Fri | Dec 2, 2016

Raising the Bar in Parliament

Published:Sunday | October 5, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Daniel Thwaites, Contributor

Whether Jamaican politics attracts alcoholics or creates alcoholics is an interesting question. It's more than academic, and answering it might actually be a clue to some larger governance issues.

Note that nearly two weeks ago, a debate on the Criminal Record (Rehabilitation of Offenders) (Amendment) Act was postponed for no other reason but uncontrollable behaviour. Alcohol was suspected. Meanwhile, citizens awaited the amendment to scrub their records and get along with their lives. Thankfully, the bill was passed last week.

The parliamentary irascibility, although entertaining for we time-wasters just glad for some excitement, baffles sensible onlookers, and dupes others into thinking there is some grand purpose or deep significance to the bluster. There isn't. It's actually attributable to one venerable Duke Street institution: the parliamentary grog shop.

Yes! Just like at so many police stations, and similarly leading to terrific mayhem, there is a rum bar at Parliament where some members imbibe heavily prior to sittings. I believe the generally compromised level of parliamentary conduct is too often traceable to this bar in the basement of the People's Chamber, where certain members are fixtures. Hence, it's time to take the lid off this particular rum barrel.

In other words, although you think it's your MP making that loquacious presentation and gesticulating wildly, you're actually hearing from Mr Johnnie Walker, Mr Gin N. Tonic, and Mr J. Wray and his nephew. And when I say I want to raise the parliamentary bar, I'm not talking about the quality of member, or even the quality of the contribution. At this point, we're just begging for basic sobriety.

Breathalysers

What to do about this? One thought is the new commissioner might consider conducting breathalysers at the door, because the accidents caused from that bar's patrons affect nearly three million souls. A better proposal is to close the bar, thereby thwarting the opportunistic drinkers and forcing the dedicated ones to consume their jet fuel elsewhere before committee and House sittings. There's the obvious danger that such a move could increase absenteeism, maybe even dramatically.

Another proposal is to limit the kinds of liquor sold. If it were limited to beer and malt liquors, offenders would have to imbibe proportionally more, and hence the blood-alcohol content might be commensurately reduced. Whisky, rum and vodka are efficient intoxicants, so perhaps they should probably be disallowed on campus.

Another option is to encourage full reporting on the whole matter. Just like sunlight is the best disinfectant, it may also be the best inducer of sobriety and cure for hangovers. This is the option I prefer. Constituents would be entitled to a tally of their MP's consumption, maybe published monthly. Nightly news could have a banner streaming below a screaming speaker explaining that he had 10 rums. I think there would be genuine surprise at how much certain characters consume, and I think an enterprising student could graph a direct relationship between consumption, participation, and even the quality of the intervention.

It's not just a Jamaican problem. A charity named Alcohol Concern commissioned a study in Westminster last year that found about a quarter of its members felt the culture there was too boozy.

"A cross-party survey of 150 MPs reveals that 39 (26 per cent) believe there is too much drinking in Westminster. Female MPs are more likely (36 per cent) than males (24 per cent) to see Parliament as too alcohol fuelled (36 per cent), while Labour members (31 per cent) are more likely than Tory (20 per cent) or Liberal Democrat (19 per cent) MPs to agree."

Why can't we have a similar survey in Jamaica - if only for further entertainment?

In 2010, a Tory MP with the splendid name of Mark Reckless missed an early-morning budget vote after going hard the night before. MP Eric Joyce, two years ago, got into a fistfight with other parliamentarians after too much hooch.

Nor is it new. Pitt the Younger consumed three bottles of port daily and it helped kill him. Gladstone, who lowered tariffs on French wine and set off a countrywide binge, also imbibed liberally. Asquith was so sodden he would sway on his feet while talking in Parliament.

Heavyweight drinkers

Of course, one can't talk about parliamentary drinkers without invoking Churchill. As politician drinkers go, he is undoubtedly the heavyweight. He probably picked up his whisky habit during the Boer War, where, owing to the questionability of the water, it was common practice to mix it with alcohol. Thereafter, he seems to have really worked on developing his drinking muscle.

It's standard for his biographers to now say that he actually drank less than his reputation allowed, but the truth is more complicated. His diet was very minutely charted over many years, permitting careful historians to see exactly what he was putting inside himself, as they have done, and the amounts of alcohol he consumed is stunning.

Current London Mayor Boris Johnson has written about Churchill's "vast potations of champagne, whisky and brandy" ... in the mornings. Evenings were another matter. For example, while staying with the Roosevelts at their Hyde Park Mansion, Winston would stay awake late, endure the wealthy but abstemious Roosevelt's methodical gin and tonic, then help himself to the more exciting offerings that sat unused in their bar.

But most important for our purposes, Churchill was not a morose or angry drunk. Our legislators trying to emulate him in the amounts they consume may want to mimic the joviality and good humour or lay off the hot sauce.

Finally, for those who are too far gone to pull back from the liquid lunches (and there are a few of those), at least entertain us with sharpened wit. This goes beyond political affiliation. Consider Churchill's famous retort to MP Bessie Braddock's accusation that he was drunk: "Yes, madam, I am drunk. But in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly." Winston gets the laugh, but 'Battling Bessie', as the solid union leader from Liverpool was known, would have had my vote. Forget Tom. Danny drunk, but Danny nuh fool!

Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.