy lives, will dismiss his performance yesterday because they would have done so whatever happened.

For those who didn’t see it, Mr Corbyn – rather in the manner of a phone-in host – read out questions he had received on various subjects form members of the public, pointing out that these were just representative samples of thousands sent to him.

He preceded this with a slightly-too-long preamble about how a different sort of question time was needed; he never knows when to stop.

I think it was quite effective, except at the point where Labour MPs very foolishly began barracking the Prime Minister, who rightly and swiftly noted that he thought ‘this was the new Prime Minister’s Questions’. That shut them up.

But Labour MPs, like the Lobby, have no stake in helping Mr Corbyn to succeed and it is said there are big problems in the Labour whips’ office, which means one can never be entirely sure who is working for whom.

Mr Corbyn, as he did on the stump, flew low and slow, not attempting any aerobatics.

As a result, he took off and landed safely, droning steadily in between times, but neither frightened his opponents nor impressed his own side.

Had he tried any tricks,  he would have ended up on his face in the mud, with his machine smouldering and sputtering beside him.

With his ill-fitting jacket, beard and untailored appearance, I suspect Mr Corbyn had in his mind an old engraving that I recall from my school history books, of Keir Hardie, the first Labour leader ‘bringing the plight of the unemployed before Parliament’. I can’t find it or I’d link to it.

Keir Hardie, too, was criticised for his non-adherence to the dress code.  Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP far too long to care about that, though more of this later.

But he was certainly making a point. Marks and Spencers suits, which are a lot more conformist,  are well within his means.

Rightly concluding that he was not going to kebab the prepped and confident premier, Mr Corbyn chose instead to strike at Mr Cameron’s soft underbelly.

All his questions would have meant quite a lot to Labour voters in the rougher, bleaker parts of Britain. They were theoretical bafflements to Mr Cameron who knows little of housing associations or high rents.

Mr Corbyn’s questions were based on specific problems sent to him by actual individuals. Mr Cameron’s replies were banal generalities.

Now, if Labour’s case, that normal people are suffering from and under government policy, is basically true, this will resonate beyond Mr Corbyn’s narrow base. If the Osborne case, that we are in the midst of great national recovery, is true, then it won’t.

As I incline to the view that Mr Osborne’s boom is like Billy Bunter’s postal order (endlessly promised, never to arrive) I tend to think it might, if cleverly sustained, be quite dangerous.

This will especially be so if Frank Field is right about the tax credit cuts voted in yesterday. Mr Field, who understands the welfare system better than most men living, reckons it will hit quite a lot of people very hard.

I was fascinated by the behaviour of David Davis, who actually voted against his own party’s government on this and who the day before had – quite rightly – attacked some of the more onerous and heavy-handed provisions of the new Trade Union legislation.

Hard to believe now that Mr Davis nearly beat David Cameron for the leadership of his party, and would have done so had Michael Howard not stretched out the campaign to suit David Cameron.  I am surprised more isn’t being made of the Haltemprice MP’s behaviour.

But back to Mr Corbyn. He spent much of yesterday being attacked for being honest about his opinions, and for not resorting to spin.

Much of the media, as well as people in pubs etc, say all the time how much they yearn for politicians who speak their minds, stick to their principles, don’t try to be too smooth.

Yet when they get such a person, they attack him for it. Take the ‘not singing the national anthem’ affair.

I’m all for constitutional monarchy myself, and these days lustily sing the anthem, including, when possible, its Satanic verses about ‘knavish tricks’.

I support it because I think constitutional monarchy tends to sustain free countries. Constitutional monarchies rarely have torture chambers, for instance. Republics often have them.

Which is why I’ve reached the stage where I’m very happy to share my country with people who don’t agree with me. I’ve always hated being forced to say or sing things I don’t agree with.

I suspect that plenty of other Labour leaders have been secret republicans. Mr Corbyn’s an open one. If he doesn’t want to sing ‘God save the Queen’, then isn’t his freedom to do so one of the many small but significant things so many people fought and died for back in 1940?

He was perfectly polite about it. He didn’t glare at his neighbours for singing, or lounge in his seat while they stood. He just didn’t sing a song he didn’t agree with.

Indeed, I also suspect that some of the soldiers, sailors and airmen in combat posts in His Majesty’s armed forces between 1939 and 1945 might well have held the same views as Mr Corbyn. It didn’t stop them fighting, dying or being wounded.

And if we’re all so keen on the national anthem, why don’t we bring it back at the end of every evening in cinemas and theatres (when it used to be played as a matter of course, right up until the late 1960s, and you were expected to stand) and see what happens?

Most modern British people are sadly indifferent, don’t know the words, don’t understand why it matters.

Just as I prefer thoughtful atheism to indifference to religion, I prefer a serious republican to someone who just doesn’t care, or to someone who is republican in secret and obsequious in public.

Nor should it be a special surprise that a left-wing Labour leader makes a friendly speech to the TUC.

It certainly could have been a better speech,  and better delivered. But those of us who endured the ghastly bladders of vanity which were Antony Blair’s speeches, and remember the way they were praised at the time, can see why this isn’t necessarily a disaster.

I myself am also not surprised or distressed when people in political parties disagree with each other in public. For most of my life, they did this all the time.

It became a sort of crime about 20 years ago. It should be legalised again.

I’m also thrilled to see that Labour and the unions are rediscovering theor long mistrust of the European project, dating back to Ernest Bevin and long overdue for revival.

Those on the right who are joining in with the general mockery and dismissal of Mr Corbyn might trouble to wonder how the media powers of the Left, including the BBC, might treat (indeed have treated, in the case of Nigel Farage) a person who stepped outside the very narrow bounds of liberal approval.

It seems to me that in both cases the same establishment,  which has largely failed in office over the past 20 years, is seeking to defend itself against debate or criticism from any direction.

If in, some fantasy world, I unexpectedly found myself at the head of some morally and socially conservative liberation movement, I can just imagine the BBC, The Guardian and The Times (always the servant of the establishment, wherever it is) going through my books, which they had until then ignored, my obscure radio appearances and my blogs, looking for supposed ‘gaffes’.

If I have time, I might one day write down and place in a sealed envelope my guesses about what they would come up with and how they would portray it.

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