Wednesday 16 September 2015: Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQs

The new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, took part in his first  PM’s Question Time in the House of Commons today. As a career backbencher, who has never held an appointed office in the Commons, Corbyn had never sat on the Front Benches in his 32 years in Parliament before his election as leader of the Labour Party. He called for a different kind of PMQs: less hostile, less beligerent and more subdued, focusing on getting questions asked and answered without all the noise and dramatics that so represents the PMQs and so turns people off politics – especially young people.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said he agreed and Jeremy Corbyn, instead of following the usual practice of the Leader of the Opposition grilling and pressing the Prime Minister on one or two subjects, decided to ask six single questions – with no follow up after the Prime Minister had given his answer. Also, the six questions came from ordinary members of the public – 40,000 of whom had answered Corbyn’s appeal for questions to put to the Prime Minister. He gave the first name of the people whose questions were chosen, which included questions on affordable housing and mental health.

Only time will tell whether this change of format and style will work or survive. Corbyn wouldn’t be the first to try and fail to change the way PMQs is conducted. There has been a mixed response today. Some argued it was better as it moved away from the dramatics and allowed ordinary members of the public to get questions asked. Others suggested that the Prime Minister was never under any real pressure as Corbyn didn’t respond or follow-up after getting answers. Cameron could simply give his or the Government’s view or policy and leave it at that.

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Corbyn seemed to be wearing a new suit today. He is famously not interested in style or the cult of personality and this backfired in the media after yesterday’s service at St Paul’s Cathedral to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 1940. Corbyn was at the service as leader of the Opposition but seemed slightly disheveled with mismatching clothes and his top button undone,  and slouching in his seat on the front pew, while those around him were in pristine suits or dress uniforms. The media attacked him for this, but it had a field day when Corbyn did not join in with the singing of the National Anthem, God Save The Queen. He stood during it, in what today he called “respectful silence,” but as a republican who believes in the abolition of the Monarchy, he didn’t sing along.

Many called this rude, disrespectful or even unpatiotic. Others, including myself, accept that his beliefs would make it strange if he had sung God Save The Queen. I wasn’t surprised that he remained silent and even less surprised by the reaction his decision got from the media. As he is a pacifist I was a little surprised that he was at the event at all but I imagine the fallout if he didn’t show up would have been much greater. He must have been feeling very uncomfortable just being there.

Corbyn also faces the dilemma of accepting  a position in the Queen’s Privy Council as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, and as to whether to kneel in her presence when he takes up the position. Today he said he hadn’t thought about whether to kneel or not – in fact he said that he wasn’t aware that kneeling was part of the ceremony. He pragmatically said he would take up the position in the Privy Council as it came with the job. He also refused to say yes or no on whether he would sing the Nationl Anthem from now on, although his aides later claimed he would. I personally hope he doesn’t give in to the pressure to do so. He’s already said he’s not going to seek the aboliton of the Monarchy as there is no public call for it. That should be enough. Anyway, who sings the Natonal Anthem these days except politicians and members of the Royal Family at events such as yesterday.

I’m hoping that Jeremy doesn’t go ga-ga for the Queen as all other Labour leaders seem to do – no matter what their past republican credentials were. I’m guessing Jeremy will show the Queen respect in any dealings he has with her, but I can’t imagine him giving up his life-long republicanism beliefs to start extolling admiration for her – as past Labour leaders and Prime Ministers have so often done.

Jeremy Corbyn is also a pacifist which, in the eyes of the media and right-wing politicians, is unpatriotic or even tatamount to being a traitor. I find this reactionary response outrageous. The world could do with a few more pacifist politicians. Pacifism is a noble belief that is incredibly difficult to maintain in the face of opposition, or in the face of subservient apathy from almost everyone else. In these days of endless conflicts, of wars conducted from computer terminals, of “wars on terror” and wars that have no justification in law or morality, to hold to your pacifism and sincere belief that ALL conflicts can and should be solved through dialogue and political and diplomatic means is even more difficult to achieve. As a politician all this can only be that much harder.

