Zoom and the Technology of Parliamentary Debate

The current controversy over the extension of the house of commons emergency procedures is very much sui generis. The technology to enable parliament to debate and vote without most members being physically present is only a few years old and was of course not available when previous public health crises of this order occurred: the only option was either to postpone a meeting of parliament altogether (as in 1349), or to move it away from the main source of infection (as in 1625 and 1665). But there are some echoes in the debates over how parliament should cope with coronavirus of previous debates about how parliament might adopt new technologies for its core working practices. None of them were as significant, or as seriously argued as the present one; yet in some ways they rehearsed many of the arguments at issue today.


The division bell

It isn’t known when a bell was first used to summon members to vote in divisions, but it was almost certainly a long time before the first references I have come across, which are in the early nineteenth century. Presumably it was originally a handbell; but if not before, at some point after the fire of 1834 the temporary house of commons was equipped with a system of bells. On the speaker announcing a division, wrote Erskine May in the first, 1844, edition of his treatise, the doorkeepers ‘ring a bell which communicates with every part of the building. This “division bell” is heard in the libraries, the refreshment rooms, the waiting rooms, and wherever members are likely to be dispersed, and gives notice that a division is at hand’ (p. 213). Presumably it was essentially the same system as used to summon the servants in every country house of the land. A property advertisement in The Times in 1836 suggests (as well as the curious timelessness of the baroquely articulated language of estate agents) that the bell was already seen as facilitating a more comfortable existence than sitting around waiting endlessly for a division:

For sale by auction: A Freehold Residence, with suitable offices, approximating upon the Houses of Parliament, being No. 9, in Abingdon Street, and within nine doors of the House of Peers. The abode is well suited to all the legitimate wants of a moderate sized family, as it is full of comfort. But there is higher ground to which it aspires, inasmuch as its locality is especially adapted to a member of the legislature, who would almost be within sound of the division bell… To any one whose vocations are connected with parliament, the courts of law, or public offices, the situation will plead in favourable terms.

The system was clearly a convenience for many who had no desire to sit in a stuffy chamber listening to boring debates; but for others it was regarded as an outrageous compliance with the lax habits of their colleagues. A routine complaint for many years was the rush of members on the sound of the division bell down the stairs from Bellamy’s, where members were engaged in drinking, eating, and occasionally killing cats  . When in 1839 the house discussed  the recent practice of having the bell rung not only on a division being called, but also when it was in danger of being counted out for the lack of a quorum, one member called for the ringing of the bell in divisions to be stopped: ‘it appeared to him most mischievous, that Hon. Members should come down there to vote upon a question without having heard one word of the discussion.’ Another (Thomas Duncombe, the advanced radical) suggested that ‘If the principle were adopted that they might debate with a few Members, and summon to the division those who were scattered about in different parts of the building, he saw no reason why a division bell ought not to ring in Downing-street—why not at the Reform Club— why not at the Carlton—why should not a crier go up and down the streets?’

Duncombe clearly thought the idea of a bell summoning members to vote from distant parts of Westminster completely absurd, but the principle of the electric telegraph was already well known, and had been demonstrated on part of the London and Birmingham Railway in 1837 and on the Great Western Railway in 1839; these experiments were described to the Select Committee on Railway Communication in February 1840, and an installation on the London and Blackwall Railway that year was apparently the first successful application of an electric telegraph anywhere in the world. It would seem that the house of commons acquired an electric division bill not much more than a decade afterwards. There is an entertaining report in a local newspaper, apparently derived from the Liverpool Albion, of an experiment in the chamber on 9 May 1853:

