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Christina Patterson Headshot

Why British Politics Needs Less of the Pantomime

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TONY BLAIR
AP

You know how it is. A colleague says something you disagree with, and so you start pulling faces and rolling your eyes. You might start groaning very loudly. You might, if you think they're really beginning to make a fool of themselves, and you think their boss has noticed, find yourself yelling out for more. Or you might just decide to point. Not in the way you'd point if, for example, you were showing someone something on a map. But in the way you'd point if you were in a pantomime and you'd finally found the villain.

If you don't -- if, say, when a colleague says something you disagree with, you just tell them so, in a normal voice, without yelling, or gurning like a gargoyle, or maybe making "Wooh, wooh" noises if they use a word like "haunt", and if you keep your arms hanging fairly normally by your sides -- then you're probably not an MP.

For those of us who aren't, it seems a bit strange. For those of us who haven't, for example, ever been anywhere near a public school, it seems like something that maybe you'd learn in a dormitory, or maybe on a rugby field where you couldn't hear what anyone was saying, and so had to do a kind of charades instead. For those of us who aren't, it's quite hard to understand the rules. If, for example, someone says something you think your boss thinks you should agree with, then what you need to do is nod. This can't be the kind of nod you'd give if you were walking your dog and saw someone you'd lived near for 20 years and thought you should acknowledge (but without, of course, saying "hello") but the kind of nod you might give if you were auditioning for a mime school, where you could also study to be a clown.

And if someone says something in a voice you think sounds a bit funny, or a bit high, or maybe has a bit of a stutter, then you might want to start mimicking them or just making funny faces. You do this because you're meant to do anything you can to make someone your boss thinks you ought to disagree with look silly. If you find out later that the reason they sound funny is because they've got something wrong with them, then you say that you didn't mean to do it, because you're only meant to mock someone because they're ugly or stupid or have a silly voice, and not when being ugly or stupid or having a silly voice has any kind of a label. If it has a label, you can't, but if it doesn't, you can.

This must be why Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said he "felt physically sick" when he heard that the Tory MP Paul Maynard, who has mild cerebral palsy, had been taunted in the House of Commons, but hasn't said he feels sick when Ed Miliband, who has a funny voice and funny eyes, but no medical excuse for it, is also taunted in the House of Commons.

Perhaps he just accepts that something which opens every year with men in dresses taking a hostage, and a man hitting the floor with a stick, and a man in a wig walking backwards, has all kinds of customs that people think are important, and that this is one of them.

And perhaps it isn't surprising that a place that seems to be quite keen on keeping alive the traditions of the music hall and the circus (even if the ringmaster believes in dressing down, and his wife does even more), and which has a weekly sparring match between the two main leaders, which is meant to look spontaneous, but where all the key lines are scripted, tends to produce leaders who think that the most important thing is how you look on a stage.

The best person on the stage was a man called Tony. He always wanted to be a rock star, but becoming prime minister was the next best thing. When he spoke, people knew he meant every word. When he spoke, for example, about the death of a people's princess, and his lip quivered, and he had to pause because he was feeling so upset, everyone knew that he was a very, very nice man who would never do anything awful like, for example, starting something that would make a lot of people die.

The next prime minister wasn't very good on the stage at all. People who knew him said that he wanted to be prime minister because he wanted to do things, but when he got there, he seemed to forget the things he wanted to do. He also kept forgetting his lines. He kept smiling in the wrong place, and scowling in the wrong place. He sometimes forgot to turn off his microphone. He was best on the stage when he was leaving it, perhaps because he was secretly happy to be leaving it.

Now we have a prime minister who's very, very good on the stage. Luckily, he always knew he wanted to be on it, so he had plenty of time to rehearse. Luckily, too, he went to a school where you had dormitories, and rugby fields, and to a university where students pretended to be prime ministers, so he knew about the nodding, and the frowning, and the pacing. He knew that it would be a good idea when he wasn't yet prime minister to give a speech without any notes, because everyone would remember that he'd given a speech without any notes, even though they wouldn't remember any of the words that would have been on the notes.

He knew that when a report, which cost nearly £200m, came out, saying it hadn't been a good idea for British soldiers to murder Northern Irish civilians, that it would be a good idea to say that he agreed with the report. He knew it was a good idea to say sorry for things that happened a long time ago that weren't your fault. But he knew it was important to blame other people when you could. It was important, for example, to keep talking about a deficit that had been caused by people throwing money away, but not to mention anything like a global crisis, or banks that you say you would have regulated, even though you wouldn't.

He knew it was important to talk about rolling up your sleeves and look as though you were about to work very, very hard, even though you weren't actually that keen on working very, very hard. What you were keen on was giving speeches, and going to meetings with world leaders, and playing tennis, and going on telly. You knew that you could trust other people with the boring bits, which you liked to call "bureaucracy" and encourage other people to cut, and that if you just kept making announcements, and looking busy, then everything would be fine.

It isn't. The NHS, which was the one product of "big government" which our prime minister promised not to cut, is about to undergo top-down reform that looks likely to go belly up. The Big Society, starved of its very little funding, is in very big trouble indeed. Forests are a mess. Free schools are a mess. The economy is so far resisting Etonian charm. And integration would sound an awful lot more convincing if our government wasn't giving public funds for segregated education to religious nutters.

Detail matters. Policy matters. You can talk till the cows come home to the meadows next to the privatized forests. You can smile, you can nod, you can frown. You can, for all I care, swing from the rafters like a baboon. But it would be very, very nice if politicians realized that what really matters isn't what you say, or how you say it, it's what you do.