In which I wonder, I really do …

Few things illustrate the impoverishment of our public life better than the weekly charade of Prime Ministerial Questions. Quite what the participants think we, their bosses, get from this exercise is hard to fathom.

Perhaps we are meant to be bowled over by the scintillating wit on show? Wallace and Gromit? Poisonous fungus? Shadow chancellors who allegedly can’t count? Oh please stop before my ribs collapse under the strain of so much mirth.

Then we have the subjects covered.

Bankers. Coastguards. EMA. DLA. Street parties for the royal wedding. Security. Armed Forces. BSkyB. Bonfire of the Quangos. Hold on was that royal wedding? Yep – give me strength.

Then there’s the questions that are so obviously planted they have their own leaves, root systems and howler monkeys in the canopy.

‘Would the Prime Minister agree with me that such and such policy illustrates how wonderful and visionary a leader he is? And what an absolute shower the other lot are?’

Can he? Of course he can.

No less woeful are the heavily rehearsed opposition questions that plod towards their inevitable conclusion with all the joyful tread of a patient heading to root canal work.

I watched the replay of today’s PMQs on the rather wonderful Democracy Live website because I heard such completely different takes on what had happened. I couldn’t find any convincing evidence either way. I didn’t see much winning going on and I suspect the only losers really were us, the electorate.

I’m a much greater fan of select committees but their work, by and large and the odd American banking superstar aside, rarely hits the headlines. But even these more forensic tests of the capability of ministerial teams sometimes get nowhere near establishing what is happening and why.

I’ve often wondered why. In part I think it’s a function of what all of us who follow a particular profession or hobby do. We invent our own language. In part to communicate more easily with our co-professionals or hobbyists but also to exclude people outside our magic circle. Watching and listening to professional politicians suggest to me that they are far more comfortable talking with each other than they ever are talking with us ordinary joes.

So it’s no surprise then that when politicians encounter sentient life outside homo sapiens politiciensis they often come spectacularly unstuck. A highly successful local politician once said to me the problem with democracy was the democracy bit. Otherwise it works fine.

The experience of Michael Gove today illustrates the problems that politicians get into when they make themselves available to be challenged by us, the great unwashed.

If you haven’t caught it it’s well worth listening to here – Don’t focus on the rights and wrongs of the issue being discussed. Instead listen for the tone and the language used.

It’s an interesting illustration of how the very language a politician choses to use sends signals – not necessarily intended – about how they see themselves in relation to the ‘interlocutor’. The same tone was used by the PM to denigrate the opposition front bench particularly the Shadow Chancellor.

I often wonder if our political class has arrived from a different country. Perhaps we should just get them to use Norman French and leave the rest of us to express ourselves in the Anglo-Saxon. At least we would all know where we were then.

Of course no discussion of the subject of political nasty encounters of a real person kind would be complete without this classic. Enjoy the memories.

About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
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16 Responses to In which I wonder, I really do …

  1. Elie says:

    This is a wonderful piece.

    I hope finding a job works out well for you. Best wishes.

  2. Troodles says:

    Mr RPS,

    Very interesting observations and great clips to listen to. Mr Gove was out of his league with that guy and came over as a pompous, closed and arrogant bully (bullies don’t always shout, they often use more subtle techniques like patronising and belittling). If any one has ever listened to a Sir Ken Robinson seminar (who was mentioned in the clip and I recommend) they would know exactly how important diversity in education is and that we all have different talents and abilities that can be drawn out and developed. My son’s school gave him an opportunity to run a business in school, he identified that he was good at sales, at sixteen he worked in retail sales and at 18 got a job working in financial services and 20 is very successful in foreign exchange. He was able to follow a course that suited his talents and drivers. All our children should be given basics for getting on in the world, but this does not mean they must excel at specific academic subjects. If we denigrate the importance of other ”non academic’ subjects then we would not have such a diverse cultural environment. My breakfast cereal has not seen me so animated for ages.

    • Dear Troodles,

      I hope the crockery remained intact. You make a really strong point about difference. Of my brothers I am the only one who can translate timeo Danaos et dona ferentes but frankly these days I would prefer their entrepreneurial, agricultural and military experience. Given Total Jobs fixation with making me an infantry soldier the latter would definitely be useful. My point is all of us have been successful in our own ways using our different talents.

      The trick that great educators pull off is exactly what you describe with your son.

      Best wishes


  3. Doug Shaw says:

    Great learning from you once again. I appreciate your perspective and the clips (previously unseen by me) are the icing on my slice of blog cake today.

    Troodles has picked some choice words – pompous, patronising and arrogant, to highlight this piece. Arrogant nails it for me. The word is derived from ab, away, and rogare, to question, and means to turn away from questioning. And that’s the way to ruin.

    I really enjoy my visits here, thanks and keep it going.

    • Dear Doug,

      Thanks for the comment – good to see a classical education being put to good use – you’ll see from my comment to Troodles that I’ve been known to conjugate the odd verb myself!

      Best wishes


  4. Well I chortled with glee at Gove’s ‘discomfiture’ – this is very much my area and the man is doing massive damage to our education system with his regressive and ill thought out measures.
    I have also speculated many times over how actually ‘chummy’ the politicos are when off stage with each other – their deeply held ideologies don’t seem to get in the way.
    Mind you the Nick and Dave show has taken this buddiness to a new level…..

    • Dear Roger,

      Thanks for visiting. ‘The Nick and Dave Show’? Now there’s an idea to take along to C4 commissioning editors to run up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes. (See I’ve even got the management speak ready for the pitch) …

      Best wishes


  5. I know I have been guilty in the past myself of using inappropriate language (which has varied from public sector waffle through to intemperate political rhetoric) but your post reinforces the view I have held for some time. Politicians of all flavours really should maintain as civil and straightforward speech as possible, even when provoked. I find myself intensely irritated by the partisan nature of PMQs and media discussions/interviews and it makes me switch over or off. (And I consider myself genuinely interested in most of the topics under discussion, so goodness knows what the average voter makes of it!)

    I do not think the Giffords shooting in the US was necessarily even an indirect result of the political rhetoric used over the pond, but if one good thing was to come of the tragedy, why can’t we just have more civil conversations.

    Both left and right are guilty of being shrill, exaggerating and belittling and although I cannot claim to be perfect, and sure I will be so myself at times, the more everyone can try not to be partisan, the more we can discuss politics in calm and sensible tones, the more chance we have of getting people more involved in it and of making the case for our viewpoint.

    Not sure any minds are ever changed by having abuse hurled at them, being belittled or being accused of being something they are not.

    • Dear Publicsectorman,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you nailed it pretty good. I too have yet to hear anyone say after PMQs ‘You know what, that chap was right and I was wrong’.

      Think we’ll be waiting a while yet too …


  6. Hazel Edmunds says:

    I can only be thankful that I got out before I was pushed and, if the truth be told, suffering a bit from survivor’s guilt.

  7. bookworm221 says:

    Wonderful blog piece RPS! I, too, hadn’t heard either of those pieces before.
    It amazes me (and probably shouldn’t!) how uncomfortable politicians become when they come across an articulate member of the public!

    • Dear bookworm221,

      Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. I think in the Age of the Professional Politician many of our leaders will not have really spent any significant time with anyone outside of a very narrow demographic.

      I remember how very hard Matthew Parris found living on the dole in Scotswood for a week when he was an MP way back when. The gap between most national politician’s experience and ours is astronomic so finding that we are often really not as daft as they think we must be must be quite a shock.

      Best wishes


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