Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The powerful talk loud but don't say anything

The faux-confrontations and schoolboy noise during Prime Minister's Questions are mere theatrics

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The Independent Online

It's not often that I bless the unbendable right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens, but I did last Thursday. On the Question Time panel there was much shilly-shallying about "appropriate" and "inappropriate" relationships between the powerful. Hitchens magisterially stated that he preferred the clearer terms, "right" and "wrong". So would the rest of us, especially at this time when the Leveson Inquiry is cutting open and examining the insalubrious workings of the state. You see how I too temper my words? I want to say "shady" or "corrupt" but have had to accept that one cannot speak straight about those on high, they who are economical with the truth, trim the fat off it, cook it, flip and often bury it altogether.

English, the world's most awesomely expressive language is turned in Parliament and formal inquiry courts into perfectly enunciated contrivance, elegant obfuscation. After 40 years in this country, I still don't get it.

Suddenly, briefly, ritualised pretence was kicked in by MP Chris Bryant, also a columnist on this paper. Using parliamentary privilege, he accused Jeremy Hunt of "lying", something Hunt described as a "disgraceful allegation". But how many people have thought what Bryant was able to say? That hardly matters. Tradition does. Way back in 1867 an Irish MP accused the government of civil-rights violations in his country. John Roebuck, MP for Sheffield, was apoplectic that "such foul calumnies" were uttered in the House. Thereafter language had to be "consistent with the usages of Parliament". Are we confused? Not half. Nobody minds the political correctness that became embedded in the Establishment.

The faux-confrontations and schoolboy noise during Prime Minister's Questions are mere theatrics between people who feel a shared sense of destiny. Debates are so regulated internally (by the parties) and externally by convention that almost nothing that passes tells us what is really happening, has happened or will happen. When honest MPs like Dennis Skinner speak up, they are shoved into the gallery of "lovable" eccentrics where their words fast lose muscle.

UK citizens are increasingly suspicious of formalised proceedings too, because they see power merchants twisting and turning facts and coming out cleansed rather than tainted. Tony Blair, David Cameron, George Osborne and the entire band of News International execs, including wily old Murdoch, got where they did because they are past masters at language manipulation. Gordon Brown did so too, but less expertly, which I find comforting.

The rest pitch up at the Leveson Inquiry and fence away questions brilliantly, turning reality to their will. Does Hunt really expect us to understand that his fanatical ardour for the Murdoch empire had no bearing at all on his decision? Maybe I will be sent to prison for saying so BUT I DO NOT BELIEVE HIM, NOT A WORD. And as for Cameron's sickening intimacy with that circle, it was, he suggests, no more than his Big Society heart giving them second chances and Christ's love. Really?

Then there is the base British habit of rehabilitating bad reputations. Rivers of foaming praise are filling the land at present to mark the late Enoch Powell's centenary. The journalist Simon Heffer and I were on Radio 4's Start the Week when his hagiography of Powell was published. No black people, he admitted to me, had been asked about how Powell had poisoned race relations with his incendiary racist prophecies. Twice now I have been asked at public events not to describe Powell as a "racist", which he was. Even his disapproval of appalling British reprisals against the Mau Mau came not from pity for black victims but belief that his countrymen were born into the highest of all civilisations. Today, practised wordsmiths have turned the supremacist into a moral messiah.

So how does the controlling Establishment co-exist with the bedlam on the internet on which there is no restraint at all and anything goes? Or with cutting-edge comedians and satirists who drop decorum and push at us the soiled reality? Well, ask Armando Iannucci, who finds himself in the thick of it. The creator of Malcolm Tucker, the gross and driven Blairite spin doctor, is not only brilliant but very nice. However, he has just accepted an OBE, which means he has agreed to validate the secret and dodgy old order which he so masterfully mocks and exposes. (I can hardly criticise him, having accepted one myself, an "honour" subsequently returned.)

Now a Twitter row has broken out after Alastair Campbell, allegedly the model for Tucker, slated him for selling out. Iannucci hit back, reminding Campbell of his part in the Iraq war. But Iannucci can't so easily let himself off. He explained the acceptance of the medal as "just good manners", used words to veil what made him do it, and sounded like the politicians who think they can sell us any old bilge. One is left with the terrible suspicion that being a successful, rich and famous sceptic just wasn't enough. He had to become one of them.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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