We experienced a welcome treat in the Commons this week – that rare and illusive animal – an actual debate. It only lasted five minutes but it was a joy to behold. In an opposition day debate on TV licenses for the over 75s, Conservative MP James Cartlidge made an unexpected speech following an intervention early on in the debate. Unexpected, because he himself didn’t intend to make it, but was driven to after listening to arguments on both sides of the House and the philosophical questions it threw up. He spoke for five minutes, critiquing the points raised and responding to further interventions as they arose. The substance of his arguments are of no interest for the purpose of this post – simply the way in which he composed and delivered them.
Randomly select any debate on Parliamentlive.tv over the past year and you will without doubt find the majority of backbench MPs, particularly those elected over the last decade, reading from a pre-written speech. Interventions are taken but often batted away with little engagement, before the beginning of the next paragraph is found and the speech continued.
What made James Cartlidge’s speech so welcome, and often reserved to the far more experienced members of Parliament – the likes of Ken Clarke and Hilary Benn – was his recognition that the debate was taking place there and then and not the previous evening at a desk drafting, reading, checking and finalising a speech that for many MPs, often leaves no room for what should take place: an actual debate.
It is parliamentary convention that MPs do not read speeches out word for word to the House, but instead work off no, or far more likely, a few bullet points and pre-written thoughts. The convention is not there to test an MP’s memory or for the cameras, but to encourage debate, recognition of arguments made before, responsiveness to interventions and an exchange of opinions – an act which has been increasingly lost. Parliament is in a crisis of compromise over Brexit because a large number of MPs cannot fathom the very idea – not Brexit, but compromise. The Prime Minister’s negotiations have been undermined from the beginning by those who do not care what she comes back with, only that it fits in with their particular narrative from the start, through to the end (which also makes of mockery of those who suggest somebody else could have done better).
The degradation of debate in the Commons is in part a cause of this. If you turn up to a debate with pre-scripted lines, unwilling to listen or compromise, there are some who will never be able to agree on a way forward that doesn’t match the lines written in front of them. There was a time when the Speaker chided MPs who read from pre-drafted speeches, but this has rarely taken place in recent years. It has sadly become the norm, and in the hundred-odd hours of debate my team and I watch each month, very few actually benefit from taking place in the House of Commons chamber. Pre-written speeches might as well be collected by the clerks, compiled and published for MPs to skim and vote on pre-intended lines.
Maybe if the notes were put down more often, we’d have a far better quality of debate, scrutiny, compromise and, ultimately, progress.