Thursday 10 January 2013

Pantomime and Theatre

If anything, I thought that Leanne Wood's description of First Minister's Questions as 'pantomime' was far too kind.  At least pantomime provides some entertainment for someone, somewhere.

It's always been something of a mystery to me that the Assembly should have decided to adopt the process in the first place - it's looked like an attempt to emulate the proceedings at Westminster, rather as though those taking the decision believed that was the way a 'proper' parliament should behave.

Certainly, there's more heat and fire in the Westminster version, but I'm not convinced that it generates any more light, or does anything meaningful in terms of 'holding the PM to account' to use one of those phrases that politicians love as an excuse for their weird and arcane procedures.  It's easy to see why the media like it; it's a ready source of sound bites and short clips which would never be available from a more serious debate.

I suppose that's why so many politicians seem to like it too - it's a chance for those few lucky enough to be allowed to ask a question to be judged on performance rather than on substance, whuilst the rest of them can bray and heckle in the background whilst waving papers around in bursts of simulated anger. 

Cardiff Bay was never going to produce the same theatrical performances.  Firstly, they are all too friendly with each other, secondly there aren't enough of them to create the background atmosphere, thirdly, the layout is not conducive to bearpit behaviour, and fourthly, there's little about which they actually disagree very much.  Calls for the Cardiff session to become more like the Westminster one are missing the point.  The point is - well, what exactly is the point?

In both Cardiff and London, it clearly has little to do with eliciting any information; calling it 'questions and answers' ought to lead to prosecution under the Trades Descriptions Act.  And it clearly doesn't hold anyone to account for anything either.  It is, in essence, little more than a piece of theatre, and pantomime is just a sub-genre of theatre.  Trying to 'beef it up' to imitate the Westminster bearpit would simply move it to another sub-genre; it wouldn't address the basic question.

If politicians seriously wanted to 'hold ministers to account' a detailed and lengthy grilling on a focussed area of policy by a powerful and articulate committee would probably be a more effective approach.  It might also, though, expose the serious lack of divergence of opinion amongst politicians which is easily hidden in a more theatrical exchange.  I won't hold my breath.

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