British Parliament’s return sends important message

British Parliament’s return sends important message

MPs queue in Westminster Hall to vote on the motion of 'Proceedings during the pandemic', in the socially-distanced Houses of Parliament in London on June 2, 2020. (AFP)
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Social distancing rules associated with the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have had the unexpected effect of hampering parliamentary process in the UK. Both the lower and the upper houses have found their almost-sacred democratic process significantly limited by measures to stop the contagion. As MPs returned to gather in person last week, social distancing guidelines led to queues that snaked around the Palace of Westminster. Many doubted the ability to exercise parliamentary process and the important business of government with such measures in place. 

The requirement that only 50 of the 650 Members of Parliament may occupy the chamber has drawn consternation. The situation has been complicated further by the fact that as many as a third of parliamentarians are themselves, or live with, high-risk individuals and, therefore, must self-isolate. Thus far, MPs have been using a hybrid parliamentary system, with some participating in the chamber itself and others appearing via video link, with voting taking place online for the first time. A motion to scrap this system was last week put to a vote by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, who claimed that it did not allow members to properly hold the government to account. He said: “Parliament is the assembly of the nation. The public expects it to deliver on the mandate provided by last year’s general election and it expects it to conduct the kind of effective scrutiny that puts ministers under real pressure. Neither expectation can be fully realized while we are not sitting physically, that is why we are returning to work safely at the first opportunity.”

As elected representatives held by voters to continually question and debate the government’s policies, many MPs have been significantly inhibited in meeting their responsibilities to hold the government to account. Procedure Committee Chairwoman Karen Bradley proposed an amendment to the government’s motion that would have allowed remote voting to continue, but this failed by 57 votes. MPs then voted on Rees-Mogg’s plan, which passed by 261 votes to 163. For many people, the idea of their elected representatives voting online or not voting at all shows disregard for a democratic system that hinges on active participation and the questioning and debate of policy.

Many MPs have been significantly inhibited in meeting their responsibilities to hold the government to account.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Several MPs have, however, questioned the feasibility of socially distanced parliamentary procedure. Labour lawmaker Afzal Khan referred to the long queues as “a total farce,” with Conservative and Liberal Democratic colleagues publicly echoing such sentiments. With travel restrictions in place and given that a significant number of parliamentarians are shielding or live in parts of the country far from the capital, their ability to participate in British democracy can be seen to be compromised. The Equality and Human Rights Commission condemned the return to physical voting for its role in excluding older MPs or those with disabilities or illnesses.

Despite the ridiculousness of the long queue outside the chamber, which was ridiculed by the press as being reminiscent of “a conga line,” the practice sends an important message. At a moment when authoritarian governments have used the crisis to silence their parliaments under the pretense of limiting the spread of the virus, irreparable damage to the viability of these institutions is being done. In Hungary, under the veil of the pandemic, parliament has been suspended, leaving the authoritarian Viktor Orban’s power unchecked. In Hong Kong, where thousands of people on Thursday flouted a police ban to memorialize the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese government attempted to use pandemic-related instructions on public gatherings to temper the protests. Within this global context, the insistence of British parliamentarians on the process of government taking place physically is less to do with a commitment to the great national pastime of queuing, but rather on ensuring that democracy is not eroded by the pandemic.

These instances are only a handful of the changes to routines and governments that have been brought about by the pandemic. In systems of government where rulers are required to consult with the ruled, social distancing will significantly compromise the prevalence of such customs. In parliaments worldwide, where the gathering of representatives from across the board is central to the process of government, how meetings of hundreds — and, in the case of China’s National Party Congress, thousands — of delegates will take place remains unclear. Few have come to realize just how drastically the previous systems will be altered due to the pandemic. Whether on trading floors or parliaments, universities and sports stadiums around the world, interaction is set to change. 

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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