I freely admit that I don’t know too much about the Hansard Society but a spot of research swiftly identified it as an independent and non-partisan political research and education organisation and generally a good thing.
They have recently produced a report on Prime Minister’s Questions (or “Qs” as the old hands refer to it) entitled “Tuned in or Turned off?” charting public attitudes to the occasion.
Much of the report is good worthy stuff that every Parliamentarian would agree with and which virtually no one will allow to moderate their behaviour but what really caught the eye was not the unsurprising fact that 67% of respondents thought that there was too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the questions – although it’s been a long time since I saw the Liberal Democrats score any points – or the fact that 47% thought it too noisy and aggressive but the exciting, dare I say brave, suggestion of a sin bin for Wednesday afternoon miscreants and hooligans.
A few considerations immediately suggest themselves. Will the sole determiner of sinfulness be the Speaker and would he be able to resist the lure of such arbitrary and unaccountable power?
What would be the criterion? I would immediately suggest that a tedious monotone recitation of some pre-digested pabulum of a whips’ handout coupled with an eager tail wagging tongue lolling puppyish longing for a bone from the PM would qualify the oleaginous one for a swift trip to Room 101.
Should there be a Yellow Card system? If there was then the two top Tory orchestrators of their feeble attempt to replicate Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound – Messsers Hancock and Hands – would certainly be on a tot up and facing a five match ban after accumulating enough Red Cards to wallpaper the tea room.
More to the point – what would the sin bin look like?
I envisage a metal barred cage suspended from the public gallery to which the malefactor would prodded by an eager Serjeant at Arms armed with a sword that was suddenly less ceremonial than practical.
Much as the great Ottoman Sultan Bayezid 1 was captured and caged by the Amir Temur the wretched MP would be fed through the bars and only released when repentance was proven.
However you do not have to be of an especially perverse disposition to ask a number of obvious questions.
Would the proceedings of Qs be interrupted while the malefactor is dragged from the back benches, would there be “time added on” and what would happen if the Spartacus precedent was applied and the whole of Hooligan Row claimed responsibility for an especially outrageous heckle?
Should there be a “Disputed Yells Panel” to apportion blame if the guilty cannot be identified?
More importantly – would temporary incarceration be seen as a badge of pride? Could the unrepentant sinner still howl from within the bars?
Could business really continue while Dennis Skinner or Chris Ruane stand proud in their shackled dignity?
Would the police cells below the Chamber be pressed into use?
I see trouble ahead and doubt that incarceration is the answer.
Mind you – this week a near riot broke out in the Lok Sabha when an MP flourished a pepper spray and saw off about nine fellow members of the Indian Parliament.
He stated that he always took a pepper spray into the chamber and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about.
Other national legislatures can recount tales of sword fights, fisticuffs and scenes in the Italian Parliament during the dog days of Berlusconi that would challenge Hogarth to portray.
All in all we are quite sedate at Westminster but sometimes the thought leaps unbidden to the mind that maybe Harry Hill has the answer and that serious disputations should be resolved by a fight.
Clearly the Tories would have an advantage as they are blessed with many heavyweights as well as featherbrains.
Bristol’s Charlotte Leslie is an accomplished boxer and the time that I have spent with her at the Hackney Baths leaves me in no doubt as to her ability to sort someone out if necessary.
Mr. Pickles would be an obvious champion – perhaps fighting as Eric the Sumo Wrestler and achieving the same notoriety as Warren Zevon’s Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner but leaving aside the claim of Eric Joyce to stand as champion of the opposition benches I reluctantly conclude that trial by combat is not an appropriate way to resolve disputatious matters on the floor of the House.
I do well remember being caught out when sitting on the Whip’s end of the bench and trying to get a message across to the Tory opposite.
He finally leaned over and said “Come outside and say that”. In my part of the world those words are the inevitable overture to something brutal and physical and the challenge is never refused. It was only as I was heading through the door behind the Speaker’s chair and rolling up my sleeves in preparation that I realised that Whips cannot speak in the Chamber.
The simple fact that there is bad behaviour and that it really is reminiscent of schoolboys under the influence of testosterone – although quite a few women are guilty as well – has added to our low estimation in the eyes of the public.
Admittedly we’ve done quite enough outside the chamber to attract justified opprobrium but it is all part of the package that may well be a factor in the disconnect between politicians and the public that makes my commute by ‘bus and tube such a misery when scarf and hat fails to prevent recognition.
Which makes it all the more strange that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition have dropped the idea of the recall of errant Parliamentarians from the Queen’s Speech and thus from the prospect of any future legislation.
I can appreciate that there have been a few shockers exposed recently but surely the principle that – say – ten percent of a constituency’s electorate can petition to either disqualify an elected member or subject him or her to the referendum of a new election.
This should, of course, also apply to Their Lordships’ House and it is only as the faces start to emerge from the smoke that some might think that the Liberal Democrats may just have an interest to declare here.
I think that the Hansard Society are right to analyse public attitudes to Parliament but their conclusions run counter to my assertion that a sin bin is a bonkers idea that will only encourage the unruly and they also fail to realise that Qs is massively popular with many observers.
So, you might say, is bare knuckle no rules cage fighting but, unlike in some countries, former pugilists tend not to become politicians and all in wrestlers might not be the best legislators.
I would say that this is a guilty pleasure and really not one to be proud of.
The observant will note that a large amount of the thirty minutes is often heard in utter silence – as when there have been military or civilian casualties or where issues of life and limb are being discussed.
It is on such occasions that you realise what a blessing it is to actually be able to hear what is being said and for the wriggling responder not to be able to shelter behind the cacophony and to actually have to answer the question amidst attentive silence.
Before anyone makes the obvious point about my own record in such matters I should point that God loves a sinner who repents and if the Hansard Society have achieved anything with their report they have certainly shown me the error of my ways and prompted me to look again at the heavy metal half hour that we call Qs.
I’m off to the South Caucasus now and hope that you will allow me to offer a Letter from Armenia, where such matters are conducted with dignity and in respectful silence, when next we meet.