Martin Horwood MP
A primary school teacher recently wrote to me complaining about behaviour in the House of Commons. They were quite right too. At Prime Minister’s Question Time in particular the levels of shouting and jeering rise to deafening levels and if it wasn’t for the little loudspeakers hidden in the green benches, half of us wouldn’t be able to hear a word of what was being said.
It’s true that if I took a good behaviour policy from a Cheltenham primary school to Prime Minister’s Question Time it would really cramp their style: no interrupting, no shouting, listen to other people politely… many MPs would be off to see the headteacher in about five minutes.
How did this appalling behaviour develop?
It does seem to go with the territory. Rowdy parliamentary sessions have long been a feature of our history - the red lines on the carpet in front of the front benches are said to be there to not prevent but keep opposing MPs at least a sword’s length apart. Many other parliaments are even worse - our sister legislatures in Israel, India, Russia, Ukraine, South Korea and Taiwan are all famous for their frequent punch-ups, which are sometimes violent enough to land MPs in hospital.
The architecture doesn’t help either. As Churchill famously said ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’. And he should have known. When the Commons chamber was bombed out by the Luftwaffe in October 1943, MPs debated whether to change the confrontational lines of opposing benches and switch to a more consensual semi-circle. Enlargement was also suggested so that there was enough space for all 600+ MPs instead of just 450. Churchill vetoed both ideas – he loved the bearpit atmosphere – so we’re still lumbered with a loud, cramped and oppositional chamber.
Of course the bad behaviour can serve a political purpose. Prime Minister’s Question Time is televised. If Ed Miliband or David Cameron land a good soundbite for the ten o’clock news, that’s political golddust. Drown it out with jeers and shouts and there’s a chance it won’t be used. On another, baser level it’s simply an attempt at bullying and intimidating your opponent.
Luckily it’s also pretty untypical. Pop your head round the door of a parliamentary bill committee, as its members wade laboriously through every line of a piece of legislation, and you’ll find politeness itself. Sit in on a select committee as it lightly toasts a minister and you’ll see tough questioning, forcing ministers to really defend their latest decisions or policy, but nothing so vulgar as raised voices or even interruptions. In fact, switch on the BBC Parliament channel any day of the week and you’ll see MPs debating the pros and cons of this bill or that, often passionately but generally politely too.
Does it matter then? A bit. At a time when respect for politicians and politics is pretty much at an all-time low, impressions count. And the indignation at the childish behaviour on display at Prime Minister’s Question Time is not restricted to primary school teachers.
Martin Horwood MP
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