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THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE

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Virtual PMQs The First Virtual PMQs took place on April 22, 2020. © UK Parliament. Photo by Jessica Taylor

Keep Calm and Go Digital

How the Houses of Parliament are carrying on throughout the pandemic, with digital democracy and virtual tours
By Daniel M Byway
Published on November 19, 2020

The pandemic has given new meaning to the words ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. For decades, the phrase has been an inspiring British motto to muddle on no matter what. But during the very real challenges of coronavirus, we’ve seen many examples of that famous message in action.

The phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was first printed on a motivational poster in 1939, as an effort by the British government to keep spirits up amidst the onset of the Second World War. It’s fitting that over 80 years later the Houses of Parliament, the seat of the British government, is one of the many venues around the UK to fully embrace the spirit of those words.

Socially Distancing Democracy

In April 2020, Parliament moved to a ‘hybrid’ model, with the House of Commons and the House of Lords both introducing virtual technology to allow members to conduct parliamentary business from their home or office. This allows MPs and Lords to self isolate or shield when necessary, while still being able to participate in debates, question sessions and votes.

The hybrid model is also enabling social distancing to take place in both chambers, protecting not only those working on the Parliamentary estate, but also the democratic institutions that Parliament stands for.

There is a free virtual talk looking behind the scenes of Parliament’s hybrid model on November 26 at 6pm, with experts explaining how the digital systems work, and the impact they’ve had on membership participation. You can find more details at: www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/online-talks-and-events/behind-the-scenes-of-hybrid-parliament.

Melissa Wareham is one of your Virtual Tour Guides. Photo courtesy Houses of Parliament. Melissa Wareham is one of your Virtual Tour Guides. Photo courtesy Houses of Parliament

A Walk Round Parliament on the Web

More recently, Parliament has also introduced free virtual tours. Visiting Parliament in person is an experience you’re unlikely to forget, especially walking into the 600 year old Westminster Hall. But with in person tours suspended, the virtual tours are a great way to learn about Parliament, its history and the Palace of Westminster.

I took part in a virtual tour in September, with expert guide Melissa Wareham offering live commentary as we explored the Palace. You might think that virtual tours would lack the engagement of an in person tour, but Melissa brought the same level of knowledge, insight and enthusiasm that you’d expect when walking through the actual building.

The expertise of the guides ensures that the virtual tours are captivating and genuinely educational. Melissa explained how Parliament works, discussed the history of the building, and revealed some of the Parliamentary stories that have shaped the UK. The true measure of a tour is how much you learn, and despite having visited Parliament several times myself, I definitely finished the virtual tour knowing even more than before. There’s also 15 minutes at the end of the tour to ask your own questions for the guide to answer.

I’m not sure about you, but at the end of a tour I like a good gift shop, and Parliament’s range of souvenirs and items are all available from their online store. Knowing that winter was on its way, I nabbed a limited edition House of Commons mug for a traditional British cup of tea, but there’s lots of other items you can browse through for gifts, or for yourself. If you can’t treat yourself after everything that 2020 has thrown at us, what can you do?

I’ve become used to thinking of 2020 as the year of the ‘next best thing’, and although virtual tours can’t replicate the experience of being in the actual Palace of Westminster, they’re a reminder that sometimes the next best thing can still be enjoyable. Essential, too, as in the continued work of Parliament, running the country while keeping MPs, Lords and others safe.

While we all Keep Calm and Carry On, it's good to take a little bit of time to enjoy the next best thing until things get back to normal.

To book free tickets to attend a virtual tour of Parliament, go to ukparliament.seetickets.com/content/ticket-options

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