Chris Bryant: More tears in Parliament would help prove to the public that MPs are human

A Political Life


There was an extraordinary moment on Monday in the Commons Public Gallery, which, ever since the purple powder incident in 2003, has been encased in bulletproof glass.

The debate was on whether the Cabinet papers relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster should be released, and Alison McGovern, the young MP for Wirral South, was talking about how the disaster had affected her as an eight-year-old.

From the beginning, it was clear that she felt very strongly the injustice that the families have suffered for so long. Much of the time she was finding it difficult to hold back the tears, her hands shook, and there was a catch in her throat. As she finished, she was completely choked up with emotion. Alison wept.

Then something unheard of happened. Just like the moment when Earl Spencer finished his eulogy at the funeral of his sister Diana, Princess of Wales, and the sound of the public applauding in the streets wafted into the Abbey, so, too, on Monday you could just hear in the chamber the roar of hundreds of members of the public clapping behind the great glass screen. Maybe the doorkeepers tried to stop them. It's quite against the rules. Bizarrely, the public are meant to be seen and not heard in Parliament.

Alison was not the only one to cry. Steve Rotheram, who led the debate and has campaigned on this for ages, barely held back his tears and touched his lip to compose himself as he read out the names of those who had died. Steve, too, got a round of applause, both from MPs in the chamber and also in the gallery. Clive Betts referred to having cried when he visited Hillsborough as a councillor all those years ago. And even Andy Burnham, speaking at the despatch box, had to force back a strangled glitch in his throat.

Some MPs looked embarrassed. They stared at their shoes. But I say thank God (or thank goodness) for such emotion. All too often politics is a dried up kind of affair. We argue with more noise than passion. We can suck the life out of debates that for others are a matter of life and death. In our partisan calculations and political triangulations we can allow the steady strangulation of the convictions that inspire us and let politics become an emotion-free zone inhabited by people the public think are barely human.

I know what I'm saying isn't very British. We are meant to be more circumspect, more emotionally hemmed in. Stiff upper lip, not heart on sleeve. Maybe it's the Welshman in me – after all, multitasking for us means being able to cry and sing at rugby matches at the same time. But real men do cry – and so do real women. Just sometimes we need to be moved by our politicians being moved. A tad more passion in Parliament would do no harm. We MPs need to have skin thick enough to survive the slings and arrows, but not so thick that we can't feel them.

One other aspect of the debate surprised me. Many have described the debate as the most moving they have ever witnessed. Yet it barely got a mention on the television.

A sour ending for a ministerial career

It's an old Commons convention that when you resign as a minister you get to make a personal statement. You don't have to, but you can. It is heard in silence – like a maiden speech – and nobody responds. Often it's done so elegantly and with such contrition that it restores respect. When David Mellor resigned, back in 1992, he even managed a decent joke: "Having grown heartily sick of my private life myself, I could hardly expect others to take a more charitable view." It was Liam Fox's turn this week. And it was neither magnanimous nor gracious. Indeed, nothing became him so ill in his ministerial career as his leaving it. It included the very special use of the parliamentary passive apology, as in: "The ministerial code has been found to be breached, and for this I am sorry". He also ran through a long list of people to be thanked – everyone other than his best man.

The wacky world of Private Members' Bills

Yesterday was for Private Members' Bills. This is the daftest part of the Westminster system. Most MPs are in their constituencies and the special Friday rules mean that you can kill a bill off by just talking ad infinitum (or at least till 2.30 in the afternoon). Inevitably, the whips make sure that very few bills ever get onto the statute book. Yesterday we spent much of the day debating some Philip Davies nonsense which could have been entitled the Political Correctness Gone Mad (Abolition) Bill. It died.

Sometimes there are moments of hilarity. In 2003, Stephen Pound was introducing his High Hedges (2) Bill – so named because someone else had the High Hedges (1) Bill. Ever one to skirt close to the edge, he referred to the objection that naturists rely on high hedges to provide screening. "May I tell naturists," he asked, "that nothing in the Bill should be seen as a threat to their way of life? Their bushes are safe. They have nothing to fear except, obviously, stinging nettles."

Suddenly reshuffled into the spotlight

One of the strange aspects of politics is that reshuffles have many unintended consequences. Liam Fox's departure, for instance, meant that his Parliamentary Private Secretary, Tobias Ellwood, also lost his job, but Fox's close friend Greg Hands was catapulted into the whips' office.

A reshuffle can also mean that you are suddenly trying to sound knowledgeable about a brief about which you know nothing. Sometimes the new private office jumps the gun. The first I knew of my appointment as a foreign office minister in 2009 was when the head of the department rang to congratulate me. When, some hours later, Gordon Brown rang officially to offer me the job he said: "You don't sound very surprised." To which I could only reply: "Well, the thing is, I'm already standing in the Foreign Office with my new private secretary."

Chris Bryant is a Labour MP


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