The embarrassing British pantomime that is supposed to be a model of parliamentary democracy continues like a box set you don’t like at all but just can’t stop watching. However, the lessons for those of us in the real world continue too.
One of our opposition Members of Parliament made the following statement to which our current Prime Minister made a response which has hounded him for the last week.
I genuinely do not seek to stifle robust debate, but this evening the Prime Minister has continually used pejorative language to describe an Act of Parliament that was passed by this House. I am sure you would agree, Mr Speaker, that we should not resort to the use of offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language about legislation that we do not like.
We stand here, Mr Speaker, under the shield of our departed friend. Many of us in this place are subject to death threats and abuse every single day. Let me tell the Prime Minister that they often quote his words—surrender Act, betrayal, traitor—and I, for one, am sick of it. We must moderate our language, and that has to come from the Prime Minister first, so I should be interested in hearing his opinion. He should be absolutely ashamed of himself.
Our Prime Minister responded as follows.
I have to say that I have never heard such humbug in all my life.
How easy it would have been for him to respond in a more effective manner but just like the opposition MP, he too allowed his emotions to carry him away. Ever had this happen to you? I know I have, I know when I’ve done it, I always regret it, I’ve surrounded myself with people unafraid to tell me straight when I do and I rapidly seek to make amends and learn the lesson for the future.
Imagine instead he had responded as follows:
I am sure I speak for every member of this house when I say that the shield to the memory of the former Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen serves as an ever present and potent reminder that we must all do everything in our power to tackle the incidence or threat of violence to everyone in British society – whether an MP or not. I am certain of the determination of every member of this house in that respect but I’m grateful to the Honourable Member for Dewsbury for the timely reminder.
If the language I have used has personally offended members or worse fuelled threats then of course I apologise and I certainly agree that we must all moderate our language, not just at this critical moment in our history but also more generally in our national discourse.
As to the words to which the Honourable Member refers, I trust she will understand that the motive for their use is as a means of conveying the passion of my conviction on the approach I advocate for this country. Whilst the language I use and the direction I intend may not be palatable to all members, I simply wish to ensure that those here and elsewhere are left in no doubt as to my view. As I’m sure the Honourable Member appreciates I most certainly do not intend to fuel threatening behaviour which I abhor as much as any member of this house.
Finally whilst I understand and respect the honourable members strength of feeling on this matter, might I gently suggest that citing departed friends in this context, manner and in public at a time when the horrific tragedy is still so raw for her family might also not be the best display of constructive parliamentary debate?”
Of course he didn’t say any of this and sadly continues to stubbornly defend his pious, patronising and foolish use of language allowing his provocateur (and many others) to continue to adopt some pretty hypocritical moral high ground.
Three simple steps to defuse escalating and unproductive debate:
Acknowledge the other persons right to hold an opposing opinion/position and show that you believe they have positive intent.
Calm the debate by using more temperate language and tone than the opposing party – even though you might be desperate to hit back – and show where you agree.
Consider whether the moment is right to re-explain your position or whether it might be better to wait until heads are cooler.
I’m no fan of politicians of any party and frankly consider that all the protagonists in this debate should be ashamed of themselves. As in the real world, it is extremely rare that only one side of unpleasant debate is at fault.
As Mark McCormack said in his brilliant book, What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School, “there are three things that leaders should say but rarely do – I need help, I was wrong and I am sorry”.