Gary Gibbon discovers that rational argument and good manners still exist at Westminster, despite the Brexit car crash
Parliament is “a sick house” right now. That’s not a comment on the politics of the place but a diagnosis by Philippa Whitford MP, the Commons’ most senior medical figure. The SNP politician has a long career as a cancer surgeon behind her, and MPs aware of her medical background have been bending her ear to tell her of their anxiety issues.
Whitford says sleepless nights and persistent stress are rampant and she’s had MPs telling her of their inability to process information as a result.
And there’s little sign of things lightening up any time soon. Sir Keir Starmer told me he was about to drive his family to the airport for what was meant to be a holiday for them all. He would now be dropping them off and heading back to Westminster instead.
The demonstrators who wave flags, shout and sing behind the broadcasters’ podiums on College Green in Westminster do not seem to be taking a holiday.
They were joined recently by Alastair Campbell playing Ode to Joy on the bagpipes. Channel 4 News is regularly presented live from the green to improve our chances of getting MPs as live guests. The demonstrators watch output live on their mobiles, so they know when to raise the volume.
It’s so loud now that we are all wearing those microphones that look like you’ve got a giant wart on the side of your face.
The “Madonna mikes” block out a lot of the background noise, which probably makes those who are live presenting or commentating look even more ridiculous as we lean in and strain to hear each other or hold on to our line of thought.
As I was walking past one demonstrator in front of Parliament, recently, he shouted some abuse at me. The bit I caught and which is repeatable was something about going off “to do your fake news”.
I carried on walking, then stopped and decided to go back and to engage. I asked him if he could think of anything I’d done that merited that insult?
I asked him if he’d encourage his children to shout abuse in the street? I asked him what ever happened to British inhibitions? He didn’t really attempt a defence of his abuse and said he was sorry if he’d caused offence. We shook hands and I walked on.
Is it the online revolution that is driving us into a more brittle political discourse and entrenched positions? One spin-off of the digital zeitgeist, for me, is that I get to record a weekly podcast to chew on questions like that (Politics: Where Next?).
This week, it meant that I sat down with two experts in the field. Jamie Susskind, author of Future Politics, worries that every element of our politics is going to be challenged by advances in technology.
Giuliano da Empoli has written The Engineers of Chaos, about the populist Svengalis who have masterminded the new technologies and pressed them to the causes of Trump, the Italian Five Star Movement and many others.
Might anti-populists, I asked, one day press these amazing new technologies to different causes – or are algorithms and social media destined to be the playthings of political forces that chime with the darker side of human nature?
Both say it is possible for the opponents of populism to wrest control of these social levers. But both sounded like they thought the populist uprising had quite a bit longer to run before that happens.
Gary Gibbon is political editor of Channel 4 News.