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

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)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Photo: Getty
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“If not evolution then revolution”: temperature rises in Catalonia as independence vote looms

Clashes between Barcelona and Madrid over the disputed referendum lead to protests and arrests.

Summer may finish today according to astronomers, but the heat in Barcelona has been steadily rising over the past few weeks. Things reached boiling point yesterday when the Spanish police arrested 14 Catalan officials responsible for organising a referendum on independence for the region. They also seized about 9.8 million ballots intended for this vote, which the Catalan government wants to hold on 1 October.

The Spanish central government, the conservative People’s Party (PP), is completely opposed to the referendum and has so far refused even to discuss it with the Catalan administration. This prompted the pro-independence Catalan parties in power to start planning it unilaterally.

On 6 September, the Catalan parliament passed the Self-Determination Referendum Act, which established how the vote will be organised and held. The question would be: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state with the form of a republic?” And since the electoral register can only be accessed by the Spanish authorities, whoever is allowed to vote in the Catalan regional elections can have their say.

Legal experts are divided over whether this kind of independence referendum is allowed by the Spanish constitution, which was approved in 1978. This was just three years after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and one year after the first democratic elections since the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.

According to the constitution, sovereignty resides with the Spanish people. Opponents of Catalan independence claim it is therefore up to the whole of Spain to decide such a matter – and that in any case, it would have to be approved by the Spanish government.

But those in favour of the Catalan process argue that, given the complete lack of political will in Madrid regarding the referendum, the unilateral way is legitimate even if it may be declared illegal according to Spanish law.

As expected, two weeks ago the constitutional court suspended the Catalan Self-Determination Referendum Act, and yesterday’s police operation followed. Shortly after the raid began, during a government control session in the Spanish parliament in Madrid, prime minister Mariano Rajoy said “the rule of law has worked and it’ll continue doing so”. He insisted that the government was just “doing its duty”.

In this charged atmosphere, while Rajoy was still speaking, the MPs of the Catalan parties supporting the referendum walked out of the room, while those of the ruling PP chanted: “Leave here your salaries!”

Later in Barcelona, the Catalan regional prime minister, Carles Puigdemont, said Spain had “de facto suspended self-government in Catalonia and de facto applied the state of emergency”. Surrounding him during his speech, several other high officials looked funereal.

Applying further heat to the situation, the head of the Spanish tax agency signed an order on Tuesday that gave control of the Catalan public finances to the Spanish state. From then on, and at least until the end of the year, the Catalan administration isn’t allowed to allocate any money that hasn’t been sanctioned by Madrid.

However, the Spanish central government could still go even further and, using Article 155 of the constitution, suspend self-government in Catalonia – not de facto but officially. This extreme measure, never used in modern Spain, would in theory make possible what Catalans often joke about: tanks from the Spanish army would drive down the avenues of Barcelona.

Catalonia is the richest Spanish region, last year contributing 19 per cent of the country's GDP, while its population represents about 18 per cent of the total. It has long considered itself historically and culturally different from the rest of Spain, and yet just a decade ago an independence referendum would have been inconceivable.

In 2006, just 15 per cent of Catalans wanted “an independent state”. But that year the ruling PP referred the Catalan statute to the constitutional court, which declared part of it illegal. Then, after the PP won the general elections in 2011, the Spanish government started refusing to engage with Catalonia on the issue. 

Support for Catalonia becoming an independent state remains at around 41 per cent in favour and just under 50 per cent against. However, when Catalans were asked if they would vote in a referendum not sanctioned by Madrid, 67.5 per cent said yes, and of those, 62.4 per cent would vote “Yes”.

As of today ballot boxes are still being kept in a secret location, and Puigdemont and other Catalan officials insist the referendum will be held one way or another. In the past, the Catalan PM has said that if “Yes” wins, Catalonia will declare its independence within 48 hours.

For now the atmosphere is tense. On Tuesday, thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona to protest against the police operation, in front of several offices of the regional government that were being searched.

The biggest demonstration was next to the Catalan finance ministry, which was being searched by the Guardia Civil, the Spanish paramilitary police. Many protesters were carrying the estelada, the unofficial flag of the independence movement – some worn it as a cape, others waved it in the air.

“We are protesting against this unjust situation”, said 47-year-old sales rep Ferran Batalla. “[The referendum] is not an aggression, it’s an option to have justice, an option to ask the people what they think."

The protesters chanted in Catalan, “We will vote!”, and in Spanish, “We want to vote!” Some were distributing flyers that read in Catalan, “We vote to be free”, and graffiti on a telephone booth said in Catalan, “Voting is not a crime.”

