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Prime Minister’s Questions is a rhetorical debacle

ByGilbert Dowding

Jan 27, 2015

Prime Minister’s Questions is an unedifying spectacle for those initiated in politics, as well as those who seldom peer into the activities of the House of Commons. Snippets of men shouting at each other played on the news will account for the majority of experiences of the venerable institution; Nick Clegg has even denounced the scheduled debates as a “farce”.

Clegg, a man railing against a system that he thought he could play, but which instead chewed him up and spat him at the other end of a highly detrimental coalition with the Conservatives. It is hard not to sympathise with a man tasked with sitting stony-faced, while his reputation plummets amidst a cacophony of jeers and jibes. As a child who had a perhaps unhealthy interest in politics, PMQs’ combative nature was appealing to me. It seemed like a healthy means for the incumbent party to be held accountable, and if rhetoric was the means for this to happen then surely the electorate were the winners. Sadly, the toxic effects of PMQs’ raucous and frequently childish debates have slowly revealed themselves as farcical to those involved in politics.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, is now a campaigner for Commons reform, citing letters from the public to support the view that the “sneering fools” are repellent to public interest in politics.

Occasionally an MP manages to slip in a carefully worded question that reflects the concerns of their constituency, but these rare moments of lucidity from backbenchers do not compensate for the sheer weight of noxious catcalling from both sides of the chambers. These rhetorical debacles are not a price worth paying; they are continuing to alienate the last few people left in this country with a semblance of active investment in UK politics.

Ed Miliband has waded into the debate with the slightly outlandish statement that the many cumulative hours he has spent in the Commons, trying to outwit David Cameron, have failed to add anything to the “sum of human knowledge”.

It is sad that this is the way that Miliband feels, because in its purest form PMQs ought to allow for insight which cannot be achieved through the usual truncated sparring between politicians in the media. In an alternate universe the electorate would have a half hour of structured and illuminating cross-examination of the party in power; the leader would be pressed into immediate explanations with little or no wriggle room.

We do not live in that universe though. Instead, we have half an hour a week where a heaving room full of boisterous men do their best impression of boorish louts, all in the name of smearing their opponents’ attempts to explain themselves. In their deluded attempts to trample over their opponents’ posturing, they are playing a zero sum game in which everyone loses. Rather than just tempering any positive effect that their opponents may have hoped to achieve, they end up disenchanting the public’s opinion of politicians so severely that political participation is down to an alarming level.

John Bercow has suggested talking to party whips about reining in the behaviour of MPs, but this seems to be fanciful thinking in a system that has such an ingrained basic level of respect between political adversaries. Instead, surely we should be looking at more radical alternatives to this particularly tiresome farce to help heal the reputation of Westminster around the country? Guffawing politicians will undoubtedly find other arenas for their waggish put-downs, just preferably not in the House of Commons.

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