UK Politics

John McDonnell’s Ron Brown Moment

Let’s be frank. Twatting around with the House of Commons’ Mace is naff. It has been done before. Everybody knows what the consequences are, i.e.

– being suspended

– getting on TV

– making an apology; and

– then being allowed back into the House.

This is what will happen to John McDonnell, the MP for Hayes and Harlington, the Labour MP who chose to make a protest about the absence of a vote on a new runway for Heathrow, by indulging in a wee spot of Mace-fingering.

Andy Newman thinks that this is John McDonnell’s “Hesaltine (sic) Moment“. This is the incident he is referring to:

Michael Heseltine famously seized the mace after a particularly heated debate in 1976.

The evening of 27 May proved to be a particularly eventful one for the House of Commons.

The government was attempting to steer its Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill through the Commons.

The Bill was hotly contested, with Michael Heseltine leading the Conservative opposition. The vote on an amendment had been tied, and was lost on the Speaker’s vote. The vote on the main government motion – which one would have expected also to be tied – was in fact carried by the Labour Government.

At this, some of the Welsh Labour MPs began to sing ‘The Red Flag’. Heseltine, infuriated by the traditional Labour Party anthem, grabbed the mace and held it over his head.

He was restrained by Jim Prior, replaced the mace and left the Chamber. The Speaker suspended the sitting until the following day.

The next morning Michael Heseltine apologised unreservedly for his behaviour.

Heseltine was depicted, thereafter, as a kind of Tarzan figure, swinging the Mace around his head like a jungle man.

Veteran trot, Liam Macuaid is in high dudgeon:

On the last two occasions I’ve heard him speak John has said that we are entering a moment when direct action is going to become an even more important element of struggle. He seems to be leading by example. Well done!

Uh, right. This is how The Times saw John McDonnell’s re-enactment of that event:

The Great Heathrow Mace Protest took us by surprise. We watched, goggle-eyed, as John McDonnell marched down the aisle that separates the Labour benches, a walking exclamation mark of outrage over his Government’s decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. But when he reached the green carpet at the bar of the House, he looked, for just a moment, a bit lost.

He picked up the Mace. He did not grab it but lifted it gingerly, as if his real purposed might be to dust under it. For a few long tantalising seconds, the elaborate golden object rested on his palms, held out almost as an offering.

It looked wrong. Surely Mr McDonnell should be waving the thing about, brandishing it as Michael Heseltine had in 1976. That was a Tarzan moment. This, however, was a Mowgli moment.

There is another precedent that is relevant here. The last Mace-swinger was the late Labour MP, Ron Brown, who threw the Mace on the floor, damaging it. When it came time to apologise, Ron Brown varied the text of his agreed apology, describing it as “grovelling” and “rubbish”. I think I have a recording of the non-apology somewhere. Ron Brown sounds drunk

John McDonnell is a rather dapper character, and not the shabby figure that Ron Brown was. However, both have a fondness for extreme politics. Ron Brown:

“visited Colonel Gaddafi in Libya several times in the 1970s, and also tried to develop trade links between Scotland and Libya. He also made statements supporting the Communist regimes in Afghanistan, Albania and North Korea.”

John McDonnell is most famous for this incident:

At a gathering to commemorate the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Mr McDonnell said: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA.”

Great times!