October 17, 2019
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Time to bring down the curtain on Britain’s parliament panto

BRITAIN’S parliament has been compulsive viewing of late with its ‘ayes to the right, noes to the left’ and the demented Speaker shouting for ‘aw-DA! aw-DA’.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the pantomime, with its set pieces, stage villains and the audience hissing and booing.

It also calls to mind another old British institution, the Carry On comedy. It is Carry On Brexit, starring Sid James as Jeremy Corbyn, Barbara Windsor as Anna Soubry and Kenneth Williams in drag as Theresa May, crying “Infamy, infamy – they’ve all got it infamy”.

Yes, it has been compulsive entertainment. But national assemblies are not meant to provide entertainment. Westminster has failed totally in its real role of holding government to account and ensuring the smooth running of the nation’s affairs.

We moan about Dáil Eireann, but, compared to the shambles across the water, it is a model of sound sense and efficiency.

I wonder, would the British parliament be less like a comedy theatre if it wasn’t designed to be so theatrical in the first place. What if they got rid of the Mace and the Serjeant at Arms? If they stopped referring to each other as Right Honourable Members? If Mr Speaker was simply called Chairman and read out, in a normal tone of voice, the result of votes handed to him on a slip of paper? If, as the Speaker himself has suggested, the votes were recorded electronically?

Would it not make more sense for parliament to operate by a clear set of rules, instead of a convention drawn up by a man called Erskine May, who was Clerk of the House of Commons in 1871?

I am all for preservation of tradition. But there is a time for it. And in Britain that time should be once a year at the State Opening of Parliament, when the monarch arrives in a ceremonial coach and addresses the Commons from the Lords; when Black Rod bangs on the door to summon MPs to hear the speech, when the cellars are searched to prevent a Gunpowder Plot and most of the cast put on fancy dress and have a jolly good time.

That should be enough codology for any national assembly but Westminster plays these games every day it sits – a harmless affectation in normal times, perhaps, but a silly distraction when there is real business to be done.

I am not suggesting that this constant role-playing is responsible for the parliament’s inability to cope with Brexit or that ending it would ensure such a crisis never occurs again. But I do believe that if Britain’s MPs behaved less like schoolboys and girls there would more chance of them making sensible, adult decisions.

In normal times, the behaviour of our neighbour’s parliament should be no business of mine. But, as Brexit looms, they have made it my business and the business of all our EU partners.

I would feel happier about the conduct of that business if it were not transacted to a set of nineteenth centry guidelines, by people using eighteenth century titles, surrounded by seventeenth century artifacts.

Is it time to bring down the curtain on the Westminster pantomime? Oh yes it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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