It was the one word by which that Grand Grenouille, President Mitterand answered the question: “What is the one quality above all that leaders need to govern properly?” He pronounced it with such Gallic expansiveness, that he took several seconds to get through it: “Indifference.”
We say, in our clipped English way, “ ’ndiff’rence.”
Except we don’t say it in the House of Commons. Indifference – the ability to look at problems from a height and identify their moving parts in order to engineer a solution – that is unforgivable.
There, everyone is expected to react with Mediterranean emotionality to news of constituents’ hardship, disease and death. Even in the Gallery we aren’t expected to snigger. The groans of fellow-feeling that greeted the news that the oldest Holocaust survivor had died last night – it was as though MPs wanted to express the grief of a personal loss. They are saying: We understand. We grieve also. We are in touch with the lives of the people we represent. A pint of milk is 95p.
When Dawn Butler brought her breast cancer into a question to the PM, Tories went Sh! Sh! As if to say, “It’s cancer! Don’t heckle her, she’s had cancer.” Wayne David asked Rishi about the Dangerous Dogs Act, in the light of the people who had recently been killed by pets. As he said the words “lost their lives” a low moan of sympathy rose from his benches. No offence intended to the families of the victims but these performative expressions of sentimentality are as offensive – or more offensive, depending on your sensitivities – than respectable indifference.
Keir had kicked it all off with talk of someone he’d heard of who’d had a heart attack and died waiting for an ambulance. That old chestnut. He named her. He talked about “her mum”. He itemised ambulance waiting times. He denounced Rishi and demanded he apologise for “the lethal chaos” his Government had caused.
The PM doesn’t do badly on President Mitterand’s criterion. He says he is sorry for the family in the same way that he says he has “respect and gratitude for all our public service workers”. He can’t mean either of those statements but he has to make them, and he does so with as little gluttony as the situation allows. He knows he can’t talk about a wage-price spiral while people are literally dying, but while the debate features literal deaths, we’re unlikely to find any workable resolution to it.
The internet says that 3,564 people in the world died during the 33 minutes of PMQs. Hard to know how to sketch it, if we’re expected to grieve for them all.
Stephen Flynn, the new leader of the SNP had been making a powerful impression as the funeral director of the Union. Gaunt, serious, formidable in the face of fate. He was criticising Westminster’s intention to overrule Holyrood’s Gender Recognition arrangements. The legislature here has decided not to recognise the new rights of Scots transsexuals when they come south of the border. This caused Flynn to say that he feared that we were on “the slippery slope to direct rule.”
That could have elicited a moan of sympathy, to see someone of such promise descend, on just his third time out, into such altitudinous silliness.