Thirty-seven years ago, in the summer of 1982, Conservative MP Ken Clarke was on holiday; he had recently become a junior minister at the department for health, and had been looking forward to his month in the south of France. As he would explain in his memoirs: “The holidays, as well as being lovely in themselves, were the only time of year when I could spend time with the children, and we could experience any kind of normal family life”.
Sadly for him, an NHS national strike had been raging since the spring, and showed no sign of abating by August. Undeterred, he and then health secretary Norman Fowler assembled a recess plan that allowed them to still get a fortnight off each. “Coincidentally, we had both booked holidays in south-western France,” he recalled, “and so we arranged to rendezvous at the airport in Bordeaux where I could pass on the news of my tenure before joining my family on holiday, leaving Norman to go back to London”.
Two weeks ago, Conservative MP Johnny Mercer was on holiday; he had recently become a junior minister at the ministry of defense, and went to spend a fortnight with his family in Hourtin, near Bordeaux. It would be a bit early for this to have featured in his memoirs, but Mercer did keep his 66,000 Twitter followers up to date by posting snaps of himself surfing and playing with his children.
When not in the sea, he kept himself busy. “An element of me that [sic] enjoys winding up so-called intellectual commentators who are as culpable as anyone else for the failure of the political class, whilst devoting their dismal lives to getting clicks for pillorying those who actually get into the arena to change it,” he tweeted on August 11. “Their views on almost everything g [sic] matter less to me than what I flushed away this morning.”
This pronouncement was the culmination of a lengthy argument he had had with a cluster of political journalists over nothing in particular. He was abroad and off work, but still extremely online. Though his Twitter meltdown was a bit extreme, Mercer hardly is an exception. With social media taking over the Westminster bubble, the peaceful summer days of Fowler and Clarke are long gone, and the traditional “silly season” of July and August has been replaced by relentless, round-the-clock political discourse.
“It’s definitely changed and this summer has been particularly bad for it,” says Matt Foster, the news editor of PoliticsHome. “Twitter means MPs feel obliged to act as full-time pundits, offering a take on every story that breaks, regardless of whether they’re shedding much light on it or are even across the details.”
Between the continuous news cycle on Twitter and the WhatsApp groups most MPs are part of, it no longer matters that they are not physically in Westminster, as long as they have access to the internet.
“It always take a little bit of time to wind down for summer – it’s almost like having to re-acclimatise to the real world – but it feels like it never started this year,” says Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds. “It doesn’t feel like it used to, when we used to leave for the summer and come back having thought about things and de-stressed a little bit. We’re in continuous touch with the parliamentary Labour party and wider political scene.”
This is an issue. From allowing MPs to have a bit of time off to giving them a chance to catch up with their local party and constituency issues, summer recess has always been a vital part of the parliamentary calendar. When the House of Commons is sitting, MPs spend their time focused on what goes on in Parliament, and running around between Westminster and their seat. It is needed, but does not give them the time to think about the big picture, from new policies to the future of their party.
“There’s been a twofold transformation in how we all experience news”, explains MP Bridget Phillipson. “It’s on all the time, which happened first, and we can see how people react, which is more recent – by Twitter and WhatsApp. Together that means that politics doesn’t just come at us more quickly, but also that it is more and more about first reactions.”
“The way we think about things is framed and shaped very quickly by seeing what others have said — almost before we’ve had a chance to reflect. As MPs, that means summer recess isn’t quite the chance it used to be to do politics at a slower, more careful pace. It’s harder to move on from first reactions to a considered view, harder to take a step back and think through what comes next given where we are now.”
One reason behind this is fairly straightforward; MPs are (by and large) people, and just as your aunt may have recently become unable to stop scrolling through her Facebook feed, people who are obsessed with politics find it hard to log off from a site that offers endless politics. What it does to them, however, is a different matter.
“The question of discipline and self-discipline becomes huge; for those of us who observe politics there is the urge to comment on issues, and you see it with the behaviour of MPs online,” says Will Jennings, a professor of political science at the University of Southampton. “MPs have become a hybrid of commentators and politicians. I think that’s a really huge change.”
While your job as a lawmaker organically grinds to a halt if there are no bills to vote on, becoming a commentator means opining on the news of the day, whatever they are. On top of this, MPs have not been immune to technology’s destruction of the line between work and leisure. “Interacting on your phone has become so normalised it often doesn’t feel like work,” explains SNP MP Neil Gray. “With emails being accessible, plus social media channels being the focus for political discourse, there is no doubt it must be harder to switch off than it was before.”
(As a case in point, one MP who was approached for this piece turned down the interview request as they were on holiday, but a cursory glance at their timeline showed that they had tweeted about political issues nearly a dozen times that day.)
There is also a more serious reason behind this need to always appear switched on. Newspapers have long enjoyed slamming parliamentarians for slacking off by spending too much time in recess, but the current context has created a perfect storm of anxieties. Between the ever-changing polls making every other seat a potential marginal and the Brexit dividing lines politicising voters ever further, MPs feel they cannot be seen to put their feet up even during the summer.
According to Foster: “MPs are battling against increasing public cynicism about what they do, and the narrative during recess is that they’re off on some five-week taxpayer-funded holiday. I think the more the public gets cross at our politicians, the more they’ll want to be seen to be doing something all the time, including during a period when they’re supposed to be getting on top of casework and yes, taking a short break.”
The flipside to this, of course, is that as the cautionary tale of Mercer shows (and as David Cameron once quipped), “too many tweets make a twat”. Or, as Phillipson puts it: “I suspect a “politics of fast reactions” being the rule, and increasingly being the rule throughout the year, is part of what polarises both the country and parliament.”
In short: MPs are now stuck in a vicious circle. The more time they spend on social media, the more polarised and tribal they and the public at large become; the more polarised and tribal they and the public at large become, the more time they feel they have to spend on social media. Rinse, repeat.
As often, the solution is obvious but easier said than done: if MPs want to regain their sanity before Parliament comes back, they need to log out, for the sake of both their sanity and ours.
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