DIVISION BELLS IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS.—The first practical trial came off on Monday, when, the galvanic current being laid on, no sooner had Mr. Speaker uttered the customary admonition “strangers must withdraw,” than the battering began; and, sure enough, “swinging uproarious in turrets glorious,” as Father Prout sings of Shandon Steeple, away went the tintinnabulistic ding-dongery, like forty thousand Thalbergs playing on four-and-twenty Erard’s patent grands a piece. Every one was in ecstacies; door-keepers delighted; Sibthorp himself surprised, and Lord Charles Russell, Serjeant at Arms, observed that really electricity was a very useful sort of thing—an uncommonly sensible remark for him, and shows that £1,200 a year of his isn’t so foolishly bestowed as some think. However, the novelty was soon over, but the noise wasn’t! “Those evening bells would still ring on,” and threatened never to leave off. Tinkle-tinkle-tinkle went the multitudinous machinery, from the top of Victoria Tower, where Feargus O’Connor had been, to the bottom of Smith O’Brien’s coal hole. Ring, ring, ring, kept the bells; order, order, order, shouted the Speaker, in a yellow fever of indignation, at what he began to think was a jest; while Sir Denis Le Marchant, black in the face as Othello, bellowed “silence that horrid bell!” etcetera. But, shocking to tell, the electric bell would not be silenced, till the whole coil, as long as the entire family of the sea serpent, had unfolded its snakeishness, and hadn’t another rattle in its tail by which time the official in charge of the wire began to think he had discovered perpetual motion.

(There was then a further problem, that the bells could not be induced to start again at the next division. ‘The Bells of Shandon [Steeple]’ was a popular song of the time; Sigismond Thalberg was a pianist as celebrated as Liszt; the Erard was an early version of the grand piano; Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorp was a notoriously technophobic member, intensely hostile to the railways, featured in Punch as Don Quixote charging a steam engine.)

It’s difficult entirely to credit the story, as I have found no other reference to this colourful incident. The experiment, if there was one, must have been in some way related to the work of a committee on ‘Strangers in Division’, which was set up in April and reported on 27 May. Their report, though, made no mention of it, their main concern being to overcome the chaos that occasionally resulted from a large number of strangers being cleared out of the chamber (some strangers were allowed to sit under the gallery) and the galleries while a large number of members were flooding into the lobby to vote. But certainly an electric bell had been introduced by 1854, when an article in the Illustrated London News said that the ‘simultaneous ringing of sharp and peculiar-sounding bells in every room’ was ‘effected by means of electricity’.

It probably took some time for the division bell to be made widely available beyond the house. But an alternative method of providing information about proceedings remotely became available at about the same time. In 1854 magazine reports were talking about the availability of real-time reports of debates within the London clubs via a telegraph feed. ‘A few moments after anything of importance occurs’, said one account in that year, ‘it is telegraphed by the Submarine Company to Brookes’s, the United Service, the Reform, and the Carlton Clubs, nay, even to the opera during the season; so that wherever a man may be spending his time, he is thus enabled to secure the appearance of his name in the division lists, and thereby, in the eyes of his constituents, he is placed on a par with the most attentive member who, hour after hour, and night after night, endures the drawn-out dullness of the debates’. The Quarterly Review provided a sample: ‘9.30. Colonial Churches. Mr Nimbus, still. Is reading a great number of extracts from Commissioners’ Reports. House very empty.’ ’11.45. Conduct of Ministers. Mr Disraeli just up. Is taunting the Government with having been beaten seven times in eight days’.

There was a division bell in St Stephen’s Club, just over Bridge Street from the Palace of Westminster, because in May 1874 one of the Irish members, Philip Callan, ‘well known as an all round sportsman in his native county of Louth’, cunningly went in and cut the wires to it, securing a remarkable victory on a vote on the Irish fishery industry when the Conservative members failed to be alerted to the imminent division, their whips ‘staring in expectation at the door from which the absent ones were wont to rush to the rescue of a government measure’, but in vain (F.H. O’Donnell, The Irish Parliamentary Party (1910), i. 98-9). But St Stephen’s was probably an exception because it was only over the road, and it seems unlikely that the division bell was made more widely available because it remained the rule until 1906 that a member could only vote if he had been present in the house when the question was put — even if it must have been one of the least well-respected of any of the poorly respected house of commons rules of the time.

