by local MP John Hayes
i am often asked “How do Members of Parliament from different political parties get on with one another.”
The answer – which is very well – may surprise many.
After all, weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, the theatrical highlight of our adversarial system, is routinely confrontational and sometimes barbed, and all leaders – including the fearless Margaret Thatcher – have treated PMQs with care and caution.
Few nations oblige their Head of Government to appear weekly before opponents to be challenged through questions, and few premiers would welcome it. It certainly doesn’t happen to Germany’s Angela Merkel or the President of the United States. We should be proud that in Britain Prime Ministers are brought before the people’s representatives to be held to account.
But there is a lot more to Parliament than the drama of PMQs. MPs of opposing parties, with contrasting views, work together for many particular purposes. The close level of co-operation between Government and Opposition in dealing with security and terrorism is essential to our national interest and, recently, Parliament, reflecting our nations’ outrage, united behind the Prime Minister in condemnation of the evil Nigerian terrorists who kidnapped hundreds of young girls. This readiness to act together marks a mature democracy.
There are many other ways in which MPs of different parties combine to lead campaigns. The Select Committees, which hold Ministers to account, are made up of MPs from across the House and, by convention, often chaired by an Opposition MP. And because checks on executive power are central to our system, a special status is afforded to ‘Her Majesty’s Opposition’, with their right to lead debates and question Ministers.
Professional respect between MPs of opposing parties enhances a political culture which emphasises convention and precedent. After years of working with those from the opposite benches on legislation, in committees, and in All-Party groups I know that no single party has a monopoly of good people or good ideas. As former Chairman of the All-Party Disability Group, I learned how informal dialogue can change the national conversation about important matters or highlight the interests of vulnerable people whose voices might otherwise go unheard.
This consensual approach may be derided by fringe elements and extremists, but it has characterised our democracy for generations. What a shame that political maturity is misunderstood by those on the margins who – pretending to be patriots – choose to see weakness in the strength of Britain’s age-old system of Parliamentary democracy.
Perhaps pessimists should reflect on the wise words of Winston Churchill who said “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” The doom-mongers, who prefer the politics of fear over hope, seek discord, but politics should be about optimism and opportunity, not disdain and despair. Our democracy is enriched by co-operation between those of differing views who can disagree and debate without personal rancor because they know that almost all who attain political office seek to leave Britain better as a result of their work.