The Prime Minister, PMQs and Parliamentary Language.

Canons, Insults and Radical Poetry.

It’s not often that I watch Prime Minister’s Questions on the Parliament Channel, but yesterday was quite a big day for British politics – what with the Commons debate about the Culture (!) Secretary, and David Cameron’s refusal to refer him to the standards commissioner.

From an educationalist’s point of view, PMQs was fairly mundane – until it came to the ‘question’ to the PM from Steve Rotheram, MP for Liverpool Walton. [See appendix, below]

In the words of Simon Hoggart of the Guardian, “When professional scouser Steve Rotherham (sic) raised the “omnishambles budget” as part of an omniburble question, Cameron told him to take up compulsory poetry classes – whatever that might mean.”

I can tell Mr Hoggart exactly what the PM meant. His response to Mr Rotheram’s question was another of those moments when the true nature of our slick and sophisticated PM was suddenly revealed for all to see.

Steve Rotheram speaks with a marked Liverpudlian accent, and as it happened he somewhat fluffed the delivery of his question to the PM yesterday. Not that it was difficult to understand what the questioner was asking – it amounted to little more than a routine attack on the competence of the government.

Instead of answering the question, Cameron shot back at Rotheram that he would benefit from the compulsory poetry recital sessions that the education secretary says he’s now going to impose on all pupils and all schools.

There are two possible meanings to this:

1) The comment was a sneer at Mr Rotheram’s failure to ask his question with the suavety and panache, not to say glibness, that the PM, with his Eton and Bullingdon Club background, invariably exhibits. In other words, the questioner is an oik who can’t even speak clearly, let alone impressively, in the Commons.

2) The comment was a sneer at Mr Rotheram’s Liverpudlian accent.

Either way, this was despicable, and totally unbecoming for someone who no doubt likes to see himself as a true parliamentarian and indeed a statesman. Perhaps the PM sees himself as some sort of latter-day Churchill and is trying (too hard) to emulate his predecessor’s wit and caustic put-downs.

The point of mentioning all this in an education blog is that there are many people working in schools who believe, like the PM and like his colleague the education secretary, that local accents and local dialects are unattractive, undesirable and unbecoming, and that pupils must be made to speak ‘properly’ – i.e. in Standard English and with Received Pronunciation. I’ve had many a debate with colleagues in schools who despise working class accents & forms of speech, and who believe that it’s the job of the teacher to eliminate such things as part of every child’s education. In other words, children should feel ashamed of their native speech and embarrassed enough to abandon it in favour of more middle class, and therefore acceptable, forms of speaking.

Now, to be clear about this – nobody is saying that pupils shouldn’t learn how to speak and how to write in Standard English. Of course they should. Standard English is the ‘dominant’ and the highest status form of the language, and the ability to handle it effectively in both speech and in writing confers power on the user. The point is, young people have the right to choose when to use Standard English, and when to use their own non-standard forms of the language. I myself choose to use dialect words and phrases quite often, and I insist on my right to do so. What’s more, I object very strongly if anyone then sneers at my preferred modes of expression.

I object even more strongly if anyone makes an issue of my choice of pronunciation, which is now a mixture of West Midlands and Thames Estuary. The accents with the lowest status in Britain are probably Black Country/Birmingham and Liverpudlian, and I’m inclined to object strongly on behalf of the users of those accents if I hear anyone showing them disrespect. I object very strongly to what the PM said in Parliament yesterday. I object strongly when I hear teachers making snide comments about pupils’ accents or colloquialisms.

It’s an open question as to whether the PM and his henchman Mr Gove propose to make the compulsory recitation of poetry in schools a form of elocution lessons, and thereby a way of ridding the country of regional accents and non-standard English – as if that could ever happen. I’m sure they would deny any such intention. Mr Cameron’s remark in Parliament, however, will lead many to conclude that he’s an elitist and a snob – a ‘posh’ young man who despises and sneers at those he considers his social and intellectual inferiors. Cameron’s defenders will no doubt claim that he was merely indulging in ‘repartee’ and meant no real disrespect to Mr Rotheram. However, the clippings below make it quite clear that there are many who heard the PM’s performance, didn’t like what they heard, and drew their own conclusions.

Maybe this incident could be studied by pupils in schools as part of their learning in PSHE. [Personal, Social & Health Education] They could debate what took place in the Commons, and debate whether non-standard English and regional dialects are a valid form of speech and language, bearing in mind that Received Pronunciation and Standard English are themselves minority forms of our language. Maybe pupils from other parts of the world could discuss their own forms of English and whether those forms should be considered ‘valid’ by teachers and politicians.

Whilst they’re about it, pupils could debate which poets and which poems should be considered compulsory, or part of the desired canon that all pupils should be exposed to, as far as this government is concerned.

