Speaking up for Parliament
Posted on 20 May 2009 | 11:05am
Sitting in our kitchen at the moment is an impressive looking tome, its front cover a picture of an empty House of Commons chamber, its five hundred pages a collection of some of the best speeches ever made there.
Even before the expenses row, took off I was dipping in and out of this ‘Centenary Volume’ which celebrates one hundred years of Hansard, the written account of procedings in Parliament.
It was sent to me because I was one of almost fifty people – mainly Parliamentarians including Prime Ministers, party leaders, Speakers, among them the departing Michael Martin – asked to choose a speech and explain the choice. I went, as did Margaret Beckett, for a stunning Opposition Day debate speech by John Smith in 1993.
John Major, the man on the receiving end of Smith’s wit and wisdom that day, opted for Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech which helped topple Margaret Thatcher. The Labour leader defeated by Major, Neil Kinnock, choose Nye Bevan’s speech at the Second Reading of the NHS Bill in 1946, while Tony Benn went for Bevan’s resignation speech five years later, and Jim Callaghan selected another Bevan speech five years after that, on Suez. Rather cruelly I thought, Nigel Lawson chose a speech by Neil – in the Westland debate in 1986 – as ‘an object lesson in how not to do it.’ .
Leaf through the pages and you’ll find Churchill (several times), Lloyd George, Asquith, Wilson, Macmillan, Thatcher, Keir Hardie, Benn, Denis Healey, Michael Heseltine, Enoch Powell. A speech by Michael Foot is chosen by Ian Paisley, while David Blunkett goes for one by Oswald Mosley. Ted Heath is in there on his opposition to capital punishment (GB’s choice), Duff Cooper (David Cameron), Enoch Powell (Denis Healey), Barbara Castle (Patricia Hewitt). Dennis Skinner chose one of his own. Robin Cook is chosen twice – by Michael Martin (arms to Iraq) and by Shirley Williams (his resignation speech over the Iraq war).
There appears to be no price on this book, compiled by former Hansard editor Ian Church, so perhaps it is limited edition. On the inside cover there is an email address for inquiries firstname.lastname@example.org .
So why is he going on about a small circulation book with a load of old speeches in it, you ask? Because for all the talk about a need for a new politics, and the media’s protestations to care so much for Parliamentary democracy, it is worth asking the question why they cover it so little.
It is one of the paradoxes of our time that we have more media space than ever, but less of it devoted to what happens in Parliament. Political reporters are never off the screens. Politicians mainly on it when saying something that fits the reporters’ pre-ordained agenda, or doing something they shouldn’t.
It is easy to present the negative side of Parliament, particularly now. But the diminution of coverage of Parliamentary debate, other than the yah-boo of PMQs, has been steadily developing over time.
I am in favour of some of the changes being mooted to clean up the place, clear out the worst offenders, and make Parliamentary reform part of a broader plan to modernise and revitalise politics. I am also in favour of getting more younger people into Parliament too.
But reform of Parliament has to be accompanied by a change in the media attitude that says news about Parliament is only news if it shows itself in a bad light, or that to have a view which chimes with the view of your party leadership is somehow anti-democratic.
There may not be many Churchills or Bevans around the place. But there are good speeches made in Parliament most days of the weeks they sit. We just never get to hear about them. Hardly surprising when daily coverage of Westminster debates has gone and most of the papers have promoted comedy writing and commentary above reporting. So you can only read them if you subscribe to Hansard, which I accept is likely to remain a minority activity.
Also, isn’t it interesting how everyone seems to be saying we need more openness and transparency about what the procedures of Parliament … and welcoming the fact the next Speaker will be chosen by secret ballot?