Punch and Judy in Westminster

Just over a week ago I attended a political science workshop at Wroxton college in Oxfordshire in the UK on parliamentary issues.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street in London (photo credit: REUTERS)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street in London
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Just over a week ago I attended a political science workshop at Wroxton college in Oxfordshire in the UK on parliamentary issues (the field is known as legislative studies).
At the workshop I presented a paper describing the job of members of Parliament (MPs), as background to a book I am writing on the job of Knesset members. There is no definition of the job of MKs – neither in any law, nor in the Knesset Rules of Procedure. I had originally believed this to be unique, but it transpires that the job of MPs (or US Congressmen) isn’t officially defined anywhere in the democratic world; the most one can find are descriptions of the job, based on what the MPs themselves say their job consists of.
I admit that I was not sure whether my participation as an Israeli in the workshop – attended by scholars of parliamentarism, some senior staff members from parliaments around the world and MPs from various Asian and African parliaments – would go smoothly, but there wasn’t a single anti-Israeli incident, and I even managed to converse with an MP from Bahrain, who told me about a Jewish MP in the Bahraini parliament (a woman from the Kadourie family) who represents several hundred Jews who live in Bahrain, and developed especially warm relations with some participants from Pakistan, who insisted that they wanted to remain in touch, since we appeared – so they said – to share some views on the subject of parliamentarism.
My conclusion from participation in various international conferences on parliamentarism has strengthened my belief that the Knesset, despite the multiplicity of parties represented in it (largely, but not exclusively, because of our electoral system of proportional representation) and the frequent pandemonium that occurs within its confines, is a relatively effective legislature, and compares very favorably with its counterparts in other countries.
Though we are weak in decorum, and the debates held in the Knesset are frequently impolite and verbally violent, the debates, both in the plenum and committees, are much more serious and honest than those in many other parliaments, and certainly much more transparent.
For example, to the best of my knowledge we are the only parliament in the world that publishes online not only verbatim minutes of its plenary sittings, but also of its committee meetings (except for those of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that are confidential).
The Knesset is also one of the only parliaments (Lithuania’s being another) that does not permit its members to hold second jobs, or receive remuneration for any work performed outside the Knesset, and thus forces them to view their membership as a full-time job, in letter and spirit.
At the Wroxton workshop I learned a few more facts about other parliaments that showed the Knesset in a positive light. For example, in the Spanish parliament members can be fined by their parliamentary group for voting against the party line. In fact in terms of “the free mandate” Israeli MKs from most parties have a good deal more freedom to act according to their own conscience and beliefs than in most other democracies – not least of all in the field of Private Members’ Bills (PMBs). Half of Israel’s legislation – including important laws – originates from PMBs.
Again, from a paper presented on the Finnish parliament I learned that in Finland all committee meetings are closed to the public.
There are other areas in which we complain that we experience various negative phenomena that “do not exist anywhere else.” In fact, though there are some parliamentary phenomena in which we are unique – such as the extent of MKs’ parliamentary immunity in connection with their actions and expressions directly connected to the fulfillment of their job – in some of the more problematic phenomena we are not unique.
For example, I discovered a decade ago that our Economic Arrangements Law (a law attached to the annual budget, which contains numerous amendments of existing laws and is pushed through the Knesset without due deliberation) has counterparts in other countries (including Belgium, Italy, Canada and even the US). At Wroxton I discovered that apparently Sweden has recently joined the club, and this against the background of the fact that Sweden has a minority government, and one of the anti-establishment parties was threatening to obstruct passage of the budget and accompanying legislation (I haven’t yet had time to check the details of this allegation).
However, the most fascinating revelation was what one of the British participants described as “Punch and Judy politics.” He was referring to what goes on in the famous “Prime Ministers Questions” in the House of Commons – a half-hour verbal duel between the prime minister and MPs (usually from the Opposition) that takes place every Wednesday (when Parliament is in session) at 12:30, and at least until several years ago was considered “the best show in town” (it can be watched live, or later on the BBC parliamentary channel or the Internet). The prime minister receives only short notice of the questions that will be asked, and thus is not able to prepare very much in advance, and must improvise.
What the British academic claimed was that PMQs have turned into a Punch and Judy show (a traditional, popular British comic puppet show, which is quite violent, featuring Mr. Punch and his wife, Judy, and in which Punch frequently hits other characters with a club). The point of PMQs is to hold the prime minister to account, but many claim that it has turned into a useless farce and should be scrapped.
As a frequent viewer of the procedure, I am not sure it is useless, since as an alleged Punch and Judy show it attracts a good deal of public attention, and between the lines one can get a pretty clear picture of the contested issues, many of which later receive more serious, lengthy and boring attention in a plenary debate, which hardly anyone bothers to watch.
In Israel attempts over the years to introduce PMQs in the British form have failed. However, due to the government’s narrow majority, one could argue that many Knesset debates with the participation of the prime minister have turned into Punch and Judy shows, even though ours are not as structured or as amusing as the British variety.
It is said that one of the reasons for the deterioration in the UK is connected with Prime Minister David Cameron, who is frequently impatient and curt, and gives the impression that he does not really enjoy verbal dueling.
This description also seems to apply to our own prime minister, who, as a result, refused to participate in any televised pre-election debate.
Incidentally, Cameron and Netanyahu seem to share another trait: an inclination to use terminology that causes an outrage. Last week, in connection with the crisis around the illegal migrants trying to cross from Calais in France to the UK, Cameron claimed that “you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean; seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain.”
Sound familiar? Netanyahu spoke of the “danger” posed to continued Likud rule by the Arab voters swarming the polling stations. Both caused a domestic rumpus, though Netanyahu was also criticized abroad – after all he was speaking of Israeli citizens, while Cameron was speaking of foreign asylum/employment seekers, not unlike the African asylum/employment seekers in Israel, with regard to whom much more demeaning language has been used.
The writer is a political scientist and retired Knesset employee.