Émile Durkheim argued that traditions, along with other social institutions, exist because they do some kind of job for society as a whole. Accordingly, in parliament, the dress codes for MPs, the ermine, the gilded this and that, the bobbing and the bowing, are all said to encourage both lawmakers and citizens to take what happens in Westminster seriously.
If you watch a standard prime minister’s questions, which for centuries has been dominated by a baying mob of former public school boys, you might get the feeling that traditions aren’t always collectively beneficial. But our new and decidedly untraditional “Zoom parliament” has transformed the Commons. While MPs are still required to wear appropriate clothing and some politicians have decorated their webcam backdrops with their own fancy accessories, remote working has largely stripped parliament of its customs and costumes. We have been confronted with the bare bones of our representative system, and the result has been overwhelmingly positive.
Wednesday’s PMQs was like never before. No facile insults were screamed. There was no sonic wall of jeering. There were only a handful of MPs in the chamber, and those joining online were muted by the clerks until it was their turn to ask a question. Consequently, with the exception of some quiet “Hear hears”, almost no one spoke until they were invited to by the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. This week our semi-digital Commons looked, for the first time in a long while, like the epicentre of a grownup democracy, sensible and pleasingly boring.
As for the rest of parliamentary business: select committees, ministerial statements, debates and questions from MPs are now all taking place online. Votes have been postponed for the moment, and plans for a digital system are being developed, so that the whips won’t have to force hundreds of MPs and peers, some of them potentially infectious with Covid-19, into the lobbies.
Parliament’s old guard aren’t wrong to worry that a working-from-home parliament will lack some creative spontaneity as MPs are unable to take ministers to task with off-the-cuff questions. But look at these reforms from the perspective of people for whom evenings and days spent away from home are unrealistic. The ability to work remotely may open up a career in politics to a more diverse cohort of MPs. We’ll need more reform than this – allowing MPs to take parental leave is particularly key – but more remote working is a start.
We want MPs to be able to see their families, sending a signal that a better work/life balance is key to a happier society. And we want MPs to spend time in their communities, because we need them to represent the interests of people who have too often been ignored by politics. In that case, the benefits of making parliament accessible surely outweigh the costs.
These changes have civilised the Commons and have the potential to make British politics more democratic and representative. But if all this is not to be swept away when lockdown eventually ends, then modernising MPs and Hoyle must make many aspects of the “Zoom parliament” permanent. We’ll be waiting a long time for some reforms, like an elected second chamber and a more egalitarian party system that suppresses Westminster’s bullying culture. But there’s plenty to do in the meantime.
Durkheim was wrong. Traditions exist not because they benefit society, but because they benefit those who hold power. So move the ermine to a museum and leave the gilding in a gallery.
• Richard Power Sayeed is the author of a history of New Labour and Britain in the 1990s, 1997: The Future that Never Happened