Pic: Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister
By Christian Hotten
The weekly debate in Britain's House of Commons between the prime minister and the leader of the main opposition excelled in demonstrating the sorry state of UK politics.
Rishi Sunak, leader of the ruling Conservative Party, and Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party’s chief, offered nothing more than a tennis match of insults during what is called Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs)
It’s not an original criticism to say that the House of Commons has over the years deteriorated into a playground, with PMQs being a mere lunchbreak where children battle it out to acquire popularity.
Using the skills of rhetoric and oratory in the cause of furthering the greatness of a nation are long gone, replaced by tired one-liners and party tricks. A few weeks ago we had Sunak calling Starmer “Sir Softy”. That is, soft on crime, soft on criminals (geddit).
The Softy jibe is just never going to stick, and the grown-ups in Sunak’s team should tell him so. But this week the prime minister returned to that famous Ciceronian tactic of ice cream metaphors: “He’s not just a softy, he’s flaky too.”
Starmer opened PMQs (predictably) by hailing Labour’s victory in this week’s local government elections and the loss of 1,000 Conservative councillors. Sunak saw it coming and his backhand was ready, citing the former Labour leader Tony Blair’s remark that (obviously) it’s the general election that counts, not the local elections. Their delivery across the dispatch box - the divide where each man stands when speaking - might have been aggressive, but the content was tired and limp.
Last year there was a comical episode when a national newspaper group livestreamed a lettuce for a few weeks. The point? To see whether the lettuce or Liz Truss, the embattled and short-lived PM, wilted first. The lettuce won. It was a comical moment in a disastrous Truss premiership. But Starmer is still referencing the lettuce eight months on. The joke is long over.
This depressing display at PMQs highlights a pervading problem in UK politics; a problem that does not need to be the case – that politicians crave political power and nothing else.
Now, I can already hear the Machiavellian realists and advocates for Realpolitik blurting out their paradoxical ideology: these are the immutable characteristics of politics; don’t hate the player, hate the game.
To them, I say you haven’t offered an objective observation, but rather a confession. Realpolitik is a necessary tool in diplomacy. Any politician must possess an adaptability and a degree of cunning to operate successfully in international negotiations.
But to assume that a UK voter should not be ashamed of their main political parties engaging in petty squabbles, rather than searching for practical solutions and even, dare I say it, cooperating to solve problems, has put the cart before the horse.
If we asked Starmer and Sunak, “what’s more important, being in power or improving the country?” they would most likely respond, “I must be in power to improve the country”. During World War 2, Churchill and Atlee co-operated to save the nation. The underlying ethic of their oratorical battles was to save Britain from tyranny.
OK, this was during war. The times were exceptional. But should such an ethic be left in the past? Today we still have issues where the adversarial nature of politics is a hindrance rather than a help. The crisis in the NHS, for instance, or the shortage of housing.
Do we really believe that ridiculing your opposition is better than showing them a better path? More importantly, perhaps, do we really believe the electorate doesn’t recognise the difference between doing good and scoring points. PMQs sets a mood, and the current mood is despair.
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