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HomeEducation / CultureOdour in the House

Odour in the House

By Tony Deyal

The Palace of Westminster in London, home of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is known as the “mother of all parliaments”. Reading about what has happened in it over the years and even now, I know that if it was my mother she would have beaten the hell out of me before and after putting me to sit in a corner facing the wall for a week. Actually, there are 650 elected MPs in the Commons but only 427 seats. Members who don’t want to stand during a big debate, have to be there at eight in the morning to attend prayers and must face the wall while reaching out to the Almighty who, once the devotions end, morphs into the “Speaker” of the House.

In terms of “Members”, one of them, Conservative Neil Parish, was caught watching pornography twice in the House in what he called a “moment of madness”. He said the first time was a mistake. He was looking at tractors on his phone and got a porn site with the same name and his viewing was no longer protracted but distracted. Then, he skipped the tractors totally and went for the front and rear wheels among other parts. The joke was that his wife was so upset that instead of a “Dear John” letter, she sent him a John Deere letter. The “shadow” leader of the Labour party gained considerable traction when he angrily complained, “The Conservatives knew for days about the disgusting behaviour of one of their MPs and tried to cover it up…This is a government rotting from the head down.”

NPR (National Public Radio) of the US described the Parish departure as “the latest in a string of sexual misconduct allegations in parliament.” It must have been a “G” (for government) string since another “Conservative” member, Imran Ahmad Khan, resigned after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old. David Warburton (one more Conservative) was much less than conservative and was suspended after sexual harassment and cocaine-use allegations. Then yet another Conservative, one of the party’s lawmakers, was found guilty of sexually harassing a staff member. Maybe he thought his rod and his staff would comfort him but instead they led to his undoing.

When matters like these are raised by Members, the person calling the shots is the Speaker. In Britain, one of the most interesting was John Bercow, a former “Tory” or Conservative MP who was one of the best and toughest Speakers of all time, famous for his bombastic style and his decision to ban Donald Trump for speaking in the UK parliament. He insisted that the US president should not be allowed to address members and peers due to his record of “racism and sexism”. Among his famous comments are, “I don’t want to crawl over the entrails of past disputes; “For far too long the House of Commons has been run as little more than a private club by and for gentleman amateurs”; “Fairness is not about statistical equality”; and, best of all, “I am seeking every day to restore faith in Parliament- to ensure we have a House of Commons which is representative, effective and reconnected to the people we serve.”

Another of the Speakers in the British parliament who was very clear on what she stood for was Betty Boothroyd (Baroness Boothroyd), the only woman ever to serve as Speaker of the House of Commons. When she was 17-years-old she worked as a dancer but when she became Speaker, instead of keeping the opposition underfoot, she made it clear, “You’ve got to ensure that the holders of an opinion, however unpopular, are allowed to put across their points of view.” She saw the context of parliamentary discussion in a much different way than Speakers in the Caribbean. Her view was: “The function of parliament is to hold the executive to account. We should never overlook the primacy of parliament.” The comment I like best is when she made it clear to all the members, including the party in power, “Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.”

One of the roles of all Speakers is to define what is parliamentary language and to enforce the assembly’s debating rules. For example, in the British House of Commons, to call a member a “liar” is unacceptable. The person is guilty of a “terminological inexactitude”. In fact, each country has its own unmentionables. In 1997, “liar” and “dumbo” were declared unparliamentary language in Australia and at different times the Canadian parliament banned words like “ignoramus”, “demagogue”, “Canadian Mussolini”, “sick animal”, “scuzzball”, “a piece of sh*t”, and the famous Trudeau “fuddle duddle.”

In Hong Kong, members were barred from using the expression (in both Chinese and English) “foul grass grows out of a foul ditch” and another which was equivalent to “stumble on street” but which means “go die” or “go to hell.” India brought out a book of what was considered unparliamentary including “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, bandicoot, bucket of sh*t, goonda, rat, scumbag and even loudmouth.” Interestingly, in Belgium there is nothing like “unparliamentary” language. Members are allowed to say anything they want because Belgium sees itself as a democratic state and it is a constitutional right, but only in parliament. For instance, a member called the prime minister a “pedophile” and the only thing that his supporters could do was walk out.

In the Caribbean, the major complaint is not just the amount of leeway given to the party in power but what most oppositions believe is the clear bias of the Speakers and the speed at which they are shut up, shot down or put out. Clifford E. Griffin’s, “THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: PARTISAN OR NEUTRAL? THE WESTMINSTER LEGACY IN THE ANGLOPHONE CARIBBEAN” deals with the 1995 case of a Speaker of the House in Trinidad and Tobago being put under house arrest following the government’s declaration of a state of emergency. Griffin saw it as “an outcome unthinkable in the United States and unlikely in the United Kingdom.”

I had worked for the prime minister’s office and my “beat” at one time included parliament. I asked two of the Speakers, Edgar Mortimer Duke and Arnold Thomasos, when they were in charge, why they gave the opposition so much leeway. They both said almost the same thing. The government has the majority and would win every vote. On that basis, rather than shut up the opposition, the Speaker should give them more time and leeway to make their points or case so that the people of the country would have a better understanding of the issues. What is clear to me is that these two individuals had much better sense than all those who followed them, not just in Trinidad and Tobago, but in the entire Caribbean.

*Tony Deyal was last seen laughing when he found out that when a British politician is described in parliament as “tired and emotional”, he is intoxicated or dead drunk.

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