50 minus 15: the hypocrisy of hypocrisy

Posted: 2 August 2014 in life, don't talk to me about life, politics
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I think it was Alistair Cooke, as it so often was, who first taught me that if you want to really surprise an American student of politics, you explain to them how long it takes to pass a Budget in a Parliamentary system.

“How long”, I write. I should really have typed how short a period of time.

An American budget can, in theory, take a relatively short space of time from when it’s first proposed by the President of the United States to when it’s voted through by both Houses of Congress.

It doesn’t. Ever. There are many reasons for this, ranging from deep ideological objections to things the president has proposed, right through to just wanting to embarrass the president if he’s from the other party. Not for nothing does the old saw of American Politics say “The president proposes and the Congress disposes.”

Remember last year’s federal government shut down in September 2013? Or any of the twelve government shutdowns since 1980 (although only two lasted more than a week each)? All due to the funding gap created when Congress refused to pass one of more Bills that form part of the Federal Budget.

And this after continuing resolutions, and more continuing resolutions, and yet more of the damned things.

In the UK? Well, take the 2014 Budget, the one covering this year. (OK, some things were already going to take effect this year, from previous budgets, but they could have been removed/repealed during this year’s process, so let’s just stick with the main Budget.)

The 2014 Budget was presented to the House of Commons in March this year, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. You remember him, the politician booed by the crowd at 2012’s Paralympics. Nothing to do with the subject of the blog, but it’s always nice to recall that. Anyway, presented on 19th March 2014.

Now some of the things announced took immediate effect (tobacco price rises, for example, though not in the shops, from the wholesalers). But when did it receive “Royal Assent”? Take a guess. Six months? Best part of a year?

Naah – it passed into law on 17th July 2014, 118 days (82 days if you exclude public holidays and weekends.)

Just one of the many differences between any parliamentary system and a non-parliamentary system, though I guess if you include dictatorship in the latter, you could shrink the time even further.

Another difference is the weekly Punch and Judy show known as Prime Minister’s Questions where the Official Leader of the Opposition gets to ask the Prime Minister of the day six questions in the House of Commons for the entertainment of the watching masses. (Other MPs get one question each, if they’re called by the Speaker.) I would like to add that it’s there to inform fellow Members of Parliament and the public, but I can’t in all honesty: it’s been a long, long time (certainly not in my adult lifetime) since it was used for that purpose.

It long ago ceased to have any educative benefits and became so many years ago what it is now: a chance for political point scoring, obsequious toadying by MPs seeking to impress their party’s leader, and very, very occasionally (maybe, maybe, one question every other half hour session) for an MP to ask a genuinely important question about a serious issue… which the Prime Minister won’t answer.

The Prime Minister would, of course, deny that he doesn’t answer, and indeed Parliamentary procedure does not oblige the Prime Minister (or any minister) to give a reply that would qualify as a ‘genuine answer’ as anyone outside parliament would define the term. However, over recent years, first lords of the treasury of all stripes have treated questions in the House as if they’ve come from a journalist from a friendly (or unfriendly) news organisation: in other words, have something to say, and no matter what the question asks, say that. And if you can point score at the expense of the party opposite at the same time, then so much the better.

Every Prime Minister comes to power swearing blind to change the nature of PMQs. And within an astonishingly (if you haven’t seen it happen before) short space of time, they’ve abandoned that pledge with faux-regret and returned to the shouty match you’ve almost certainly all seen.

What’s particularly annoying about this staged performance for someone who thinks parliament is important is the rank hypocrisy involved from all sides and from almost all MPs. Certainly the party leaders. They condemn the barracking from the opposite side of the chamber, yet encourage it from their own MPs. They complain that the minister – or Prime Minister – won’t answer the question but their own party, when they were in government, did exactly the same, said exactly the same, behaved exactly the same.

The Prime Minister will attack the very questions asked – “on a day when unemployment has fallen, no questions about unemployment!”, “in a week when the rate of inflation has fallen, no questions about the economy!” – and will ‘forget’ he’s there to answer questions… but when he’s the leader of the opposition, he asked the same type of question.

And so we have to ask: what is the purpose now of PMQs or any ministerial questions. It’s to please your own MPs. That’s it, in a nutshell. To prove to your own side that you can survive in the bearpit of the chamber. And I don’t know why this is important. I really don’t. The most talented performer in the House in the past twenty years was, I’d say, William Hague, late of the Foreign Office, but for four years at the turn of the century, he was leader of his party. In that position he regularly trounced Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions. It was rare that he didn’t land a blow, uncommon that he didn’t make Blair look on the back foot.

And yet, despite that, despite being the acknowledged victor in the vast majority of clashes… he and his party lost the 2001 election, gaining only one seat, going down to another Labour landslide.

The hypocrisy of politics sickens me.

If your side does it and you agree with it, it’s not only ok but a fantastic thing to do; if the other side does it, it’s inherently bad.

If you’re a Labour person, all Conservatives, (sorry, “Tories”; they’re always Tories, never Conservatives) are scum. No matter that the Conservative Party contains some who are pro-Europe, pro-state intervention, pro-equal marriage. Similarly, if you’re a Conservative, then Labour are rabid socialists who want to control every facet of British life and every person living here.

Some people on the left called for Jeremy Clarkson to be immediately – note that, immediately – fired from the BBC after he made a [bad] joke about shooting Union leaders, while anticipating street parties when Margaret Thatcher died. (And indeed, the celebrations when she died brought hypocrisy to a new level.) But it was all right, apparently, because they didn’t like Thatcher or Clarkson. Yet when Tony Benn died, and some right wingers made disparaging comments about him, the left were all “oh, no, no-one must say anything against Benn”, “he’s only just died, have some respect”, “think of his family…”

I was going to carry on this theme by mentioning Gaza, but I that’s probably a subject for another day…. I think I’ve stomached enough hypocrisy today.

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Comments
  1. Reading that comparison suddenly left me desperately wishing for our Parliament to have the same kinds of ructions possible as in the US system, if only to protect what remains of the Canadian welfare state.

    Whether or not my reaction is in fact a wise one?

    I know not.

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