The changes to the standing orders on divisions in December 1906  (originally introduced on an experimental basis in June (see column 445-6) both took away that rule and gave a precise time within which the speaker would order the doors of the division lobbies to be locked – six minutes after the initial order for the lobby  outside the chamber to be cleared, which itself comes two minutes after the division was called in the first place. The change gave a clear target of eight minutes in total for members to make it to the house, and therefore made it feasible for them, if they were either close enough and healthy enough to run, or able to afford a chauffeur, to go home while waiting for the division. Division bells were available in private houses by the late 1920s, and no doubt well before. Jennie Lee in her memoir of My Life with Nye refers to the ‘great treat’ during the 1929-31 parliament of dining with Sir Charles Trevelyan, whose house in Great College Street was close enough to the Palace to have its own division bell. Edith Picton-Turbervill had a division bell in her house in the same parliament: ‘When the bell rang, I had to rise instantly from the table and go very quickly—almost run—to the House in order to be there to record my vote. I used to go by the back ways to the House of Lords, through narrow passages and, I think, coal dumps, and emerge by a small door in the members’ lobby’. A conservative MP, Lord Lymington, living opposite her also had a division bell in his house, with a car waiting outside to take him to the House to vote should the bell ring, and would sometimes give her a lift.

Division bells would become a modestly famous feature of Westminster life, pointed out proudly in a small selection of pubs and restaurants. It was common in the 1930s for estate agents to make a point of the fact that a property was ‘within the division bell area’ advertise properties (the advertisements of George Trollope and Sons in the 1930s make the point particularly frequently). Many division bells are still there, though apparently the service has been discontinued (text messaging, whatsapp groups and so on having rendered it unnecessary). A list of division bells in public places was published last year in response to a freedom of information request.


The Annunciator

The annunciator system provides a system by which members within the palace are able to find out who is speaking without having to go into the chamber. It gave those loafing around in the smoking room, or dealing with constituency business in the library, and eventually people in offices anywhere throughout the Palace of Westminster a chance to avoid missing the speeches they really wanted to hear, and perhaps early warning of a vote. Members originally pressed for the same telegraph-based system as was available in the clubs and hotels to be provided at various locations in the palace itself – e.g. ‘Mr Gray’, probably the Irish newspaper proprietor Edmund Dwyer Gray  , on 5 June 1884  or Charles Radcliffe Cooke , on 29 March 1894. The latter argued that ‘there ought to be some easy mode of communication between the House and the smoking-room and the Library, instead of Members who  had to deal with a vast mass of correspondence being kept in total ignorance of what was going on in the Chamber. He was well aware of the fact that the Party Whips preferred the present system, as being better calculated to ensure Members voting straight’. A while ago, he told the house, he had tried to ‘get up a Memorial in favour of some change in this respect, in order to strengthen the right hon. Gentleman’s hands against the Treasury’, and obtained ‘at least half the Members of the House’ to sign it. He suggested that the Exchange Telegraph Company had offered to provide ‘information of what was going on in the House to the Smoking Room and the Library for a sum of £500 or £600, if an operator and machine could be placed behind the Speaker’s Chair’. The idea was opposed by Thomas Gibson Bowles, the magazine proprietor (founder of Vanity Fair): ‘He was entirely opposed to any proposal that would deplete the Benches of that House by supplying information of what was going on in it to hon. Members in the smoking-room or the Library. It was the duty of hon. Members to attend in the House, and they ought not to ensconce themselves in the Library and smoking-rooms.  as one of many ways of emptying the chamber, reducing the centrality of parliament.’

Cooke got his way, and a machine of some sort, provided by the Exchange Telegraph Company, was placed in the Smoking Room in 1894 – though I have not been able to discover whether it provided as full and circumstantial information as was apparently provided in the Clubs. There was early pressure for further machines to be installed in the Library, to which Gibson Bowles reiterated his opposition:

