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Even by the standards of Westminster Hall debates, the Trump session was facile and long-winded.
If there was excitement leading up to it, it died the moment Labour MP Paul Flynn opened proceedings. Flynn has the most extraordinarily boring voice. His opening statement was basically a leisurely stroll through a series of vaguely comprehended political thoughts. It turned out to be one of the high points.
After him came Tory MP Paul Scully. “Many of you know I actually have quite a lot to do with the British curry industry,” he told us. “We all enjoy a curry every day.” That pretty much set the standard.
Labour MP and husband of Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey, made a pointless series of observations with a considerable amount of self-regard. Someone tried to lighten proceedings with a jokey intervention while he was talking. “I don’t think a debate like this deserves flippancy,” he replied. It was a debate about excluding a lunatic US Republican presidential hopeful from Great Britain. Of course it deserved flippancy.
Corri Wilson, the SNP MP who has a Trump golf course in her constituency, told the chamber he was “a man with a passion for golf”. She stood reading her entire speech line by line from a sheet of paper, like a child asked to tell the class what their dad does for a living. Trump is a “diverse figure”, she told MPs. The chamber responded to this remark with the same morose silence which had accompanied the entirety of her speech, but she looked suddenly flustered. “Sorry, I mean divisive,” she added quickly.
Tory MP Phillip Davies offered the most praise to the American politician. Phillip Davies had seen in Trump what he sees in everything: the qualities of Phillip Davies. The uproar over Trump’s comments is not because of their content, but because “he’s rich, white and politically incorrect,” Davies argued, with a straight face. Rich white people have such a terrible time of it.
People were sick of “political correctness” he reminded us, several times over. They like “straight-talking”. Also, he is from Yorkshire. And in Yorkshire, they like straight-talking. Because that’s what people from Yorkshire are like. Straight-talkers. And they hate political correctness. The speech went on like this for the whole of his six allotted minutes. His argument seemed to be that he was Donald Trump without the success. By the time he sat down, I was convinced he was right.
When the SNP’s Anne McLaughlin had stood up to speak, MPs had mostly fled, so the time allotment was extended. That was a terrible mistake. She spoke for what seemed like hours. “Language is so important,” she said at one stage – one of her more controversial statements. “I don’t believe appealing to fear and prejudice is the language of common sense.” Try figuring out what role the phrase ‘common sense’ is playing in that sentence. It doesn’t have one. It is a place-holder for thought.
She then asked the minister a series of utter irrelevant questions which seemed to suggest that she had no basic working knowledge of how the Home Office operates. The SNP must be keeping their best people in Holyrood, because the ones they have down here are useless.
Keir Starmer, the former Crown Prosecution Service boss who is considered some sort of Labour leader in waiting, wrapped up for the opposition. To his credit, he dealt with the substance of the issue – whether Home Office rules on barring entry to the UK would be met by Trump’s comments. But he did so in such a labourious and self-important manner that it was almost impossible to sit through. As it happens, he concluded that the benchmark was not met in the Trump case.
James Brokenshire summed up for the government. He had nothing interesting to say and would not even refer to Trump specifically, insisting that the Home Office did not comment on individual cases. Did that mean the Home Office did have a case on Trump? one clever MP asked. Brokenshire would not get drawn into the trap.
Another Tory MP rose. Would Brokenshire agree with David Cameron’s plans on integration of Muslim women, announced with great fanfare that morning? What a fascinating question it was. Would the Home Office minister publically agree with the prime minister on a matter directly related to his ministerial remit? Tension filled the room. It turned out that yes, Brokenshire did agree. The seconds ticked away. We all aged, imperceptibly.
By the time it was over, parliament had plainly been brought into disrepute, albeit of the sort which it heaps on itself every day. At best, the debate made Britain seem actively hostile to free speech. At worst – and I do mean the very worst – someone might have actually tuned in and seen the quality of MPs’ debating skills. It is very important for parliament’s reputation that as few people see what goes on in it as possible.
There’s been a bit of talk that this shows up the public petition system for what it really is – a pointless bit of political theatre with no power behind it. That’s partly true. A committee decides if the petitions are debated, and those that are have no direct repercussions – there is no vote or change in the law. It just gives matters an airing.
But the petition system is actually quite good. Of course, it does not lead to legal change. It would be concerning and not far off mob rule if the public was directly able to have people barred from the country on the basis of the fact they don’t like them. But even so, it is healthy to have a system where public opinion – in this case that of half a million people – triggers a debate in parliament. It’s all part of the churn of national debate and it’s useful for parliament to have a system for incorporating that into its proceedings.
The problem isn’t the petition system. It’s that the people signing petitions sign them about such silly things and that the members of parliament who represent them are so poor at basic reasoning and oratory. The petition system is basically the only thing working effectively. It’s the quality of the public and politicians which is the problem.