More thoughts about politics – or: the triumph of presentation over substance

In a trailer for a documentary about Parliament, promising to show us life behind the scenes and on the benches, David Cameron speaks of the fearfulness of Wednesdays. He is referring to Prime Minister’s Questions, which happens every week in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister faces Parliament and responds to questions from MPs. It is clearly a trial. His comment is probably intended to gain our sympathy, to make him seem human. Of course it must be terrifying to stand there and have your actions challenged by a jeering mob, by the leader of the opposition, whose job it is to undermine your government, and whose ambition is to take your place. Traps will be laid, statistics quoted and quibbled with. You must have at your fingertips (or on the tip of your tongue) a response to any possible attack, a factoid, a number, a witty turn of phrase to answer them all.

Of course it is terrifying; it’s like a tutorial with the most withering tutor – worse, it is the oral exam, the viva, at which you must save yourself from a lower class degree, or worse (BA Oxon. (failed)). Poor David, who has to face this every week, knowing that any minor slip of the tongue or lapse of memory will be gleefully leapt upon and exploited. This is the nature of political debate in the soundbite era.

But hang on. Surely this is not (or should not be) the point. PMQs should not be a personal test or trial of the Prime Minister’s skill with a comeback or his ability to remember large numbers. It should be a chance for him and his colleagues in Parliament to debate the government’s policies and actions and their effects. If he is confident that those policies are justified and that he understands their justifications, he need not be afraid of questioning. And if what mattered were the correctness of those policies, the possibility of a challenge proving valid would not be something to fear; it would be a reason to keep an open mind, to be ready to reconsider, to take on board another view or new information that might inform the decisions that have to be made.

I like to imagine a political debate that resembles a conversation between medical staff (I think they call it the MDT meeting in the NHS) deciding the best treatment for a patient – a discussion between concerned experts, sharing their expertise, focused on the task at hand. These people don’t need to be ‘terrified’; they are not there to be tested, to be tripped up by their colleagues, but to do the best they can for someone else. Personal fear does not come into it.

Sadly, this is not how our government works. Instead we have an ego-ridden defence of a party line which must be held at all costs, whose victims include truth and logic as well as the electorate.

No wonder our government is largely populated by people whose skills in this kind of rhetorical cut and thrust have been honed by public school and the Oxbridge tutorial system. The tutorial system can be a wonderful way to engage the mind, to grapple with big ideas, but it can perhaps also contribute to a glibness and a short-termism that fit perfectly with our macho and adversarial politics. And now with the adoption of televised debates as a key aspect of electioneering, this is likely to get worse rather than better. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters.

Copyright ©2015 F. Watts


3 thoughts on “More thoughts about politics – or: the triumph of presentation over substance

  1. I think the model of experts conferring on treatment, with nothing but the welfare of the patient as a goal, is a wonderful one.
    And we, in the U.S., for the most part have politicians with no rhetorical skills, no profound education, no quick wits—And good intentions rarely seem to enter into the process.
    My fear is that the inarticulateness [really couldn’t find a more graceful synonym–any recommendations?] is borne of blurry thinking, and the distraction of their fundamental self-interest.

  2. NB since I wrote this the new Labour leader has attempted to handle PMQs in a more grown up way – and been ridiculed for it. And his supporters find themselves wishing he had better spin doctors on hand! Btw I think a graceful synonym for ‘inarticulateness’ would be inappropriate 🙂

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