If he [the commissioner of works] improves the Newspaper Room, and provides all the interesting papers—if he also makes provision for giving further telegraphic accommodation in the Library as to Members who are speaking and the subjects they are speaking upon—and if, in addition to this, he opens the Victoria Tower Gardens, the result will be that he will tempt Members from this House altogether. I submit that the proper place for Members of Parliament, when in this building, is in this House, and I think it is contrary to policy to add to the allurements of Terraces, Gardens, Newspaper Rooms, and the telegraphs, which are provided in and about the House. The consequences of Members being in the building and not in this chamber are very serious. I have experienced the results myself, for I have constantly been told by Members that if they had heard my arguments they would have voted differently. All these suggestions about extra allurements are so many additional temptations for Members not to be in this Chamber, and the effect of it will be that it will be a desert, and Members will be all over the building—on the Terrace and in the Gardens—listening to the Debates through telephones, and not appreciating the arguments that are used, and then, when the Division bell rings, they will come in and vote practically on matters on which they have not heard the arguments. Instead, Sir, of increasing these allurements, I would do the contrary. I would venture to suggest to the First Commissioner of Works that he should render everything outside this Chamber as repulsive and unalluring as possible. He should diminish the Newspaper Room accommodation. He should stop the telegraphic summary of names which now goes on in the Smoke Room. He should sternly set his face against opening the Terrace; he should put down the attractions, and certainly refuse to open the Gardens. His object should be to have all Members in this House who are in the building, so that they should listen to the arguments and weigh them, and when they vote, to do so on a ​ consideration of the arguments they have listened to. I do not think that anything should be done to add to the attractiveness of any of the rooms or appurtenances to this building.

In the ensuing years further machines were provided to, or requested for, the Ladies’ Gallery, the  Strangers’ Dining Room, the Library map room ( well known as the haunt of the Labour Party’s radical wing), the Central Lobby, the Tea Room, and the Chess Room (Ellen Wilkinson resisted it on the grounds that it would disturb serious chess players). After the war, and the destruction of the commons chamber by bombing, the provision of a system of annunciators became a major feature of the reconstruction plans. In 1968, it was replaced by an electronic service delivered through television screens, and from 1989 it became closely connected to the television service.



Audibility in the chambers of both houses was always a problem, and particularly so in the house of commons, where speakers have had to contend with determined barracking as well as the constant background noise of far-from whispered conversations, particularly around the entrances. ‘To hear properly in the house of commons is really very difficult’, complained the Dundee Evening Telegraph in May 1930: ‘Few visitors are able on the first occasion to follow the debate understandingly, and even when one is accustomed to the curious acoustics of the chamber, listening is always strained. In the parliamentary press gallery the “house of commons ear” is a well recognised acquisition’.

But it was in the Lords that the first experiments with introducing microphones took place. In February 1925, less than a year after George V’s speech opening the Empire Exhibition at Wembley, often seen as a landmark in the amplification of sound, the Lords appointed a small committee to consider a proposal ‘to place in convenient positions in the House acoustic instruments for the use of peers who may have difficulty in hearing the proceedings’. The proposal was limited to placing microphones on the table of the house, rather than in multiple positions all around the chamber. The house adopted its proposals in May, apparently without debate, and conducted its first experiments in September. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported:

Three microphones were employed, of which two were being placed back to back on the table between the Government and Opposition benches, while the third faced the Woolsack. They are identical with those used the King and those at the BBC studios, and will be handsomely decorated. It possible that thev will inscribed with the arms of the House. The broadcast amplifiers have been concealed beneath the floor, and the Lords benches will furnished with twenty single headphones on handles—after the style of lorgnettes.

The experiment was deemed a success, and became normal in the Lords chamber. The press gallery was equipped with its own headphones; and in November, after the first day of normal operation, it was reported that ‘it was even possible to hear Lord Haldane passing a remark across the table in conversational tone, and all those who have heard his Lordship speak recently will realise that this is indeed an “acid test.” When Lord Salisbury was speaking, however, it was quite unnecessary to use the microphone, and my friend switched his off and found that he could hear more clearly without it.’ The microphones did have their defects, though, and in 1938 they were replaced with a microphone suspended from the ceiling.

