Order, order! The gentleman will be heard. Furrowed brows and fulmination in Westminster this week as an even-more-riotous-than-usual session of Prime Minister’s Questions attracted some less than enthusiastic coverage.
The weekly face-off between the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, and the incumbent PM, David Cameron, is often lauded (here in the UK at least) as classic political theatre. But this latest edition boasted little subtlety. According to a man who knows best – the speaker of the House – it was largely an “unedifying spectacle… noisier than I have ever known”, and featured behaviour by a large number of members that was “very poor”. Speaker John Bercow also complained about a “wall of noise” from the assembled MPs – and not the good, Gold Star studios kind of wall but the bad, repetitive-as-a-road-drill kind.
The structure of the weekly set-to is of course adversarial – there is the apocryphal but nevertheless compelling legend that the participants on each side of the House stand two swords lengths and an inch apart for self-evident reasons. Certainly the British parliamentary debating style is renowned the world over. But if you contrast that with the furious finger-pointing of this week’s edition – the key clash was on that contemporary staple of party funding – there was little that would feature in a textbook entry of how to conduct the critical business of democracy.
Having said all of that, it is perhaps sage to contrast the worst excesses of the Westminster set with some of the rest of the world’s parliamentary villains. Cameron might raise his voice, shake his head with condescension and even snort derisively now and again, but he’s never looked close to slipping off one of his brogues and hurling it across the chamber at Miliband’s head – which would be a basic move in Pakistan, for example.
And even in the most antagonistic days of Wilson versus Heath or Thatcher versus… well, basically everyone, there was never even an inkling of the kind of free-form punch-up that seasoned observers of the Verkhovna Rada in Kiev are treated to at least annually. Turkey and Jordan have also staged some cracking brawls in their seats of government.
A recent favourite, though, was in Venezuela, where a post-election “debate” descended rapidly into all-in fighting. Some of the pugilists were wearing national-team tracksuits, which added a pleasing dash of colour to complement the violence.
Speaker Bercow take note: “very poor” behaviour has many forms and perhaps we should be a little more tolerant of the odd heckle, the occasional bark of dissent, even a pretty sustained “wall of noise”. After all, PMQs may be unedifying at times but it is also a demonstration of democratic accountability in action. And how many countries can boast such relatively robust behaviour?
So I will continue to watch on Wednesdays with interest. It is the view of this infrequently right and seldom honourable gentleman that this is one British institution we should be proud of.
Tom Edwards is Monocle 24’s news editor.