Nigel Fletcher, Director of the Conservative History Group and new editor of the Conservative History Journal has an interesting piece about Prime Minister's Questions at the age of 50 (more or less). On the whole, he thinks the experiment has worked as it places the British Prime Minister, uniquely, in a position where he (or she, let us not forget) is bombarded by questions from the Opposition and sometimes his (her) own backbenchers. The fact that many of the questions are put-up jobs remains a minor detail.
Some themes that emerge are familiar: PMQs has become a circus; more heat than light; Punch and Judy… and so on. But there is also the positive view – that there are few if any other countries where the chief executive has to come to Parliament weekly to be questioned by their critics. Some would say this fact on its own – whatever the quality of the questions and answers- is a profound statement of representative democracy. I tend to agree.Hmm. That ignores the fact that the Prime Minister is not the Head of State and, also, that the American system is one of true separation of powers, perhaps a more useful check on Executive power than a weekly question session.
We shouldn’t underestimate the symbolism of this political endurance sport. However grand and ‘Presidential’ a Prime Minister may aspire to be, the weekly bear-pit of the Commons reminds them from where they draw their authority. The US President may be obstructed and defeated by Congress, but on the rare occasions he turns up to address them he is treated with the full courtesy, bordering on reverence, due to a Head of State. The fact that the British Prime Minister can have the leader of the main opposition party literally shouting in his face may not be pretty, but it is important.