Tom Tugendhat speaking during the debate on the situation in Afghanistan in the House of Commons

Afghanistan debate highlights crucial role of Commons in democracy

Democracy depends on division. Leaders such as president Biden invoke unity to collect a few spare votes and hide under an all-encompassing banner. But politicians must stand for something, and if they are interested in progress of any sort, division is a necessary evil, not a cowardly good.

Searching for a ‘consensus’ of some kind merely obscures any hope of that progress, especially when the lure of the ballot box lets politicians fall over each other to show how undivisive they really are. The usual platitudes fall out, about a ‘broad coalition’ or a ‘show of unity’.

It is the role of parliaments to see past the heady rhetoric, and last week that ever-important role was on show again in brilliant fashion in the hallowed chambers of Westminster.

In America, Joe Biden only had cameras for company when he gave his deceitful and bitter address to his country after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, putting much of the blame on the Afghan army, and trying to etch out of existence his previous remarks about the importance of nation-building in the whole American enterprise in the country.

As Kabul airport filled with desperate families, Biden tried to keep up the veneer of calm. In Britain, there was no such privilege for Boris Johnson, and no such chance for silence as the prime minister gave his own address. Anyone could see that the British people were angry, but no one could say they were deaf to the issue at hand either.

And the job of the Commons is to make the government hear that anger; something Joe Biden experiences precious little of.

Before the pandemic, many called for a reform of the House of Commons, to move it away from the traditional parallel green benches, which pit the two sides against each other. They wanted a circular chamber, one less confrontational, binary and riddled with heckling.

It would of course then be a quieter one, resembling the quietude of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood or the huge chamber of the European Parliament. Speakers would always get through their speeches, different parties would not be able to throw collective abuse at their opponents, and the role of the Speaker would become more of an unfazed legislator rather than a troubled playground supervisor.

Not only would this make bad television, it would also make for dreadful debate. Hardly anyone seriously watches the daily goings-on of the Welsh Senedd, or even the driest select committee in Westminster.

The House of Commons brings politics to life, and if it reveals divisions, it also shows up those not fit to be speaking from their ballot box. Over the course of the pandemic, ministers used the polite silence of a press conference, or a live broadcast, to preach the government’s message, and accountability was reserved for an empty Commons devoid of its usual spirit.

Last week, Boris Johnson was heckled not only from the opposition side, but most potently from his own side as well. Theresa May chided her successor for abandoning the people of Afghanistan at the whim of an American president, while former soldiers such as Tobias Ellwood chastised the refusal to fight back against the Taliban insurgency, which it had been the mission of the original invasion to eliminate.

Tom Tugendhat gave the most moving speech, about his shared anguish with those who had fought to build a society in Afghanistan which is now so endangered. While around the world leaders were able to make their excuses without fear of the gale of laughter in front and behind, no such courtesy was reserved for Britain’s. Our democracy and state of discourse is much the better for it.

Recalling a Commons without the constraints of the past year and a half showed exactly what we’ve missed from our political system. Where Matt Hancock had the nodding heads of his scientific advisors to affirm his words, Keir Starmer was without his angry supporters in the Commons when he attacked the government’s conduct.

Decisions in the pandemic, which would have set the green benches alight, were left to select journalists to question. In short, politics and governance became soundbites, not speeches.

There was no place for Johnson to unleash any rhetorical armour on his MPs, as he knew Churchill did in a war situation: a vision of “sunlit uplands” was replaced by “cautious and irreversible”.

Our House of Commons not only keeps the powerful in check, it enlivens the whole political scene around them. In a crisis such as the onset of the virus, it was a body whose presence was needed more than ever. When missing, it was no surprise that the gap between the powerful and their people became increasingly wide. The drama of normal times had been replaced by lockdown’s palpable lack of dissent.

But the Commons is not simply a quaint piece of British political theatre, exported around the world to voters used to the tedious officialdom of their own leaders. It is not just a point-scoring boxing ring, as prime minister’s questions often appears.

At its best, the Commons can be a place where MPs make their name based not on their loyalty to a party, but on the value of what they say; where both government and opposition are judged on their ability to survive in the toughest of all debating chambers.

It is where the greatest decisions of the nation are made, and where those speeches can have such an effect on the MPs tasked with making them. Above all, it is where our elected representatives try to speak on behalf of their electors.

And it is on such an ability that they are ultimately judged. Journalists like to say they are around to ‘speak truth to power’, but most recognise that the best opportunity to do that falls to MPs.

And the return of the House of Commons to a British political scene increasingly stripped to its barest faultlines is the best stage we could give to let them do precisely that.