Parliament: Can MPs be taught to communicate with human beings?

The Sketch
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YESTERDAY'S NEWSPAPER reports that chimpanzees had been taught how to communicate with their keepers, using sentences of their own construction, caused some excitement in the Westminster press gallery, because it seemed they could throw light on a long-running controversy.

Is meaningful communication an innate part of MPs' behaviour or have they simply learnt to manipulate a prescribed range of symbols to give an impression of coherent thought?

Some researchers take the view that MPs are capable of generating fresh syntactical structures in order to express their own ideas; others quote those rare instances where their utterances make sense and ignore the vast number of occasions on which they don't.

Looking down on these animated creatures, divided into their individual troupes, it is almost impossible not to interpret their exchanges as almost human in nature.

They appear to ask questions and listen to the answers, to protest and praise and prevaricate. But is this genuine communication or an unconscious imitation of the real thing?

I was lucky enough yesterday to be accompanied for culture and sport questions by Professor Norm Chumpsky, a noted sceptic and a fascinating guide to the nuances of MP interaction.

"Note how many gestures they use," he pointed out. "It looks as if the exchanges are driven by language but frequently that only masks a far cruder form of communication. Look there!" He broke off to indicate a pair of shadow ministers, dominant males in their own troupe, making "bye-bye" signs at Krismith, the Arts alpha male. "Classic confrontational behaviour. They sense the social hierarchy is due for a change and they're trying to upset him".

"But surely the spoken questions are evidence of something more than instinct?" I asked. "Well, they sometimes look intelligent", continued Professor Chumpsky, "but independent analysis shows that they're mostly just re-arrangements of learnt phrases - "we'll take no lessons from the party opposite", "more broken promises", things like that.

"There are obvious mismatches. An MP will say something like `I would like to pay tribute to my Honourable Friend' when it's clear from the context that they mean `I'd like to bite him hard on the rump until he squeals'. "

He pointed to a pack of excited Labour MPs engaged in a noisy mocking display. "Those backbenchers often use speech but it's probably just a Pavlovian reflex to the bleepers their handlers make them wear.

"In many cases they don't have a clue what they're `saying' - they simply make the right noises because they've learnt to associate them with reward. Tests have been done in which they are separated from these devices and they become quite mute - distressed too."

Professor Chumpsky believes more research needs to be done. "There's no doubt that a few MPs produce some interesting behaviour," he concedes. Tonibankz, a star performer for those who argue that MPs can master language, is a case in point. "He's very intriguing - take that incident when he admitted he didn't have a clue who the Northern Ireland sports minister was.That was unusual in itself, but it was his response to the laughter that interested me - `Maybe it is me and nobody told me' - you see, paradoxically it's the stupid sounding remarks that offer the best evidence of independent thought.

"I'm willing to admit there are some exceptional individuals in the programme but I still don't think it's safe to generalise. The jury will be out on MP intelligence for many years yet."