I’m sure Jeremy Corbyn mourns the loss of all those who have died for this country, as well as those who our armed forces have killed (including the tens of thousands of civilians who have died in Iraq). But I’m equally sure that Corbyn believes that War has no winners – only victims (and civilians always being the most vulnerable in wars) – and that war,  by definition, is a failure of peaceful co-existence. The first victim of war is so often the values of people who, badgered and harangued by the lies and propaganda of politicians and media, all too easily surrender any opposition or protestations and blindly or meekly give in to the thirst for violence. Jeremy Corbyn has neither betrayed his values or hidden them to mollify right-wing opinion that seeks to label all those who aren’t screaming with patriotic fervour as the enemy within.

Yesterday the Tory party branded Jeremy Corbyn a “threat to security” because of his pacifist-inspired opinions on nuclear weapons and the Nato aliance. He wants to abolish nuclear weapons or, at least, cancel the renewal of the country’s Trident system and believes that Nato should have been wound-up when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the ealy 1990s. Right-wing politicians would have us all marching to the beat of their own drum and have us believe that we can’t defend ourselves without nuclear weapons or without being part of Nato. Anyone who doesn’t go along wih this right-wing orthodoxy is branded as the enemy … “Your’re either with us or against us,” as George Bush – the lesser – righteously declared during his own War on Terror.

Corbyn’s life-long beliefs and values are already conflicting with the reality of today’s right-leaning and increasingly homogenous political world. They also highlight just how intolerant many people have become towards deviation from accepted norms and so-called traditions, such as those around the Monarchy, state religion and the armed forces. One of Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest problems is going to be reconciling his beliefs and values with the often uncompromising expectations of modern-day politics.

I have always found it disasteful, to put it mildly, that religion even has a role in state events such as commemoration events – or even life in general, when I come to think about it. As an atheist I don’t believe in God and believe that religion is responsible for the reinforcement of misery and poverty around the world – such as the ban on condom use which just increases poverty. I believe that religion contributes greatly to the horrendous prejudices, oppression and violence shown towards sections of societies around the world – such as LGBTQ people or women.  In my opinion, religion divides people, communities,  and nations. Extremists in many religions believe their interpretation of their God’s teachings or their Bible is the only true interpretation. When they believe this it is only a few short steps to believing that everyone who doesn’t agree with you is evil, an infidel, or inferior. From that conviction that everyone else is wrong and you are the true believer it is an even shorter leap to kill freely in the name of God  and your Faith.

Most wars in our violent history have been fuelled by, and then fought in the name of, God. This alone makes religion abhorrent to me. You may say that the vast majority of religious people in the world are not violent and you’d be correct. But I find it incomprehensible that anyone could have Faith in a religion that through centuries of teachings and indoctrination has driven the thirst for violence – over and over and over again. How can you be a member of a Church that on the one hand says that killing is a Sin and with the other blesses the soldiers before they go off to die and sends them off in the belief that God is on their side and that they are therefore, by definition, killing in his name. 

Jeremy Corbyn is an Atheist but this didn’t stop him expressing his respect and gratitude to those who fought and died in the Battle of Britain, even if that gratitude came from a secular point of view that they were killing in the cause of defeating facism.  Yet the media aren’t interested in that – they just go after him and attack his credibility, calling him rude, disrespectful and unpatriotic simply because he didn’t sing the National Anthem. Have we become that shallow? That ignorant?

Yesterday’s commemoration was supposed to be a commemoration of those who fought and died in the skies over Southern England and the English Channel 75 years ago. They died to protect Britain from Nazism and to save this country’s democratic principles – not least that we are free to say and believe what we like. The irony is that the National Anthem has nothing to do with commemorating those who died in the Battle of Britain. It is about glorifying and expressing subervience to the Monarchy. I found it not only a wonderful expression of his values that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t sing, but an incredibly brave thing to do – to stand by his belief in the face of reactionary and predictable responses from media, other politicians and ignorant or ill-informed members of the public.

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Related BBC News article: “Why some people don’t sing the National Anthem” at http:///www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-34268442

Related Independent article: “Lord Mandelson urges Labour colleagues not to oust Jeremy Corbyn” at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/lord-mandelson-urges-labour-colleagues-not-to-oust-jeremy-corbyn-too-early-10516396.html-0

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