[Poetic or literary canon: a body of works of significant literary merit, instrumental in shaping Western culture and modes of thought.]

I won’t go so far as to suggest that all pupils should study Tony Harrison’s ‘V’ in every senior school, but David Cameron might do well to take a look at these YouTube clips of Tony performing his poem – in order to understand the feelings of teachers, lecturers and pupils who might be confronted by Gove’s orders, and what they might mean to language and literature teaching in schools.

(Don’t bother watching these clips if you’re sensitive to earthy or scatological language, or easily offended by challenging and ‘non-polite’ material.]



Duncan Barkes
I sat down to watch PMQs yesterday and witnessed a very interesting little engagement in the House of Commons. Steve Rotheram (MP for Liverpool, ex fireman, good bloke) asked David Cameron (you should probably know who this one is) a pretty standard question. DC responded, mocking Steve’s scouse accent, by suggesting the backbencher needed to take poetry reading lessons. I was a bit shocked by this. I wanted to know if you agreed with Labour’s accusations that the PM’s comments were “sneering and snobbish”. In short, you said yes.

by Mark Ferguson
PMQs verdict: Parliament can do better than this – and it must.

What kind of country are we living in, if our parliamentarians can’t treat each other with basic decency?
I’m not, for once, complaining about the boorish jeering that washes down from the green benches each Wednesday. Although it’s a largely counterproductive practice, it’s not explicitly rude.

It is perhaps fitting that PM is at least as rude as some of his “honourable” colleagues. Steve Rotherham, one of the few MPs in the house who has an identifiable regional accent, asked a question. It wasn’t one of the best you’ll ever hear. The thrust was “why are you so rubbish Prime Minister?”. It was no better or worse than all of the planted “Why are you so great?” questions coming from the government benches. Yet both question and questioner were treated with absolute contempt.

Rotherham should be reading poetry, said Cameron.
The Labour benches cried that Cameron was a snob – and what other explanation could there be for such a crass attack?

How can we trust a man to run our country in the best interests of the majority when he can’t even treat fellow parliamentarians with a modicum of decency?

Parliament can do better than this. And it must.


by Curtis McLellan
Did we see nasty Cameron? Yes. His barb towards Steve Rotheram MP was cryptically vicious. These are the Conservatives we know – accordingly a regional accent is something to be scoffed at and scorned. God forbid members of the House have any other accent apart from a bland estuary English accent.


Cameron’s ‘learn poetry’ jibe to MP sparks Twitter fury

David Cameron’s outbursts during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons always excite the Twitter community, especially when he is perceived to have been particularly rude or aggressive.

Only last month he was reprimanded by the Speaker for calling Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, an “idiot”.

He was at it again earlier today, when, responding to a question from Labour MP Steve Rotherham over whether he had run out of steam, or if the job was too big for him, Mr Cameron said he was glad education secretary Michael Gove had introduced poetry learning in schools. Perhaps they could start with Rotherham, he added.

Labour MPs immediately took to Twitter to register their disapproval.

William Bain, Labour MP for Glasgow North East, tweeted:
“Cameron’s response to Steve Rotherham’s question unacceptable. Snobbery not dead in ‘modern’ Tory Party then”

Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, joined in, saying:
“Cameron falls back to his arrogant Flashman act to avoid answering question on the recession from Labour’s Steve Rotherham”

Anne McGuire, Labour MP for Stirling, tweeted:
“Cameron is just such a snob with his poetry reading jibe at hardworking MP for Walton, Steve Rotherham.”

While Matthew Tomlinson, Labour councillor for Leyland in Lancashire, said:
“PM mocks Liverpool MP Steve Rotherham for his his accent at PMQs. Classy!”


Liverpool Echo

Commons row leads Cameron to “sneering, snobbish” put down of Liverpool MP Steve Rotheram.

David Cameron’s comments came after the Walton MP attacked the coalition on its budget and economic strategy.

Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Rotheram said: “An omnishambles of a budget you claimed you’d read line by line, a double-dip recession you made in Downing Street, and a Tory-led committee reporting that the coalition lacks strategic direction. Evidence if ever was needed that men can multi-task, it’s just, obviously, that some aren’t very good at it. Prime Minister, have you now run out of steam or is the job just too big for you?”

Referring to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to introduce compulsory poetry recitals for school children, Mr Cameron replied: “I’m very pleased that the education secretary is introducing compulsory poetry reading lessons in class and perhaps we could start with the honourable gentleman.”

Commenting on the exchange, a Labour source said: “This was a sneering and snobbish remark by the Prime Minister. He was suggesting someone should have reading lessons because they have a Liverpudlian accent.”

Mr Rotheram said: “I wonder whether he was thinking ‘How dare he ask me that sort of question?’ It would have been a great opportunity for him to argue how great his government is, but obviously he can’t do that so resorts to personal attacks instead.”

Read More

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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