By Paul Goodman
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It takes only a few seconds to make a point. Five minutes or so will suffice to set out the skeleton of a case. But to make a proper argument – one that cites figures, illustrates points, explores detail, attempts to deal with objections – no less than ten minutes or so, at a bare minimum, will do. Not so long ago, the Commons was blighted by speeches which went to the other extreme: some speakers would ramble for up to 40 minutes. But Robert Halfon's debate on fuel prices yesterday – an important one, being a response to an e-petition – demonstrated the degree to which the opposite problem no grips the Commons.
The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of brevity. We aim to write later about the debate as a whole, which Halfon introduced with a fine speech. He was on his feet for 20 minutes, and was therefore able to make a proper case. The speaker who followed him, Labour's Dave Watts, was called at 3.22. He was cut short by the Deputy Speaker at 3.26, and Mark Garnier was called. He resumed his seat at 3.30. Labour's Albert Owen then spoke and stopped at 3.37. Alan Reid from the Liberal Democrats replaced him and sat down at 3.44. Russell Brown came and went before the clock had reached 3.51. And so on.
Furthermore, Halfon took eleven interventions – and thus had difficulty in making progress, since they were occuring at a rate of one every two minutes. He didn't, of course, have to take them, but the MP for Harlow is a courteous man, and was following what is developing into a custom. And since an intervention on someone else's speech shows up on TheyWorkForYou in much the same way as a speech of one's own, their number is multiplying. MPs can massage their speaking statistics by making a brief intervention before leaving the Chamber later.
There is something circular about this pattern: lots of frantic speeches and bustling interventions – Parliamentary debate as a hamster wheel. The Lords has a list for speakers. Such a system allows contributors to know in advance who will be called (MPs can sit in the chamber for hours without knowing) and contributions to be staggered over a Parliamentary year: the Commons rush to shoehorn many speakers into little time is less common. It isn't obvious that the quality of debate in the Upper House is worse than than of the lower one.
Yes, this is the age of the e-mail, the YouTube video, the twitter message of 140 characters – and politicians must adapt accordingly. But the trend must stop somewhere if debate is to thrive. It's sometimes said that debate in Parliament are an exchange of views: that Commons speeches aren't grand addresses from a rostrum in a horseshoe chamber (after which the speaker leaves), but less formal remarks that go back and forth from the two sides of the chamber, and thus have something of the spontaneous, relaxed, exploratory character of conversation.
Real conversation can't be a dumbed-down jumble of hectic assertions and opportunistic interruptions. Much of our culture is heading that way. There is a danger of the Commons doing so too. It should take a leaf out of the book of the Lords.