From the April 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the form which we know today, Prime Minister’s Questions began as recently as 1961. What a brilliant idea; a time when the person at the very head of the government and the British state machine made themselves available to be probed, exposed, ridiculed by an assembly of self-publicists operating under the title of Representatives Of The People. Very democratic and progressive; how did we survive before it was invented? But it has not turned out quite as promised. To begin with, at the appropriate time the House of Commons is always tightly packed and disciplined – by the Whips if not by that gaggle of competing ambitions – as required by their party. The Prime Minister is in place on the Front Bench after the short journey from Downing Street where advice was taken from highly paid, intensively organised assistants most accurately known as Spin Doctors who have the job of anticipating the questions – or more accurately the grilling and the verbal missiles – with sneers or derision or curses. Much of the proceedings, despite the plentifully repeated promises that it is all uniquely informative, are often lost in the uproar of jeers or abuse from both sides.
A recent example of this was in February when a debate which was centred on the number of week-end deaths in hospitals descended into the customary Tory claim that, in defiance of so many obstacles, they are fashioning a bigger, happier, more curative National Health Service (no matter how the doctors and nurses and other workers see it). And in support of this David Cameron felt able to claim that his government would have had the support of the late Nye Bevan. Predictably, Jeremy Corbyn countered that such a claim was so audacious as to have that latter-day Labour hero squirming in his grave. It was also enough to have the Labour back bencher Carolyn Harris chipping in that Cameron should ‘ask your mother’ about it – a reference to some woman who recently signed a petition against some proposed spending cuts near where she lives. Which naturally provoked Angela Eagle, the Shadow Business Secretary crouching on the Front Bench, to advise all around her – including the TV cameras – to ‘ask his mum’.
Cameron took the opportunity to use his mother’s vote-catching talents to do as he was advised from the other bench, saying that if he did ask for guidance from her he would expect her to look across the despatch box and command Jeremy Corbyn ‘…put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’ – which released a roar of laughter, applause and rapture, intrusive as a jet taking off, from the Tory oafs and encouraged Cameron to adopt an expression of self-congratulation at his breathtaking wit. It was, in other words a typical episode in the life of Prime Ministers’ Questions. Corbyn, meanwhile, took confidence from his carefully dishevelled appearance – rumpled shirt, baggy trousers, loose tie – and his proper memory of his late mother Naomi, a peace campaigner who met his father when they were at a meeting in support of the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He steadfastly affirmed that she would have said ’” . . . stand up for the principle of a health service free at the point of use” because that is what she dedicated her life to, as did so many people of her generation’. And later, as he prepared for a television appearance, ‘I gotta do my tie up because of the Prime Minister. He’s actually jealous of the jacket. You know what he’s jealous of? That I can go into the great shopping centre of the world — Holloway Road N7. And he’s stuck in Bond Street’.
Which is a fair comment about someone – even if they are Prime Minister – who selectively refers to a mother who comes from a succession of hereditary baronets, one of whom died in the saddle crossing a field while out chasing foxes with a Hunt at Aldermaston. Mrs Mary Cameron, who now lives in a comfortably rural cottage in Berkshire, is a retired magistrate who in her time disposed of, among others, demonstrators against nuclear weapons; Cameron himself said that ‘…one of the biggest challenges that she had, and one of the reasons she had to hand out so many short sentences, was badly behaved CND protesters outside Greenham Common’. So it was quite an event when she supported that petition, protesting against the Oxfordshire Council intention to save some £8 million by cutting back on the budget for the local children's’ services. Under threat are some 44 centres, described by protesters as ‘…a lifeline to new parents who rely on locally accessible advice and support when it is most needed. Cutting these essential services would leave families vulnerable and isolated, and fail an entire generation of children’. Another signature on the petition is of one Claire Currie, who condemns the proposed cuts as ‘…a great, great error…a very short-sighted decision’. But she has a history as a long-term activist, including protests against the Newbury by-pass and with the CND. She is also David Cameron’s aunt but she is doubtful if he will be so impressed by this relationship as to influence the Oxfordshire Tories: ‘Well let’s hope that it makes a difference but I doubt it will’.
Mary Cameron refused to discuss the matter of her signing that petition and did not give a reason. Perhaps she had developed some ideas from her son about where it would have led her. Faced by that stark example from Oxfordshire of the class-originating poverty of capitalist society and the misery it inflicts on human beings, what could she have said that would have been notable? Insightful? Original? Constructive? How would she have confronted the superficialities of capitalist politics and of the leaders who practise them day after day? There are countless examples of them floundering helplessly when confronted with the true measures of this society. Prime Minister’s Questions. It is time we gave the answers.