WASHINGTON — I say, old boy, PBS suddenly has a rival for the Anglophile market. C-SPAN, the cable network that transmits the House and Senate, is showing excerpts from the British House of Commons. "Masterpiece Theatre" buffs may be slightly disappointed: Only one man, the speaker, wears a wig. Still, the names, the accents, the suits are magnificent.
Sir Fergus Montgomery complains of injustice to war widows, with reference to a letter in the Times of London. A Scottish lady discourses earnestly about what sounds like "genital affairs." Wait, make that, "general affairs." The Tory benches are a forest of foppish pinstripes. The U.S. House of Representatives, by contrast, generally goes in for silly diminutive nicknames ("Newt," "Vin") and baggy suits of solid blue. In lieu of stripes, the American members festoon themselves with pins and badges representing various political causes and patriotic themes.
Disappointingly, there is not a lot of Wildean witticism in Parliament. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's style, aped by a chorus of young Tory sycophants, is one of heavy-handed sarcasm. "Perhaps we had better wait and see so we can pontificate in the light of the facts," she sneers in response to a complaint of some sort.
More entertaining are the old-fashioned class-war thrusts from venerable members of the Labor Party. It's less Oscar Wilde than Clifford Odets. "The minister can shake his head . . . don't shake your head at me. . . ." (Colleagues: "You tell 'em, Frank!") "He's got a garage with a couple of cars in it. I've got people back in my constituency who have to walk because they can't even afford a flippin' bus." To a setup question to Thatcher from one of the Young Sycophants (something like: "Would the prime minister agree that the past 10 years have been the most glorious chapter of history since mankind was expelled from Eden?"), a Laborite yells: "Get off your knees!"
Even among political opponents, there is far more debilitating politesse in the American House than in the British one. Vast amounts of time are wasted praising bipartisanship, thanking the member for his cooperation and so forth. Watching several hours of a recent House session for comparison's sake, the only actual disagreement I heard was a polite tiff between two Florida representatives about which one had more "seniors" in his district.
The House of Commons show vividly demonstrates one advantage of the parliamentary system: the distinction between the head of government and the head of state. Margaret Thatcher, world-reknowned for her haughtiness, undergoes a twice-a-week ritual of humiliation-by-questioning that would be an unthinkable act of lese-majeste if inflicted on our "jes' folks" Presidents. "Will the prime minister now make a public apology for this gross incompetence?" Has she not been rendered "a pygmy on the world stage" by something or other? Will she not "be swept from office and dumped in the garbage" soon? All accompanied by cheers from one side, jeers from the other.
Thatcher gives as good as she gets, but the whole process has a democratically healthy leveling effect. Indeed, after watching Parliament for a while, C-SPAN's House of Representatives show suddenly seems like "Hamlet" without the prince of Denmark. The lead character in the drama--President Bush--is mentioned often but never appears.
"Question time"--the twice-a-week session where the prime minister and her Cabinet are interrogated by other members--replaces two institutions of U.S. democracy: congressional committee testimony by Cabinet secretaries and presidential press conferences.
American Cabinet members justifiably complain of the time they spend preparing for and appearing at hearings. Usually in these sessions the Cabinet member and the interrogating politician are both just mouthpieces for aides, who can often be seen on C-SPAN striking the classic Washington pose of leaning forward from behind and whispering in the boss's ear. In Parliament, the questions and answers are brief and there are no aides in sight.
As for the presidential press conference, Question Time would offer the perfect answer to the perennial question, "Who elected Sam Donaldson?" Free of the need to appear objective or fair, opposition MPs ask tougher questions than White House correspondents would dare. Better-framed, too. "Why are there more young people now begging on the streets of London and our other big cities?" Thatcher was asked the other day. Could even Donaldson have put it so straight, without a little speechlet to blunt its force?
C-SPAN, established a decade ago by the enterprising Brian Lamb, has turned into a wonderful adventure in true-life political theater. Funded by the cable industry and run on a shoestring, it fills the airtime between sessions with what might be called "found democracy": committee hearings, think-tank seminars, State Department briefings, a charity "roast" in honor of a bigshot journalist, a showing of campaign commercials by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, whatever's available.
And there's more fun ahead. Lamb was just in Jerusalem trying to get permission to broadcast the Israeli Knesset. Mel Brooks, look to your laurels!