The procedures and conventions of the House of Commons are labyrinthine. And its voting arrangements are a perfect example.
Not for MPs the simple cross in the box or the click of a mouse. No, when the Speaker asks us to decide a particular motion, we’re compelled to yell back aye or no. On the basis that the noise seems sufficient to signal disharmony, the Speaker bellows “Division!” and the bell sounds.
MP then have eight minutes to run from their offices and meetings, or ease themselves up from the green benches and decant into the Ayes and Noes lobbies. At the extremity of each of these, the lobby clerks perch on raised chairs, their high desks carrying the name of every MP. As we pass, they cross us off.
Then the lobby doors are opened just enough - and bolted to the floor at the extent - to allow one person to exit at a time. As we file out, like sheep from the dip, they count us.
This information is then presented to the House by the means of bowing and processing, nodding and, finally, shouting. It’s all enormously elegant, if archaically mysterious.
But it was something of an honour to take the role of “teller” the other day, and do the lobby counting and announce the result to the House. This was on the motion to persuade the Government to recognise that the actions of Islamic State – or Daesh as they should be called – amount to genocide and that, therefore, they should be referred to the International Criminal Court.
I was very pleased to support this motion and contribute to the debate. The actions of Daesh, many of which we heard about in powerful and appalling detail, are genocidal not just by consequence but by specific design.
In Daesh’s latest propaganda sheet, this distinction is clear. Any form of tolerance or pluralism must be crushed. Indeed we hear that “the death of a single Muslim, no matter his role in society, is more grave… than the massacre of every kafir on earth.”
The same article goes on, “Any disbeliever standing in the way of Islamic State will be killed, without pity or remorse until… government is entirely for Allah.”
The Government believes that a decision on whether the word “genocide” is applicable must be one for international judicial bodies, but I joined with a unanimous House of Commons in pressing the case that a vote for the motion would begin the process of a referral to the International Court from the UN Security Council, and would send a signal to the perpetrators that they will be brought to justice.
So it fell to me to bow, walk forward steadily, bow again and announce the unanimous verdict to an expectant House. An émigré writer from a previous generation wrote that “words without experience are meaningless”. The reverse is also true. When hundreds of thousands are suffering, we must apply the only word that is adequate.