Vox Vulgaria

Heckling may well have been a mainstay of parliamentary debates, but that doesn't mean it should remain so.

Heckling may well be a traditional part of parliamentary debates, but that doesn’t mean it should remain so. To improve political engagement, we must hold the political process to a higher standard.

The Story

If, at school, a student was giving a talk to the rest of the class and, during that speech, one of the other children interrupted them by shouting our “Who are you?”, that child would be rightly admonished for their juvenile disrespect.

If, at a workplace meeting with key stakeholders where a very important topic was being discussed, I decided to yell out “Who are you?” while a visitor was explaining their position, I would not be cheered and clapped – I would be dragged before senior management for justly deserved castigation and probably formally disciplined.

You see, school children are taught to listen to their teacher and each other during debates and conversation, regardless of whether they personally agree or not – that is to say, they learn good manners. As adults and professionals, we understand that some situations require us to be professional and treat them with respect.

Such virtues are clearly absent from parliament as evidenced by this latest instance of pantomime politics, wherein Jeremy Corbyn was heckled by a member of the opposing party, cutting Mr Corbyn’s remarks off with a shout of “Who are you?”

A Lesson Lost

The MP in question – Christopher Pincher MP of Tamworth – has since been interviewed by the Tamworth Herald, where he expresses “surprise” at the reaction his heckling has received.

“Jeremy Corbyn sounded faintly ridiculous trying to claim that his meeting in a side room in Brussels with “Socialist leaders” was as important as the Prime Minister’s EU re-negotiation meetings, so I tried to point that out.”

Yes, highlighting the disconnect you felt between Jeremy Corbyn’s comments and the Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation meetings – that’s definitely the message we all got from you yelling out “Who are you?” We all understood that’s what your heckling was designed to do! It was a witty verbal riposte designed to prick the balloon of cognitive dissonance, and not at all an example of juvenile, rude, and disrespectful barnyard politics that tarnishes the image of all elected members and puts people off engaging with the political process in the first place.

Urrgh…I’m facepalming so hard over here I’m giving myself a headache.

I’m not going to get into a discussion about political parties. Yes, apologists, I’m sure the Labour party has done similarly ignorant things in the past – I’m sure all political parties have members who have been guilty of engaging their mouth before their head – but that doesn’t make it right. We teach children that two wrongs don’t make a right – why has this lesson been lost on our elected representatives?

A Matter of Manners

What’s frustrating to me about this whole affair is that it is symptomatic of why I – and many others – are reticent to engage with the political process. I don’t want unfeeling, monotone robots to represent me, but neither do I want baying, inconsiderate rudeness to define our important debates. If, as William Horman’s Vulgaria asserts, “manners maketh the man”, then they should absolutely maketh the MP.

Allow me to briefly anticipate a couple of apologist arguments:

  • “But parliamentary debates have always been like that.”

That doesn’t mean they have to stay like that. We should hold ourselves to higher standards, and strive for them accordingly. Be human, yes, but don’t be cruel or rude. MPs should set an example…and not a bad one.

  • “The Labour party were just as bad back in the day.”

I’m sure they were, but this isn’t a contest about which political party is or was most polite – it’s about how MPs, regardless of affiliation, should be setting a good example and not behaving in a way that tarnishes the image of elected members or the wider political process. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and ‘tit-for-tat’ justifications for juvenile behaviour will in no way help the public’s perception or engagement with politics.

  • “It was funny – even the Labour party was smiling!”

Whether you found the comment funny or not does not stop it being inappropriate. I’m not debating whether the heckle was amusing – I’m arguing that elected members should behave with respect and not heckle in the first place.

  • “You just don’t have a sense of humour.”

Sigh…yes, that’s the problem – anyone who didn’t find funny what you found funny is wrong. Again, we’re not debating whether the heckle was funny – please refer to my above statement about appropriateness.

  • “You’re just a socialist / communist / Corbynite / [inserted ridiculous label here]”

Seriously? [deep breath] I’m just going to walk away now. Have a nice day.

Conclusion

There are some mediums – such as pantomime and burlseque – where heckling from the crowd is encouraged, but our Houses of Parliament should not be one of them. It sets a bad example of politicians, of the political process, and of our country to the wider community. It distracts from important conversations and decisions that affect tens of thousands of people every day, and detracts from the meaningful impact that genuine democratic representation might otherwise have.

To improve political engagement, we must hold the political process – and our elected representatives – to a higher standard.

Consider this an open letter to all politicians, no matter the colour of your rosette – for the sake of our country and the millions affected by the debates you have as our representatives: please, grow up.

References

VIDEO: Tamworth MP HECKLES Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during EU debate, Tamworth Herald, Online: http://www.tamworthherald.co.uk/VIDEO-Tamworth-MP-HECKLES-Labour-leader-Jeremy/story-28789262-detail/story.html, Available: February 2016

Post-Script

I’m aware that the Vulgaria of the Grammarians’ War (from the Latin vulgaris) referred to common or everyday speech – such was the 16th century understanding – and not necessarily rude or uncouth expressions, but I couldn’t pass up on the alliteration that the tile Vox Vulgaria provided; my apologies to any Latin scholars and/or pedants for whom this is a vulgar (in the 21st century sense) offence.

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