BFAWU to Remember Conference
Afghanistan debate highlights crucial role of Commons in democracy
Democracy depends on division. Leaders like President Biden invoke unity to collect some free votes and hide under an all-encompassing flag. But politicians must defend something, and if they are interested in progress of any kind, division is a necessary evil, not a cowardly good.
The search for a “consensus” of some kind simply obscures any hope of that progress, especially when the appeal of the ballot box allows politicians to fall over each other to show how indivisible they really are. The usual topics fall on a “broad coalition” or a “show of unity.”
The role of parliaments is to see beyond heady rhetoric, and last week that ever-important role was again brilliantly displayed in the holy chambers of Westminster.
In America, Joe Biden only had cameras for company when he gave his misleading and bitter speech to his country after Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban, largely blaming the Afghan military and trying to erase his earlier comments. on the importance of nation-building across American business in the country.
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As the Kabul airport filled with desperate families, Biden tried to keep the appearance of calm. In Britain, there was no such privilege for Boris Johnson, no such opportunity for silence as the prime minister delivered his own speech. Anyone could see that the British people were angry, but no one could say that they were deaf to the issue at hand.
And the job of the Commons is to make the government listen to that anger; something that Joe Biden experiences very little about.
Before the pandemic, many called for a reform of the House of Commons, to move away from the traditional parallel green benches, which face the two sides. They wanted a circular camera, one that was less confrontational, binary, and riddled with boos.
Of course, then it would be quieter, akin to the stillness of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood or the huge chamber of the European Parliament. Speakers would always outperform their speeches, different parties would not be able to massively abuse their opponents, and the speaker’s role would become more of an unflappable legislator than a troubled playground supervisor.
This would not only be bad television, but it would also generate a gruesome debate. Hardly anyone seriously watches the daily happenings of the Welsh Senedd, or even Westminster’s drier select committee.
The House of Commons brings politics to life and, if it reveals divisions, it also shows those who are not fit to speak from their polls. During the course of the pandemic, ministers used the courteous silence of a press conference, or live broadcast, to preach the government’s message, and accountability was reserved for a common void devoid of its usual spirit.
Last week, Boris Johnson was interrupted not only from the opposition side, but also more powerfully from his own side. Theresa May chided her successor for abandoning the people of Afghanistan at the whim of an American president, while former soldiers like Tobias Ellwood chided the refusal to fight the Taliban insurgency, which had been the mission of the original invasion to eliminate.
Tom Tugendhat delivered the most poignant speech, about his shared anguish with those who had fought to build a society in Afghanistan that is now so threatened. While leaders around the world were able to make their excuses without fear of laughter in front and behind, no such courtesy was reserved for Britain. Our democracy and state of speech is much better for him.
Remembering a Commons without the limitations of the last year and a half showed exactly what we have missed from our political system. While Matt Hancock had the nodding heads of his scientific advisers to affirm his words, Keir Starmer was without his angry supporters in the Commons when he attacked the government’s conduct.
The decisions in the pandemic, which would have ignited the green banks, were left to selected journalists for questioning. In short, politics and governance became sound bites, not speeches.
Johnson had no place to unleash any rhetorical armor on his MPs, as he knew Churchill did in a war situation: a vision of “sunlit highlands” was replaced by “cautious and irreversible.”
Our House of Commons not only keeps the powerful in check, it animates the entire political scene around them. In a crisis like the emergence of the virus, it was an organism whose presence was needed more than ever. When it was lacking, it was no surprise that the gap between the powerful and their people widened. The drama of normal times had been replaced by the palpable lack of dissent of the confinement.
But the Commons is not simply a quaint piece of British political theater, exported around the world to voters accustomed to the tedious ruling of their own leaders. It’s not just a boxing ring to score points, as the prime minister’s questions often appear.
At its best, the Commons can be a place where MPs make a name for themselves based not on their loyalty to a party, but on the value of what they say; where both the government and the opposition are judged on their ability to survive in the toughest of all debating chambers.
It is where the nation’s most important decisions are made, and where those speeches can have such an effect on the parliamentarians charged with making them. Above all, it is where our elected representatives try to speak on behalf of their constituents.
And it is for such skill that they are finally judged. Journalists like to say that they are close to “tell the truth to power”, but most recognize that the best opportunity to do so lies with parliamentarians.
And the return of the House of Commons to a British political scene increasingly stripped of its slightest flaws is the best scenario we could offer to enable them to do just that.