In praise of the House of Commons

Received wisdom dictates that the House of Commons chamber is an anachronism; that its procedures and traditions serve only to exacerbate the gulf between the realities faced by citizens and the privileged, rarified environment in which their representatives operate.

MPs cannot refer to any other member using their name (unless quoting from an article) and instead must refer to them by their constituencies. An MP may refer to members who sit on the same side of the chamber as “honourable friends”, but to a member opposite as “the honourable gentleman”, “the honourable lady” or simply “the honourable member for… (insert name of constituency)”.

And, of course, you must never EVER accuse another member of deliberately lying.

It all appears very quaint. But those who make the effort to listen to debates (and not just the bearpit that is Prime Minister’s Questions) will, I hope, be impressed by the general standard of debate in the chamber. However esoteric or obscure the subject, the Commons will almost always produce some thoughtful consideration of it, on both sides of the House. And the debate will (almost) always be polite and courteous.

This last quality is of particular interest to me as a blogger. The constant criticism of PMQs (as the only Commons event with which most viewers are familiar) is that it’s too “Punch and Judy”, that MPs on all sides are far too rowdy and badly behaved. So the general populace would prefer political debate to be more courteous and polite, yes? Well, maybe.

Many of the comments left on this blog in the last few days have been thoughtful and polite. Many of them have not been. It’s the same with comments left on some of the better known blogs like Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale. What is it about the blogosphere that makes people believe they can address any other person in aggressive and offensive terms that they simply wouldn’t consider appropriate in almost any other circumstance (certainly not face to face)? I can understand how anonymity might offer someone a chance to express views he or she might not want associated with themselves ordinarily. But does the fact that so many of those who leave comments choose to do so offensively mean that anonymity allows the real persona of the person writing to emerge? Or does it simply allow someone to adopt an invented, false personality to be discarded after temporary use? (And if you don’t think I have a point here, check out any thread on just about any Scottish political story carried by The Herald.)

In the blogosphere, opposition has given way to hatred, argument to invective.

The age of deference is long gone, and good riddance. But have we thrown the baby out with the bath water? In abandoning deference (decades after we should have), have we also abandoned qualities like respect and politeness?

So thank goodness for the Commons. If continuing to treat with respect those with whom we disagree is seen by those watching as being out of touch, then thank goodness there’s still one place in the land that is proudly out of touch.



Filed under Blogging, Media, Parliament, Society

23 responses to “In praise of the House of Commons

  1. nibbs

    I don’t really think the sort of comments you read on political blogs are at all representative of people in general. Very few people search out political blogs, in the same way the vast majority of people put political leaflets straight in the bin along with pizza leaflets .

    I have at one time or other been rude to politicians from all the political parties when commenting on their blogs- but I’ve done the same when I’ve been canvassed. Most of the aggressive comments I’ve read tend to be transparently party political ,holding one party or politician to a standard they would never expect of their own favoured party/politicians. This is fair enough as the blog writers themselves tend to indulge in this sort of stuff.

    As for PMQs I’m sure it would be a bit more less polite if it were not governed by parliamentary rules.

  2. Jeremy Poynton

    Simply, Tom, because it is the only place where people can vent their rage. And your assertions on Parliament reinforce that – we out here in the real world see the a) Parliament no longer serves democracy, that the rule of the party whip has seen to that and that b) the likes of the grotesque Speaker Martin (why does he allow Brown to ask questions at PMQs of Cameron, when he must surely know that this is not done at PMQs), and the appalling Balls & Cooper looting the public purses to pay for their private lives.

    Also, we object STRONGLY to being lied to. Brown lies with every statement. Are we angry, out here? Yes we are? And if you don’t get it, then you, Tom, are a part of the problem and a legitimate target of peoples’ anger. You may think it is wrong, you may not believe it, but the level of LOATHING for Brown out here is extaraordinary. He is seen as an unelected dictator.

    Mildly off topic – when are the receivers due in for the Labour Party?

  3. Jeremy Poynton

    I see, by the way, Brown pooh-poohs the idea that speculation is the reason for high oil prices.

    We don’t believe him…

  4. Jeremy Poynton

    The Institute of Economic Affairs has estimated the cost to the nation of Public Sectors pensions to now be over £1 Trillion.

    1. Why does Brown keep this off the balance sheet?

    2. How does the government intend to pay for this?

  5. James H


    There was a good blog on the Guardian a while ago that asked why a significant minority of bloggers are unable to post comments without resorting to vitriolic abuse. If I remember rightly, it said that you could have a polite and informed conversation about the virtue of a movie with a stranger face to face, but if the same debate took place on a blog within 20 posts somebody would be calling somebody else a Nazi.

    It’s very worrying, that when some people know that they will not be held accountable for their actions (road rage for example) they feel that they can be as rude and abusive to other people as they like.

