No pepper spray yet, but House of Commons irks many
Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times
London, February 24, 2014
First Published: 01:23 IST(24/2/2014)
Last Updated: 01:25 IST(24/2/2014)
If there is much despair over behaviour in Indian parliament and state assemblies plumbing new depths, the situation is not too different in the House of Commons, where the speaker has reacted with much fury over the ‘yobbish’ behaviour of MPs and ministers.
The pepper spray has not surfaced in the House of Commons, yet, but anyone watching the proceedings at 12 noon on Wednesdays soon realises that the Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) – once famed for wit, repartee and humour – are not the same anymore.
Impatient with constant heckling and barracking, speaker John Bercow has written to leaders of the three main parties – David Cameron (Conservative), Ed Miliband (Labour), Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) – asking them to curb “yobbery and public school twittishness” during PMQs.
The reputation of politics and politicians among the public has fallen further. Research released earlier this month by the Hansard Society, which campaigns for parliamentary reform, found that the most common descriptions by the public of PMQs are ‘noisy’, ‘childish’, ‘over-the-top’ and ‘pointless’.
There have been several instances in recent months when Bercow singled out and put down ministers and MPs for their increasingly belligerent behaviour during noisy PMQs, when MPs and ministers trade barbs and insults across the chamber.
Eatlier this month, Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has been in favour of stricter discipline in British schools, was told by Bercow: "You need to write out a thousand times, 'I will behave myself at Prime Minister's Questions.'"
During another high-decibel exchange, Bercow told Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop: "Be quiet. Calm yourself. Take up yoga." Bercow called another Labour MP, Chris Ruane, “an incorrigible delinquent”.
In an interview to The Independent, Bercow said he was not expecting MPs to behave like ‘Trappist monks’ and he understood that frequently “passions will be aroused”, but added: “There are people who think culturally the atmosphere is very male, very testosterone-fuelled and, in the worst cases, of yobbery and public school twittishness”.
The gladiatorial contests during PMQs need the prime minister of the day to think on the feet, face unexpected questions, and appear in command on live television. Tony Blair once said he feared the PMQs the most, while Harold Macmillan admitted the PMQs made him “physically sick”.
The half-hour PMQs are an institution in British politics that began in June 1961. As successive prime ministers and leaders of the opposition sparred across the despatch, voters began to hate it, prime ministers dread it and journalists covering politics love it.