The noise combines lowing, braying, mooing, and moaning. It echoes through the British House of Commons at regular intervals, a primal expression of approbation and disapprobation both. It says we hear you. Listen for it—the loud listening—on British House of Commons (C-SPAN), a half-hour spectacle of parliamentary politics. On the Thames, the show is called Prime Minister's Question Time (PMQs), a period during which voluble pols (the common ones in jackets and ties, not the lords in wigs) get to confront Prime Minister Tony Blair with anything on their minds. British House of Commons is the PMQs on videotape.
That barnyard siren in the chamber is hypnotic. Though the interplay between Blair and the MPs features much verbal bravado—the men and women of the house know well the uses of understatement, wordplay, zeugma, chiasmus—the preverbal groan commands more attention than the cute one-liners. For one, its source is frustratingly elusive; it must come from the backbenchers since the MPs on camera, especially the poker-faced ones who flank Blair and Conservative Party Leader Iain Duncan Smith, look mum.
It's also curious to think that such an anarchic noise might issue from the very people who, though common, exemplify rule-boundedness. As the MPs sock it to Blair, they also take turns according to an elaborate system, address each other as "my honorable friend," and only rarely give the presiding speaker a chance to command order. The big table that stands between Blair and Duncan Smith is stacked high with green books I assumed were law books; in fact—as I learned from Matthew Tempest, of the Guardian—they are copies of the procedures of the House of Commons, as well as copies of something called "Erskine May," a book of rules for how to behave in the chamber. (On hand for times when rules fail: a big bejeweled mace, which one MP, nicknamed "Tarzan," once brandished like a club.)
In the July 9 session (the PMQs take place in Parliament every Wednesday at noon; it airs in the United States on Sundays at 9 p.m.), an affectless American announcer opened the show by providing context for the session:
The Prime Minister's office was cleared of misleading the British House of Commons on Iraq's nuclear capabilities. Opposition leaders question the accuracy of the government's assessment of intelligence on Iraq. Members argued against the legality of British citizens facing a U.S. military tribunal with possible death sentences. And Prime Minister Blair's controversial plan to reform Britain's tax-funded healthcare system passed earlier this week.
Questions, therefore, concerned health care, the future of the two British detainees at Guantanamo, and whether Blair would apologize for misstatements concerning Iraq's arsenal. Duncan Smith especially harped on that apology. "Why is it that, for this prime minister, sorry seems to be the hardest word?" he wondered aloud. Blair maintained he had nothing to be sorry for—or, rather, if he had, he had already apologized.
Blair's certainly got an answer for everything. He's a peppy little winner. After each question, he springs to the podium—he must take his seat between times—and launches into rapid patter before he's even reached the mike. He talks fast and jauntily; having, in seconds, registered the question and formulated his reply (often a dodge), he gives his stutter-free replies with a half-smile, like a quiz show contestant on a roll. When forced to name which methods of improving health care ("targets") he would forgo as too expensive, he toed his line with the virtuosity of Gene Kelly, neither advocating overspending nor suggesting heartlessness toward the sick—all while not answering the question one bit.
"We have reduced to a third the original number of targets we had in the first comprehensive spending review. But I'll tell him the targets that I wouldn't scrap that apparently the Conservatives would. Oh, yes. We will certainly not scrap targets for reducing waiting time and waiting lists for patients. We'll not scrap our target for 50,000 extra nurses. We'll not scrap our target for extra schools and hospitals. And we'll not scrap them because it's right that that investment takes place!"
Blair beamed as he took his seat, a happy Harry Potter at Hogwarts, getting his lessons right—or seeming to. In Duncan Smith, Blair has a proper Rowlingian adversary, one whose bluster throws Blair's agility into relief. Burly to Blair's trim, bald to Blair's gray, Duncan Smith booms with comic curses that Blair shrugs off. "Until the prime minister—oh yes—until the prime minister accepts that he misrepresents the status of the second dossier to Parliament and apologizes, his trust will plummet and nobody will believe a word he says anymore!"
As exciting as the elegant brushfires are, the moments of stylized harmony have their own humor. In the July 9 PMQs, I liked especially the softball thrown by Labor's Dari Taylor (Stockton South), a marvelously marm-ish MP who seemed to have the well-being of all England at heart when she asked Blair, "Does my right honorable friend agree that the greatest concern for all our constituents remains anti-social behavior, such as when youths congregate at cash dispensers and on street corners deliberately to intimidate?"
The loiterers! Our greatest concern! Of course. Blair saw his chance: "My honorable friend is absolutely right. These measures"—specifically, fines—"on anti-social behavior are important, and we will fund them properly."
Pomp and apparent eloquence aside, Blair rarely says anything more substantial than Bush does in press conferences, and he gives far less insight into geopolitical strategy than the allegedly tight-lipped Donald Rumsfeld gives in his. One watches the PMQs for the sport—and that's perhaps why the chamber sounds like a soccer stadium.
Oh, yes. In all, the PMQs is a foreign civics lesson that goes down easy. The verbal virtuosity and apparent mastery of facts might initially strike you as true statesmanship—and make you rue the lack of it in our Congress. But it's likely that, after a few viewings and a small haul of new intelligence, you'll begin to see the histrionics on British House of Commons as something both less and more: a subtle Monty Python in which the lead actor really looks a lot like the prime minister. Let's give him a cheer: Mmmrrraaahaaaahmh.