Boo, Hiss, Cheers and Laughter. The tribal leaders assume their characters of good prince and bad king, whilst waving their scripts to the audience. Yes, you guessed correctly: 27th of April, Wednesday, 12:00pm, Location — House of Commons; Event — the Pantomime of Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs). Ed is calling for an apology, because David said “Calm down dear”. Both have the same smug grin of satisfaction; they feel point scoring in the verbal jousting arena is going well for their party. However, the rest of the nation outside this spectacle have an almost equally theatrical frown of despair as yet another debate dissolves into a tragic abuse of an opportunity for real debate.
If you have had the misfortune to watch PMQs, you will know it is not a place for discussion and reason, nor is it a place for analysis and accountability. This is a great shame. Our politics can seem quaint to the rest of the world, full of strange traditions and even stranger characters. However, we have a nearly unique tradition in which the executive is paradoxically both put on trial every week to answer for his crimes, and given a podium to sing his own praise. Few, if any, executives have to face the ‘Opposition’ so openly in a competition of wit and nerve. We must wonder how such an institution such as the House of Commons has degraded itself so far. Like Homeric or Shakespearean heroes, politicians like Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill have passed into a forgotten age of true debate, where words had weight and politicians said what they meant and meant what they said. There are a few reasons why PMQs has become such a joke and a few simple reforms which could improve it and make it a useful tool for improving our democracy.
A word you would not use to describe the House is ‘order’. I can almost feel sorry for John Bercow the current Speaker of the House, for it is his responsibility to keep order. He regularly, at least three or four times, calls for quiet and order, reminding the shouting rabble ‘that the public doesn’t like it’. At least one person in the House has got it right. Although it is disheartening that this is the only reason for which quiet is given. I would like him to stand and give a reason like: ‘if we are all quiet, then can have a civil debate’; or even better: ‘if you are quiet then it will be harder for the Prime Minister to side step the question’. The tradition to make farm animal noises during an MP’s first speech in the House has, thankfully, receded a little with the new high tech microphones. George Orwell, wrote an essay in 1946 ‘Politics and the English Language’ where he explored the tricks of language politicians use.  He must feel like a spinning top the amount of times he is forced to turn over in his grave, as clichés, name calling and not so witty retorts are thrown around the Commons as if there is no tomorrow. Last year Gordon Brown accidentally claimed to have “saved the world” and in 2010 David Cameron called Ed Miliband ‘Basil Brush’, both incidents lead to a constant barrage of shouts and jeering which any football fans would have been proud of.
Another problem is that all questions which are not directly asked by the Leader of the Opposition must be submitted beforehand. This allows the Prime Minister to prepare answers (not that you would believe this was the case on hearing the quality of said answers). Irrelevant or out-of-context quotes are used to jibe at the opposition and half-answer a poorly worded question. Figures and statistics are a particular favourite to be twisted and bent. When listening to politicians and numbers it is wise to keep this old saying, which has been attributed to Disraeli, in one’s mind ‘There are lies, damned lies, and then statistics’. Clearly things are slow to change.
The Prime Minister is not left to stand alone in the limelight. The chorus of backbenchers can also step onto centre stage. They stand with their ‘carefully’ written line which has been allocated to them by the casting team of the party whips, and they secretly pray that they can give the lame question enough conviction. ‘Planted’ questions build an even higher pedestal to allow the Prime Minister a chance to monologue to the audience how they have triumphed over adversity to bring about whatever ‘benefit’ they can twist from the facts. I say monologue for nobody is listening. Instead from the wings, a Labour MP leans forward to whisper lines to core actors on the front bench. At the same time a Liberal Democrat receives a folded piece of paper. I have an idle wonder if the scribbles are an amendment to the next taunt, or a tally of the parties’ political points.
Perhaps if questions were not all directed our Premier, then this would change the nature of debate. Perhaps a mixture of pre-submitted and on the day questions could be asked to the Cabinet as a whole, which would allow a greater depth of answer as all Secretaries of State would be held to account. This increased quality, with a decrease of noise would, with a bit of luck, allow a proper debate to develop. Constructive confrontation and passion in politics are great things which we must promote, but there is a thin and clear line to be drawn between spirited debate and useless argument.
Sadly, the theatrical display will undoubtedly continue for the foreseeable future, the actors will continue to play their parts, and the chorus will continue to cheer on cue. Reforming the manners, practices and most fundamentally the attitude of Prime Ministers could help turn the pantomime into a tradition we can be proud of.
Article by Joe Blatch. Edited by Marc Geddes.
 George Orwell, Politics and the English Language: http://orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit
 http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9469000/9469952.stm (Radio extract and article exploring the “Calm Down Dear” comment, by David Cameron)