If you’ve not been aware of Marjorie Taylor Greene you really should be. Not only is she good extremo-tainment, but she gives us insight and inspiration for the British constitution. Regard the photo, her sitting in the US equivalent of the House of Commons during President Biden’s State of the Union speech. What is she shouting? “POINT OF ORDER!” Well, no. Perhaps, “ME -ME – OVER HERE!” Er – yes, probably, though not in actual words. What she was shouting was, in fact, “LIAR!”.
Now, this was not an expression of collegial recognition – a whoop of a shared cultural trait – “I SEE YOU, BRO!” so to speak. You see, MTG and her true colleagues on the potted-meat wing of the Republican Party have less commitment to policy and public service than to the principle of disruption. Their loathing for federal government (reaching back to the seismic split among the US Founding Fathers – admittedly on a more intellectual base) leads them to want to destroy convention so as to disable government itself. This is a truly frightening prospect. As Marina Hyde put it so typically hypodermically in her book, ‘What Just Happened’ – “when America shits the bed the rest of us have to lie in it”.
Oh – and MTG makes Katie Hopkins look like Goop.
So, what does this have to do with our own government and constitution – or lack of….well, both?
Of course, we in Britain famously don’t have a constitution setting out the parameters of governance, but a set of public-school-type rules of behaviour called ‘conventions’ – backed up by the ‘Bible of Parliament’, Erskine May. Now, Thomas Erskine May was a 19th Century Baron and Clerk to the House of Commons, and his book of rules and courtesies was entitled ‘A treatise on the law and procedures…etc.’. It was rapidly adopted as a guidebook, and is regularly cited today in Parliament. It calls for dignity, respect and due integrity and comportment – supposedly the ‘curriculum’ of the Public School – though Erskine May never noticed the ‘hidden curriculum’ which we’ll come to. Then there are other ‘conventions’ such as the Rules of Ministerial Conduct (Prime Minister), and the Standards of Public Life (Nolan Committee). You know when a convention has been broken when someone – notably the Speaker of the House – raises an eyebrow, the equivalent of the sheriff of the OK Corral plugging a bullet in your head.
Well, I say ‘public-school-type rules’ invoking just a stereotype of officer-class self-discipline. In reality we know that public school ‘conventions‘ rise from the ‘hidden curriculum’ of impunity and privilege – exemplified in the requirements to (i.i) plunge terrified entrants’ heads into toilets, (i.ii) trash restaurants and (i.iii) press innocent young boys into the duty of being sexually abused. This Grand Canyon between the stereotype and the reality is the baby smuggled in with the bathwater of Parliamentary procedures where courteous procedures are required. But the flexibility and courteous overlay of Parliamentary conventions allow for pretty easy breach of the rules without suffering the scalding of the raised eyebrow. There’s a lot of wriggle-room. Even so, MTG would have been strapped with the raised eyebrow for shouting “LIAR!” in the House – and would have been asked for an apology, without which (inevitably for MTG) she would have been suspended from the House for a day – ie. sent to stand facing the wall outside the school toilets to ponder her errant ways.
But you don’t have to shout ‘liar’ – in fact, the Conservative party, after all, well public-schooled in the deceits of convention, the ‘hidden curriculum’ – sometimes overstep themselves and do so, though mmostore often find the subtle route. Take this extract from Erskine May
‘Members are also expected to observe the principles set out in the Parliamentary Behaviour Code of respect, professionalism, understanding others’ perspectives, courtesy, and acceptance of responsibility’
Well, each of these ‘principles’ is openly, publicly trashed by this Conservative government – most notably, perhaps, the last of the list. What – just WHAT?! – does it take for a Conservative minister to take responsibility for telling untruths, bullying, issuing unlawful government contracts to chums, fondling an aide’s bum, misusing tax-payers’ money on expenses, selling peerages, breaking the law (domestic and international), duping the monarch of the realm, libel and slander, hoarding porn (Damien Green), and so on?
But, then, professionalism? Remember Karen Bradley, momentarily Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, being shocked and surprised at the depth of religious tensions between Nationalists and Unionists; Dominic Raab nonplussed at realising how much our international trade depends on the Dover-Calais crossing; Thérèse Coffey, a Secretary of State for Work and Pensions telling a reporter poverty was not a subject she felt mattered right now; Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary (ie. culture of one) insisting to a Parliamentary Select Committee that privatising Channel Four would save the British tax-payer millions – and suddenly surprised to hear that C4 received not a penny from the public purse; Chris Grayling as Transport Secretary awarding a £13m contract for cross-channel ferries to a company that had no ships; Kwasi Kwateng, as Chancellor, not realising that his tax-cutting policy would threaten pension funds with higher interest rates; Gavin Williamson not predicting the impact of lockdown on school examinations; and so on as the fairground duck-shoot rolls on…
But the most egregious breach of these rules, the true MTG threat to democracy, is, surely, failing to “understand other’s perspectives”. The thrust of Erskine May is that democracy requires there to be, at all times, an alternative government in waiting. We do not live in a one-party State (no matter the impression given by C4 News which seeks policy critique from Tory backbenchers and has an editorial policy to allow opposition MPs as little air-time as possible). May fails, again, to take into account the elite’s determination to impose rules on others which they reject for themselves. While cleaving still and forever to the monicker ‘natural party of government’ the Conservatives do not pause at excoriating Labour policies – they career on to dismissing Labour’s very right to form a government. Now – there is a fine line here, admittedly. You may seek electoral advantage by trashing the opposing parties – all fair/love and war, so to speak. But at some point this becomes advocacy – insistence – that the leading party of opposition is not a legitimate, democratic Party – effectively accruing rights to themselves as the solitary alternative. Labour, claims the Conservatives, is a material threat to our life and constitution. Here is where our wearied wagon-train has tipped up – the Tories circling against the whoops of surrounding savages. Okay – you can (they did) creep up on this autocratic monster over a dissolving period of time, to the point where anti-democratic rhetoric becomes the langue d’instant, the butter smeared on the stale bread of Parliamentary to-and-fro. You never noticed the slither across that fine line. But that is no excuse. But they get away with it. And we become, not sceptics of Labour policies (did you read Corbyn’s manifesto? did you find anything to take exception to???) but disciples of the trope that voting Labour is to slide inexorably towards those forces seeking to upend our way of life. (Of course they are not – the King says so – His Majesty’s Opposition.) The modern Conservatives are, in fact, diligent students of the public school hidden curriculum. They seek and believe in a one-party State – ‘their’ State. Don’t you hear its echo – “we’re all in this together!”?
So we return our politically-exhausted gaze to Marjorie Taylor Green. Screeching “Liar!” during the State of the Union Address is an obnoxious affront to legitimate political pageant. She should have had a baby’s nappy bound firmly round her head. But, with gritted teeth against the terrifying raised-eyebrow, our MPs and media should be shouting “Liar!”, pointing to the distance between the naive Erskine May and the realities of Conservative government licentiousness. It’s not that ‘Boris’ Johnson, like many of his colleagues, is a diarrhoeic liar, but that he and they are trying to unpick the fabric of social and political life, dispense with democracy. The modern Conservatives are, truly, the unnatural party of government.