Parliament’s arcane theatricality may embody continuity, but it also reeks of exclusivity. And that's not the only problem...by Rafael Behr / December 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
An enduring image from the parliament that just finished was Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging across the Commons front bench in the posture of an Edwardian rake on a chaise longue. The indolent tableau quickly spread online, in its original form and in thousands of digitally doctored variants.
Rees-Mogg was already familiar as a living caricature of fogeyish Tory insouciance, embodying a fashion with the same vintage as the green upholstery on which he sprawled. But this was a man who was born in 1969, a year later than Kylie Minogue. The antique style is a performance, a shtick, learned and practised for only one stage: the oak-panelled, green-carpeted chamber of the House of Commons.
It is one of the oldest theatres in London and was once the most prestigious, but the show has become a stale pastiche—rather like Rees-Mogg. Some tension is inevitable between the anachronistic form of Britain’s legislative business and the demands of modern government, but only recently have the two begun to look incompatible. The rhetorical ornamentation, obscure vocabulary, the costume drama at the opening and closing of the session: all this always seemed peripheral to the substance. It was vulnerable to tender ridicule, but also somehow reassuring. Continuity with pre-modern ritual symbolised Britain’s supposed immunity to violent ideological lurches. Today, that myth is harder to sustain. The fragility of constitutional arrangements based on distant precedent, habit, mysterious protocol and presumptions of gentlemanly conduct has been exposed.
The UK has undergone something close to a revolution since the 2016 EU referendum. The pro-Brexit side now asserts the “will of the people” as the supreme political authority, a pungent innovation in a parliamentary democracy. The legislature has had to defend its primacy against the radical contempt of those, Rees-Mogg among them, who once embroidered parliamentary sovereignty on the banners for their crusade against Europe. For onlookers, it has been an impenetrable struggle, with arcane procedures and ancient ceremonial powers revived and weaponised. The whole spectacle has raised doubts about the relevance and fitness of parliament as the host venue for British democracy.
The building itself is decrepit. Physical decay at the Palace of Westminster is almost too blatant a metaphor for perceived rot at the heart of British…