Well it finally happened. Parliament, like your mum, has been forced to learn to Zoom. People are not so different in character from the institutions that oversee them. It usually takes a shock to alter old patterns of behaviour. And, true to our national stereotype, the palace that houses the longest continually-functioning democracy on Earth knew what it liked and was stuck in its ways. It was, after all, the last major democratic chamber to allow TV cameras inside, in 1989, after umming and ahhing for 30 years.
But against the urgent backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the motions to go “remote” were agreed in days. Westminster is now a virtual parliament. We have crossed another “historic” and “unprecedented” threshold; journalistic adjectives are losing their impact in these exhaustingly turbulent times.
There was little choice. As former Commons Clerk David Natzler implied in an online interview with Prospect, no government had assumed such wide-ranging powers at such speed with this little scrutiny in living memory. As a check and balance, therefore, the legislature just had to sit. Even if that “sitting” were to take place in the corner of living rooms, after carefully constructing your Zoom background and praying the kids don’t wander in.
At the despatch box following the mini-state opening of the virtual parliament on 21st April, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg confirmed that such a “second best, imperfect” operation was only temporary. But as new etiquettes and processes evolve in the weeks ahead, could this new remote culture linger after the curtain comes down on lockdown? Isn’t this the opportunity that modernisers have craved?
When pushed to its extremes, the logical endpoint of a system run on the principle that “you turn up or you don’t count” can be farcical, and occasionally tragic. It does, at least, make (I hope) for good drama. Audiences for my play This House, set in the hung parliament of the 1970s, reacted with vocal shock at the sight of sick and dying MPs being wheeled into the lobbies from ambulances in New Palace Yard. You vote with your body here, hoofing it over the line. Flesh and blood. Nothing more, nothing less.
More recently, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq had to delay the birth of her…