A mockery of debate - but so is the Commons: Leading Article

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A debate? It was a raucous, manipulated outrage. People were shouted down when they'd barely had time to open their mouths. Heartfelt sentiments were jeered. A precious national institution was kicked around like a football. Famous people such as Sir Bernard Ingham, used to being listened to in respectful silence, were insulted to their faces. People dressed up in silly clothes and yelled "Marxist" or "snob" at one another. Parliamentarians walked out in disgust. Few arguments were sustained for more than a few minutes, many for only a few-score seconds. It was a travesty of a serious exchange of views, characterised by abuse, smears, prejudice and thoughtlessness. It was then followed by a dodgy vote which cannot in any way be described as a fair record of the country's settled opinion.

And in all these ways, of course, Carlton's now-notorious debate was strongly reminiscent of an average afternoon in the Commons. Had the 3,000-strong Birmingham audience and some of the participants, we wondered, learnt their debating manners by paying close attention to Prime Minister's questions? Had the televising of Parliament coarsened the political mood of the country at large? The Commons, too, is characterised by interruptions, personalised attacks, jeering and caricatured arguments (only there, these things are sanctified by tradition).

In the Commons, too, people dress up in silly clothes from time to time. There, too, they libel one another as Marxists or cringing reactionaries, cheering their champions and talking down unpopular or minority voices. MPs have been known to leave the chamber, as well as television sets, out of boredom and disgust. And the voting in the Commons is also dodgy - though fixed by whips and MPs' ambitions, rather than by the vagaries of who happens to be watching television and the availability of telephone lines. There are even parallels to be drawn between Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, and Trevor McDonald - two great national favourites, felt to be nicer than their surroundings, and doing a good line in long-suffering smiles.

It will be objected that the Commons, though it can also be a bear garden, does a lot of serious work and sandwiches those outbreaks of mutual abuse with substantial debates and speeches. But the same is true of television and broadcasting generally. The Carlton debate was a relatively rare eruption of coarse popular argument into a political medium still dominated by documentary filmed theses and Newsnight-style discussions between just the sort of talking heads who were most outraged by the Birmingham booers.

The Carlton debate may, however, be a sign of things to come, one among a number of more aggressive television incursions into politics. And to understand why, we need to concentrate now on the differences between the Commons and the Birmingham event, as well as the similarities between them.

First, the Carlton debate was watched by some 10 million people and involved as voters up to 2.6 million. Those figures, as well as the 3,000 direct participants, dwarf what Parliament manages for any sustained period. Second, though, and more important: why? Because the TV debate and telephone plebiscite was on a subject that the Commons never addresses: the future of the monarchy. This is not considered acceptable fare for our legislators and elected tribunes. Unsurprising, perhaps: they are working in a palace replete with reminders of monarchical power. MPs are generally a pretty conservative lot. When old Tony Benn rises from time to time to make republican arguments, or when a rare Labour backbencher dares to question the cost of monarchy, embarrassment and anger flicker round the chamber. It is off limits: what is interesting to the people is not discussable by their elected representatives.

Were the monarchy the only subject which this applied to, then we would shake our heads and pass on. But the same is true of other things which touch the daily lives of the British. The criminal and medical plague of illegal drugs, and whether that would be worsened or rebuffed by legalisation, is another subject apparently beyond the serious attention of the Commons. (And by serious we mean prime-time, busy-House attention; for the occasional private member's debate, conducted in front of a single junior minister and a comatose colleague can hardly be considered "attention".) The environmental cost to this and future generations of the great car culture is another example. Broadcast violence is a third, overfishing of our seas a fourth, pornography a fifth. Then there are all the new, agonisingly difficult issues around human reproduction and medical advance, including euthanasia.

You are likelier to hear arguments and conversations about such questions in broadcasting studios than in Parliament. The Commons ought to be a cockpit of the national debate. But it isn't, really, so that debate takes place instead in television studios and between people selected by television researchers rather than selected by voters. Up to a point, this is an advance for democracy. We wouldn't want to invite Kilroy or even Mr McDonald directly into the legislative process - we all know that direct democracy, unmediated by hearings of evidence, proper arguments, detailed information and constitutional safeguards can become a kind of tyranny itself. Television is better at entertainment than at detailed scrutiny.

But sniffy commentators and MPs should reflect on this. One of the reasons so many people turned eagerly to listen to Carlton's debate was that the subject is so rarely confronted by them. For decades politicians have loftily declared the future of the monarchy to be "not a matter of debate". Well, they can hardly say so now.

Comments