Magazine article The Spectator

Politics of Change

Magazine article The Spectator

Politics of Change

Article excerpt

Not everyone agrees with me about this but one of the glories of the Westminster Parliament is Prime Minister's Questions. I love it, either on radio or television. There is drama in the sight and sound of a prime minister being put on the spot; often there is wit. There is, of course, the tedium of planted sycophantic questions but it seems to me to be a fine example of democracy in action.

Those who despise Westminster and look to Europe for governance can't understand this. A former BBC colleague, a Euro-fanatic, observing me watching PMQs in the office one afternoon, gave me a pitying glance and said, 'You really like this stuff, don't youT Despite the increasing subservience to the EU, and Tony Blair's contempt for direct representation and accountability to Parliament, it is more democratic than most other European assemblies and certainly the least corrupt in the world. It is inhabited by people like us, merely reflecting our own flaws and imperfections.

Sometimes, the BBC makes rather good programmes about it and one such is Two Swords' Lengths, a three-part series on Radio Four (Thursday) on the art of opposition. The title comes from the distance between the government and opposition front benches. The series is presented by Anthony Howard, an expert on post-war politics, and the first programme last week covered the 1945-63 period. It is astonishing how different political life was after the war. Winston Churchill lost the 1945 election to Labour, remained leader of the opposition but wrote to a colleague, 'I'm going away for a couple of years.' He travelled the world as a political war hero, being fated wherever he went, leaving his colleagues to oppose Clem Attlee's government.

But the old school of Tories took the view that it was impolite to oppose a government elected by a large majority and so only pretended to oppose, while younger Tories wanted to take on what eventually became the disastrous wholesale nationalisations, which held back the British economy until Thatcher swept them away. When Churchill returned full time he decided to hold shadow Cabinet meetings at the Savoy over lunch. He didn't believe the opposition should have policies as they could become a hostage to fortune if the party won the following election. It all sounded so leisurely and gentlemanly.

When Churchill was returned to power in 1951, Attlee later gave way to Hugh Gaitskell as opposition leader. Gaitskell, it emerged, was unhappy in opposition; he was more of a government man. …

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