7 December 2015

The world's smallest violin

Watching the debate on bombing Syria last week, it struck me that this would be one of the few times that people would be sitting down to actually watch BBC Parliament in any great number. The last time I recall spending an evening watching a parliamentary debate was probably in 2013 over the bungled attempt to destroy the Syrian government and assist the heart-eating "moderate" Islamists topple Assad.

Perhaps I have a rose tinted view of what parliament should be like, but watching a load of non-entities line up one after another to read out pre-prepared and shallow lectures like schoolchildren reading out their homework in class from sheets of A4 paper, I was struck by the lack of any passion, anger or insight into anything much at all. Where was the debate? Where was the division? Where was the opposition?

Save for the obligatory Dennis Skinner moment and a few choice quotes from the intellectual Tories about “bogus battalions” of supposedly moderate rebels, nobody really seemed to be incensed at the idea of waging war in a foreign land *again*, but this time with the added complication of rival nuclear superpowers fighting in the same small area with wildly different geopolitical interests.

The fact is, there was no debate. This wasn’t a debate at all. It was a lot of nondescript MPs pontificating about which way they had already decided to vote, against the clock, largely in order that they could put a print out of their platitudes on their website so they can prove they are doing something to their constituents.

Hilary Benn’s “electrifying oratory” was no masterclass and no great political moment, despite what the increasingly inane Westminster bubble gossip merchants would have us believe. As Phil points out, Benn’s speech was only notable by its theatrics because virtually no other sitting MP was able to speak with anything like that level of persuasion and belief. The fact the politics of his speech were so deeply flawed and facile mattered not a jot. Because Benn gave that speech simply to give a fig-leaf of ideological cover to those MPs wanting to attack their own party leadership the day before the Oldham by-election. The 66 Labour MPs were ALWAYS going to vote for bombing. “Doing our bit in Syria”, as Benn clumsily puts it, by sending in four Tornados to bomb some oil fields from six miles up was a secondary concern to them.

Parliament voting to pursue another expensive war at a time we are told we cannot afford to pay working poor people tax credits, deliberately putting members of the armed forces in harms way and possibly risking a disastrous and apocalyptic confrontation with Russia has, perhaps unsurprisingly, elicited a strong and emotional reaction from some quarters of society who are not happy about the decision taken.

There are many reasons why, but the fact remains that a sizeable (and growing) section of British society are opposed to air strikes in Syria.

As is the way in this age of immediate access, people have taken to Twitter and Facebook to have a go at their MPs. Rather than seething at home in an impotent rage, people can now immediately voice their views directly to MPs easily and quickly. The vast majority have politely raised legitimate concerns. A large number have been righteously bloody angry. A tiny handful have wished or threatened harm on MPs.

This is, despite what the MPs may report, not surprising. This is not the usual mundane parliamentary fare on hospital car parking charges or rail franchises. Voting for war is our government, in effect, legalising the state to engage in organised killing. When MPs vote for bombing, they are voting to kill human beings. It is that blunt. So when you vote to kill, however officially and legally you claim to be doing so, you ought not to be surprised when you get a strong reaction to this decision.

Clearly serious death threats are not cricket. Neither is violence. MPs like Stephen Timms knows where this leads. It doesn't lead to righteous political revolution.

But at the end of the day, words are just words. And emojis are cartoons. These words are a reaction to a really contentious political decision taken freely by our privileged parliamentarians. And the reaction of some MPs to the Twitter trolling and Facebook baiting in response to the Syria vote has been childish and hysterical, bordering on the farcical.

Firstly, let us not forget that all of these people have CHOSEN to enter parliament. They didn’t turn up destitute at the Job Centre and get told by the DWP that they would lose their meagre benefit entitlement unless they joined a political party then convinced the local electorate to win a seat in Westminster by a majority in a first past the post vote. Put another way, this is a job they have carefully plotted for, fought for and ultimately chosen to do through wilful desire and not through economic necessity or hard luck.

Take Jess Phillips MP. In her short Parliamentary career, she has become famous for telling the saintly Diane Abbot to “fuck off” and for apparently being targeted for rape threats from misogynists for her stance against marking International Mens Day. She has been recently eulogised by Julie Burchill and is being tipped for the very top for her tough talking brand of plain speaking politics.

I, like others, had high hopes for a young working class woman shaking up the cosy establishment. But in this dreadful, indulgent piece for the Huffington Post she complains about the difficulty of being an MP and having to vote on difficult motions. Suddenly taking on the role as a kind of union rep for the entire House of Commons, she paints a picture of the poor, tortured MPs rowing and weeping over the dreadful decision to authorise killing (over subsidised dinner in the restaurant of course). In shortform, her message is: How dare we talk about de-selecting them?  How dare we criticise them for taking decisions under such pressure? Don’t we understand how difficult it is for them?

Jess is clearly already falling deep into the Westminster trap. She is defending the Commons as if it is collective and co-operative effort for good, rather than the political embodiment of the very deep conflicts of interest which exist and fester within our broken society. Defending all MPs when they feature specimens as awful as the salivating, warmongering, neo-conservative Liam Fox, or the pompous blustering, drink driving defence secretary Michael "Handbag" Fallon, is absurd.

Meanwhile Stella Creasy’s artificial crisis of persecution has now been slapped down by Tom Watson who has backed away from his original denunciation of the mythical lefty “thugs” to a more nuanced and acceptable critique of those very few who threaten violence. From being derided by the sexist tabloids for her blue PVC skirt to suddenly becoming The Sun’s favourite feminist, Creasy has gone from being an earnest campaigner against serious issues around payday lending, and a serious contender for Deputy Leadership, into another supposed "victim" of online nastiness from the bad people and another boring Progress ranter against Corbyn.

Make no mistake, I don't threaten people with death or wish violence on anyone. But I take exception to well paid and well looked after public servants moaning. Public servants, let us not forget, who can declare war, wield and use nuclear weapons, decide which sick people get lifesaving drugs and which don't and kill in the name of our country. Seeing cosseted MPs play the victim card, when there really are people who deserve our sympathy and support, is really poor form.

It is this which creates anti politics and creates cynicism. And more dangerously, when the police are called every time someone sends an angry spur of the moment tweet to a politician and ends up on the receiving end of a criminal charge, it silences dissent and freedom of speech. Suddenly the spirit of Je Suis Charlie seems a long way away indeed.

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