Notes on a bleak political scene
Some disconnected thoughts on the present discontents:
David Cameron’s merciless, if tiresomely and unnecessarily repetitive, dismembering of the prime minister in Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) over the latter’s obstinate refusal to admit to Labour’s plans for stiff future cuts in government capital spending has been widely remarked on. Gordon Brown’s apparent fixation with his favourite slogan, “Labour investment versus Tory cuts” has long ago ceased to cut any ice. Everyone knows that whichever government is in office when Britain begins to come out of recession will have to act to reduce the huge volume of debt incurred as a result of the measures taken to deal with the financial and economic crisis. Obviously even a gradual start to paying off this unprecedented and unsustainable amount of government debt will entail higher taxes and big reductions in government spending. Why Brown should have persisted for so long in his claim that government capital spending under Labour would actually increase in the next three years, when the government’s own published figures show that it will fall, is a mystery. Another recklessly conceded own goal! Is there no-one in the prime minister’s entourage with the guts to tell him to stop telling porkies — if not in obedience to his much vaunted ‘moral compass’ as a ‘son of the manse’, then at the very least because of the utter certainty that he will be instantly found out? Hasn’t Peter Mandelson warned him of these elementary truths? Perhaps he has, but the prime minister can only hoist in advice that he wants to hear. A sure recipe for the kind of humiliating disaster that struck him on Wednesday.
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It’s doubly regrettable from Labour’s point of view that Gordon Brown should have handed the Tories such a weapon of mass destruction when he could easily have deployed an effective and truthful attack, pointing out that the Tories sneered from the sidelines at the radical measures taken by the government at an early stage of the crisis, both to prevent the collapse of the banking system and to provide a sharp fiscal stimulus to prevent the economy descending from recession into slump; and that the government’s measures have been widely praised as correct and courageous by international economists and governments. Cameron and Osborne have throughout been loudly calling for immediate cuts in government spending, while the country is still in recession, which could only make the recession deeper and more prolonged. The recession itself forces any government to spend more (on social security for the increased number of unemployed and homeless) while seeing its tax revenues sharply reduced (because of the falls in profits, earnings and spending), thus increasing the deficit in a double whammy — the so-called ‘automatic stabilisers’, unintentionally ironical term. Large-scale borrowing has thus been necessary and right if total calamity was to be avoided. Labour can credibly claim that that under a Labour government, when the time comes for cuts in spending, the most vulnerable and most heavily dependent on basic public services will be protected as far as possible, with the well-heeled bearing the heaviest burden in higher taxes. The Tories, by contrast, are already committed to embarking on expenditure cuts far too soon, even before we have begun to emerge from the recession, and to applying them in a recklessly indiscriminate way, with flat rate cuts apparently to be imposed on almost all public services except the NHS and overseas aid. But it’s probably too late now to launch that kind of offensive: the prime minister’s credibility has been shot to pieces.
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Coming back (reluctantly) to Wednesday’s PMQs, I found it impossible to watch and listen to the proceedings without squirming in shame and embarrassment at the tribal baying, the pathetic planted questions (memorably called ‘Dorothy Dixers‘ by the caustic Australians) and their pre-paid replies, the feeble attempts at point-scoring, the ludicrously over-acted audience reactions — raucous laughter, theatrical groans, squeals of approval, frantic nodding like those toy dogs in the back windows of cars — and the almost universally contemptible level of the debate, if one can call it that. This was the display of tantrums of the nursery, not even the quarrels of the primary school playground. Will the new Speaker be able to do anything to restore PMQs to its place as a forum for MPs of all parties to seek information (including potentially embarrassing or revealing information as appropriate) from the head of the government? By my calculation PMQs were more than half-way through before the first such question was asked.
There were a few encouraging signs: Speaker Bercow delivered one especially memorable appeal to an over-excited Member: “Order. Mr. Fabricant, you must calm yourself. It is not good for your health. I call Paul Farrelly.” He interrupted one interminable intervention in mid-flow and invited the PM to reply, even though no question had at that point been asked; and he reminded another questioner that it was out of order to ask the prime minister questions about Conservative policies. Perhaps in due course he will stop the practice of MPs delivering long speeches converted at the last moment into questions by the addition of “Does the prime minister agree?”. He might even stop the prime minister answering every other question by lambasting the Opposition, reminding him that he is there to provide information about the government’s actions and policies, not anyone else’s. Cameron is principally to blame for these weekly displays of bear-baiting, but Brown is almost as much to blame for unfailingly taking the bait; and almost all MPs on both sides of the House are certainly to blame for the childish baying and general tribalism. The expenses scandal isn’t the only reason for sensible people of all political persuasions to despair of both politics as currently practised, and all too many of the present crop of politicians. And, like poor Mr Fabricant’s excitement, this disillusionment with politics and politicians isn’t good for our collective health. It’s quite a short step from this to some form of populist fascism.
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One dimly encouraging sign is the new Speaker’s appearance in the Chair in an ordinary business suit and tie, in ordinary shoes, his special status marked only by a black academic-type gown of the kind worn by American judges. OK, it might make him look like a rather diminutive schoolmaster, but better that than the absurd pantomime costume affected by his predecessors. Some of the fake-medieval flummery attending his ritual procession through the lobby at the start of each day’s proceedings could helpfully be dispensed with, including his train-bearer, hardly necessary now that there’s no train to bear. The exotic language used by MPs in debate to refer to each other could usefully be brought up to date. Is it really necessary for every utterance to have to pretend to be addressed to the Chair? Why on earth do members have to waste hours of everyone’s time by trooping through the lobbies to vote when quite simple electronic voting systems are used in most comparable assemblies and have been available for years? Why is the order paper unintelligible to anyone who hasn’t studied the arcane mysteries of Commons procedures for at least ten years? Why are the parliamentary ushers, who show visitors to their seats and shush them when they make a noise, dressed like warders on loan from the Tower of London, or possibly toast-masters? Even more radically, what’s the benefit of a layout in the House of Commons that accentuates the adversarial element in our politics and actually encourages the sort of infantile tribal behaviour seen at its worst in PMQs? Why not a horse-shoe-shaped seating arrangement that would reflect the nuances of members’ political positions instead of a Manichean in-versus-out, us-versus-them dichotomy? There’s plenty to be done, Mr Speaker.
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Even the choice of John Bercow as the new Speaker was basically an act of political tribalism, estimable though he might be — certainly preferable to the majority of the other candidates. But there’s no disguising the fact that although he is, or was until elected Speaker, a Conservative MP, the great majority of his fellow-Conservatives cordially dislike him (mainly apparently because his political views have shifted from far right to slightly left-of-centre since he very sensibly married a socialist). Virtually the whole of his support, in an unprecedented secret ballot, came from Labour MPs who still of course have a comfortable majority (for the time being, anyway). Were those hundreds of Labour votes cast for Bercow based on a sober assessment of his Speaker-like qualities of patience, courtesy, gravitas and natural authority, long experience in the House, and acceptability to a wide range of opinion on both sides? One would like to think so, and that Bercow voters were behaving like grown-ups. Or was this one last chance to cock a snook at anti-Bercow Tories, using their majority to impose him on his unwilling party colleagues before the Labour majority disappears from under them some time within the next eleven months? If so, how will a likely Tory majority in the next parliament be tempted to get its revenge? Business as usual, sadly: all the brave talk of the need for change and reform was strictly for the birds, all along.