Is it too cynical to say that the tributes paid to Charles Kennedy in the House of Commons yesterday were excessive, maudlin, and more than a bit silly? Is it pompous to say that the House of Commons should be a chamber for matters of state, not a safe space for sharing grief?
A former party leader’s death should be acknowledged in the House of Commons, but did we need 27 tributes? At Prime Minister Questions, there were 4 brief speeches about Kennedy, which seemed about right. In the later session, which lasted 1 hour and 13 minutes, there were 23. Much of the encomium for Kennedy was directed at the gallery, where his former wife and 10-year-old son Donald stood. As one observer put it to me, ‘It all felt a bit like post Princess Diana dying with that poor kid forced into the William role of walking behind the coffin so we can all gawp.’
In honouring the dead man, our elected representatives took turns to reach for the highest apple on the emotion tree. And most of them fell a bit short. ‘In this seminal sense,’ said John Bercow, ‘Charles was the boy next door of British public life.’ Harriet Harman called Kennedy the ‘golden boy in the Highlands’ who ‘shone in this chamber’.
No doubt the tributes were sincere. But politicians — perhaps because they are always accused of being out of touch — are all too eager to show their sensitivity. They end up trying too hard and sounding false, like nervous actors. They now talk about the members of their tribe who ‘speak human’ — they said it about Ed Miliband, remember — yet the very phrase sounds alien. David Cameron, quoting Alastair Campbell, said that Kennedy ‘spoke fluent human because he had humanity in every vein and every cell’. Hmm. Don’t we all? Angus Robertson of the SNP said that Kennedy ‘remained rooted in the real’ — a phrase that suggested Robertson might be rooted somewhere else.
Pundits said this was Parliament ‘at its best’, that the MPs were ‘bridging the political divide’ or ‘rising above politics’. To me it felt a bit like a bad episode of the West Wing. I’ve never quite bought the argument that it is a mistake to allow cameras in the House of Commons. But when I see politicians making such a spectacle of themselves, I do wonder.
Nietzsche said that, when it comes to dying, ‘everyone is inveigled into a comedy of vanity, now conscious, now unconscious’. But that vanity can and probably should be contained — or set aside for funerals or memorials. There was no need to turn a House of Commons session into a public and prolix wake.