In Britain’s Parliament, Asking Questions Is Blood Sport

As Britain begins Brexit, all eyes are on Parliament, and those unfamiliar with its argumentative nature wonder how its members can be so snarky and yet so effective at the same time?

And what lessons, if any, can we Yanks learn from the MPs who brutalize each other verbally and then go toss back a nice claret in the cloakroom?

Britain is known for its devotion to sport – to association football (what we call soccer), rugby, and perhaps the most savage blood sport of all, asking and answering questions in the House of Commons.

Members of Parliament refer to each other and to government ministers in a roundabout, exaggeratedly courteous third person manner, which only makes the snarky, withering, backstabbing (or perhaps front-stabbing) questions and retorts all the more, well, snarky, withering and backstabbing.

If you’ve never seen Question Time, you have no idea what politics could be.

MPs bob up and down like marionettes, hoping to be called upon by an even more snarky and withering Secretary of the House, who often interrupts the discourse to demand that Members avoid lengthy preambles and speechifying and instead keep their questions pointed and pithy.

The room itself looks smaller in person than it does on TV, providing an intimacy for MPs, who simply adore scoring political points by asking questions that typically get swatted down by a scathing Secretary of State.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the Members were trying to scope out exactly how May’s government would launch the Article 50 process.

The questions typically began with a stem-winding series of independent clauses and end less with a question than with a deeply pointed criticism – “Given that Scotland voted against devolution, because of its need for blahdy-blahdy-blah, and my constituents’ concerns over this, that, and the other thing, would the right honorable gentleman agree with me that the Prime Minister is violating every rule of decency and common sense by failing to blahdy-blahdy-blah?”

If the question captures the fancy of the House, members solemnly utter phrases like “Hear, hear” or general, and noisy, murmurs of approval or disapprobation.

And then the Secretary of State for Whatever would jump to his feet, lean over the Speaker’s Box, and agree, if the questioner is on his side, or dismiss the whole thing out of hand, if the questioner is on the opposition.

He would quickly sit down again, after having either agreed with or verbally whacked the questioner, and the next MP would be recognized and the process would repeat.

The Scottish MPs were all but impossible to understand, due to the thickness of their brogues, but it became clear that they were intent on rehearsing their opposition to Brexit, a position that cut no ice with the Secretary of State.

That worthy repeatedly bounced up to remind them that they had voted to remain in Britain, and that Britain had voted for Brexit, so sit down and mind your own business, or words to that effect.

The natural question a visitor asks: how can people savage each other in this manner day after day, year after year, and somehow retain the capacity to govern?

The answer is that these MPs and ministers have often known each other for decades, perhaps attending university or even prep school together.

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it just breeds the capacity to snarl and criticize and dismiss out of hand and shout down one another, like an old married couple used to each other’s foibles and verbal tics.

It seems like a strange way to make law, but members have sat in Parliament for centuries, have bickered and snapped at each other for all that time, and the result isn’t legislative deadlock and divisiveness, as in the U.S. Congress.

Instead, all this infighting has produced the longest-running parliamentary democracy in the history of mankind.

There was a time when Members of the U.S. Congress would share apartments in Washington, eat and drink together, and generally enjoy the sort of across-the-aisle comity that the British enjoy.

Alas, that time has long passed, as members have become far more ideological and lack the bonds of friendship their predecessors developed.

As a result, we have a stagnant House of Representatives, and Congressional debates with a lot of sound and fury that ultimately signify nothing. Listening to their nonsense, one finds oneself quoting the plaintive question of the esteemed philosopher, Rodney King: Why can’t we all just get along?

So the next time you find yourself in London, drop by Parliament. Visitors are welcome and you can find yourself in the galleries above the House of Commons floor, marveling at the way people who snap at each other with the vigor of rugby players somehow manage to keep the country moving forward.

If you’ve ever wondered why there will always be an England, Parliament is the best place to learn why.