    Perhaps we need a national group hug to get over our pent up emotions!

  6. Jeremy Poynton

    Actually, I don’t consider it polite to be lied to. By the PM, or anyone else. So, given that, Tom, when do we get the promised referendum on the EU? I voted – wholeheartedly, way back in the 70s for Economic union. NOT for unaccountable political overlords, as we seem to be heading for. Many now call the EU the EUSSR.

    Have you seen the MEP the News of the Screws set up? He tells of how much he makes out of his expenses. Gotta love democracy in action eh?

  7. it has to be said that this is a very interesting entry. I would suggest that anonymity does allow writers to be more aggressive with their use of language bit whether it reflects a true persona or not is an interesting question to ask, but a difficult one to answer. I know that I try to write what I’d say in person. It is always difficult to debate in writing without clearly specifying the meaning of the question to abnormal degrees, as most Philosophers would advocate. Sometimes though, particularly in the blosphere, people use the opportunity to vent steam, rightly or wrongly. I’d anticipate it has much to do with the subject and the accessibility of the debate.

    It is easy to imagine the worst possible character lurking behind the words that appear on these blogs, irrespective of any justification for it. I suppose some people forget how subjective reading and writing really is.

    I certainly find it difficult to isolate people that work in the area Politics and use appropriate platforms to debate issues. This is mostly because there is always a weave through the political subjects which ultimately boil down to some kind of philosophical foundations and therefore isn’t really meant to be isolated, but that said, I do understand that one topic or debate should be isolated from the next, despite the same author perpetuating the arguments. It is great to begin them with earnest intentions, but there needs to be some kind of forum to be able to track the debate to stand a chance of understanding it’s progress. The absence of facilitation is probably what causes this infrequent (I hope) ignorant approach to communication. I know personally that when I first write in response to the blog I saw you discussing on GMTV (I do not watch the program ordinarily, but a house mate had it on), I understood and aspect of what was allegedly said and perhaps wanted to express why some people could find life more miserable than not. I think it’s entirely limited to think that such a debate about misery and happiness can be had on such simple grounds, however, this isn’t about that…so I’ll conclude by saying that order is useful in discussions and even though I think the house of commons is archaic and appears almost foolish, the order is necessary to properly debate a subject which has an audience of large numbers who are very sensitive to apparent ‘gulf’ that appears to separate us from you.

    A very interesting perspective. I’ll leave you with a question; where is the online forum for official public debate about national affairs? All we need do is clone it for local affairs and there would be a citizen resource for every journal and newspaper to reference when requiring insight into public opinion. Perhaps that is what I’ll campaign for.

    My comment about the Puppy entry was meant to be sincere because I would have hoped a response would have been made to the debate you asked for about misery and happiness before such misplaced , however tongue in cheek, sarcastic and crass comedy might have been published – it just didn’t make sense. When you know people want a debate, the best thing in my opinion is to have it, sooner rather than later. I do not hold you accountable, just value the position you are in to enable things to be done which is why I urge you to make things possible as often as I can.

    Of course ministers should not be legislated against having personal blogs, but their political obligations should mean that there is a reasonable amount of conditions regarding the way you can interact with the public, for your own sake as well as the electorate. It is easy for ministers to cause anger among people and maybe even incite violence, so it should be taken on board that any amount of provocations is actually going to damage people who feel powerless to participate in politics.

    That’s all I was urging people to think about.

  8. labourmatters

    “Blogging Minister calls the public disrespectful and rude, shock!”

    Hats off to you Tom. Keep asking the tough questions about society and eventually somebody might notice that the Tories recently said that:

    “Just as we needed then [1979] to realise that the state couldn’t run British businesses properly and shouldn’t try, today we need to realise that the state can’t run British society properly, and shouldn’t try.”

  9. Chris' Wills

    I actually agree about the need for civil discourse and would point out that if I have offended by my comments it might be because they contain more than a grain of truth.

    I have never posted anonomously and would say the same things face to face.

    However, having a polite discourse does not, in my opinion, include being lied to and I don’t really understand why it should exclude calling someone on it when they don’t tell the truth or they refuse to answer questions in a straight forward manner.

    Now, calling someone a bald faced liar might be impolite but what else do you call a liar?

    The liar might act all shocked and offended but then again the guilty often act offended when called on it.

    If our elected masters are seen to be disingenuous with the truth why should they expect those not trained in rhetoric not to follow their example in a less crafted manner?

    P.S. I’m actually replying to your posting. This is not intended to be snide.

  10. Triffid


    You called for a debate but showed absolutely no interest in the comments. You said yourself many were polite, so why did you ignore them ?
    I may be missing something but debate normally means two way conversation.

