Yesterday, the Member of Parliament for Falkirk Eric Joyce addressed the House of Commons to apologise for his conduct and to announce that he was resigning from the Labour Party. As was widely reported, on 22 February he started a fight in the Strangers’ Bar at the Commons. Last week he pleaded guilty to four counts of assault at Westminster magistrates court.
Clearly such behaviour is not acceptable from a public official, or anybody else for that matter. But the coverage that the incident received in the press and the radio phone-ins did strike me as being particularly indignant. Some commentators insisted that the Palace of Westminster should not provide food and alcohol that is subsidised by the taxpayer (which, given the antisocial hours of parliamentary sittings, seems fair enough to me). In living up to the stereotype of a hard-drinking Scottish Labour MP, Joyce has doubtless provided material for comedy panel shows for years to come.
Perhaps I was less shocked because, as an historian of British politics, I have seen it all before. In Britain, we almost expect our politicians to be bruisers. We fondly remember John Prescott’s punch or George Galloway’s roistering performance in front of the American Senate. The nature of electoral politics in Britain means that candidates are expected to get down-and-dirty on the streets, and to come face to face with irreverent or angry constituents. This has its origins in the carnival street culture of elections in the eighteenth century, memorably caricatured by Hogarth. Well-to-do candidates may not have enjoyed the rowdy canvasses, drunken riots and heckling crowds, but at the time it was widely seen as a good thing – an opportunity for them to demonstrate their masculine character and public spirit. In 1828, the candidate Edward Sugden commended Weymouth’s electoral violence as a manly game: ‘I love to see a collision of the people, it evinces that independence that is so dear to an Englishman.’
This aggressive masculine culture arguably permeates parliament itself. Unlike most countries, whose elected assemblies usually have a semicircular layout, the two banks of seating the Commons contribute to its gladiatorial atmosphere. For centuries, visitors from abroad have combined reverence for this cradle of democracy with shock at the rowdy conduct of its members. It is difficult to imagine the presidents of America or France submitting to the weekly indignity of Prime Minister’s Questions – but we should also celebrate the fact that our leaders are called to account and required to think on their feet.
An article by Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail today summed up this ambivalence. While poking fun at the humbled Joyce, he also commended his behaviour in distinctly Victorian terms. ‘Eric Joyce did not snivel,’ when he delivered his Commons apology, ‘but took his dilemma like a man.’ Letts also wondered whether there was ‘something invigorating’ about his behaviour: ‘Is he at least not more interesting than scores of tepid, timid bores who sit on the green benches?’
This is not to condone what Joyce did in the Strangers’ Bar. But before we rush to condemn him, we should perhaps reflect upon what sort of MPs, and what sort of political culture, we want modern Britain to have.
- Damian Pickard
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