RECENTLY someone in the street wanted me to open a direct debit for charity. He suddenly raised his hand in front of my face. I did nothing. ‘Well, don’t leave me hanging here,’ he said, disconcerted. He wanted me to strike his palm with my own. A kind of clapping for people with one arm – well, he was collecting for the disabled. It’s called a ‘high-five’, part of the new clapping culture which has arrived from the US along with mass hugging and men crying in public. It amounts to American-style humourless geniality.
Contestants now clap themselves on TV quiz shows, women particularly tend to applaud each other on panel games, even University Challenge. Applause breaks out at weddings and funerals – that started after Princess Diana’s brother gave her eulogy. People who don’t go to church much often begin it by mistake after the sermon. Children must now receive a hearty round of applause for everything they do, from eating broccoli to not swearing at granny.
This import is designed to show how friendly, appreciative and cohesive we all are. Not true, of course, and in Parliament on Wednesday it became a weapon of war.
During Boris’s first session of PMQs, we were diverted from the terrible spectacle of Boris Agonistes while Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough since 2017, raged against ‘derogatory, racist and Islamophobic remarks’ in an article by Boris in which he said Muslim women and everyone else can wear whatever they like, even if they look like bank robbers and letter boxes.
‘Racism,’ the turbaned fury screamed, demanding the obligatory ‘apology’. Dhesi added that he receives racist abuse from Britons thinking he’s a member of the Taliban. He certainly sounded like one, and mounted a belated, illogical digression which was likely to win beleaguered Boris more support. The opposition side of the house erupted into applause. The normally acid-tongued Speaker offered no rebuke.
Clapping in the Chamber has been banned since the 17th century. A ‘modernisation committee’ set up by Tony Blair in 1978 decided to continue that convention to guard against a practice which ‘might lead to orchestration of standing ovations with the success or failure of a speech judged by the length of the ovation at the end, disrupting the tenor of the debate, as indeed would slow handclapping’.
That was before the current obsession with inclusivity. Brian Wheeler, a BBC political reporter, expressed the popular bafflement with tradition: ‘You can join in with frankly weird displays of mass groaning or that elongated “hear, hear” thing they do,’ he wrote online, ‘but try joining your party comrades in a sincere appreciation of a point well made in the traditional way and you will have Speaker John Bercow telling you to respect the traditions of the House. But like many other things in Britain’s elasticated, unwritten constitution, the no-clapping convention is there to be broken.’
Unrelated to US-style cheerfulness, the Left has its own clapping tradition. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn recalls how someone toasted Stalin at a Communist Party conference and ‘stormy applause, rising to an ovation’ broke out. Stalin wasn’t present but the applause continued regardless. ‘Palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching,’ he wrote, ‘but who would dare be the first to stop?’
If clapped-out Corbyn gets into power the age of applause will be fully on us.