What might we also lose in a world of dial-in representatives? © Han Yan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images/Prospect composite

A motion to regret virtual parliaments

Democracy is not digital
May 1, 2020

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.

“As many a prime minister has testified, from Thatcher to Blair, the House frightens you. It’s meant to”

More recently, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq had to delay the birth of her child to be wheeled through the lobbies for knife-edge Brexit votes, fanning the flames of the voting-by-proxy debate once again.

But if the uncorking of previously unthinkable ideas might now lead to a more modern, humane system of government, what might we also lose in a world of dial-in representatives? The reviews are already in for the first virtual PMQs, and as the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy summed up, “it sort of worked.” A three star if ever I saw one.

Words would not have been able to convey to our younger selves, of all of four months ago, quite what we were seeing: a chamber built to cram bodies together in a cacophonous colosseum of noise and limbs, all but empty. There was a sense of unreality. Video screens peered down from the rafters with floating heads passing judgment on the present minister, like a low-budget Minority Report. The prime minister himself was absent after a near-death experience, and so the First Secretary—whatever that is—Dominic Raab was at the despatch box, alone on the front bench and facing a leader of the opposition who for the first time in ages wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn. The first question piped in via Zoom was meant to be from David Mundell, but his wifi signal was dodgy so Ian Blackford made history instead.

The atmosphere was solemn, managerial, non-party political. This is wartime after all. Gone were the theatrics. A good thing, surely? Yes, although as many a prime minister has testified, from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, the hour before PMQs turns your stomach. The House frightens you. It’s meant to.

And what of the suddenly absent behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, ducking and diving? Marie Le Conte’s book Haven’t You Heard? A Guide to Westminster Gossip and Why Mischief Gets Things Done explores the importance—as in any workplace—of face-to-face tittle-tattle, plotting and reacting. We needn’t weep too many tears at our representatives being rendered unable to plan macho power games over discounted ale in the Strangers’ Bar, but there is an important point about the business of government being an interpersonal experience. Cross-party alliances and common ground can only be sought and found by being in the same room as your opponent. Physical proximity certainly helps to develop that endangered quality of empathy for those different to you.

Politics requires honesty too. And honesty sometimes requires privacy. How can you share your true feelings in a Whatsapp group, knowing that anything controversial or difficult may be screengrabbed and leaked to the press?

How will party discipline—vital to a functioning system, even if we romanticise the rebels—be affected without the imposing presence of the whips, marching around the corridors? Gone are the days of the strong-arming Walter Harrison, hurling dissenting members against the wall, but can an email chain really unite a tribe behind a common cause?

Historically, turning up was the defining characteristic of democracy itself, and not only because there was no Microsoft Teams in ancient Athens. Historian Bettany Hughes once impressed upon me the importance of being present amongst your peers as you debate something that will affect your fellow citizens, and cast your vote. When something is important, you must look people in the eyes. You turn up.

In Westminster, every vote requires a long and symbolic walk down either the “aye” or the “no” lobby—your vote is only counted when you pass the teller at the end of the corridor. There is, in theory, a chance to change your mind. And if you are rebelling against your own party, you must suffer the ignominy of turning a different way from them, and finding yourself in step with your enemy. It is a significant decision to make.

Post-isolation, I think there will be renewed appetite in all walks of life for the joys and benefits of collective action, within physical proximity. We may finally secure the flexibility that ensures a pregnant woman never has to be wheeled through the lobby again. But politics is as inherently a sociable endeavour as sport or theatre. I suspect most things will return to normal, for better or worse. This remote system is just about recognisable as our parliament. But only virtually.