In English a giant banner on top of the building that hosts the Catalan finance ministry read: “Welcome to the Catalan Republic”. At one point, police coming out of the building were met with deafening whistles before the crowd started chanting in Catalan: “Out with the occupying forces!”

“I don’t want to fight anybody in Spain, but we’ve reached a point in which we can’t understand each other any more”, said Batalla, who complained about the fact that the central government has always sternly refused to talk about planning a referendum. “When the state doesn’t want to negotiate, and doesn’t want you to leave, and doesn’t want to hear from you, and mistreats you… They think we are stupid, and we are fed up and this is over, because they are making us feel as if we are the bad ones."

In nearby Plaça de Catalunya just a month ago, barely a flag could be seen among the huge vigil following the terror attack on Barcelona. And if that proved to be a show of social and political unity between Madrid and Barcelona, today the Spanish government on the one side, and the Catalan authorities and many of their people on the other, couldn’t be more polarised.

Many Catalans mention the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and the agreement with Westminster that preceded it, as an example of how things could and should happen. But the two situations are actually very different.

Catalonia makes up a far larger chunk of Spain's population and economic output than Scotland does of the UK. Meanwhile, Spain has a constitution that the government considers untouchable, while there is nothing similar in the British legal framework.

Late Tuesday, Rajoy made an official statement urging the Catalan government to get back to  law and to democracy, and stop at last this “escalation of extremism”.

"This referendum can’t be held, it has never been legal nor legitimate,” he said, before adding: “And every illegal act and every infringement will get its response, which will be determined, proportional and rigorous”.

The PM’s intervention was followed by a huge cacerolada in Barcelona and many other Catalan cities – meaning people started banging pans in their windows in protest. In the streets, demonstrations went on through the night as people tried to prevent the Guardia Civil from leaving the Catalan finance ministry. The protest was mostly peaceful, but police cars parked outside were destroyed while people chanted a rhyme in Spanish: “¡Esta noche os vais sin coche!”, or “Tonight you will leave without a car!”

Finally, at around 4am the first Guardia Civil agents started leaving the building. There were moments of tension between the protesters and the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan regional police, who opened the way for the Guardia Civil.

Wednesday began calmer, as both sides considered their next steps. The Spanish government remains focused on preventing the vote from happening, but has said it will be open to dialogue afterwards. “On 2 (October) we will talk and this new dynamic will take us to look for solutions because the coexistence of all Spaniards must continue in Spain... We’ll have to sit together and talk, and that we will do”, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, the spokesperson for the government, told Spanish Radio. 

By the afternoon, there hadn’t been word of response from the Catalan authorities, but having invested so much in the referendum and seeing the atmosphere in the streets, it’s not clear how they could backtrack.

In a bar in the Eixample area of Barcelona, right outside the city centre, people discuss the situation over their mid-morning coffee. “What happened yesterday was shocking, independently of whether one supports independence or not,” says 37-year-old Italian IT consultant Paolo Mosca, who has lived Barcelona since 2013.

“I understand that within the Spanish legal frame the referendum isn’t legal, I know this, but within the Catalan legal frame it is legal because it was approved in the Catalan parliament”, says Sergi Pedraza, a developer and who was born in Catalonia as the son of Andalusian parents.

“The only possible solution, because the situation has become unsustainable, is a referendum, but one well planned and agreed with the state”, says Álex Castaño, 28, also a developer, originally from Seville and who has lived in Barcelona since 2015.

All three would be eligible to vote and Sergi says he’d vote “Yes” while Álex says he wouldn’t vote. Paolo says he’d vote “Yes” because he understands and supports the will of those who want independence. But he and Álex say they’d probably leave if Catalonia becomes independent, because of the uncertainty of what may happen to today’s cosmopolitan Barcelona.

By noon the street demonstrations had resumed, this time in front of the Catalan High Court, where hundreds of people, many of them again carrying and wearing esteladas, were protesting against yesterday’s arrests. Loud Catalan music could be heard.

“The government in Madrid is insulting the intelligence of the Catalan people,” says retired businessman Enric T Coromina, who adds that he studied law and is “politically from the right”. He is wearing a barretina, a Catalan traditional red wool hat, and a T-shirt saying in English: “Make no mistake, I’m Catalan, not Spanish”. He’s sitting on a folding chair; has brought food, water and a blanket, and says he’s ready to spend the night here. He’s sure the vote will happen – he will back “Yes”– and will be legitimate even if not legal under Spanish law.

"If evolution is not possible from within the system, then there’s only one other way left and that’s revolution, civil disobedience,” he concludes, as more and more people join the protest.