ApplaudingLeader

On clapping in the Chamber

During an address to the UK House of Commons, parliamentary leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) Angus Robertson, in reply to an intervention by a Labour MP, stated:

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman has difficulty reconciling the conscience of him and his colleagues who trooped through the Lobbies shamefully unaware that support for the austerity agenda.

This pronouncement was applauded by his fellow SNP members. Speaker Bercow immediately called the House to order and reminded the SNP that clapping was not part of the House of Commons’ traditions:

Order. May I say at the start of the Parliament that the convention that we do not clap in this Chamber is very, very long established and widely respected, and it would be appreciated if Members showed some respect for that convention? They will get their speaking rights from this Chair—of that they can be assured. They will be respected, but I would invite them to show some respect for the traditions of this Chamber of the House of Commons. (video here)

This incident caused a flurry of activity on Twitter, with some finding Bercow’s clamp-down on clapping rather archaic and silly, but many more strongly defended the convention. The incident even prompted a fair bit of reaction from Canadian parliamentary observers, myself included, who expressed admiration for the ban on clapping and wished that such a tradition existed in the Canadian House of Commons. For those who don’t normally watch proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons, suffice it to say that Canadian MPs traditionally clap almost every time one of their own caucus members speaks. This is particularly egregious during Question Period, when, more often than not, a party’s entire caucus will leap to its feet to applaud its leader (or other member) when he or she rises to either ask or answer a question, and again when said member has finished asking or answering the question. If they don’t stand, they always applaud. It looks, to be frank, idiotic. Very little that is said during Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons, either by way of a question or answer, is deserving of applause, much less a standing ovation. The applauding occurs during other proceedings as well, and most of the time, is limited to the caucus of the member speaking. Only on rare occasions does the clapping become cross-party.

And that is the main problem with clapping in the chamber. It may appear preferable to many, particularly those in the UK, to shouts of “hear, hear!”, or the desk thumping that used to be done in the Canadian House of Commons before the days of live television coverage, but the main issue is that it simply reinforces partisanship. Carl Gardner explained it quite well in two separate tweets:

UK MP Andrew Percy, who is quite familiar with what happens in Canada, had this to say:

 

According to Erskine May (the “bible” of parliamentary procedure):

Members must not disturb a Member who is speaking, by hissing, chanting, clapping, booing, exclamations or other interruptions. (…)

There are words of interruption which, if used in moderation, are not unparliamentary, but when frequent and loud, cause serious disorder. These include the cries of ‘question’, ‘order, order’, or ‘hear, hear’, which have been sanctioned by long parliamentary usage. When intended to denote approbation of the sentiments expressed, and not uttered till the end of a sentence, the cry of ‘hear, hear’, offers no interruption of the speech. The same words may be used for very different purposes, and instead of implying approbation, they may express dissent, derision or contempt. (24th edition, p. 450)

This is what the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons had to say about clapping (and other interjections) in their Fourth Report (1998):

While we agree that spontaneous clapping at the end of a speech could in no way be interpreted as disturbance of the speaker, there is a danger that such a practice might be open to abuse and could lead in certain circumstances to orchestration of what would amount to standing ovations with the success or failure of a speech being judged not by its content but by the relative length of the ovation at the end. This might not disrupt an individual speech, but would disrupt the tenor of the debate, as indeed would slow handclapping. At the same time we condemn the growing misuse of the traditional cry of “hear, hear” and in particular the recent practice of unnecessary noise of this kind from both sides which has routinely accompanied the entrance of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition before Prime Minister’s Questions. Such noise serves no useful purpose and is grossly unfair to the Member who is currently trying to ask a question and to the Minister who is replying.

Any expression of support, be it verbal (shouts and other exclamations) or physical (clapping), at the outset or completion of an MP’s remarks in the Chamber are almost always partisan. It is only on rare occasions (in the Canadian House of Commons), that clapping in response to a Member’s comments is done by both sides of the House. What is the preferred way to react to what a Member says? Silence or muted voicing of “hear, hear” (which is a corruption of “hear him” — which is what parliament should be about — hearing all members and each side).

Imagine a corporate setting, a meeting of all the directors and managers from the various divisions of the company (e.g. Finance, Human Resources, Research and Development, Sales, IT, etc.). What if, every time one of their own spoke during the meeting, the other representatives from that branch clapped and cheered. Not only would it undermine the sense of unity of the corporation as a whole, it would demonstrate great disrespect for the other divisions. It has the same effect in a parliamentary chamber. The House of Commons (and every other legislature) is a workplace and while its members do belong to different “divisions” — political parties — in the Chamber, all MPs are equal and should strive to “hear him or her”, not reinforce their tribal allegiances.

Clapping in the UK House of Commons is such a rare (and fairly recent) occurrence that when such outbreaks do occur, it is usually (but not always) to mark a rather notable occurrence:

November 1987 – this may be the first reference to applause in the Chamber and occurred when a Labour MP was ejected from the Chamber for refusing to withdraw his accusation that the Prime Minister lied about a certain matter; a number of Labour MPs clapped as he left the chamber.

April 1992 – perhaps the first televised applause occurred on the occasion of Betty Boothroyd being elected the first female Speaker.

May 1997 – When Tony Blair first appeared in the Commons as Prime Minister after the 1997 election, there was spontaneous clapping from the vast number of newly-elected Labour MPs, who were not familiar with the “no clapping” convention (shades of the SNP in 2015).

June 1998 – On the announcement of the result of the vote to reduce the age of gay consent.

July 2000 – When Betty Boothroyd announced her resignation as Speaker.

October 2000 – When Michael Martin was appointed her successor.

March 2003 – On the resignation of Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary over the Iraq War.

May 2005 – On the re-election of Speaker Martin.

June 2007 – When Tony Blair made his last appearance at the dispatch box before resigning as Prime Minister.

June 2009 – On the election of Speaker Bercow as successor to Speaker Martin.

October 2011 – Following opening remarks during the debate on the Hillsborough Disaster.

March 2014 – Following remarks by Hillary Benn thanking Members who had paid tribute to his recently deceased father and former MP, Tony Benn.

May 2014 – On the resignation of Sir Robert Rogers, the House of Commons Clerk.

Mar 2015 – During a heated debate on a motion to change the standing orders to elect the Speaker by secret ballot, which was moved on the last day of parliament and which many MPs saw as an underhanded move by the government to remove Speaker Bercow, applause broke out on two occasions. First was the moving speech by the Chair of the Procedure Committee, Charles Walker, and then again when the results of the vote were announced and the motion was narrowly defeated.

As this list demonstrates, clapping is an exceptionally rare occurrence in the UK House of Commons. Since 1987, there have been fewer instances of clapping in the UK House of Commons than would occur during the course of one Canadian House of Commons Question Period. This isn’t to say that the UK House isn’t boisterous and noisy at times — as anyone who has watched PMQs well knows — but it safe to say that the excessive use of clapping in the Canadian House adds nothing to proceedings and only serves to render the act cheap and meaningless.

 

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