There have been a lot of votes happening in Parliament this week: votes about general elections, votes about Brexit deals, votes about extensions. I have been logging in to the House of Commons livestream to watch these votes occur in real time, and, it turns out, the rest of the world has been turning up too. These unprecedented – and historic – votes have piqued the interest of people worldwide, with everyone tuning in and realising how utterly nuts parliamentary proceedings tend to be (I have very much enjoyed watching Americans react to the British government on Twitter).
I rarely watch the Commons. Partly because I tend to have better things to do and I know that the BBC news will recap all the important stuff later, but mainly because I can’t watch our government in action without cringing myself into oblivion. In my mind, the way we go about doing government in the UK highlights everything that got us into this Brexit mess in the first place.
I fully recognise that I am not a very traditional person – if anything, I am explicitly anti-tradition – which does colour my opinion on ye olde ways of doing things. I know that traditions often serve to create a lasting sense of identity and belonging in a world that can feel overwhelming in its variety. I know it’s a lot of effort to continually remake things, to keep rethinking and recreating the systems and ideals that form the story of a life or a country. But while some traditions are more personal and intimate, it seems to me that invoking ‘tradition’ in regard to the way we run our highest seats of power is ripe for misconduct. I feel like traditions keep people and systems rooted in the past, out of some misplaced sense that preserving outdated – if not outright harmful – norms is somehow a noble act. We tend to know more in the future. We tend to develop and progress, two things that are impeded by an obsession with living in the past. I don’t see why we should stick with traditions if we decide that there’s a better way, especially when many traditions were conceived of literally centuries ago. We’ve moved on! Let our world move on with us.
I cannot watch people in 2019 prefacing all their statements with “the right honourable gentleman/lady” without feeling deep embarrassment at the antiquated nature of it all. This is old Britain, a Britain that was built when we owned half the world, and when much of the population was silenced by default. I know that lots of people (many of whom sit on those green benches) are nostalgic for that time, a time before we realised that people other than white men might have something worth saying and when this nation still held all the cards. But no part of me longs for that Britain. Not solely out of self-preservation – even privileged women were rarely more than window dressing in most places – but because I think the future is going to be better. I like the thought of a world where people of all identities can live happy, safe lives. I don’t like knowing that billions of people all over the world remain marginalised. The Britain that created this system of government, this requirement for antiquated, posh language and actions, was a hostile place to so many. The fact that the highest seats of power in our country continue to reward this mindset and these behaviours is a travesty.
Beyond how much it embarrasses me to know that this what the world sees of the British government – Rees-Mogg slouching on the benches, Bercow shouting “he’s a very naughty boy,” the whole room yelling in a chorus of ayes and nos to pass motions – it is also so deeply exclusionary. There is such a narrow band of people who can assimilate into this environment, even with effort; it shows how little we are really committed to making our government less male, pale and stale. If anyone who had any influence over the government wanted people from less privileged backgrounds to be able to thrive in the Commons, we would abolish all the customs that make an already intimidating place completely alienating to most of the UK population.
It’s not that hard. Our politicians could speak to each other like normal people in the twenty-first century speak to each other. We could do away with the inane lexical ticks that are still a painful requirement of political discourse. We could modernise these institutions. I mean, what’s the plan? Keep it like this forever? I know that traditions are important to many people, but I cannot understand the desire to maintain an outdated way of doing things for the sake of custom. At some point, we’ll have to decide the UK governance should enter the twenty-first century, in a bid to make it more fit to serve the needs of the structures it governs.
Given that we are so stuck in the past, it’s no wonder that Brexit blossomed. Brexit is borne of the idea that we are strong enough to have a seat at the world table on our own, that we remain a major player on the global stage without the backup of 26 other nations. Now, well into the twenty-first century, that’s just… wrong. But back when our leaders spoke and acted like this not because it’s the odd parlance of government but because it was a natural way to speak? Yeah, we had power. We were the Empire. We owned more of the world than anyone else. And you see how so many people in the room are clinging onto that time, because for them, it doesn’t feel so far away. Many of our MPs and a shocking number of our prime ministers have merely moved from oak-panelled room to oak-panelled room, ending up in the House of Commons, flexing their very British linguistic muscles every step of the way.
It makes me cringe because I think it’s embarrassing, sure. I think it sounds stilted and just plain silly. But it’s also harmful, because it roots some of our most influential figures into a time when Britain had far more power than it does now and when the superiority of upper class white men was allowed to exist without question. It keeps most people out of our most instrumental spaces – and leads us to commit acts of hubris that could have been avoided if we saw our country in the present, rather than the distant past. If there’s a silver lining from Brexit and the political carnage that has ensued, it’s that it has highlighted the glaring issues and inconsistencies in the way we do things. Let’s take that knowledge and move forward, bringing as many people as possible into a better, more inclusive, more thoughtful way of governing.