By Daniel Gaffney
The House of Commons is rich in political history. Making up one of the two houses within the Palace of Westminster- a UNESCO World Heritage Site- some parts of the building date back to 1016. The Palace was almost entirely rebuilt after a fire in 1834, but it became the focal point of an empire that ruled one quarter of the world’s population, and stood firm throughout two world wars.
For many politicians, both aspiring and current, to debate in the House of Commons is the political equivalent of walking out at Wembley. Westminster is the home of democracy. The Commons has witnessed speeches by some of the greatest orators known to humankind. It was in the Commons that Churchill famously parked the bus, and inspired Britain to go on the defensive during his infamous ‘We will fight them on the beaches speech’, fifty years later, Geoffrey Howe scored a late equaliser in his long match with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by issuing a ‘Personal Statement’ to the House; while today the country watches on as Theresa May takes Brexit negotiations into extra time.
Although Westminster’s pivotal role in world history is of great interest, its current residents’ unwillingness to adapt, risks an already disengaged and disgruntled public losing interest in politics. The House of Commons has made some effort to modernise, television cameras were invited into the chamber in 1989, while in 2017 the speaker John Bercow lifted the 300-year-old requirement for clerks to wear wigs in the chamber in order to make the House appear less ‘stuffy’. These are steps in the right direction, but more could be done to engage younger people in Parliamentary debate.
Over the most-recent Christmas recess, Bercow reissued to MP’s an 18-page pamphlet, advising them of the rules of behaviour and courtesies expected of them while the House was in session. The language used in the pamphlet makes clear that the courtesies expected within the Commons have remained almost entirely unchanged since the Victorian period. Although centuries old traditions have sentimental value, the State Opening of Parliament, and the Black Rod having the House’s door symbolically slammed in their face being two examples, the language used in the pamphlet does very little to bring proceedings into the twenty-first century.
Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ’s) is the busiest parliamentary session of the week, but it makes uncomfortable viewing. MP’s jeer and laugh like hyenas, and show little respect for whoever is speaking. It doesn’t just set a bad example, its unattractive to voters and it belongs in a different century.
At a time when ‘ME2’ is inspiring change in the workplace, it is bewildering that it is considered normal for a female Prime Minister to stand at the dispatch box and be shouted down time and time again in her workplace. In a chamber that commands respect, the utterances and jeering between MP’s is quite frankly embarrassing and un-professional. It was only in December last year that Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was caught on camera allegedly referring to May as a ‘stupid woman’ during PMQ’s. In another industry, if a woman was frequently interrupted and shouted over by her colleagues, more severe action would be taken than simply calling for ‘order’.
The noisy and aggressive nature of parliamentary debate risks putting off voters, however, both main parties seem to be encouraging their leaders to launch more and more direct attacks across the aisle. Social media has been used to put fuel on the flames, because the leadership groups on both sides of the house plaster their respective social media profiles with their own edited highlight reels from PMQ’s. Cutting thirty minutes down to thirty seconds has led to Corbyn and May often exchanging short direct attacks in order to come across as the winner of the day.
Since the referendum, there has been a rapid growth in the ‘politically homeless’ because Parliament is looking inwards rather than outwards. The old fashioned and short-term nature of debate risks alienating voters of all ages.
As Article 50 continues to breath down the government’s neck, the debate both in and outside of Westminster is only going to heat up. At the most important period in British politics since the Second World War, Members of Parliament have a responsibility to make our politics less self-referential, or risk disenfranchising a generation.