Wednesday, high noon, and the second Prime Minister’s Questions since the General Election. Half an hour later, that most modern tranche de vie, the commenters below the line, let rip. The weekly grumbles always centre on the PM not answering the questions (well, it isn’t called Prime Minister’s Answers…), the Speaker not doing/overdoing his job, the backbenchers from every party labelled cronies and ending with exasperated ‘what’s the point’ rhetoric. Each week, after PMQs airs, they demand reform, the elimination of something or another, and seven days later they return, assured of more of the same.
The history of PMQs can be chronicled thus:
“Before 1881, all questions to Ministers were taken in the order in which they were tabled. Starting in that year, as a courtesy to Mr Gladstone (then aged 72), questions addressed to the Prime Minister were placed last on the daily list. As the number of questions rose, PMQs were in danger of not being reached. From 1904, therefore, it was decided they should begin at No. 51, then [after 1940], when this provision was proved inadequate, at No. 45… From 1961 to 1997, PMQs took place twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for 15 minutes. Since 1997, this has been replaced by a single weekly slot of 30 minutes on Wednesdays.”
The current Speaker contributed his observations on the modern history of PMQs in a speech in 2010, date-stamping modern belligerence during PMQs to the late 1970s.
What is clear is that PMQs was, and is, not intended as fodder for popular criticism. Hansard’s 2014 report found that significant exasperation from the public was due to their lack of understanding parliamentary procedure and language.
Over time, most places of work have developed their own distinctive language and systems, including those in the public sector, as effective a barrier to social mobility as, say, education at the interview stage. Yet, if one has the qualifications – not necessarily professional or academic – it isn’t a massive stretch to then imbue oneself in the lingo to clinch the job.
It is not an argument that the right of free speech depends on an elegant turn of phrase but criticism flowing from ignorance isn’t an argument at all.