Sometimes it takes a pandemic to change our behaviour. Other times it’s the sight of something so outrageously idiotic that makes you realise that things haven’t been good for a long time. Take the lamentable sight of MPs snaking around Westminster this week. Could there be a more convincing argument about reforming a system that’s so trapped in the past that people are simply unable to look forward?
The debacle around remote voting has hardly been one of the House of Commons’ better moments. There’s something to say about parliamentary procedure and tradition but not when you become their hostage. These are extraordinary times and the measures taken across the board had been equally extraordinary until, of course, those measures fell into the cold bony lap of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Viscount of Prig, third Earl of Pinstripe, Arch-Duke of Twit.
The man is some Swiftian throwback to a time of tricorn hats and lanky squires with a thousand acres in rural Somerset. He probably enjoys being an anachronism and I’m sure there are clubs he can join to continue this hobby, but I can’t see why he should force his tastes on the rest of us. Why on earth are we still at the mercy of these people? More specifically: how can you have a reasonable vote on remote voting when you’re going to disenfranchise 200 of those very people who need remote voting in order to vote? Isn’t the result already confirmed given that the people voting at those that actually make it to the chamber? Doesn’t this stack parliament against the more remote constituencies? Shouldn’t it invalidate the votes until parliament can get this fixed and working again?
But no. Apparently, the show must go on, even if the show is unwatchable, impracticable, and condemned widely by anybody with a sense of fair play. The realisations around this should be obvious. We are always told that we’re a modern country, yet we’re held back by traditions that make no sense. Yes, yes, I know it’s sometimes fun to realise that parliament can be held up by a man standing wearing a top hat whilst squeezing a toad or whatever the custom is but, surely, we’re beyond that. Coronavirus was an opportunity to break with the past and that awful psychological need to continue habit simply because they were habits. Anybody prone to compulsive behaviour (raised hand) can tell you that some external reason to break a habit can be so liberating. Across the country, people are beginning to see the opportunities for innovation. Life stopped long enough that we began to figure out better ways of doing things. So why on earth can’t parliament do the same?
It’s perhaps time to reassess more than the voting. The idea that the Palace of Westminster should be renovated seemed reasonable back in the previous timeline. Now it’s not so clear. It’s another five years before the House of Commons is meant to leave the old palace, relocate to some convenient pub whilst Westminster gets a facelift. Perhaps there’s a case for them to leave for good.
Westminster remains a remarkable product of Britain at the height of Empire but what makes it remarkable is what also makes it impractical. It’s going to be a constant sinkhole for cash that will be lost to the perpetual need to chase a neo-Gothic fractal towards infinity, as every cornice, pipework, and decorative flange will need to be sculpted. Yet it’s more than the fabric of the building that’s beginning to look unsuited to a modern world. The very form of the building itself forces us into a kind of politics that looks increasingly out of time. PMQs have acquired a modicum of purpose now that all the shouting and front-loaded questions have come to an end. What once looked quaint now looks silly. Traditions that once looked sensible to keep now look like they’re holding us back.