    Really, why call for a debate if you don’t want to engage in one ?
    I don’t mind you not seeking people’s comments – I’ve come to expect it from Westminster (journalists and MP’s.)
    I just don’t understand why this new trend of MP’s and Ministers calling for a debate on every subject under the sun but then avoid commenting themselves or listening to others. An actual conversation is unheard of.

    It is in fact, the complete opposite of how debates work.

    Incidentally, you wrote (edited slightly for grammar as taken out of a longer sentence) “I hope *people will* be impressed by the general standard of debate in the chamber.”

    I listened to the 42 day detention debate. “Impressed” wasn’t the first word I’d use. Nor the second or third.
    “Farcical” was quite high up my word list … as were “disgusting demonstration of undemocratic process.”

  11. Why are people rude on blogs? Probably because they can be without being hit. There seems to be a lot of envy around – hence vitriolic comments like those about politicians and alleged gravy trains. I suspect many of these come from disappointed people leading rather lonely lives but they’re stirred up by journalists (many of whom make money far more than the politicians do) and other nihilists. Envy leads to impotent rage and how better to let off steam than to rant on a blog (even though hardly anyone will ever read it) or mouth off on a phone-in show (even though hardly anyone is listening)? There’s also the John Humphrys style of journalism and the Ian Hislop school of satire to be copied – let’s make out that all politicians are as self-serving as the one in ten thousand our researchers have managed to expose; let’s jibe about them all living easy lives off the public purse whilst taking our huge fees from the public purse. Not that I’m envious…

    Then there’s tribalism which has always been a curse (or, occasionally, a blessing) of the human condition. It’s so easy to lump strangers into one neat little group. Thus all xxxxs are yyyys where xxxx might be a racial group, inhabitants of another country, supporters of another football team or even those wretches from the next street but one and yyyy is the demeaning simplistic classification of choice. Exploited by leaders of all sorts – ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ etc….

    As to debate in the H of C, most of what little I’ve watched from the chamber has been admittedly polite but, unfortunately, also verbose, boring, often rather pompous and sometimes self-serving. Frequently directed towards the editor of an MP’s local paper, a lobby group, visitors in the public gallery or perhaps even in the hope of elevation up the greasy poll, I’m not sure how much much of it moves the world forward. In my view the most praiseworthy work of Parliament is done in committees and, especially, the committees (are they still called ‘select’ ones) which hear evidence from experts. I’m a great fan of experts even though they often get a rotten press. Every day we rely on them to make sure our food is safe, our buildings don’t fall down, our sewage is treated and for all sorts of other lovely things. Yet they only get noticed when something bad happens – just like the committees which only seem to get noticed by the meejah when they slag off something or someone, preferably a minister. It’s a rum old world….

  12. Jeremy Poynton

    Yes, great debate, isn’t it. We are all talking to ourselves. Mind you, I recall Ms. Smith announcing a “Big conversation” about drugs, for some bloke called Brown the next day to announce that they would “never be legalised”

    End of conversation. Yes, yes, democracy in action.

    Read Hatfield Girl, so much more eloquent than I on the treasonous activities of this government.

    Don’t forget the 2006 Legislative & Regulatory Reform Bill – touted as trying to cut red tape in the parliamentary process, it held deep within its guts a clause which enabled Ministers to change the law without reference to parliament.

    When I complained to my MP at that time, she said “Oh, they probably won’t need to use it”, utterly missing the point.

    Happily, this clause was removed. They are know, however, to be after this power again. It they fail, then expect a civil emergency before the next election, just as we always get high terror alerts whenever ZaNu Labour are in the shit.

    Wel, Tom. Whaddya say? Are you going to take part in the debate you started? Or are YOU another MacAvity, the Mystery PM?

  13. Karen

    I havent written anything I wouldn’t say to your face , as someone has already said this is the only place we have actually found to vent. We all have strong views yes some will hide behind different names but not all of us
    If you do not like what is posted then don’t blog, personally I haven’t seen much response from you in reply to the many replies you have had, but there again I never really expected to ;O)

  14. nibbs

    “personally I haven’t seen much response from you in reply to the many replies you have had,”

    I don’t think Tom said he would reply to each comment, more a case of ‘here’s my thoughts, what are yours’ .And given some of the replies, even in this thread, have little to do with the subject matter, I don’t blame him for not responding to each one. It then ceases to be a personal blog of Tom’s thoughts and becomes a free for all for everyone with an axe to grind on any issue- then the blog is utterly buggered- I’ve seen it happen many times. You should be grateful you have somewhere to vent and someone who allows you to vent….very few allow even that…

  15. Auntie Flo'

    Nibbs said:

    don’t really think the sort of comments you read on political blogs are at all representative of people in general. Very few people search out political blogs, in the same way the vast majority of people put political leaflets straight in the bin along with pizza leaflets”

    That argument is behind the times, nibbs, because it ignores the millions of people from all walks of life who became interested in political blogs as the result of a hobby, special interest or their job. That’s what happened to me and to many millions of others.

