MPs need a nanny – and some manners


When Russell Crowe piped up recently that the treatment of the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard lacked "gallantry", he meant well but his choice of words was wrong. Crowe was reacting to a menu at a Liberal fundraiser which included "Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – small breasts, huge thighs, and a big red box". My dictionary says gallantry is thoughtfulness and courtesy "especially towards women", but it wasn't chivalric valour Gillard was after. She didn't want coats draped over puddles; just a little respect and some manners, the same as any Aussie bloke would expect.

We congratulate ourselves in this country that we don't call our female ministers "deliberately barren", accuse them of shaming their fathers to death or ask them if their male partners are gay, but our own political discourse is far from gallant, or even courteous. Last week the spectacle in the Commons was particularly disgusting: a bunch of posh boys laughing their little heads off as they cut benefits to the poor. Chivalrous? Hardly. Well-mannered? Not at all.

David Cameron is famous for his politeness, according to those who know him of old (and presumably haven't seen him making fat jokes about Eric Pickles at the party conference). When he was young, he tipped the maid who cleaned his room when he stayed at a girlfriend's parents' house, which greatly endeared him to the girlfriend's mum. Cameron has been brought up to know how to treat staff, but apparently not to recognise that "Calm down, dear" is not an appropriate response to a woman who is disagreeing with him, or that pointing and laughing at opponents isn't an acceptable way to engage in a debate.

But it's not just him. Generally, the Commons resembles a classroom where an incompetent supply teacher has allowed it to run out of control. It doesn't need a Speaker, it needs a nanny. The Mother of all Parliaments is an embarrassment, and that's not counting the fact that we subsidise its bars. How must this look to other, more civilised parliaments? Such as Australia's.

In the 1970s linguists identified the concepts of positive politeness and negative politeness, the first being about friendliness and the second about deference. These still apply in normal interactions, but increasingly in public discourse we deal with two types of rudeness. The first is the rudeness of the powerless: the internet trolls who act from a combination of amusement, boredom, revenge and a craving for power, according to academic research published last week (and common sense published since time began). The second comes from powerful types to whom the little people just don't count.

The other thing that Russell Crowe said was that the office of Prime Minister deserves respect … but it's hard to respect people who behave the way our politicians do. Childish bitching by those in power, he added, "gives licence to a type of hater that will only further reduce the quality of our lives". Hear hear, Mr Crowe, Sir. You don't have to be gallant to believe that.

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