The UK Member of Parliament represents a constituency, a defined population in a defined territory. To represent means to speak for, and doing that effectively means getting to know who it is and where it is he or she represents.
Rory Stewart is MP for Penrith and The Border, in the north of England. It’s a Saturday in mid-December, and he’s in the constituency to attend what will be nine different meetings in the course of the day. His work includes running a surgery session at the Conservative Club in Brampton, a small market town east of Carlisle. A farmer wants his advice on an inheritance dispute he’s finding hard to resolve.
The very personal encounter Stewart describes complements and corrects our habitual but partial image of the parliamentarian as a public figure, one who seems always to be on show, forever talking rather than listening, projecting him or her self as much as those he or she represents.
This constituency is no single thing but a loose aggregate of individuals and communities, groups, organizations and interests. To give any reasonable account of it requires time spent with residents, campaigners and advocates, visiting schools, hospitals and other local public services, meeting community leaders and members of firms and commercial bodies. Each meeting is a complex search for understanding on each side, a constant pursuit by both represented and representative of understanding and support.
In Parliament, the role of the MP is to make the interests and concerns of constituents, as well as of his or her party, present in debate. In committee work, however, party and constituency may sometimes dissolve, as the MP acts on behalf of Parliament in holding the government to account.
In 2004, the European Union was to be enlarged by the accession of ten countries to the south and east. As a Social Democrat MEP from Austria, Hans had a position: that this enlargement was broadly positive, but would carry costs and so needed to be adequately prepared and managed. Above all, Europe’s social agenda must be protected.
He begins the day in consultation with his assistant, who manages his diary, and spends the rest of it speaking to a range of different audiences. His first set piece is a committee meeting, at which he makes a statement distinguishing the Parliament from the Commission, and blaming the Commission for the problems of the enlargement process. His speech goes smoothly, but then he’d been through it with his assistant beforehand and gets a quick debrief in the corridor afterward from one of his German counterparts.
He’s meant to have his photo taken for a newspaper article his assistant is writing, but now he’s running late. He meets a Slovenian delegation for lunch, for whom he has something of a mentoring function. He shares as much with them as he can, then leaves to join a parliamentary debate, and manages to have the photo done afterward. He’s at the Social Democratic Club in the evening, to give a lecture.
In this mêlée of meetings held, postponed and rearranged, only his continuing restatement of his political position seems to give his work any coherence and consistency. In each successive encounter he manages to rearticulate and recontextualise his core position in terms required by the audience and the occasion. It’s not that he’s being different people, but he is being himself differently, performing as much as merely presenting what he thinks the problems of enlargement are what might be done about them.
Political business of this kind is conducted in talk, but it has a material, physical component, too. The meetings Hans attends have corollary documents: the WTO statement his committee is to consider, papers for the plenary session in the afternoon, and of course the photograph. And every meeting takes place somewhere else: in his office, in a committee room or in the corridor, at lunch, in the parliamentary chamber or in the Wien Haus where the Social Democrats meet. What this means, in turn, is that he’s constantly on the move, and if not actually in a meeting then invariably between meetings.