The COVID-19 pandemic has raised quite a lot of pragmatic and existential questions on world society. We’ve needed to adapt shortly and a number of the issues we take with no consideration have been upturned very all of a sudden.
The identical is true of how parliaments function. Now is a chance to contemplate the modifications made throughout COVID-19, and ask whether or not we actually wish to return to how issues had been earlier than.
This 12 months has additionally proven that traditions as soon as thought set in stone can, in actual fact, be modified extra simply than as soon as thought. In The Invention of Custom, historian Eric Hobsbawm contends that what we characterise as “custom” is usually each current and extremely malleable. It consists of repetition and formalisation so as to assemble a hyperlink to the previous.
The UK parliament is replete with such custom. That is evident not solely in its bodily make-up, however in its working practices. MPs should stroll by a selected foyer so as to be counted throughout main votes. They have to half-rise from their seats to catch the Speaker’s eye throughout debates.
However the pandemic has compelled abrupt change. Committee conferences had been introduced on-line and screens had been put in within the Home of Commons chamber to allow MPs to participate in debates from dwelling. After years of debate about updating the voting system, members of parliament had been all of a sudden allowed to vote remotely. Many senior officers used this as a possibility to mirror on processes and procedures.
The swift transition to a “digital parliament” reveals that institutional change can occur in a really brief time supplied there’s enough political will. Nevertheless, we’ve additionally seen that the desire just isn’t essentially there for everybody.
Chief of the Home Jacob Rees-Mogg’s urging, in early June, for a return to bodily proceedings, signalled an abrupt finish to the digital parliament). “Politics is healthier accomplished face-to-face,” he stated. “Even when the whites of the ministerial eyes are six ft away”.
Through the American revolutionary struggle, tales abounded of troopers being ordered to carry hearth till they noticed the “whites of enemy eyes”. The navy connotations of Rees-Mogg’s alternative of phrases are due to this fact illuminating and unsettling. His actual argument has little to no connection to practicality. What he actually means is that he thinks politics is healthier accomplished belligerently, as a result of that’s the way it has at all times been accomplished.
However has it? The traditionalism described by Hobsbawm entails selecting a historic previous and invoking (or inventing) a collection of historic values and norms so as to declare authority in decision-making. The vulnerability of the “digital parliament” lay in its problem to Rees-Mogg’s chosen historic previous: an invented custom of adversarial theatricality.
Nowhere is that this “custom” extra obvious than in prime minister’s questions, which has lengthy been characterised by theatrical chaos. That is underpinned by a honest understanding of the political stakes concerned, and an equally honest animosity between opposing benches.
Below lockdown, PMQs takes place in a much more sparsely-populated (and significantly quieter) chamber. MPs are in a position to put inquiries to the PM by way of video hyperlink. This can be a far cry from the sometimes rambunctious strategy of PMQs, made extra pronounced by the shortage of house within the chamber (427 seats for 650 MPs).
We’d assume that PMQs – and the “whites of the eyes”, “bear-pit” method to debate – have at all times been round. Nevertheless, PMQs as we all know it – going down at set occasions – has solely existed since 1961. Selwyn Lloyd (Commons Speaker from 1971-76) acknowledged in his autobiography that the adversarial nature of PMQs originated within the political rivalry between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath.
Boris Johnson has been described as “made for PMQs – or no less than he was”. To date, the modified environment of PMQs has been extra conducive to opposition chief Keir Starmer’s exact and “forensic” fashion of debate than to Johnson’s extra vibrant, theatrical method. COVID-19 has pulled again the curtain on PMQs – and, particularly, its dependence on a near-riotous viewers in attendance.
Bringing the constituency to the chamber
Now that some MPs attend parliamentary debates by way of video hyperlink, they’re able to broadcast their chosen environment into the Home of Commons chamber.
Many options of those environment – SNP MP Ian Blackford’s tartan curtains, Justin Madders’ classic Labour poster – have been topic to on-line dialogue (and within the case of the latter, a rebuke from the Speaker).
These glimpses into the non-Westminster lives of MPs – contrived or not – are of appreciable political significance. MPs are “residing symbols of a locality”; maps of the Thames and signed soccer memorabilia additionally symbolise, and reinforce, this sense of locality.
In addition they disrupt the narratives and symbolism which have lengthy been connected to parliament (by us as residents, and by parliament itself). Narratives and symbolism are enshrined within the composition of parliament: from the Palace of Westminster itself, to its “partitions, halls, curtains, stairwells [and] seats”, to the members working and debating inside it.
Working from dwelling has enabled MPs to visually signify their constituencies and constituents, and thereby relate to them in a brand new means. Such alternatives to “demystify” the work of MPs are particularly necessary in an period of widespread mistrust and dissatisfaction (towards politicians and parliaments alike). In demonstrating their distance from the “Westminster village” in a geographical sense, MPs may also distance themselves from the dangerous narratives connected to it.
Alex Prior tidak bekerja, menjadi konsultan, memiliki saham, atau menerima dana dari perusahaan atau organisasi mana pun yang akan mengambil untung dari artikel ini, dan telah mengungkapkan bahwa ia tidak memiliki afiliasi selain yang telah disebut di atas.