British Member of Parliament Kerry McCarthy made history last night, becoming the first to make a speech in the House of Commons with notes on an Apple iPad.
Big deal, you might say. Why the fuss?
In many parliaments and assemblies around the world, this wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. But in the UK, Parliament still inhabits its own bizarre world, steeped in tradition.
Votes are still made by walking into “Aye” or “No” lobbies (or just shouting your preference aloud, on the occasions where votes are made in the Commons chamber itself). Members must bow to the Chair on entering or leaving. Cries of “Who goes home?” and “Hats off, Strangers!” are still heard within the ancient walls. You don’t hear anyone crying “Hey, nice looking app, what does it do?” Not yet anyway.
Technically speaking, Members of Parliament aren’t supposed to read their speeches at all. They’re expected to address the House, not a sheet of paper in front of their nose. Those rules were relaxed some time ago to allow them to refer to notes on paper, as long as they don’t read from them at length.
More recently, the rules were relaxed still further, to permit the use of electronic devices, so long as they’re no larger than a sheet of paper. Hence the arrival of the iPad. Text messaging is now tolerated, but God help you if your phone starts ringing during a debate. The Speaker will not be pleased.
There’s only one final problem: after making a speech using notes, the House doorkeepers traditionally ask Members to put their notes into an envelope, so they can be passed on to reporters from Hansard, the official record of what’s been said.
As McCarthy left the Chamber after making her historic iSpeech, she faced the second historic event of her day – how to give Hansard’s reporters a copy of something that was just a bunch of iNotes on her iScreen. She ended up giving them a rough draft that she’d printed out earlier.
Perhaps it’ll only be another hundred years or so until the doorkeepers are given their own iPads, and access to a Dropbox account.