A friend of mine accused me of saccharine sentiments about virtual parliaments.
That said, even the coldest cynic must feel a certain sense of pride at the flurry of activity to ensure parliamentary accountability survives the Covid-19 lockdown.
The Scottish Parliament has formalised virtual committees and continues to hold remote First Minister’s Questions. Sittings are limited to just once a week with in-person meetings capped at 79 MSPs with streamed video questions.
This isn’t the first time democracy might seem a second fiddle to public survival. Of World War II, Churchill famously said the nation had the lion’s heart; he was merely called upon to give the roar. Quite an ironic sentiment, given that the House of Commons went into secret sessions when timing and statements were of the utmost consequence.
In one such session, September 17 1940, Churchill warned there was a high probability of the chamber being hit. The Palace of Westminster was bombed 14 times throughout the war, but the Chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed on the night of May 10, 1941. Three people died.
Rather remarkably, it wasn’t restored until 1950 (Churchill had rather strong opinions on the installation of modern lighting). Until then the Commons convened in the House of Lords, and the Lords in the Robing Room. The fact was kept secret throughout the war to avoid a deliberate attack.
To add insult to democratic injury, there was a gap of ten years between general elections because of the war. Even then in 1945, Churchill was spectacularly voted out, quite reasonably so. He’d even survived a vote of no-confidence in 1942.
Yes, it’s probably history through rose-tinted lenses, but we really have been here before. Democracy finds a way if we want it to. Westminster is very apt calling it a ‘hybrid’ session of Parliament – it’s on a skeleton crew, but the spirit is there. Fifty members present in the House of Commons and 120 members present remotely might not seem like much, but it’s enough to ensure continuity.
More than anything, just like in WWII, that ‘want’ for democratic survival seems to be as important as anything else.
Churchill lost in 1945 because he had lost touch with the kind of future the people wanted.
For decades elections have reflected declining numbers and severe apathy with politics on the whole. That seems to be reversed and we’re seeing something of that new, digital democracy now.
Noam Chomsky was famously rather dismissive of what the Ancient Greeks called parrhesia – “speaking truth to power”. Chomsky asserts: “Power knows the truth already and is busy concealing it.”
If that’s true, and it has been in many instances, it can’t surely apply to the political culture behind this land’s institutions that seem determined to ensure democracy isn’t lost or dwarfed in some technological trivial game.
As Churchill said, ‘If we are to do our duty properly, we ought to adapt our arrangements to the peculiar conditions under which we live.’
In other words, and to borrow from, Seamus Heaney: ‘If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere’.
Indulge me in paraphrasing that most striking line from the Declaration of Arbroath. “As long as but a hundred of us remain on Zoom, never will we on any conditions be brought under Covid-19.”
Alastair Stewart is a public affairs consultant with Orbit Communications. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart