Applying the school canteen theory to the House of Commons

Could giving the political debating chamber an extreme makeover make our MPs behave less boorishly?

Members of two Turkish political parties scuffle during a debate in parliament, February 2014
Members of two Turkish political parties scuffle during a debate in parliament, February 2014

I once accidentally took part in a sociology study on behaviour during school meals. The canteen was the worst building in my school, overdue for demolition. In the final year of its use, the standard of behaviour during meals declined to match the trajectory of the building. As much food ended up on the floor as reached people’s mouths; every table was covered in rivulets of spilled water; the background hum of noise was restlessness, not conversation.

While the canteen was being rebuilt, we moved to a temporary dining room. For some reason of convenience, this happened to be the best room in the school, with high ceilings and space between the tables. After one lunch in this new room, a teacher urged me to look at the floor. “Scarcely a drop of water or a scrap of food. Same people, same food, same rules – but a better environment creates wholly different behaviour.”

I’ve seen the same effect in several contexts. One of the pleasures of Hyde Park in the summer is visiting the pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery. Each year, a different architect designs a temporary structure – a café, a public space and an art installation all at once. This year’s pavilion will be the 15th; I remember different summers by recalling the atmosphere of each of them.

My favourite was Frank Gehry’s in 2008. The materials: pale wood and glass. The outlook: classical architecture and mature trees. The effect: sheltered openness. The mood: reflection and lightness. I visited every day that I could.

As well as lifting my spirits, the space influenced other people. In normal circumstances, I would have dreaded a young family parking itself next to me but Gehry’s space calmed everyone. The children, who might scream relentlessly in the perfumed horrors of the duty-free hall at Gatwick, settled into a happier rhythm in Gehry’s light-filled amphitheatre.

Playing cricket at Lord’s subtly changes how professional cricketers behave. Verbal abuse and physical confrontation are rarer; respect for opponents and for the game is more common. And it is not at the expense of competitive fire – the contest is elevated but not dampened.

This brings me to the recent discussion about behaviour in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions. All of the central players claim to want change. John Bercow, the Speaker, wrote to party leaders urging them to address the “yobbery and public school twittishness”. Ed Miliband argued last month that PMQs “subtract from the reputation of politics”. David Cameron, in his early days as Conservative leader, pledged to reform “Punch and Judy politics”.

Good intentions are easy to state but hard to stick to. So the farcical spectacle continues. Two braying packs boo, heckle and interrupt each other, as though considered ideas could not be allowed to break out. The melee undermines the authority of parliament as well as respect for it.

You can see how and why it happens. One side organises an attack mob; the other side reciprocates. The situation escalates or, more accurately, descends. It is all about short-term self-interest. Yet changing professional self-interest is hard. Perhaps it is easier to change the physical environment. After all, does a 19th-century debating chamber – cramped, gilded, adversarial – best serve 21st-century democracy?

Custom and tradition: that is how the status quo is usually defended. One hero of this approach was Winston Churchill, who played a central role in ensuring that the Commons was rebuilt in the same style after it was bombed in 1941.

It is worth reading Churchill’s speech about rebuilding the House. In it, he ridiculed the consensual style and layout of other chambers: “The semi-circular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes.” He then argued that the chamber must be kept undersized, preventing all MPs from sitting simultaneously. He was anxious to avoid a flat atmosphere during debates when the House was not full.

Churchill’s speech is skilful and persuasive but I finished reading it unconvinced that his position holds for politics today. His logic leads to opposite conclusions about the optimal shape and mood for a modern House of Commons.

His purpose was to avoid “harangues from a rostrum” while preserving “the conversational style” of politics. Yet the threat to real conversation now is organised shouting, not boring speeches. The professionalisation of politics has produced a conveyor belt of hecklers, all hoping to impress their party’s hierarchy. The squashed, leathery clubbiness of the chamber has proved vulnerable to the modern party machine. The result is a bear pit, not the spontaneous conversation Churchill envisaged.

He praised the “convenience and dignity” of the Commons. Opposite terms now apply. He wanted the design of the chamber to encourage “a sense of the importance of much that is said and a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House”. The reverse has happened, as power gradually has slipped from the legislature to the executive.

The voters, meanwhile, are increasingly repelled. The macho posturing dissuades many thoughtful potential politicians – especially women – from standing in the first place. With female representation at 23 per cent, the UK ranks 59th internationally, level with Malawi.

Churchill was right that: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” But not in the ways he intended. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)