Tablet devices allowed
Because this year MPs got up to speak in the House of Commons make history - not for the words spoken, but for reading them off their iPads. Shortly afterwards, all Speaker of the House could no longer "reasonably prevent" the use of iPads and smartphones in the chamber, so long as they didn't disturb fellow MPs. I drew little comfort from the Speaker's assurance that the policy would be reviewed in due course. I said as much to my sons two years ago - without realising just how hard it is to revoke electronic privileges once granted.
First when I heard this, I thought of that weak, misguided moment in the winter of 2011, when I put up the white flag and allowed my sons to buy a PlayStation 3. Like the Speaker of the House, I felt I could no longer reasonably prevent them: all their friends seemed to have one, and they were buying it with their own savings. Yet from that unhappy day it has been goodbye to reading and talking, and hello to endless virtual carnage. For MPs, I concluded, there would be a similar falling off. It would be goodbye to attending (or pretending to attend) to the process of democracy, and hello to doing the Bloomies shopping, betting on horses, following themselves on Twitter, e-mailing and watching dodgy videos on YouTube.
However, I've now thought again - at least on tablet devices such as the iPad. Perhaps they should be allowed, not just in parliament, but in all meetings everywhere. My rethink is not because I believe - like many of the world's millions of evangelical iPad owners - that thegadget is particularly meeting-friendly. It's true you can read documents on it, but making notes on its phoney keyboard is hard work - a pencil is better by far. Unlike other gadgets, the iPad is not actually meeting-unfriendly. That is because the screen sits flat on the table and is large enough to give everyone a good view of what you are up to. If MPs wish to shop for groceries, they will have to do so in the public eye. Even e-mailing on an iPad is an unpleasantly exposing activity. The same is not true of a laptop - where the lid affords a certain privacy. Twice in recent weeks I've caught intelligent men in the office hunched over their computers watching a cat trying to insert itself into a small cardboard box on YouTube. When I challenged one of them, he responded by forwarding me a link to a study showing that cutie animal videos boost productivity - which only proved to me that he, like my sons, was so passionate in his defence of mind-addling technology that he has left rationality long behind.
But even if kitty clips were generally believed to be good for concentration, surely the most thick-skinned person would not dare watch them openly in a meeting, let alone in parliament. Standards may have fallen, but they haven't fallen that far. Small devices are even more dangerous because we have no scruples about their use at all. When I have a BlackBerry in my hand, I suspend all normal rules of politeness and think nothing of checking messages when someone is talking to me. I know this is very bad, but I'm addicted. Yet just because I do it, that doesn't mean that I want to have my MP doing the same thing on telly.
Indeed, BlackBerrys and smartphones should not just be banned from the chamber, but from every meeting room in the world. Then all meetings would be more focused and shorter - as everyone would have an interest in rattling through the agenda to get their next e-mail fix. Short of an outright ban, the best solution is re-education. To make people see that e-mailing in meetings is the equivalent of getting up to go to the loo. Mostly it is OK to go once - if you ask to be excused first. But if you need to go 20 times, then everyone will know you have a problem.
Such a change in thinking will not happen quickly. Fortunately, there is another way of dealing with BlackBerry addiction that has been developed by an Italian manager I know. She slaps a 2 Euro fine on any member of staff she catches glancing at their e-mail during meetings, and spends the money taking everyone out for drinks.
This would be a genius scheme for MPs. Thanks to the TV cameras, every breach would be noted and the fine duly extracted. The revenue generated would be astronomical; but rather than fund drinks, it could be returned to the taxpayer to make amends for all that money MPs spent on cleaning moats and buying Waterford grapefruit bowls.