Willie Hamilton – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Willie Hamilton, the then Labour MP for Fife Central, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

In his last sentence the hon. Member for Boothferry (Sir P. Bryan) took words out of my mouth. In order to allay suspicions that this is a party political gimmick initiated by the Prime Minister, I suggest that no decision should be implemented until after the next general election. I agree with a great ​ deal of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. For more than 20 years I have listened to every debate on this subject. To begin with the arguments were mainly technical—about the heating, the lighting, the cameras and the interference because of the presence of cameramen on the Floor of the House. Virtually all of those arguments have now been resolved. [HON. MEMBERS: “Not all of them”]. The Committee that is to be set up will tell us whether or not those problems have been resolved. The important argument is the democratic one. I have always taken the opportunity to vote for the education of the people about what goes on inside Parliament.

Mr. Spearing

That is the vital issue.

Mr. Hamilton

Yes, it is an absolutely vital issue.

All hon. Members must be disturbed by the woeful ignorance of people about what goes on inside Parliament. I regard this as an attempt not to trivialise Parliament, but to educate the public about how Parliament does its work. No hon. Member should be frightened of the extension of the democratic process. The intrusion of the cameras will carry risks with it. It will expose hon. Members almost indecently to the gaze of the public. But why should hon. Members be afraid of that? This is where the power should reside. We have little control over the power of Whitehall. This is the forum of the people and we are denying them their right to see it.

In the summer many people queue for entrance to the Strangers Gallery. Not all get in. I have long argued that, as an experiment, Westminster Hall should be used to provide live television coverage of the proceedings in this House. If that experiment had been conducted 20 or 30 years ago, all of these problems would have been resolved. I believe that such an experiment should go hand in hand with whatever decision is reached tonight by the House.

The arguments of my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) are based upon fear of the selectivity of the media. But selectivity has gone on for thousands of years. There is no way of preventing selectivity in a free, democratic society. Indeed, there is a good argument for increasing selectivity. If hon. Members believe that the cameras are being unfairly selective, the power lies in their hands to stop it.

In a recent intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) made a valid point about editing. I was disturbed when the Leader of the House said that television broadcasters will have the right to decide what is screened. The House should have an editorial board. It should be made abundantly clear to television broadcasters that the purpose of this experiment is to educate and to inform, not to provide entertainment or titillation or to ridicule. That is the way to handle the issue.

The best argument in favour of this experiment was put forward by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton). He is a well known expert on these matters. He said that if the proceedings of the House of Commons are televised, the House will never be the same again. I cannot think of a better reason for letting in the cameras. This House is a cesspool of conservatism. It is the most difficult thing in the world to change the procedures of this place. Now we have a chance. My one proviso is that it must be all or nothing.

Many hon. Members have pointed out that the most important, if least spectacular, work is carried out in Standing Committees and other Committees, including the 1922 Committee and the parliamentary Labour party committee. Both should be televised. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) suggested that the television cameras should cover Committees of the Cabinet, which is a good idea. The more the Prime Minister is exposed to television cameras, the better for the Opposition.

Therefore, let us get on with the experiment, let us see the results, and, at the end of the day, let the Government of the day say, “All right, we shall put the issue to the electorate at the next election.” I am confident that the British people are yearning to see what goes on in the House and to be educated in the way that we conduct our business. That is the most democratic way of proceeding.