It was difficult to contain one’s emotions: after 42 years’ service the Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers, has retired. A fluffy-wigged and bearded presence who sat below the Speaker dispensing advice on procedural matters, and who heretofore made little or no impression on the wider world, Sir Robert was given a lengthy round of applause by MPs following the reading of his resignation letter. I say it was difficult to contain one’s emotions – but I wasn’t even particularly near the chamber; I was lying in bed in my house about two miles away, listening to this effusion on Radio 4’s Today in Parliament. True, during particularly rambunctious Commons sessions (when, for example, Sally Bercow has forgotten to wipe the banana cream from her husband’s mouth), I can quite clearly hear the baying of our representatives: it rises even above the demented wail of police sirens, and the chunter of jets on the Heathrow flight path. It used to be that MPs were required to live within the sound of the division bell; nowadays a reasonable test of proximity would be whether they’re capable of hearing their colleagues’ barracking when abed.
Sir Robert’s letter praised our members of parliament; he said if only the country understood the absolutely terrific and selfless work they did, and how their great integrity was all that stood between us and an unfettered executive, we’d cease our bleating about their expenses-fiddling, influence-peddling and general loutishness. This wasn’t what he said verbatim, but it was the gist of it, and it went down extremely well with the flattered – they moaned their reverent acclamation: “Hear! Hear!” they cried, exhorting us via the state broadcaster to pay attention to how absolutely fabulous they were – and then they got on with the hard democratic graft of behaving like a bunch of minor public school boys huffing amyl nitrate. I believe it’s called Prime Minister’s Questions.
The House of Commons is the suited, booted and largely expensively educated crowd of louts that rampages at the heart of our body politic. You could have no clearer example of the crazed doublethink that typifies British public life than to look objectively upon the disjunction between the bewigged pomp of parliamentary protocol and the hair-tearing ruckus that MPs believe is integral to their “oversight”. It is nothing of the sort, naturally; rather, PMQs and other set-piece “debates” are merely a showcase for dumb macho posturing – the political equivalent of gorillas chest-beating. The vast bulk of Commons business takes place in a green leatherette desert, but once a week when the media chip up in earnest, so does the heavy mob.
A largely male, drunken and angry crowd is a scary thing, but at least it has a certain honesty about it. The affront the Commons presents to the electorate is that it’s such a half-arsed crowd. The noises they make! The collective sniggering and group moaning, the massed joshing and choruses of sneering! To heckle in a context where to do so is to break a profound social taboo – well, that has a certain brio and bravery; but to heckle en masse is simply to sound like a flock of silly geese. Parliamentarians themselves, and plenty of others in the Westminster village, say the fowl honking is the very tocsin of liberty. “What do you want?” they cry. “The dull and emasculated legislatures we see on the Continent?” But this is just another example of the binary thinking characteristic of English conservatism, whereby there is only ever one alternative to the status quo. Change the first-past-the-post voting system? You must be mad: we’ll end up like the Belgians, with no government at all, so protracted will the debates be between the fissiparous parties. Inaugurate a written constitution? Are you spark-a-loco? That way lies the revolutionary Terror! And so, wearily on.
What’s most galling about listening to the bovine lowing and swinish squealing of our £70K-per-annum senators is quite how blissfully unaware of their behaviour they seem to be. Rather like small children who believe they can’t be seen so long as they cover their eyes, MPs seem to think they are de-individuated by the crowd of suiting and skirting surrounding them, and so they gibber and they groan, they throw feeble taunts and make feebler still ripostes.
It’s often said of the British parliament that it is the most exclusive club in the country; and, like all clubs, it fosters its sense of exclusiveness by subjecting new members to humiliating rituals in combination with outrageous benefits. It is this classic double bind, whereby you are allowed to behave like a fractious child while being accorded honorifics, which ensures that our so-called democracy operates according to the dynamic of any other dysfunctional family.
It is perfectly true that there are other areas of Commons business that are conducted with something like decorum, probity and efficiency. But you have to be a wonk of the first order to listen to the deliberations of the public accounts committee under its redoubtable chair, Margaret Hodge. Ms Hodge may well call warped bankers to account for selling off the Royal Mail for a mess of pottage to speculator pals of the Chancellor, but as long as mob rule is all that checks our electoral tyranny (and that for only 15 minutes a week), we have no recourse from the madness of the pinstriped crowd.
Editor’s note, 19 May: This article originally stated, incorrectly, that the benches in the House of Commons are red. This has been corrected to green.