The Sketch: Old guard outvoted ina House alla-twitter


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The Independent Online

The Twitter debate filtered down to the floor of the Commons, having journeyed through the ancient layers of the committee system. Parliament is like London traffic – whatever the technology, things never move faster.

The question was: should MPs be allowed to use handheld devices in the Chamber? Should our politicians be allowed to use their smart phones during debates – to comment on the action, prompt speakers with useful facts, check their emails, write blogs, Google jokes, place bets, keep up with the cricket, look at porn, book escorts (we've moved to the Italian end of politics now).

As long as these devices didn't "impair the dignity" of Parliament they had supporters. One populist argument can be discounted: "anything that increases public interest in politics should be encouraged". That ends in cage fighting. One patrician argument doesn't quite work either: "use your mobile phone as you would at the opera". That is, never.

But doesn't tweeting distract members from the debate, dissipate the concentrated attention that, at best, creates such an atmosphere in the Chamber? No, members were capable of multi-tasking, Claire Perry asserted. Many no doubt are able to listen with one ear, text with one hand, blog with another while breast-feeding a child (that's next on the agenda for handheld devices).

But if handhelds encourage the practice of reading speeches that will be very counter-productive. Certainly the old guard of James Gray, Alan Haslehurst and Roger Gale (combined age of 450) made proper parliamentary contributions while Twitter-literate New Generation (Luciana Berger and Caroline Lucas) performed like text-to-speech programmes rather than MPs.

At its best, Twitter is heckling. But that too is a venerable skill, and needs more basic practice where it matters: on the floor of the Commons.

The Amendment was defeated, the motion was carried. The floor of the House is now in cyber-space.