Three cheers for no applause

Toby Fitzsimmons
Insights Newsletter
22 November, 2019

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”. Clapping is a common gesture across all cultures – even babies clap. There is nothing scary about clapping, is there?

Britain’s House of Commons disagrees. Two weeks ago, a candidate for the position of Speaker of the House urged for a crackdown on clapping – the announcement was naturally followed by MPs clapping their approval.   

Clapping had been taboo, but now some MPs want to enshrine the clapping ban in legislation as it might disorient autistic visitors. The MPs were inspired by students of the Oxford Union debating club who have replaced clapping with welcoming jazz hands.

The tradition against clapping probably originates from Erskine May’s 1884 treatise on parliamentary practice. It bans clapping (and hissing, chanting and booing) as it might disturb a speaking member. 

Despite clapping being too loud, MPs are fine with jeering and shouting “hear, hear”. Presumably, double standards are also a parliamentary tradition. 

Unsurprisingly, outsiders find the clapping ban bemusing. In 2015, the Speaker reprimanded the newly elected Scottish nationalists who, unaware of the peculiar Westminster tradition, clapped in Parliament. 

But what if there were really something terrible about clapping?

A 1998 select committee considered clapping dangerous. They found parliamentary speeches might not be judged by their logic or persuasiveness, but by whether the politicians were popular enough to get a long standing ovation. 

This argument is not without merit. 

In ancient Rome, Cicero sent friends to follow rival politicians to make detailed notes about the length and strength of applause politicians received in public – a primitive poll.

After that, Romans paid actors to clap during their speeches to appear more popular, just as clapping and laughing tracks are added to sitcoms to make them appear entertaining. Emperor Nero even sent 5,000 men to Alexandria to copy Egyptian methods of clapping. 

Clapping can also be used to test subservience — we are expected to clap for the great. Stalin’s speech at a Communist Party conference was followed by an 11-minute applause. The first person to stop clapping was executed. 

Clapping is thus not such an innocent gesture – it can be a sinister tool too. MPs in Parliament are under pressure to clap to make their leaders seem popular and convincing, but also to not appear disloyal. 

The clapping ban may seem an antiquated habit, but it is an ingenious custom of the Westminster system – one we should applaud. 

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