Opinion – Oh for a muse of fire

By Keith Morrison

Author and educationist

If you have been following the Brexit debacle unravelling over a seeming eternity, you might be forgiven for concluding that the UK Parliament is in total disarray, and that of one of the world’s seats of democracy for centuries is in full-scale meltdown, caught in the Westminster bubble, old-boys’ networks, in-fighting, and an astonishing inability to act. Maybe so. But, like Turner’s painting of The Fighting Temeraire, being towed home to the breaker’s yard, going down in a blaze of colour with a setting sun lighting up flaming red skies, the Brexit debates in the UK Parliament have brought their glories.

All is not lost. Pray take note of the delightfully colourful speeches in the UK Parliament, or, at least, that is, when Parliament behaves at its best in the midst of brouhaha and endless shenanigans. Where else would you go to find a pack of so many rich, privileged, public-school and Oxbridge educated, adult children being called to ‘order’ by the Speaker of the House (who is responsible for maintaining order, presiding over debates and deciding who may speak), who tells members off in the most pointed of terms for their behaviour, so smoothly, mellifluously yet archly delivered as if rehearsed for years, and who insists that he ‘will be heard’?

Beautifully crafted, quick-witted insults in the UK Parliament have a long history. Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian prime minister who was well known for his caustic phrases and ripostes, once told Parliament that half of the cabinet members were asses. When the Speaker required him to withdraw his insult, Disraeli is reported to have replied instantly: ‘Mr. Speaker, I withdraw. Half the cabinet are not asses’. Exquisite!

Where else would you hear an unrehearsed cascade of impassioned speech faultlessly and spontaneously delivered in long flowing phrases without a break? Where else would you hear a member using the local vernacular to bring down a puffed-up individual so tellingly?

Where else would you go to find that, after a brief, polite ‘I thank my honourable friend, the member for such-and-such a constituency’ or ‘I thank my right honourable friend for giving way’, the member produces the most glorious, grossest of insults couched in marvellous, would-be respectful and courteous off-the-cuff demolition? Where else would you hear such refined savagery in open court? It’s wonderful theatre. What style, what patina, what finesse, what magic!

Here’s a patrician, scoffing in impeccable English language and prosody at the remarks of another member of the House. There’s a charmingly flamboyant member making short shrift of another’s argument, tearing it to shreds in a delicious, mannered put-down that brings a smile to everyone’s face. Here’s a member railing at the country’s leaders in ferocious, feral indignation. There’s a member whose theatricality, with a few dazzling, polished phrases, holds the entire House in silence.

Here’s a member, rising above the gentlemen’s club banter and shouting, to invite another member, in the politest and most eloquent terms, not to talk rubbish. There’s a member whose earnest tones and careful argument command respect. Here’s a member, not frightened to speak up for his or her constituents, persisting in speaking despite a torrent of heckling and murmurings, until the Speaker of the House calls ‘order’ for the naughty children to behave.

A melting pot of civilised incivility. The UK is surely the home of the world’s greatest speech writers and orators. Where else would you go to find such lines as ‘Oh for a Muse of fire that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention!’?

And then we have the Macau Legislative Assembly. Oh dear; not a trace of oratory, personality, flame, inspiration, character, colour, banter, elegantly phrased speeches or high-level argument to be seen. Only mundane, colourless, prosaic talk, so often echoing Wilfrid Owen’s verse: ‘The scribes on all the people shove/And bawl allegiance to the state’, taking pride in being ‘flesh-marked by the beast’ of the establishment and its drab mutterings.

However well-intentioned, hard-working and service-oriented the members of Macau’s Legislative Assembly are, so many of them are dull, staid, grey-suited in every respect, and programmed. Some resort to making ad hominem charges, accuse a member of making ‘immoral’ remarks, snipe and make unseemly personal attacks. It’s squalid. Oh that even one of them had a muse of fire.