When it comes to voting and speaking their conscience on Brexit, British MPs should do as former American congressman Anthony Weiner said…but perhaps not as he did
When the British parliament gets rowdy, it tends to be the braying backbench donkeys at Prime Minister’s Questions making the noise, usually in response to some tenuously witty put-down from David Cameron.
What you see far less in parliament are individual politicians getting angry or visibly passionate about particular issues (Mhairi Black’s vastly overrated maiden speech notwithstanding). Perhaps this is partly because of our British reserve – though this is a comity which notably does not seem to extend to social media.
The parliamentary debate following the announcement of David Cameron’s pitiful renegotiation deal with the European Union was a case in point, and the following drip-drip of MPs and ministers once considered to be dependable eurosceptics dutifully lining up behind the prime minister was especially depressing.
Even when solid arguments were made for or against Britain’s continued EU membership, much of the debate was conducted in that dry, technocratic and risk-averse style which does so much to turn people away from politics.
Thus the media expended many more column inches writing about whether David Cameron felt “betrayed” by Michael Gove’s decision to support Brexit, and what kind of punishment Boris Johnson might expect for doing the same. In the near complete absence of really passionate and full-throated arguments on either side (except in the thriving Brexit blogosphere), the Westminster media focused on the court drama and palace intrigue rather than the policy.
It needn’t be so. It is possible to show passion and wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve in a political debate, and doing so (provided that it is genuine) can actually foster greater trust between the people and politicians who are actually perceived as standing for something.
Former New York representative Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in disgrace, but during his time in Washington he built just such a reputation as a firebrand, with floor speeches which frequently went viral and broadened the reach and appeal of politics.
One such speech – in which Rep. Weiner excoriated Republicans for hiding behind procedural rules as cover for voting against providing healthcare to 9/11 first responders – is particularly applicable to the Brexit debate as it is now being conducted in Westminster:
You vote yes if you believe yes. You vote in favour of something if you believe it’s the right thing. If you believe it’s the wrong thing, you vote no.
You would think that this would be stating the obvious, but apparently not, judging by the number of committed europhile MPs who are quick to reel off all the things they hate about the EU rather than make a full-throated defence of Brussels, and the eurosceptic turncoats who have suddenly come up with implausible-sounding pressing reasons why now is not the right time for Brexit.
Am I the only one who would like to see a bit more genuine passion (as opposed to the creepy “passion” of Ed Miliband, or David Cameron pretending to be “bloody lively”) in our politics, rather than the same old consensual blandness?
Of course, for fiery debates like this to take place in the House of Commons, certain stultifying rules would need to be relaxed (though PMQs and the reaction to SNP MPs clapping shows just how arbitrary the enforcement of these rules already is).
But more than that, to have Anthony Weiner style passion in our politics, and the Brexit debate in particular, we would need more of our elected representatives to do the following:
1. Dare to make the honest, non-technocratic or fearmongering case for or against Brexit (with the europhiles ceasing to deny their desire and preference for European political union), and
2. Place their sincerely held beliefs over and above thoughts of career advancement.
But partly because the legislature and the executive are intertwined in the British political system, career-minded MPs are not currently incentivised to build a reputation as passionate and independent-minded firebrand legislators, as to do so would immediately mark them out as “troublemakers” to be passed over for promotion.
There is, at present, no attractive or lucrative career path in Westminster politics that does not lead inexorably away from legislating and toward joining the government, and the warping effect that this has on our lawmaking process cannot be overstated.
Yet another reason for comprehensive constitutional reform in Britain, to separate the executive from the legislature so that both are better able to do their jobs.
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