There was, naturally, pressure for a similar system to be introduced in the commons, particularly from the press gallery. A microphone was used, for the first time in the chamber, on 28 September 1938, when Chamberlain made his statement following his return from meeting Hitler at Munich; but his speech was not, in the end, broadcast, but only relayed to the Library of the house of lords and the gallery (apparently for the benefit of Queen Mary). The experience made senior politicians more nervous, since whispered conversations along the front bench were said to be quite audible as a result. After a series of negative responses to requests from members for amplification to be provided to ensure better reporting of the speeches of backbench members,  in July 1939 the press gallery in frustration addressed a collective protest to the government, complaining of the increasing difficulty its members had in hearing what was said in the chamber. Ministers, they wrote, had taken to reading rapidly from a text; they were now accustomed to speaking into a microphone outside the chamber and had developed techniques of speaking that were entirely unsuitable to the acoustics of the chamber. The Gallery appealed for microphones to be introduced, something it had been doing, they wrote, ever since the lords had started using them: it had been given every assistance by the officers of the house, but had met with a blank refusal from ministers. The first commissioner for works (Herwald Ramsbotham, later Viscount Soulbury) did, at least, accept an invitation to visit the gallery for a drink and to hear for himself – the invitation was, curiously, delivered, and responded to, in Latin: Ramsbotham’s reply, printed in The Times, still betrayed the anxiety about overhearing sotto voce conversations: quod tamen incommodum tibi intellego, sed si μηχανη τινι patrum sententiae augeantur, nefaria multa audias, nec diutius ingenuus maneas (translated by The Times as: I understand that the hearing difficulties are very troublesome to you. But if by microphone amplification we were able to make MPs’ words more audible, it might be that you would overhear things which would destroy your ingenuousness). Ramsbotham finished off by suggesting that members should imitate the Stentorian tones of the minister for Labour, the National Liberal, Ernest Brown, famous for his massive voice.

War was declared about a month after this exchange, and so presumably nothing further was done. But when the commons moved into the house of lords following the destruction of its own chamber in 1941, they found a functioning system of amplification which rapidly converted ministers to its virtues, and before long the government was responding to requests for experiments with additional microphones. Anxieties about betraying a whisper were seemingly forgotten, and it was assumed that microphones, like annunciators, would be provided in the reconstructed commons chamber.


Technology and the risks of change

The war, and the discussions of the rebuilding of the chamber saw more radical ideas being bandied about, in particular the broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings (suggested here in 1940 by Col. Wedgwood, among others) and an electronic system for divisions (suggested here in 1943 by Viscount Hinchingbooke ). There is no space here to discuss the long-drawn out debates over either of these: the painful road to televising the proceedings of the commons is worth a blog of its own, and television perhaps doesn’t belong here since it is not really about how technology facilitates debates, but about making them available more widely; the question of electronic voting also deserves its own treatment.

But even the long-dead debates over division bells, annunciators and microphones outline the tropes and routine lines of battle over how to deploy technology within parliament. For one thing, the tendency of the house of lords to adopt new technology (and many new practices) more quickly and easily than the commons was as evident over microphones as it has been over adapting parliamentary proceedings to the Covid-19 crisis – perhaps not surprisingly, for the stakes tend to be lower and the political angles of any decision less sharp in the upper house. For another, innovation happens more easily in a crisis, and people get more used to change when it is forced, unexpectedly on them, by, for example, the complete destruction of their chamber by fire or bombing.

Most of all, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century discussions of the application of new technology are, like ours, concerned with the clashes between ideals of parliamentary scrutiny and debate, the government’s anxieties about managing the progress of legislation, and the complex practicalities of members’ lives. Often, the debates suggest two very different visions of parliamentary politics are lined up against each other. One is a romantic ideal which celebrates the human contact that is the essence of politics: the presence of people within the chamber, the face-to-face arguments, seeing ‘the whites of the minister’s eyes’, the opportunity to talk to ministers informally in the lobby. It is a view of politics as an essentially sociable (in the sense of involving interaction, rather than necessarily friendly interaction) and human activity. The other is a more instrumental view of parliamentary politics in which time spent in the chamber or plodding through division lobbies is often wasted: members should be elsewhere, meeting constituents, writing to ministers, talking to lobby groups, thinking. There’s plenty of truth in this, and plenty to sympathise with in either view. But things are rarely quite so simple, for few members would fall straightforwardly into one camp or the other, and many would, these days at least, point out that there is much political interaction beyond the chamber, especially in select committees. Dedication to political sociability may have as much to do with party cohesion as with the interests of parliament as a whole – for those happily mixing in the division lobbies are usually socialising with their party colleagues rather than with a wider selection of political opinion (the most prominent advocates of electronic voting, it might be noted, tend to come from the smaller parties). And the interests of government complicate matters: while it is rarely on the side of those who wish to inconveniently prolong debate in the chamber, it is always anxious to prevent members dispersing out of easy reach of the division lobbies. All of these things are on display in the interminable argument over electronic voting: but that can wait for another time.


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