The Jury Room and the Debating Chamber

Cinema lost a legend last Saturday with the passing of Sidney Lumet whose 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men captured the drama of jury room.

Politicians who want to enjoy an equally admired legacy could do worse this weekend than watch Lumet’s best-known movie.

The story of how 12 characters shuffle into a room with their different prejudices and pedigrees and somehow perform the work of justice has gripped audiences over the past half-century. On the Internet Movie Database it ranks number seven in the top 250 films of all time, behind Schindler’s List and ahead of last year’s Inception.

The drama hinges on how a lone dissenter (wonderfully played by Henry Fonda) in an apparently clear cut murder case turns around the opinions of his hard-boiled peers. This film is inspiring because it shows that with a combination of courage and logic people from radically different walks of life can reason together on the most vexing issues.

In modern politics even the most subtle shift in policy is condemned as a u-turn. Faith in dogmatic ideologies has withered but tribalism remains entrenched. Candidates may wrestle in the mainstream of politics but it is against the rules of the electoral game to acknowledge you share common ground with your opponent.

In the Commons it is almost obligatory to talk to a member on the other side of the House as if he or she is the emissary of an enemy. In Assembly politics, potential coalition partners talk with pride of how the “gloves come off” during an election. But the challenges confronting Wales and the UK are so vexing it seems tragic that the finest minds in politics are barred from reasoning together on the best way forward.

Of course, we do not want a Government which functions through backroom deals. There is an important role for a strong opposition and a chamber defined by stultifying and apathetic consensus would be just as bad for democracy.

But, especially in a 60-seat Assembly, we need to find a way for people to talk about healthcare and youth unemployment as men and women on the same mission – delivering a better Wales. These are genuinely matters of life and death.

As a first step, all vestiges of whipping in committees should go. Amendments to Government legislation should not be dismissed out of hand.

Anyone who has been elected by constituents already possesses a honour which shines brighter than a peerage.

They owe it to their electors in a time of fiscal fear to pursue reason with honesty and independence of mind. Otherwise, the public will have good reason to be very angry.

A Thursday column

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