It was never clear what this Parliament was going to do if it was no longer prorogued. For three years the UK Parliament has been unable to act on the 2016 referendum result. It was never clear what they were hoping to achieve if they got an extra three days, weeks or months.
But the Parliament that reassembled yesterday managed to live down to even what low expectations there might have been. The Members appear to have decided, as is the way in modern British politics, to win by playing games of language and offence taking.
The signs were clear when the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, at one stage referred to a question as being like a ‘When did you stop beating your wife’ question. Emma Hardy, an MP for Hull, swiftly contrived to squeeze some offence out of that. Soon she was on her feet objecting that such a phrase was horrifically, wildly inappropriate and somehow made light of a domestic abuse bill due to go through the Commons. In the armoury of modern British political warfare being able to disingenuously or otherwise accuse someone else of making light of domestic violence is almost as good as claiming that they have used a ‘dog-whistle’ racist term.
The fact that Hardy had herself used the phrase she had complained of in the recent past was a reminder – if reminder was needed – that much of this is now performance. People pretend to be offended in order to win an actual political point. As Hardy made her intervention the Labour benches around her supported her horror with ‘disgusting’ and the like.
All that turned out only to be the warm-up for the main offence taking however. Paula Sherriff MP chose to go for the nuclear offence taking option by claiming that in saying things like ‘surrender’ the Prime Minister was using ‘dangerous’ words. Sherriff claimed that the Prime Minister should lead the way in moderating his language and tied her objection to the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox. ‘We stand here under the shield of our departed friend with many of us in this place subject to death threats and abuse every single day.’ When the Prime Minister dismissed this intervention as ‘humbug’ the Labour MPs had their moment. And the media had its story.
As it happens I am intensely suspicious of this sort of game. For it is true that political language can be febrile and that it certainly can deteriorate. But just as there is such a thing as honest offence taking, so there is also dishonest offence taking. And if there is a political advantage to gained by behaving dishonestly then is it possible that some people might seize that opportunity?
I was on Newsnight last night to comment on matters to do with Brexit and Trump, but it had by then become clear that language was the real issue once again. This is perhaps what becomes an issue in a society and Parliament absolutely riven by a lack of action. It was interesting to watch the resulting game play out in real time. MPs from all parties gathered on Newsnight to express their horror and outrage and affect real, serious concern that the term ‘humbug’ could have been used in such close proximity to Paula Sherriff’s furious intervention.
Just one point that cannot be made often enough is that Her Majesty’s Opposition is currently led by a man who repeatedly stood for, entertained and honoured the murderers of British soldiers and other subjects. To my knowledge no MP on the government benches has ever stood up and honoured the murderer of Jo Cox. Nor would they ever have even dreamt of doing so. So a little perspective might be in order. But perspective is what is severely lacking at present.
The former Newsnight journalist Paul Mason attempted to express shock about the language Boris Johnson had used and then presented nearly all of his political opponents as ‘fascists’. But it was something that Emily Maitlis said that interested me more. For in the discussion before mine Maitlis carried out a typically forthright interrogation of four MPs, each in turn. To the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran (who happens to know something about domestic abuse) Maitlis asked whether Moran and other Liberal Democrat MPs were willing to ‘pull the trigger’ and call an election on the Prime Minister.
And here is the thing. At no stage did anybody think or pretend to think that in using this commonplace phrase Maitlis was in some way calling for people to shoot the Prime Minister. They could have done so, in the same way that Emma Hardy and co. had done only hours earlier. But in the BBC studio nobody even raised an eyebrow or said ‘Steady on Emily, didn’t we all just agree to moderate our language?’ That is because this mouse-trap is sprung to catch people in only one particular direction. It is plainly not primed in order to go off in any and every direction. Rather, the Prime Minister’s parliamentary and media opposition sits primed – led by a life-long supporter of terrorism – waiting for the slightest phrase which it can present as incitement.
This used to be a serious country. If we are intending to be one again at any time soon then we might start by stopping such language games. An easy place to start would be to try to maintain some consistency in our attitude towards the proximity of violence and language.
Watch Douglas Murray and Paul Mason on Newsnight here: