UNPARLIAMENTARY LANGUAGE?

Bugger off and other good advice from senior statespersons

Sir Alan Duncan, Speaker John Bercow and the Palace of Westminster.

Bill Heaney’s NOTEBOOK

Now bugger off if you are an irritant. Persist, persist, persist. Write and seek a meeting and press again and again and again in pursuit of a response to entirely legitimate questions. Do not take no for an answer.

This excellent advice came from the Conservative MP Sir Alan Duncan and Speaker John Bercow during the debate on Monday night on what has turned out to be the unlawful prorogation of the Westminster parliament.

There are lessons to be learned here by every one of us involved in politics – don’t interrupt people when you have no idea what they are talking about; write and write again to the people in charge if you feel you have been dealt with unjustly, and persist, persist, persist if you feel the answers you have been given (or not given) are not satisfactory.

Do not take no for an answer.

Sir Alan said: “I would like to say three things that I hope the House will take on board. The first is to appreciate the catastrophic constitutional significance of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. I tried to repeal it in a ten-minute rule Bill in 2015. We all understand why it came into being—it was to be the glue in the coalition Government after the 2010 election—but it should have had a sunset clause.

“Its effect is now to trammel this Government and our Prime Minister in a very Kafkaesque trap: he is finding it very difficult to govern but is unable to call a general election. I very much hope that the first act of the new Parliament will be to abolish the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

“The second point is just to issue a word of caution about the danger that comes with mixing up the difficult, complicated and unresolved issue of Brexit with a potential general election.

portcullis logo“A general election is, by its very nature, general; we are all up for grabs, and all policies in a manifesto are also there for debate.

“But Brexit has been the most divisive, poisonous and difficult issue of our life. If we go into a general election with an unresolved Brexit, there is no way that a clear answer on Brexit can be said to emerge from that process.

“Quite possibly, because of the nature of Brexit and the way that it is pushing our entire post-Victorian party system into near collapse—we may have four-way competitions in almost every constituency—we may find that it does not actually resolve the problem of Government either.

“We are in a dreadful bind and that the binary politics of largely Labour and the Conservatives may be behind us, if not forever, at least for a very, very long time.”

Sir Alan added: “I will stick by the Government, but I very much regret, and it is very painful, that 21 of the most decent Members of Parliament whom I very much regard as kindred spirits have lost the Whip.

“I ask the House to imagine the scene: there is a slightly grotty Victorian building that passes as the headquarters of the local Conservative Association. There are portraits of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher on the wall, and perhaps a couple of blank spaces.

“The chairman is there and the phone rings. Someone says, ‘Look, I’m a bloke from No. 10. You have never heard of me, but I am afraid your MP has been sacked. You must strike him or her off all the records. You cannot talk to them now and we are going to re-select someone straight away.’

“The only response that a self-respecting chair can give is, ‘May I thank you very much for your call, young man? Now bugger off.’

No one raised an eyebrow at this; there was not a word of complaint or admonition about Sir Alan’s robust language.

It appears that words that can be used in the stately halls of parliament are not permissible in the cack-handed, not fit for purpose chamber of the ‘award winning’ Dumbarton Burgh Hall.

And that persons who use them, even once briefly in a moment of irritation, can be sanctioned and that customs and practices to which they were previously entitled can be withdrawn informally and unjustly by officials and members.

Burgh Hall 7I cannot see that happening in parliament, either at Westminster or Holyrood, or in the town hall of the smallest town in Scotland. Indeed, anywhere there is respect for democracy.

It is remarkable that this has been allowed to happen in the ranks of the SNP who were admirably to the fore in having the illegitimacy of Prime Minister Boris Johnston’s prorogation of parliament exposed in the Commons.

West Dunbartonshire Council have to grow up and stop behaving like children.

The inevitable football analogy is that when compared to the parliaments from whom they are expected to take a lead, they are fourth division outfit floundering in mediocrity, inexperience, inarticulacy and vindictiveness.

Oh that we had a person in the chair of the stature of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

With put downs such as the following, John Bercow would soon put their gas at a peep:

  • Wait a minute. I could not care less whether you like it or not. 
  • You would not have the foggiest idea where to start on seeking to ​counsel me on this. I require no response from you, young man. Get out man—you will not be missed.
  • This is not, however, a normal Prorogation. It is not typical. It is not standard. It is one of the longest for decades, and it represents, not just in the minds of many colleagues but for huge numbers of people outside an act of Executive fiat.
  • If you do not like it, you are perfectly entitled to your view. I could not give a flying flamingo what your view is. Thank you very much indeed.
  • I have to resort to my usual advice to quizzical Members in these circumstances: persist, persist, persist. Write, seek a meeting, and press again and again and again in pursuit of a response to an entirely legitimate question. Do not take no for an answer.

 Herewith a few quotes from the Speaker’s resignation speech, which include some wise words of advice to MPs:

  • At the 2017 election, I promised my wife and children that it would be my last. This is a pledge that I intend to keep.
  • If the House votes for an early general election, my tenure as Speaker and MP will end when this Parliament ends
  • The week or so after that may be quite lively, and it would be best to have an experienced figure in the Chair for that short period.
  • The most democratic, because it will mean that a ballot is held when all Members have some knowledge of the candidates. This is far preferable to a contest at the beginning of a Parliament, when new MPs will not be similarly informed and may find themselves vulnerable to undue institutional influence. We would not want anyone to be whipped senseless, would we?
  • Throughout my time as Speaker I have sought to increase the relative authority of this legislature, for which I will make absolutely no apology to anyone, anywhere, at any time. To deploy a perhaps dangerous phrase, I have also sought to be the Back Benchers’ backstop

I look forward to the day when there is a new administration in a public (and press) friendly chamber in the Burgh Hall in Dumbarton and the Provost is able to say truthfully something such as this: “I could not serve without the repeated support of this Council and its Members, past and present. And the media too for the benefit of those who cannot be present at our meetings.

“This is a wonderful place, filled overwhelmingly by people who are motivated by their notion of the public interest, by their perception of the public good and by their duty—not as delegates, but as representatives—to do what they believe is right for our community. We degrade this Council our peril.”


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