Tag Archives: David Cameron

In defence of Parliament

26 Oct

What most folk would like to do to parliamentary democracy

David Cameron stands up to the dispatch box.  He starts to speak.

“This morning the Prime Minister said that a general election would cause chaos. What on earth did he mean?”

The Tory benches jeer.

“W-what would cause chaos,” Gordon Brown says, “is if a Conservative government were elected and cause public spending cuts…”

He is drowned out by Labour cheers.

“So there we have it,” Mr Cameron smiles, “the first admission that he thinks he is going to lose.”


The noise when you are watching Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is terrific. I once watched it from the House of Commons, and I can tell you, it is much louder in the Chamber. It is a noise which comes from the guts of 200-odd mainly privately-educated grown men. It is staggering. It reminds me of the times in Ardingly when a dining room-full of schoolboys would tacitly decide to sing Happy Birthday for no apparent reason other than to panic the junior member of staff on duty. As he or she marched up to find the ringleader, the singing would mysteriously stop. Relieved, he or she would walk away. A nod would be exchanged. You would catch someone’s glance, a glimmer of mischief in each eye. The singing would start over again.

The same juvenile impulse is at play in the Commons. It is juvenile. And yet, that urge to jeer, collectively, as one, gives such a rush. It makes you break away from any Latinate sophistication you once had, and makes you feel truly Anglo-Saxon: as if you are part of some wode-daubed tribe, or a blind-drunk football crowd, or a mud-soaked army about to whop the French. “HEEEEEEEAR!!!” What else can you do if Gordon Brown says he has saved the world? What other alternative is there when Betty Boothroyd tells a Lib Dem to “spit it out”?

PMQs is childish; it is witty; it is riotous fun; it is a fantastically bizarre thing to have as a national institution. That is why I love it.

Others disagree. Tabloid historian Dominic Sandbrook questions whether PMQs is fit-for-purpose in this great documentary marking 50 years of PMQs. The current Speaker, John Bercow, thinks the public hates the noisy futility of it all. I suspect the indifferent British public does get irritated by it. As they are hit by gas bills, petty crime and sluggish growth, they see their politicians behaving like a bunch of school kids. They must think: one, it is a waste of time, and two, it makes politics a question of personalities, not of policies. Both these criticisms are misplaced.

Is it a waste of time? Tony Blair spent the night before and morning preparing for PMQs at 12.00. Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings are great chunks of time to be taken up by a Prime Minister. The PM could be building relations with the French President or fine-tuning education policy. Instead, he takes time out of his job for what is essentially half an hour’s mud-slinging. Moreover, if one is a skilled politician, it is easy to give non-answers to non-questions. Just learn some facts, fit in some gags, prescript your responses: job done. As Blair himself admits, it is “a myth that it’s a great way of holding the prime minister to account. […] In truth, the whole thing is a giant joust.”

Giant joust or not, there is still a function to it. First, it ensures the leader of our country is on top of unemployment figures, health policy and so forth, rather than jetting off chatting to foreign dignitaries. It is important the PM is responsive to what is happening in this country. Second, parliamentary criticism puts pressure on the prime minister to act. Think of the News of the World scandal this year. Knowing Miliband and the rest of the Commons would savage the prime minister if he did nothing, David Cameron was pressured to launch an inquiry and urge Murdoch to drop the BSkyB bid. Far better it is for the executive to be held account by the legislature, rather than be outside of it, as all American Presidents are. Obama is held to account only by the unelected media, not elected politicians. PMQs restores that link between leader and parliament by commanding the PM to be there at least once a week.

What of the idea that it thrusts personality centre-stage? It makes virtues of stagecraft, egotism and dogmatism, and vices of modesty and uncertainty, does it not? That may be true, but that’s politics. As much as we would prefer a wise leader to one that only appears wise, politics will always favour the latter. It has always been that way. Disraeli, Lloyd George, Wilson, Blair: actors, the lot of them. What is Parliament but a theatre? And the greatest show of all is PMQs.

