Tuesday 22 August 2017

Parliamentary Cretinism

According to Engels, parliamentary cretinism "is an incurable disease, an ailment whose unfortunate victims are permeated by the lofty conviction that the whole world, its history and its future are directed and determined by a majority of votes of just that very representative institution that has the honour of having them in the capacity of its members". In his writings on fascism in Austria, old Trotters adds "“parliamentary cretinism” is not an insult but the characteristic of a political system which substitutes for social reality, juridical and moral constructions, a ritual of decorative phrases." Accurate observations that remain the case, but I think it's perhaps time it was deployed as an insult, because nothing else describes the behaviour of a score or so MPs who cringed beneath Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster to hear the bongs for the final time ... for four years.

Stephen Pound shed a tear as what he dubbed the chimes of freedom fell silent. There has been talk of the scandal of switching off the "democracy lamp", and even the Prime Minister broke her August silence to say it wasn't right the bell should remain silent for a lengthy period. Chill your beans Theresa, it will still ring in the New Year.

Thankfully most MPs had the sense to stay away from the small crowd, but that some turned out says a great deal about the awfulness of Parliament as an institution. Laura Pidcock had it right in her maiden speech when she attacked the pomp and archaic rituals as a means of impressing on working class representatives that high office is no place for them. For people on the outside looking in, for the great many of them, they see something profoundly stuffy, weird, and alienating. Perhaps only Britain could make its sovereign democratic body so inaccessible and off putting. It is anti-democratic.

What is worse than Parliamentary procedure and its petty ritual are those parliamentarians who lap it up. They don't so much as accept it so they can get on with the jobs they were elected to do but embrace it. Jacob Rees-Mogg typifies this. Somehow, this vicious atavist has largely swarthed his cruel politics of toffee nosed class war in the ha ha of Commons buffoonery. An intervention liberally dribbled in Latin here, an obscure point of order there, in many ways Mogg personifies Westminster more than any politician. He is ineffably polite and condescending, clueless and ill at ease with the 21st century, bumbling and cold in a way that invites warmth and affection, he is the archaic and arcane epitome of parliamentary cretinism. The Commons is his natural environment. Its traditions speak to gentlemen of a certain era and a certain class to remind them, and provide a safe space for the reliving of their childhoods as private boarders. As such, you would be hard pressed to find a MP from similar backgrounds who hasn't taken to the House. Yet you can understand it, almost emphathise with it. They're creatures of their class, Parliament is an institution that upholds their class rule, and so they're going to find something special, something to treasure in what is their Westminster.

Less so those like blubbering Stephen Pound, who come from less vaulted backgrounds but are more vociferous in their love of Parliamentary culture. It's like they have internalised the inferiority Laura called out, and try and compensate for it by grabbing and championing convention and procedure. Sometimes this is for self-serving reasons, but more often than not it is to convince themselves they are welcome and they feel at home among the bourgeois pageantry and tradition. In this imagination, somehow the bowing and the scraping, the snuff box, and the chamber deliberately (and hilariously!) built too small to seat all MPs represents the pinnacle of democratic functioning. It's these kind of people who will be most active in defending tradition, and clinging to constitutional politics as the only way change can be achieved. Their ease with the way of doing things are status markers - they have made it and they've passed beyond the mortal realm into exalted company. This in mind as soon as I'd heard tell of MPs gathering to hear the bongs out, I knew it was going to be fronted up by a Labour back bencher.

None of this is fit for the very limited form of democracy of representative institutions, let alone anything else. Democratic politics should be welcoming and encouraging and its operations straightforward and transparent. Monday's little spectacle on the lawn reminds us that Westminster still has a very long way to go.


Anonymous said...

I think there are three things being conflated here.

1) Parliamentary traditions (e.g., Black Rod, State Opening, etc, etc). I don't find these too objectionable. They certainly aren't a discouragement to 'normal people' who want to get into politics, because most of them will start at the local council level, where the only such flummery they're likely to encounter is a Mayoral chain or the odd Town Crier. If people want to get maudlin over a clock-tower, then let them. It's their workplace and they can be forgiven a bit of sentimentality.

2) Out-and-out See You Next Tuesdays like Rees-Mogg. He's one of those horrible parody Tories who emerge from time to time, and more a symptom of the reactionary nature of that party than a symptom of a debased executive. Just off the top of my head, his conceptual ancestors include Rhodes Boyson, Gerald Nabarro, Nicholas Fairburn, and assorted other Wodehousian deadbeats - not least of which is currently our Foreign Secretary.

3) The degree to which Britain's legislature and executive are profoundly detached from the economic realities of life for the overwhelming majority of the people they ostensibly serve. The contrast between their emoting over Big Ben and their near-indifference to Grenfell Tower is breathtaking. It's this point, I think, that is the most outright offensive.

But finally, I think this is just a silly season story, puffed into the media by a bumbling administration looking to score easy media points. Ultimately, it's a distraction from far bigger things going on in the public psyche. What does nearly everyone remember about the death of a certain minor royal, 20 years ago this month? The argument over the fucking flag on top of Buckingham Palace.

Shai Masot said...

Jess Phillips was there.

SimonB said...

While I can see that shaking off the medieval pomp and Oxford Union snootiness are easy enough I'd like to know how we might do more to reduce the alienating effects you describe. Aren't they intrinsic to the nature of parliaments?

What's notable about the bongs fiasco is that the MPs who mourned the silencing of the bell were jumping to the Daily Mail's tune. Our disgusting press will resist changes to Parliament far more than most MPs.

Anonymous said...

Silly question, but where exactly did Engels write the following:

"is an incurable disease, an ailment whose unfortunate victims are permeated by the lofty conviction that the whole world, its history and its future are directed and determined by a majority of votes of just that very representative institution that has the honour of having them in the capacity of its members".

This is much quoted on the internet, but never with a reference to a specific work or letter. It always seems to appear unreferenced.

So any idea where it comes from?


Walsie said...

Your best bit of prose ever. No more o be said. Why not offer it to the Guardian ?

Phil said...

To be fair to Jess, Mark, she was apparently "just passing" and had her family with her. Over the last few days she has been very clear she thinks all of this is nonsense.

David Timoney said...

In their different ways, Pound (who is a windup merhant) and Philips (who is an egomaniac) have both managed to get themselves in the papers during the annual silly season. Best to ignore.

Ken said...

Iain asks for the source of the Engels quote. Thanks the MIA search function, I found it in seconds:


[Waves to Iain, an old sparring partner from back when the Net was young.]

Phil said...

Hi Iaian,

I half-inched it from here. But can't find anything more than that, arrgh!