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.