The root of the dissatisfaction, I fear, is merely the modern age’s contempt for politicians. Removing PMQs would not make us respect our politicians any more. They would still be making a mess of the economy, launching illegal wars and avoiding the real problems of our society, as they always have done. Removing PMQs would just make politics more boring, like Germany’s. Everyone would say Ja or Nein, and not jeer or heckle, but just disagree politely, and – what is worse – politicians would be just as awful. Far better for us to have the theatre. Far better for us to have PMQs.


Where rights are concerned, the Right ain’t concerned

10 Oct

There are two odd things about the Tories’ contempt for Human Rights.  The first is the spectacle of David Cameron, the champion of the virtue of marriage, the man who’d cease to function if he failed to mention family every five minutes, effectively saying family bonds have no worth.  The second is the speed with which Tories can junk the right not to be tortured, having spent the last few weeks arguing that under no circumstances should the rich give up 50% of their income!  So a 50p tax goes against our rights as human beings, but torture doesn’t?  Sounds logical to me.

At the heart of the crazed debate is deportation.  There are good reasons to deport a non-British citizen.  He or she might be an illegal immigrant, or a court might recommend his or her deportation after having served a prison sentence.  In these cases, deportation should be considered.  But this desire to deport should be balanced by certain rights.  One right is absolute; the other isn’t.

The absolute right, safeguarded under Article 3 of the Human Rights Act, is the right not to be tortured.  If there is a good chance that the individual will be tortured when sent back home, this should be outlawed.

The other right, which is limited, is the right to family life.  This is safeguarded under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.  If there is a child – whose choice of parent is no fault of their own – or the deportee is in a long-term loving relationship, these things should be taken into account.

The presence of a child or significant partner does not constitute an absolute right not to be deported; it is simply considered and balanced against other factors, such as the threat to public safety, the need to prevent crime and rights of other individuals which could be infringed on the foreigner’s staying.  Very often, these factors win out.  In 2010, only 12% of appeals against deportation were successful on Article 8 grounds.  In these cases, the risk to the public would have been judged inconsequential compared to the harm caused to the child or partner.  I would be shocked if a British judge said a terrorist’s family rights outweighed the risk to the public.

So we are not talking about ex-terrorist’s kiddies.  What the Tories are talking about are foreign drug-takers, foreign hit-and-run drivers, and – most importantly – double standards.  Consider this.  If a lad from Essex, British born and bred, were convicted of shoplifting, would we deport him?  Wait, let’s say he was convicted of a more serious crime – he ran over a twelve-year old, flat as a flounder, and sped off.  Given we are zealous as the Tories about public safety, why can’t we chuck him out?  It shouldn’t matter where he’s from; why can’t we send the brute to Bengal, or the beaches of Benghazi, or a borough in Budapest?

Well: why can’t we?  I suspect one reason is because the chap is British; he has a family life here and is integrated fully into the community.  His mum would be distraught.  If he had a child, there would be a substantial amount of suffering, either if the boy were shipped to Bengal or if he were wrenched from his dad.  Either way, the answer is that deep family ties matter.  If a man has formed bonds with his community and family here since the age of four – as one deportee had – this should count for something.  If a man is to leave a grief-stricken partner of many years, judges should at least consider this.  This is all Article 8 demands.

As for Article 3, without it, we could effectively export torture.  A sentence for shoplifting could come with an added surprise of Somalian torture – that is, if you are non-British.  It would be a strange small print to have in the law books.  And not particularly just.  And not particularly British.

The New Aristotelians, Ed and Dave: will we ever accept their ideas?

29 Sep

To what extent can the state change a culture? It is a question that has dogged politicians since, well, since we started sinning. David Cameron believes that society is broken and that he has the power to make us less impregnated, less intoxicated, less riotous and more benevolent. Ed Miliband believes that he too can change a culture and make us less greedy, less lazy, less individualistic.

We Brits can only laugh. No politician can make us moral, we are likely to say. We have always sinned and will always sin: we have always been a beer-swilling, tavern-brawling nation, through Medieval times to Dickensian, and no poncy French noble or Gladstonian high priest can make us stop. We have always been a multi-bonking, hasty-breeding group, whether the gals who catch our eye be buxom Georgian beasts or ravenous Pre-Raphaelite floozies. And greed wasn’t invented by Thatcher: the rich have always desired a lavish life of luxury; the last 60 years have made us all richer and so greedier.

Human nature remains constant. We are driven by the same lusts, desires, hungers as we were a century ago. No politician can change that.

Or at least, this is what I believed until recently. A conversation I had with a close friend made me think twice. I was arguing that the Victorian age was a strange period in British history, because in the midst of a long tradition of good ol’ British sin, we all collectively started being hypocrites. We may have preached and believed in being virtuous, but we continued to act in the same way; we carried on sinning. Prostitution was rife, pornography boomed due to the growth of printing and photography, and British gentlemen still had affairs. It was just hushed up.

My friend was not persuaded. He was convinced that Britain had gone through a moral decline. But he had no evidence for this. So he tried to persuade me through pure reason, like those odd twelfth-century theologians who try to prove, without any reference to evidence, that God exists.

Look, he said, Britain has gone through a moral decline. I told him that it depends what you mean by “moral decline”; he had a definition of “moral” which was different from mine. “And I suspect,” I told him, “that by moral decline, you really mean religious decline. There has undoubtedly been a religious decline, but not a moral decline.”

He was flummoxed. “So you think there were beliefs these people held, that did not influence them one iota, not one jot?” Yes, I said. “But surely on an individual level,” he said, “you believe that you can be restrained by beliefs? That we are not just animals, and our desires can be restrained by our morals?” Yes, I said. “And there are such people, even today, who are restrained from acting in a certain way by their religion?” Yes, I said, thinking there might be a trap along the way. He scoffed. “So you think we can be restrained on an individual level but not on a social level?!?”

Bruised that I had lost another argument, I reflected. Perhaps he was right. Vices and virtues will always exist, but perhaps they can be restrained or encouraged by culture. Human nature is constant, and we will always be greedy and lustful and slovenly, but different cultures can encourage or restrain us. The benefits system is a good example of a system which can encourage idleness and dependency. I’m sure that a sexualised culture can only nudge us into more promiscuity. A greed-is-good culture can only encourage financial recklessness.

This is an idea which hasn’t been given much prominence in the past 60 years. The central goal of our age has not been to make us more virtuous, but to make us more free. In the sixties, politicians made us free to have gay sex, abort the baby and divorce more easily, and then write an uncensored play about how horrific the gay-sex-dead-baby-divorce thing was. In the eighties, politicians unleashed the free market on not just the economy, but schools, hospitals and even the police force, in the hope that it would make us more free. It is an experiment in which all have conspired: the media, the internet, advertising, music, all urging us to be more free.

What happened to the political ideal of creating a virtuous society? Its death was marked by Isaiah Berlin’s demand that we reject values from our political discourse: the truly liberal thing to do is allow people freedom to pursue their own values, not the state’s values. Terrible things will follow if governments urge people to behave a certain way, as we have seen from tyrannous states in the grip of socialist ideology or religious fervour.

We have forgotten Aristotle‘s ideal that a state can, and should, seek to cultivate virtues in its citizens. This is why we react with ridicule to any politician who thinks they can make us more moral. When David Cameron said that the tax system should be changed to nudge us into marriage – for the reasons that marriage fosters virtues such as commitment and companionship, and loving parents are more likely to instil virtues in their children – he was greeted with near-universal derision. When Ed Miliband said recently that the state should nudge businesses away from amoral business practices and nudge benefit-claimers towards virtuous actions that would benefit the community, he was near-universally panned.

It is an old idea: the idea that virtue is more important than freedom. I can only wonder if we will ever go back to it.