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From sport to politics, male assertiveness is getting out of hand

PMQs was never intended to be the bear pit it has become
  • @ChrisBryantMP

I’m not a big football fan. Quite the reverse. Maybe because I’m Welsh, I can’t abide it. But I did catch the pictures of Hugo Lloris, the Spurs goalkeeper, accidentally colliding head-on with the boot of an Everton striker last Sunday. It was a nasty clash. Lloris was clearly dazed. Yet the Spurs medical team allowed him back on, a decision that has been described as irresponsible by the campaigning charity Headway. To be fair, he looked pretty determined and it might have been difficult to stop him. So, manfully, as they say, on he played.

Lloris was OK, but Ben Robinson was not so fortunate. Aged 14 he died after a rugby match in Northern Ireland in 2011 when he continued playing despite being checked for concussion three times. His father Peter says that if he had been removed after that first concussion, “he’d be here with us today”. There’s little doubt that he is not the only one. The former Ireland rugby international Brian O’Driscoll is certain that “players are being sent back on with brain damage”, and in the US the National Football League has just forked out $765m to former players for hiding the long-term risks of brain damage.

It’s not a simple issue. With the adrenalin pumping and the crowd screaming, many a player will do anything they can to stay on the pitch. After all, the player will have been desperate to get selected. He’ll worry that it will mean he won’t play next week, or that he’ll lose out financially. But the biggest problem is the Mr Manly Syndrome that is still endemic. In sport it’s all about “Man up and play the game”. Blokes aspire to an almost unnaturally muscled, roided look, and a macho attitude to go with it.

It’s infected politics as well. That diffident soul Harold Macmillan never intended Prime Minister’s Questions to be the bear pit it has now become when he introduced the then twice-weekly sessions. But now the political class judges the protagonists by their ability to take lumps out of each other, and in recent weeks it has got far worse. The decibel count has risen. The scorn quotient is virtually off the scale. It has become little more than a room full of bullies seeking to outdo one another. No wonder everyone laughed this week when the Speaker vainly suggested that the PM might try to remember the original question when answering.

Select committees have become infected too. Members bark their questions at witnesses. They treat them with utter disdain, posturing for the media and trying to outdo each other in landing the killer punch. It’s as if every MP really wants to be Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys – and they in turn seek to dismantle any politician they come across with the aggressive sardonic sneer of the playground bully. (Incidentally, Paxman has voted. In 1997, he admitted that he had voted for me in High Wycombe.)

I should say I’m no better. Last week, the Telegraph ran a nasty little piece about my schooldays at Cheltenham College. Some unnamed numbskull had crawled out from under a stone to maintain that I was a “weedy day boy” who never played any sport and spent most of my time playing women’s parts in plays. The chap’s malice and inaccuracy were revealed by the fact that he also claimed I was the Labour candidate in the school mock election in 1979. Sadly, I confess, dear reader, that I was quite definitely a Tory at the time.

But the real sadness is that I actually felt affronted at the implications of unmanliness. I wanted to say I was captain of swimming then, that I have often played in the parliamentary rugby team, and that I never played a woman’s part. See how butch I am!

But actually it’s time politics shed its macho macho manliness. Yes, some parliamentary witnesses can be evasive and even duplicitous, but there was something truly unseemly about MPs badgering the HR director of the BBC – the only woman on the panel – a few weeks ago. And when the Plebgate police were back this week, it was bad enough that MPs seemed more affronted by another MP being traduced than any other issue facing Britain today, but I also thought the sneering was just rude. Select committees should learn some manners. Forceful, assertive, resolute, forensic, yes – but just a tad less high-handed. And I’ll be proud of my less than manly side.