The House: Disturbances in the House

Another in our episodic consideration of the House of Commons.

Watching Prime Minister’s Questions this last little while, one notices a few things.

First, David Cameron’s looking a bit rough.

Second, there is, even in the rarefied air of the mother Parliament, plenty of muttering, howling, chuckling, grumbling, mumbling and mocking.

Third, there’s no clapping.

These latter two points are perhaps relevant to Mackenzie Grisdale’s attempt to understand the nature of heckling—everyone’s favourite scourge—in the House of Commons.

I still tend to think that fretting about heckling is mostly besides the point. But if we are going to worry about it, we should at least be specific about what we’re worrying about. Whether or not it’s desirable, an absolute ban on heckling of any kind, for instance, is probably unrealistic. I’d argue it’s even anti-democratic. (As a general rule, no prime minister should be absolutely protected from being yelled at, by political rival or member of the public.)

At the same time, Mackenzie’s survey finds claims of heckles that are racist, sexist, homophobic and otherwise bigoted. Such stuff should not be allowed to stand. It should be noted and shamed and, if possible, punished. But to do so, it must be reported and publicly acknowledged. Vague references to terrible things that unnamed people have said in the past don’t do us much good. If MPs are hearing awful things shouted across the aisle, they should say so. Of course, this will get complicated. Because the microphones rarely pick up clear and identifiable outbursts, proving what someone said or didn’t say will be difficult, perhaps even impossible. Misunderstood or misheard shouts could lead to misplaced accusations. (The minor furor four years ago over James Moore’s laptop habits is probably instructive.) But if vile insults are being hurled, some effort should be made to deal with such stuff.

Mind you, those beyond the floor of the House can’t possibly know all of what’s being said down there (even from the press gallery, I bet I might only be able to make out a tenth of what’s shouted). So when members of the general public object, I suspect the complaints have more to do with the level of noise or the overall atmosphere of the proceedings. And on that note, I’d suggest two things: a little less empty demagoguery in on-the-record statements and a lot less clapping.

The former I’ve written about here. The latter I have mocked in passing. I’m periodically not sure which I find more obnoxious.

The leader of the opposition receives a traditional standing ovation just for showing up at QP. MPs are often applauded by members of their caucus when they are called upon. They are always applauded when they finish with what they have to say, whatever they have just said. They are also periodically applauded mid-question or mid-answer for making a particularly forceful point and so it is possible to be applauded three times in the space of one 30-second intervention. If one says something offensive in the process, one will be applauded later for standing to apologize.

This all definitely devalues the currency of clapping, but it also probably lends itself to an atmosphere in which noise is more generally accepted. Indeed, it likely contributes to a general feeling of competitive noise-making. One half expects the various sides to start yelling, “We’ve got spirit, yes we do, we’ve got spirit, how bout you?” at each other like mobs of university frosh.

MPs surely do not need this applause from their peers. They can’t possibly be so lacking in self esteem that they require so much positive reinforcement. And so while it does offer some purpose to the dozens of backbenchers who show up each afternoon with no chance of otherwise participating, it serves as nothing more than an audible show of force. Think of it as heckling with hands. Only normal heckling at least holds the possibility of being meaningful or witty.

So enough. If we’re really concerned about noise in the House, let’s first do away with the least meaningful and most easily ended of habits. Stop the clapping. We don’t need it. Or at least we shouldn’t need it.

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