    We’re among the 5 million or so obsessive family historians in UK who’d never used a PC in our lives until our kids showed us the hundreds of family history blogs, information sites, online censuses and other genealogical records available via the net. We’ve been hooked on blogging ever since.

    That special interest in genealogical blogging lead to us participating in other parts of the blogosphere, including the political blogs.

    A major catalyst in this respect was the massive grass roots uprising among family historians in respect of the online 1901 census fiasco and Minister Rosie Winterton’s initial dismissive response to parliamentary questions about this.

    The 901 census site crashed on its release day due to the government’s, PRO’s and project contractor QuinetQ’s failure to anticipate the massive demand here and overseas. Designed for 1 million hits spread across a day, the site got 20 million hits an hour, and repeatedly crashed on launch day before being taken off line for 9 months.

    A substantial number of family historians who’d been awaiting this launch for years and who’d bought advance access tokens were for some time denied refunds. It also transpired that the transcription of the project, which had first been contracted out to HM Prisoners and later Sri Lankan students with no experience of transcribing old documents, was riddled with errors.

    Ms Winterton’s response, which was, to paraphrase: “So what? Are you trying to tell me family history is of any importance?”, rapidly and dramatically changed when millions of family historians formed co-ordinated pressure groups to campaign and fight back.

    So, the government radicalised millions of previously apolitical family historians and we’ve been political buffs ever since. We’re just one community, there are many more like us.

  16. Auntie Flo'

    Respect is a two way street. It’s a bit like love in a partnership and marriage which tends to wither and die if it’s unreciprocated.

    I was born to a working class family during the post war baby boom. My generation were bred to feign respectful deference to politicians. Our parents’ war time experience challenged that a bit , as it challenged much else, yet not so much as you would notice.


  17. Auntie Flo'

    So what went wrong? How did 50s deference mutate into the widespread cynicism we have now? And that’s the thing, Tom, people out here aren’t just miserable – we feel betrayed, cynical and angry.

    Here’s my view:

    Suez. The Profumo affair. Sonny Jim’s unburied dead and ‘what crisis?’ Heath’s general uselessness and betrayal over the EU. Thatcher’s divisiveness and arrogance. Wilson’s incompetence over just about everything. They, and many more politicians besides, culminated in the daddy of them all: duplicitous, warmongering Tony Blair. Blair knocked the last ounce of stuffing our of public trust and confidence in politicians and left an empty coffin (or, more precisely thousands of empty coffins) in his wake.

    However, it took Brown’s bungling to pull the scales from our eyes. He has been the catalyst for a general recognition that not one of our politicians had the capability to run our country without messing up. Not one. And none of them trusted themselves or us enough to tell us the truth.

    Gordon Brown has finally let the genie out of the bottle and demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that politicians aren’t a special, competent or clever breed. You’re all fallible Mr Beans, just like the rest of us.

    That’s why centuries of our politicians have just not been up to the job – because the job we gave you to do was too great a challenge for any one fallible human being or any one small elitist party to cope with.

    For years I hoped the answer was PR. I was a life long Liberal, still am, though no longer a Lib Dem. Now I believe only a more direct form of democracy with a far higher level of public involvement – Swiss style – will do.

  18. Angelina

    When replying to a blog I take the stance that I am the writer’s guest. I am a Labour activist who sometimes reads and occasionally comments on the blogs of people from other parties. I will always treat them with the same level of respect as in real life.

    It is a shame that some people use blogs and even “they work for you” as a way of having a go at someone purely for the sake of it. Or bring in a pet issue which is off topic from the blog.

    Even when one does feel very strongly about the subject under debate there are still plenty of ways of getting a view point across without insulting the writer or other commentators on the blog which happens far too often.

  19. tychy

    oh tom harris i enjoy reading your blog and think that you are far too intelligent to be a government minister. why don’t you go into PR or the law? you’d make much more money… anonymity allows for both rudeness and honesty… perhaps the two are somehow inextricably linked?

  20. Jeremy Poynton


    You ask for a debate – and then go silent? Pretty much classic New Labour tactics, we out here might say.

    And again – if you don’t understand why people are pissed off, then you are out of touch and doing the wrong job.


  21. Richard

    Of course you’re in favour of the House of Commons. It’s where cash your vast expense cheques…

  22. Why is it that I’ve never seen anyone who could broadly be defined as ‘right-wing’ whinge about “aggressive and offensive” comments?

    Could it be because many on the left can’t bear to be told that they’re wrong (which they usually are ;))?

  23. Question That – Or could it be that most of the aggressive and offensive comments are made by right wingers about left wingers?

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