A Question of 140 Characters: British MPs Vote for Twitter

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A glance at the Reporters’ Gallery of the House of Commons indicates how rich and deep Britain’s tradition of political satire runs. Sketch writers—journalists employed to distill their rare understanding of Westminster’s doings and beings into intense bursts of snark—hog the front seats, craning to capture details that transform the thudding realities of parliamentary debate into comedy. They’re a brilliant bunch but sometimes their efforts appear redundant. British parliamentarians are remarkably adept at sending up themselves.

An Oct. 13 debate on whether MPs should be able to tweet, email and surf the internet inside the chamber occupied three hours of debating time that some might argue would have been more usefully spent addressing U.K. unemployment, revealed the previous day to have hit a 17-year high. Contributions from some of the MPs opposed to the use of electronic media suggested that they were less than fully acquainted with the technology in question. They worried their colleagues might be tempted to run their lives on their BlackBerries instead of attending to parliamentary business. BlackBerry owners, just beginning to receive a three-day backlog of emails, may have been surprised by this notion. And even proponents of parliamentary tweeting (they mustered on Twitter under the hashtag #keeptweeting) appeared to assume the activity to be rudely intrusive. Greg Knight, a Conservative MP leading the charge to update rules last reviewed by the Modernization Committee in 2007 (the Pleistocene epoch of social media), commended the wording adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives last January.  The new congressional rules permit use of mobile electronic devices on the floor of the House provided they do not “impair decorum.” Luciana Berger, a 30-year-old Labour member, elected only last year and still viewing proceedings with the clarity of a newcomer, wondered if MPs’ unchallenged traditional habits, such as taking a “little snooze” on the Commons benches after a long lunch, might not also be considered to impair decorum.

The silliness of some of the exchanges threatened to obscure the serious underpinnings to the debate. Just as parliamentary sketch writers must occasionally be moved to wonder what they’re for, so MPs, in debating how they conduct debates, touched on existential questions about the purpose of MPs. How much do parliamentary debates still matter and how do they matter? Should MPs focus exclusively on engaging with each other on these occasions or should they treat debates as opportunities to seek engagement with voters? Does Parliament derive greater benefit from getting 100 per cent of the attention of a smaller group of MPs or from attracting a wider but less concentrated attendance? To what extent, if at all, might the modernization of Parliament help to broaden the pool of talent attracted to pursuing a political career?

If the final vote on the motion answered any of these questions, then the modernizing argument far outclassed the case for tradition, by 206 votes to 63. But it’s possible that the MPs who voted down the amendment that would have banned Twitter were too busy tweeting to listen to the arguments.

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Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME .