Maybe it's the grip of Parliament's venerable procedures. Maybe it's the magic of Commons stationery. But Honourable Members are missing an opportunity here. Apart from voting every few years, the recommended means of participating in the democratic process is to write to one's MP.
I tried this a while back, and it reminded me how laborious snail mail is. You have to adhere to wordy conventions of address, you have to pay at least 20p a go, and you have to remember to post the thing. This may not be much of an obstacle for the constituent, but MPs are very busy people. Mine is apparently much busier than she was during the election campaign, when she found time to visit our marvellous local family centre. I wrote to her subsequently about Westminster Council's plans to privatise the centre, but she was unable to find the time to reply. If only she had e-mail, so much quicker and cheaper, I'm sure it would have been a different story.
Her leaders on the Labour front bench are not setting her much of an example. Just four Cabinet ministers feature on the website listing. Frank Dobson gives an e-mail address; David Blunkett, Jack Cunningham and Clare Short also provide home page addresses. Of these three, Blunkett's is the only one that works. Try to visit Jack Cunningham's site and you are informed it is "Forbidden"; while poor old Clare's is "Not Found".
It took a year; they delivered it on schedule; and it works. I don't get many opportunities to make a statement like that when writing about CD-Rom publishing, so for this reason alone the release of The History of Parliament is an occasion worth noting. The credit is due to Cambridge University Press and the History of Parliament Trust, the partners in this joint venture, and also to the anonymous Filipinos who did the typing. "They're all graduates, and they get paid a reasonable rate," a Cambridge University Press representative hastened to assure me.
China is another popular source of labour for keyboarding work, but it would have been a choice in poor taste for the official history of what grew into Britain's central democratic institution. The Philippines, on the other hand, are rather apt for a history running from 1386 to 1820. As in the Philippines today, the parliamentary processes of that period were frequently vigorous, but far from an ideal model of democratic practice. The 13 million words on the disk cover an era in which the House of Commons developed from a medieval body, close in spirit to the church upon which the layout of its chamber was based, to a forum capable of modernisation into a genuinely democratic body.
The disk itself is an exercise in modernisation, taking articles previously published in 23 print volumes and giving them the fluidity of hypertext. All the usual search facilities are delivered by a serviceable reading program that runs fast, on both Windows and Macintosh systems, and puts a spring in the step of official history. It is institutionally priced, at pounds 425 + VAT a copy until next April, when it will go up to pounds 525.
Although the design is functional rather than opulent, the publishers have taken the opportunity to include illustrations in the work for the first time. These include a gallery of former Speakers of the House, architectural plans, reconstructed views, and eminent parliamentarians. There are also original documents, such as "A Mild but Searching Expostulatory Letter from the Poor and Plain-dealing Farmers of the Neighbouring Villages to the Men of Buckingham", sent in 1679, and a letter of similar vintage from Andrew Marvell, a predecessor of John Prescott as an MP for Hull, to the town's corporation. Marvell is best remembered for his poem "To His Coy Mistress", but in this missive the coyness is on his part. Parliamentary business at that time was confidential. "Marvell believed that it was proper for a Member to inform his town corporation," the caption observes, "but was unsure how acceptable it would be in the House to make its proceedings known amongst the wider public." Even with the television cameras now part of the furniture, the Gothic arches of the House still afford plenty of dark corners in which that spirit can still lurk.
Unlike Tony Blair, B J Habibie gives his e-mail address out to the world on his home page, though he may not have much time to check habibie@ ristek.go.id since he became presi- dent of Indonesia.
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