Time for a few good jokes but please, no abuse

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The Independent Online
There is no pleasing some people. Immediately after Mr Tony Blair had finished his new version of Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, the political correspondents or political editors, as they are now called - a fancy title bestowed on them to evade some long gone incomes policy - gathered round Mr Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's press secretary, to hear his version of the event. Naturally he proclaimed a triumph for his boy. What else could he say?

His auditors remained unconvinced. "Boring" was their verdict. They even said as much to Mr Campbell. Next day the parliamentary sketchwriters (a different breed who do not attend on Mr Campbell and his ilk) arrived at more or less the same conclusion. They seemed particularly struck by the number of sycophantic questioners asking Mr Blair whether he agreed that he and his colleagues were the most beneficial product since the discovery of aspirin. But why should they have been surprised? Human nature is the same in New Labour as it was - for that matter still is - among old Tories.

However, Mr Gordon Prentice, who sits for Pendle, then actually asked a difficult question. What, he wanted to know, did Mr Blair intend to do about the breakdown in the privatised Stagecoach bus services in his part of Lancashire? Clearly, Mr Prentice refrained from adding, the company ought to be called Highwayman because it holds you up. Anyway Mr Blair was rather at a loss, and replied that these matters were being looked after by Mr John Prescott. Quite why the Independent, in its regular "good day-bad day" feature, chose to conclude that Mr Prentice had suffered a bad day eludes me. He did what an MP ought to do. That the Prime Minister was unable to satisfy him was hardly Mr Prentice's fault.

But I did not find the occasion at all boring. Those who did should perhaps reflect that it is not among the functions of an elected representative of the people to provide them with free entertainment.

Still, that is what we all want. Mr Michael Foot, for instance, was the parliamentary success he was (at any rate until he became the leader of his party) not because he was the fiery orator of popular mythology but because he could make his audience laugh. Indeed, if I were to offer a piece of advice to a new MP , it would be to cut down on the earnestness and work up a few jokes. Even for the new women there are models - Miss Victoria Wood, Ms Jo Brand - that did not exist when Barbara Castle and Jennie Lee embarked on their successful but strident political careers.

Next to a good laugh, what people enjoy is personal abuse, the more abusive the better. In this respect most politicians and political journalists are no different from most newspaper editors (though not, I hasten to add, the editor of this newspaper)."Give us a good, strong piece," they say. What they really mean is that they want an article which is, first, so simple that it can be understood by a child of 12 and, second, full of violent abuse. This is the way to get on to the leader page of the Daily Mail in what is known in the trade as the why-oh-why slot.

The paper's proprietor, Lord Rothermere, has been converted to the cause of the People's Party. This Pauline event seems to have brought about more consternation in the upper reaches of his paper than it has even among the Conservatives. We shall have to see whether the recipients of the abuse change as a consequence of Lord Rothermere's transfer of allegiance. After all, the principal proprietor of the Daily Express is Lord Hollick, a Labour life peer owing his position to the patronage of Mr Neil Kinnock, goodness knows why. The Express, though less virulently hostile to Labour than it used to be, hardly came out strongly for Mr Blair at the election.

As with papers, so with politicians: the more abusive the better. The market for what Matthew Arnold called sweetness and light has shrunk. Sir Edward Heath filled the House in the 1980s, and journalists returned from their screens to the press gallery, not because he was a consummate speaker or an accomplished debater - he was far from being either - but because there was a good chance he would say something offensive about Lady Thatcher. In the prevailing fog which descended on the Commons in the 1990s after her fall, Prime Minister's Questions stood out as a beacon of unreason and bad temper. Accordingly it became increasingly useless as a source of serious information but increasingly popular as a provider of light entertainment.

Mr Gerald Kaufman, who approves of the changes made by Mr Blair, believes the rot set in with the televising of Parliament. I have the highest regard for Mr Kaufman's opinions on the House and its environs. If I were Mr Blair I should put him in the Cabinet at his first reshuffle, when his hands will no longer be tied by the requirement, already breached in any event, to give cabinet posts to all elected members of the old Shadow Cabinet. But because of Mr Blair's evident policy of ageism - Mr Kaufman will be 67 in June - I do not suppose it will happen.

In this case, however, I believe Mr Kaufman is mistaken. The decline did not begin with the entry of the television cameras but with the choice of Lord Home to succeed Harold Macmillan as prime minister in 1963 and his treatment by Mr Kaufman's mentor Harold Wilson. Question Time began perfunctorily in 1961 when Macmillan was prime minister and Hugh Gaitskell leader of the opposition. They did like each other personally but behaved civilly across the floor of the House "Most interesting suggestion...," Macmillan would say. "Certainly bear it in mind...food for thought." Wilson, who admired Macmillan politically, dealt with him warily. But Home's inexperience of the House and his natural diffidence enabled Wilson to treat him as a punchbag. As prime minister, he treated Sir Edward in the same way in 1965-70, though he fell back in opposition in 1970-74.

After he was prime minister again in 1974-76, much to his surprise, he seemed to have lost interest. But he briefly patronised Lady Thatcher, as Lord Callaghan was to do after him. After winning the 1979 election, however, she dominated the event, chiefly by screaming and shouting. The abyss was reached in 1983-90, when she performed with Mr Kinnock. In comparison, Mr John Major failed to impose himself on the occasion, and responded by cultivating an underdog snarl. The people behind him behaved worse and worse. Though I try not to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, I am gratified that many of them have now joined the unemployed.

The failings have been manifest for well over 30 years. I do not think television changed members' behaviour substantially, even though some of them (such as Sir Peter Tapsell, a model backbencher who should have been a frontbencher) made a practice of always sitting in a place where they would be picked up by the cameras. What television did - to this extent Mr Kaufman is right - was bring those failings to the attention of millions. They watched fascinated but deplored the spectacle nevertheless, exactly like all those journalists who claimed to find last Wednesday afternoon boring.

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