Tony Deyal | Order in the House
Kenneth Ramchand, professor emeritus in English at The University of the West Indies and Colgate University in the United States, is famous for his command of the English language, his pioneering leadership in West Indian literature, and his tendency to say what he means and mean what he says. During a debate in the Upper House, or Senate, of Trinidad and Tobago, where he was an independent member for about 10 years, Professor Ramchand kept being interrupted by one of the other members.
After displaying an unusual amount of patience, Professor Ramchand eventually told the chair, “Mr President, when I am finished speaking, any jackass may bray.” Consistent with the use of whatever the Speaker or president of any of the institutions based on the British system terms ‘unparliamentary language’, the naughty professor had to withdraw the word “jackass” but, fortunately, did not have to wash his mouth out with Colgate. In fact, he used the word “f***ing” while reciting a Derek Walcott poem, ‘The Schooner Flight’, in the august House but escaped because it was a quote.
If he sinned, and Professor Ramchand does not believe that the Senate president should have discriminated against jackasses, it was in excellent company. The language during any sitting of a Parliament in the Commonwealth, including in the Caribbean, tends to get out of hand, mainly because of the examples set by the early British trailblazers. For example, David Lloyd George (1916-1922) said of a Jewish parliamentarian, “When they circumcised Hubert Samuel, they threw away the wrong bit.” The great Benjamin Disraeli, who first coined, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” described one of the members, Sir Richard Peel, as “reminiscent of a poker. The only difference is that a poker gives out the occasional signs of warmth”. Disraeli was not spared criticism. One of his opponents called him “a self-made man who worships his creator”. Getting quotes from Caribbean Parliaments is difficult, so the political insult from outside Britain I like best was by Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who avoided the word ‘liar’ by this description of his opponent, Malcolm Fraser: “He is the cutlery man of Australian politics. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, speaks with a forked tongue, and knifes colleagues in the back.”
Generally, what constitutes ‘unparliamentary language’ is left to the discretion of the Speaker. However, there are some words that cannot be used as accusations or descriptions of others, including ‘liar’, ‘hypocrite’, ‘traitor’, ‘drunk’, ‘ass’, and ‘pipsqueak’. In other words, “Any Jack can bray” might be acceptable, but not, “Any jackass.” When, in 2010, Labour MP Tom Watson called Education Senator Michael Gove “a miserable pipsqueak of a man”, he had the choice of withdrawing the comment or leaving the House. In the 1980s, Labour MP Tony Banks said Margaret Thatcher was acting “with the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa constrictor”, while MP Dennis Skinner called one of his rivals a “pompous sod” (and then offered to retract the word “pompous” but not “sod”). In 2016, during the Panama Papers scandal, 80-year-old Skinner was at it again, refusing to withdraw calling Prime Minister David Cameron “Dodgy Dave”, and had to walk. Actually, when the same word, ‘dodgy’, was used in February 2015 by Opposition Leader Ed Miliband to describe Cameron (“He is a dodgy prime minister surrounded by dodgy donors”), it was not considered unparliamentary.
Winston Churchill is said to have invented the euphemism ‘terminological inexactitude’ for ‘lie’, but the phrase ‘economical with the truth’ is also acceptable. ‘Tired and emotional’ is the phrase for ‘drunk’. One Labour MP, Clare Short, in 1983 tried to use “incapable” instead of “drunk” but was forced to withdraw it. However, some members, what one might call a recalcitrant but gifted minority, never give up. Benjamin Disraeli made the first of the apologies that was just as stinging as the original unparliamentary word. He had accused half of the government of being “asses”. When an apology was demanded by the Speaker, Disraeli responded with, “Mr Speaker, I withdraw. Half the Cabinet are not asses.” Scottish Parliamentarian Tom Dalyell asked a question on the sinking of an Argentine submarine during the Falklands War: “Is it the submarine commander or the prime minister (Thatcher) who is lying?” The Speaker demanded that Dalyell rephrase the question, so he obliged with, “Is it the submarine commander or the prime minister who is telling the truth?” In 2019, Ian Blackford accused Boris Johnson, now the British PM, of being a racist, and it was allowed to stand because he had informed Johnson of his intention in advance. One week later, Blackford accused Johnson of being a liar (“He has made a career out of lying”), and no request was made by the Speaker to withdraw the statement.
It is true, as one Commonwealth MP said: “Parliament is not a Sunday school; it is a talking shop, a place of debate.” When I was a journalism student in Ottawa, Canada, in 1971, Pierre Trudeau was accused of mouthing “f**k you” in Parliament, but when taken to task, he referred to the words “fuddle duddle” as what he may or may not have said. Forty-four years later, in 2015, his son, Justin Trudeau, showed his lineage when he called the environment minister, Peter Kent, “a piece of s**t”. However, unlike his father, he apologised. In 2013, British Transport Minister Simon Burns was reprimanded after being reported for the words “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf” about diminutive House of Commons Speaker John Bercow. Burns avoided a direct apology by saying, “If I have caused any offence to any group of people, I unreservedly apologise.”
On the other hand, while he apologised for his “jackass” and did not try to spin it like Disraeli, Professor Ramchand believes that the use of the term “with all due respect” is worse than “jackass” because it is followed by gross disrespect by members who are about to “make a dig that is infra dig” and say something disrespectful or stupid. In 2009, he was proven right when Paul Gogarty, in an outburst against another member in the Irish Parliament, said to the Speaker, “With all due respect, in the most unparliamentary respect, f**k you, Deputy Stagg.” Fortunately, the sitting was suspended and not Gogarty because the word he used was not on the list of words forbidden by the Speaker. Now, if I’m caught using that kind of language, I can plead my Irish heritage and claim absolution.
Tony Deyal was last seen quoting Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose apology for calling a fellow MP a liar was, “I said the honourable member was a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. The honourable member may place the punctuation where he pleases.” Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.