John Walsh: Stop agreeing and start fighting

How do the Tories and Lib Dems get through every day without winding each other up?
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The Independent Online

I can't take the suspense much longer. Will the explosion be triggered by a row over capital gains tax? If George Osborne raises it from 18 to 50 per cent in his forthcoming Budget, will Vince Cable tell him he has the fiscal grasp of a fencepost?

Will Nick Clegg steel himself to tell David Cameron that his treatment of the backbenchers' 1922 Committee has sometimes smacked (to a good Liberal) of dictatorship? Will Theresa May lose her rag at last and tell Sarah Teather to do something about that bloody hairstyle?

How do the Tories and Lib Dems get through every day without winding each other up at every policy discussion? Everyone knows a coalition isn't a marriage; it's a truce in a continuing battle. Everybody knows there will be a terrible ruckus sooner or later. Nobody wants to break ranks, so a strained politeness has settled on the House. You can imagine coalition members circling each other like well-bred jackals or fastidious vultures, each alarmed to think he or she might be the first to crack – might be The One Who Started the Row That Ended It All.

That attitude – Say nothing. Button your lip. Keep it under wraps – is so terribly British it makes you weep. We don't want to fight our political enemies any more. So afraid of confrontation are the coalition leaders that they've fixed Prime Minister's Questions so that party malcontents can harangue David Cameron for just half an hour a month. Pathetic. What's wanted is a cold douche of argumentation, flavoured with bitchy invective. What we need around here is a decent row.

Where have the masters of inflammatory rhetoric gone? One mentions with reluctance the minatory shade of Baroness Thatcher, but she would no more have joined a coalition than she would have sung the "Internationale". She throve on confrontation, hungered for argument, loved crushing timorous rivals. And is there no room in any coalition for George Galloway, a man who could start an argument in an empty room, and whose relish for scathing repartee was often a joy to listen to, provided you weren't on the receiving end? Or Ken Livingstone, who, for all his faults, enjoyed an ideological ding-dong and whose attitude to Boris Johnson, since the London mayoral elections, has been that of a man simply dying for a fight.

We need exuberance, we need passion, and we need to get our frustrations out in the open. Often it falls to non-British chaps to show us how it's done. When Russell Crowe recently became infuriated with Mark Lawson after the Front Row presenter suggested that he had given Robin Hood an Irish accent in the new film of the Sherwood Forest agri-terrorist, it just missed being a full-scale row.

Why don't British guests respond like that to media teasing? When John Humphrys and Sarah Montague on the Today programme ramp up their daily level of guest-interruption to the point where the interviewee's reply is completely drowned, from start to finish, by the asking of the next belligerent question, aren't we surprised that the guest doesn't kick off and start yelling: "WILL YOU STOP BLOODY INTERRUPTING ME YOU CARPING OLD GIT I'VE HAD ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOUR TWISTING MY WORDS AND TALKING OVER MY INTERESTING REPLIES I DIDN'T GET UP AT 6 BLOODY 30 IN THE MORNING TO BE TREATED LIKE A PUNCHBAG." Instead, they meekly submit to verbal intimidation that would, in any arena but the middle-class British media, lead to a punch in the face, or a saloon-bar chair across the shoulder blades.

We don't do rows well, do we? Watching the aggrieved, increasingly spiteful dealings between Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA, and Unite co-leader Derek Simpson, you wish you could see them resolve things, not by yet more stone-faced debates at Acas headquarters, but with a great stonking row that would get all the personal stuff ("BUGGER OFF BACK TO DUBLIN, YOU MOON-FACED FASCIST MICK", "GO BACK TO SHEFFIELD YOU COMMIE TWIT WITH YOUR MAFIA SHIRT AND YOUR STUPID UNION TIE") out in the open and smooth the path to understanding.

Once, we used to like the idea of a good row. It cleared the air, we said. It was good for all concerned to get it out in the open. If the family's eldest daughter had grown heartily sick, over the months, of hearing snide remarks directed at her boyfriend by her father, it was a sound strategy to kick up a fuss one day and say, "OK, ALL RIGHT THEN, WHAT'S GOING ON? YOU'RE ALWAYS HAVING A GO AT GRAHAM, OUT WITH IT, WHAT THE HELL HAS HE DONE NOW? IS IT THE TATTOO?" because only then will her parents finally admit they're annoyed by the way he comes round all the time but never brings a bunch of flowers, let alone a bottle.

If the surgeon at the hospital is sensitive enough to realise that the theatre nurse with whom he routinely slices open patients has taken to slapping scalpels and forceps into his gloved hand with unusual force, but insufficiently sensitive to work out the complicated vortex of emotions behind her sudden violence, nothing will be gained by gentle, post-op enquiries about whether everything is "all right". Only a dramatic, balls-out confrontation, with raised voices and appeals to professional integrity, will reveal whether their relationship has recently been compromised by feelings of low self-esteem or high romance.

Rows are natural expressions of feeling. They are the steam valve in nature's pressure cooker. In Milton's Paradise Lost, no sooner do Adam and Eve disobey God, by eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, than they start a squabble. Everything had been going so well in the Garden of Eden – that lust and sin-free haven of co-operation and indeed coalition though not, of course, coition – but a brief introduction to sin (disobedience, followed by sex) was enough to pitch the first man and woman into a violent barney. As Milton puts it, Adam and Eve "fall to variance and accusation of each other". Eve maintains that the Fall of Mankind is all Adam's fault in that he should never have allowed her to wander off and find the Tree of Knowledge. You can just imagine Adam's indignant squawk of reply.

Great rows in literature – Stephen Dedalus and Dante O'Riordan screaming about Parnell and God in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist, the increasingly awful quarrels between Lydgate and Rosamund about her profligate lifestyle in Middlemarch, Florence and Edward's post-coital, life-changing spat in On Chesil Beach – reveal something fascinating about human beings: how much we enjoy, not just scoring points off each other, but embracing the chance to be cruel and hurtful in doing so.

It's generally a temporary thing, discovering your inner eloquent bastard. A full-scale slanging match is not an edifying spectacle, but it can be a cleansing experience. For the sake of British sanity, we should embrace it more often, as a bracing alternative to the sotto voce compromises of our national life.