Tuesday, April 24, 2007

My enemy's enemy

I learnt very early on in life that an easy way to feel morally superior is to be prepared to discuss something when the other party isn't. It can be pretty cold comfort when you're not part of the mob and the mob is following the one who shouts loudest, but in school politics you take what comfort you can. You slink back into your hole with a good book (a proudly intellectual and creative activity beyond the ability of the cretins to grasp) and quietly despise the lot of them in the privacy of your own head.

An advanced form of the game is to award points for every emotive buzzword used by the one leading the shouting down of your rational position to disguise the process as debate, e.g. "If you believe that then you're a bent commie."

I can’t remember when I learnt of the Parliamentary practice of talking out; I do remember a sense of disillusion like a slap in the face. It was so important to me to know that there was a place where grown-up, sensible adults could talk about anything in a grown-up, sensible way. Instead I learnt that sometimes, in lieu of an actual debate where – Heaven forefend – people may disagree with you and have the bad taste to point out your errors, clever tricks are employed to use up the allotted Parliamentary time and thus a bill dies like a fragile flower strangled by weeds. It struck me as being on the same level as people who win arguments on technicalities and with clever words, as if that somehow alters the very nature of reality. An activity that never failed to earn my adolescent contempt, and doesn't do too well with me as an adult either.

(Failing that, you can always just ban whoever you disagree with. Can you tell I grew up under Thatcher?)

Nowadays I'm thicker skinned and a little less starry eyed about Parliament, and sometimes you must sup with the devil. On Friday the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act that will exempt MPs from its provisions is up for grabs again. This was talked out the first time it came up for discussion, so it went to the bottom of the pile. Unusually, however, all the bills that are now ahead of it are incomplete so it gets another chance for debating in the House.

The bill's originator, David Maclean MP, says it's to protect constituents who need to know that their correspondence with their MP is totally confidential. Opponents say that of course constituents need to be granted anonymity, and they already have it under existing rules. Instinct says that Maclean's position may be what it's for, but it's not how it will be used. It will be used to hide as much they can get away with from the public eye, and that is a Bad Thing.

If talking out is the only way to kill it, then talk, my pretties, talk like you’ve never talked before.

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