Politicians are constantly branded as out-of-touch with everyday people. Yet, walk into any pub up and down the country, and the sounds you will hear echo those heard in Parliament every Wednesday. The rowdy and boisterous nature of Prime Minister’s Questions doesn’t detract from the quality of debate. It instead shows passion in supposedly detached MPs, whilst adding much needed entertainment value to British politics.
The session is broadcast on national television once a week, on three different channels. Over a million people tuned-in last month to watch Jeremy Corbyn’s highly anticipated first appearance as Leader of the Opposition. As well as this, tickets to the public gallery in the House of Commons during PMQs are the most sought after parliamentary tickets. Demand for the programme amongst the public is high and on the up. With political apathy and a general disillusion with politics amongst the electorate an ever growing trend, surely a surge in political participation within society is nothing but a good thing.
British politics has become highly celebritised. People are not only becoming more aware of the names of party leaders and other well-known figures in Parliament, but through social media they know how many kids they’ve got, who they socialise with, and exactly what they’re claiming through expenses. As politicians continue to try and prove that they’re just normal people, more and more of us are following politics to see personal squabbles between Cameron and the likes.
PMQs are above all else a brilliant platform for back-bench MPs to question the Prime Minister on issues within their constituencies. Scrutiny is the main purpose of the meeting and I feel the most important feature of any democratic government. If a leader is not held to account then we do not have democracy. And for the Prime Minister to be publicly scrutinised every week and often humiliated – see Labour MP Kevin Brennan’s “clearly someone’s telling porkies” comment on last week’s PMQs – is something that is truly unique to our country.
A constitutional convention in the UK dating back to the 1880s, Questions to the Prime Minister was always going to breed adversarial politics. The distance between the Prime Minister’s bench and that of the Leader of the Opposition in the Commons is said to be the length of two swords – designed to stop the two from committing grievous bodily harm. Fast forward over a hundred years and the need for that distance is still necessary.
Countless Prime Ministers prior to getting into Number 10 have vowed to change the way in which PMQs is run. Once in office however, and consumed by the phenomena – calls for reform quickly diminish. David Cameron in 2012 pledged to renew the system, a promise that is yet to come to fruition. The Punch-and-Judy style of politics is part of British political culture and here to stay. Everyone loves the drama and it makes for great reality TV.
Time and time again I have been unable to bring myself to endure a full thirty minutes of Prime Minister’s Questions. The build up of chaos, hooliganism, and the constant feel of indifference towards the antiquity and pageantry of the House of Commons usually leads to a swift but angered close of the laptop. I still can’t decide whether PMQs really is a central and truly beneficial part of our parliamentary arrangement, or simply as trivial as the poor attempt at a Monty Python remake that it seems to be.
However, following the highly sensationalised Labour leadership election back in September, I decided it was time to watch PMQs until the end. For the first time, I was finally able to watch all the way through. The new Labour leader’s more respectful approach went down well, managing to calm the restless storm, allowing the House to get on with debating some of the important issues of our time.
Unfortunately, there are too many underlying problems with PMQs for it to be a fair representation of Britain’s democracy. The grand chamber itself was primarily designed for only two opposing parties when, in our current political climate, there are many other parties with notable influence. This makes it difficult for the Greens or the SNP, for example, to have a real foothold in the discussions. The Houses of Parliament, the very building that houses PMQs, is in need of major structural refurbishment – serving as a reminder that PMQs is equally in need of renewal itself to remain relevant in our modern democracy.
There are various constitutional rulings governing PMQs that are so out of touch with the 21st century, they seem laughable. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any ‘Right-Honourable friends’. Nor do I stand two sword lengths apart from someone during a debate just in case I decide to initiate a duel upon disagreement. These standards of conduct, along with others, that exist in the House of Commons appear mere ridiculous acts of pageantry. Most importantly however, this indifference to real life is what turns people off politics in the first place. It encourages apathy and disillusionment, already seemingly widespread, especially among the youth of this country. Therefore, I would argue that the very nature of PMQs is not only irrelevant, but actually damaging to UK politics.
The idea that MPs from all political parties can ask the current leadership questions and hold the government to account is a key part of a democratic society. Nevertheless, PMQs in its current form does not fulfil that requirement. Conservative backbenchers only announce premeditated statements claiming how well the current government is doing, prompting a satisfied nod from David Cameron. Any questions deviating from current political thought are quickly met by an angered wave of discontent and jeering from all sides of the House. By the time the Speaker bellows over everyone just as a secondary school Head teacher would, the show is over and very little has actually been achieved at a time when we need politicians to act.
Image source: The Independent