I was at the Houses of Parliament today, the seat of UK government where our elected politicians debate the issues of the day, pass Parliamentary Acts that become laws of the land, and oversee the economic, social and cultural development of the country. At least, this is the theory; of which more in a moment.
Whilst I was waiting around in the immense and impressive Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament that has witnessed significant moments of our national history, including the trials of King Charles the first, Sir Thomas More, and Guy Fawkes prior to their executions, I observed two of our current Members of Parliament acting as guides to visitors and pointing out some of the significant features of the building. The first of these two politicians, Dominic Grieve, a Conservative MP was outlining some of the traditions of Parliament to a small group of adults, speaking in excellent French. Eavesdropping on his exposition I could not help but be impressed by his lucid presentation of facts and figures in a second language and the enthusiasm for his knowledge demonstrated by his audience.
However, it was the second MP who held my attention with his ability to maintain the attention of a group of around twenty children, aged I would estimate somewhere around nine or ten years old, as he explained the workings of Parliament and its importance to their young lives. This particular Labour Party politician, Dennis Skinner, is one of the senior figures in Parliament, and an outspoken and radical politician. Maybe it is his humble background; Skinner worked as a coal miner for more than twenty years prior to being elected to Parliament, which enabled him to relate so well to the children, who I suspect came from his Derbyshire Constituency. As I listened, he was encouraging the children to ask questions and demonstrating an intense interest in their ideas. After a couple of minutes he moved on with his attentive group, a Parliamentary Pied Piper with his willing and enthusiastic followers eager to hear more of his stories.
It was reassuring to see these two political heavyweights giving the time to educate and enthuse their visitors. This is a different image from that which we generally have in mind when we consider our elected representatives, who generally have difficulty in commanding the respect of the majority of the electorate.
The turnout of voters in general elections in this country, and in several others in Europe has declined quite dramatically in recent years. It is generally believed that the electorate have lost confidence in politicians and have little faith in either their integrity of their ability to address the important issues facing society. On the train this evening I found myself wondering how and why this situation, in which the public are turning away from politics has happened. There is probably no single answer to this conundrum, but I do begin to wonder if part of the difficulty is that we only see one side of our elected representatives.
The image of politicians in the UK, as in many parts of the world, is tarnished by their belligerent, partisan and intransigent behaviour. It may be that to some extent the media have manipulated a situation in which we expect to see our politicians behaving badly, belittling their opponents and presenting narrow minded arguments, often with a lack of intellectual rigour. But sadly too many of our Members of Parliament appear content to live up to this image.
Perhaps if more opportunities were created for our political masters to be seen interacting in non-political situations with members of the public, and without the need to retain a party dictated façade, they might command greater respect. Both Dominic Grieve and Dennis Skinner have their supporters and detractors and have regularly been reviled in the press. Today I witnessed both of them interacting in a much more relaxed and natural manner, demonstrating respect for their audience and responding to their interests in a thoughtful and supportive manner.
It is not unreasonable that we should expect much of our politicians, though it seems to me that we cannot expect them to have a positive impact upon the social, economic and cultural development of the country unless they can command the support of the majority of the electorate. I would imagine that the children who were clearly enjoying their interaction with Dennis Skinner today, will have left London with a much more positive impression of their Member of Parliament than most people in this country. These young people will, in the future, be expected to address the problems that are currently being created by today’s adults. Let’s hope that today they have taken away a positive impression of politicians and that they may find a way of building upon this in the future.