At a time when each week seems to bring fresh revelations about some new scandal – be it from the world of politics, finance, business, entertainment, or whatever – we hear a lot about how it has never been more important to ‘uncover the truth’ and ‘get to the bottom of things’, so that ‘it can never happen again.’ House of Commons select committees have found themselves to be uniquely positioned in this growth industry of scandal scrutiny, and by exploiting this positioning they’ve succeeded in raising the profile of parliament as an important arena for political action. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has long been at the forefront of parliamentary scrutiny, and has recently assumed even greater political saliency as a result of the strategic leadership of its chair, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge. PAC’s recent investigations into tax avoidance and evasion, and in particular Hodge’s grilling of senior HSBC figures, has drawn the criticism that Hodge is ‘abusive and bullying’ and presiding over ‘a theatrical exercise in public humiliation.’ These comments are interesting for a number of reasons.
First, the notion that committee scrutiny is a ‘theatrical exercise’ is in fact hugely revealing of the institutional setting. Parliament is the nation’s pre-eminent ‘theatre of action’[i]. It’s the stage on which political actors enact a range of vital performances, from which they take cues from off-stage participants, and through which they signal important political messages to watching audiences. Describing parliamentary politics as ‘theatrical’ isn’t therefore particularly contemptuous, and the metaphor is incredibly useful in helping us to understand the behaviour and activity of MPs inside parliament.
This leads directly to the second point, which is that in pursuing this burgeoning market in scandal scrutiny, select committees would be negligent if they didn’t use all the resources at their disposal, including the ability to embarrass witnesses. For the most part, the only public scrutiny many of these witnesses will ever be exposed to is that visited upon them by parliamentary committees. Irrespective of what happens to those individuals or their institutions thereafter, it is fundamental to the operation of democracy that significant figures are at least seen to be challenged and questioned. Whether such challenging and questioning is the same as holding them to account is of course another matter. But the very public and highly visible process of scrutiny that is possible through parliamentary committees is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for ensuring the democratic health of our political system. The oxygen of publicity is, after all, a highly effective disinfectant. Parliamentary committees may not be in a position to resolve any of the scandals they investigate, but they are increasingly crucial agenda-setting actors, and their scrutiny actions can and do help determine how long an issue will remain on the media’s radar. What’s more, when committee members ask hard questions, and appear incredulous when witnesses answer those questions, they are merely channelling the behaviours expected of them by their similarly incredulous constituents.
Which leads to the final point: the role of the committee chair is of fundamental importance in understanding what action a committee will take on any given issue, which is why Margaret Hodge at PAC has drawn both criticism and applause. Leadership matters in select committees, and the chair is crucial in setting the tone of investigations and determining the vigour with which summoned witnesses are questioned. Hodge’s behaviour in the PAC chair has been described as ‘grandstanding’, but labelling an active and relentless chair in this way entirely misconceives the emerging strategic role of chairs and their increased willingness to exploit the parliamentary resources at their disposal, resources which would not otherwise be available to them as backbench MPs. The whole point of shifting in 2010 to a system of elected select committee chairs was to beef up the scrutiny capacity of the Commons and imbue chairs with greater authority and legitimacy to act. To then describe chairs as ‘grandstanding’ when they put those institutional resources to use is disingenuous.
So long as scandals continue to be uncovered, parliamentary committees will continue to position themselves on the political stage as wily inquisitors working on behalf of the exploited and the victimised, and active chairs will vigorously pursue witnesses so long as there is a political market for doing so. Ultimately, the very best actors will always learn how to maximise their use of the stage on which they perform so as to throw their voices to the darkest corners of the theatre. This truth is what makes the study of parliament and its committees so compelling.
The author acknowledges the support of ESRC research funding (RES-061-25-0391).
[i] Uhr, J. and J. Wanna, 2000, ‘The future roles of parliament’ in M. Keating, J. Wanna, and P. Weller (eds.) Institutions on the Edge? Capacity for Governance, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.