LONDON — During the British Parliament’s long and loquacious debates, the green leather benches in the House of Commons are usually packed with lawmakers, sitting cheek-by-jowl, shouting and sputtering at one another.
The pandemic has stopped all this close talking. Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Fergusion noted how particularly germy the Houses of Parliament are. Strict measures to enforce social distancing have essentially shut down the place in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, a handful of lawmakers returned from their Easter break to approve the continuation of democracy via a “virtual Parliament,” a remarkable and unanimous vote to overturn the way things have been done here for over 700 years, and to keep on arguing – but at a proper distance.
House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, an old-school Conservative and Victorian scholar, said the new safeguards are necessary but not perfect, nor will they be permanent.
“In 1349, when the Black Death affected this country, Parliament couldn’t sit, and didn’t. The session was canceled,” he said. “Thanks to modern technology, even I have moved on from 1349 and am glad to say that we can sit to carry out these fundamental constitutional functions. And I am enormously grateful to many who are as traditionalist as I am, who have accepted these constraints.”
British politicans from across the polticial spectrum voted to go virtual, even as they insisted that the measures be temporary, and last only long enough to get through the crisis. The new arrangments were first raised by the opposition Labour Party and agreed by the ruling Conservatives.
The unanimity in Parliament contrasted with a fierce partisan debate in the U.S. Congress over how to conduct proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., is among those who said he would oppose the House’s proxy plan scheduled for a vote on Thursday. “We should be here in person to vote,” he said. “That’s the way it’s been done for 200 years. That’s the way we should do it now.”
For the coming weeks, and perhaps months, the British Parliament will debate legislation and scrutinize the executive in weekly “Prime Ministers Questions,” through new “hybrid proceedings.”
Only 50 of the 650 elected members will be allowed to enter the chamber at the House of Commons at one time. They must sit at least 2 meters, or a little over six feet, apart. Members will be asked not to pass any notes.
Another 120 members will be allowed to participate remotely via teleconference.
It will be a Zoom Parliament. With the prime minister questioned by members from their homes, offering potentially new glimpses into the lives of the political class – with the prospect of children and dogs and partners appearing in the background.
Which lawmakers participate in the House and via video will be propositioned by each political party, based on the number of seats won in the last election. The impartial Speaker of the House says he will choose representatives from all parties to speak.
Voting will also take place, remotely. The government said that until balloting can be managed without threat of glitch or hack, it would only introduce legislation that would pass by overwhelmingly consent, meaning that no paper balloting would be necessary, just a virutal shout of “aye” or “no.”
In the new virtual world, “some of the more boorish traditions, such as heckling from the backbenches, will no longer take place,” reported the Guardian, because the Speaker’s staff will be able to select who is heard and who is not on the audio feed. Also, the newspaper said, “other parliamentary quirks, such as bobbing” – when members pop up and down from their benches to receive permission to ask a question – would likely not be Zoom-able.
Other legislatures around the world are continuing to meet in person but with social distancing measures, including the German Bundestag and Irish Dáil, as well as deliberative bodies in Poland, Italy and France. The Canadian parliament is going for one in-person assembly and two virtual sessions each week.
In Brussels, the European Parliament has moved much of its business online, even holding some of its votes by email, since many of its lawmakers are no longer able to travel from their home countries. European lawmakers say some aspects of the transition have been surprisingly smooth. Other parts – such as the give-and-take haggling that accompanies drafting legislation or other political deals – have been notably hard, some say.
On Tuesday at the Palace of Westminster, as the chambers were being outfitted with rows of new monitors and microphones, the House of Commons looked like a bit like a lonesome bus station. Green plaques indicated where lawmakers were allowed to sit, with red plaques denoting the seats that should remain empty to maintain a safe distance. No one wore face masks.
Previewing the new way forward, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Linsday Hoyle, dropped a videotaped message on Monday evening, reminding the country that the cradle of parliamentary democracy had seen hard times before.
“The House has survived being burned down by the great fire of 1834 and bombed during the Second World War. We now face a new challenge, covid-19, an invisible killer that has claimed so many lives already. It means that when we come back from the Easter recess, our MPs and the House of Commons will have to work in a different way,” he said.
The new way of working will begin in earnest on Wednesday, when Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – who is filling in while Prime Minister Boris Johnson recovers from a vicious bout with coronavirus – will take questions from members, virtual and not.