Grace Segers analyses the Wednesday lunchhour show Brits love to hate: Prime Minister’s Question time.
As an American, I am no stranger to political theatrics; after all, I hail from a country where Donald Trump is running for president. However, I was under the perhaps mistaken impression that British politics were more refined, a probable result of watching too many period movies where all the politicians wear white wigs. A few days ago, I watched my first Prime Minister’s Questions, and all of my prior notions of British politics were challenged.
I watched the PMQs for 4th November. It is not an exaggeration to say that I was shocked, and hugely entertained, by the proceedings. This edition of PMQs was primarily focused on the tax credits issue. I felt like I was watching a political cage match: Jeremy Corbyn would ask his question in the most insulting manner possible, and then David Cameron would answer with a sneer and a disdainful reference to Corbyn as “the honorable gentleman”. But I was most surprised by the reactions of the MPs around Corbyn and Cameron. They didn’t watch and listen in dignified silence, but rather cheered and jeered loudly, often interrupting the proceedings. It seemed disrespectful to me —even childish — that members of Parliament would be treating an ostensibly meaningful discussion so outrageously.
In the United States, there is no PMQs equivalent, as the legislature and executive government branches are separate so there is no opposition leader to challenge a majority party leader. There are presidential debates prior to an election (which you can check out my review of the last two of here) which can sometimes be exciting. But there is nothing in American politics that constitutes a discussion between party leaders in which elected officials can actively shout down the opposition.
In contrast to the one on 4 November, the PMQs on 18 November were more subdued—although Jeremy Corbyn was still booed when he stood to ask his six questions. The sobriety of the atmosphere was in large part due to the spectre of the terrorist attacks in Paris this past week. This week, Cameron and Corbyn were even able to address each other civilly in a manner that seemed genuine.
However, it should not take a tragedy to make a legitimate political proceeding civil—unless, of course, PMQs is actually being used by the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition as a public relations tool and not a serious platform for policy discussion.
PMQs does not seem to be very productive in effecting policymaking, but it may have the unintended effect of bolstering the support of citizens who already agree with the members of their Party. If a Labour supporter watching at home witnesses the slings and arrows thrown at Corbyn by the Conservative MPs, sees how unwilling Cameron is to respond to the Labour leader’s questions, then that person may feel even more justified in their support of their party and hatred of the other.
On the other hand, a Conservative supporter would be able to see David Cameron exhibit his debating skills and feel reassured in the competency of their leader. I had never seen Cameron speak before, and while I greatly disagree with his policies, I must admit that I was impressed by his ability to clearly and somewhat convincingly articulate his point of view. In watching the PMQs, it appeared that Cameron’s ability to articulate his argument was more important than the argument itself; the proceeding was all about style, not substance.
From my perspective, PMQs are free advertising for one party to show how right they are, and how intractable and unreasonable the opposition is.
At one point in the 4th November PMQs Jeremy Corbyn said, “Mr. Speaker, this isn’t about entertainment.” Maybe the original intent of PMQs was to provide a public forum for opposition leaders to air their grievances, but from my perspective as an outsider, entertainment is exactly what these proceedings are intending to provide.
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