By Ian R. Thorpe
So much fuss this past week over South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” upon hearing a blatant misrepresentation of the facts in President Barack Obama’s health care address to your Congress. Obama was saying things that were just not true and, where I come from, that constitutes lying.
In the debating chamber of a National Assembly, however, there is a certain etiquette to be observed. I was not aware that members of the U.S. House of Representatives are not permitted to call each other “liar,” but the reason this is so has its origins in The Mother Of All Parliaments, as we dishonestly like to refer to our own seat of government*. There, as the members do battle, they must refer to each other as “The Honourable Gentleman” in spite of everybody being aware they are all the most dishonourable and disreputable bunch of scoundrels ever to assemble under one roof.
The origin of this tradition of pretence cannot be pinpointed, but it is very old. The notion must have its roots in the feudal system, however, as it is based on the idea of a person’s status in society being ordained by God. Therefore, the reasoning goes, a person born into high estate, a noble or a gentleman would be too honourable to ever lie, just as no Knight of a chivalrous order would ever strike an unfair blow in battle, or press home his advantage if an opponent stumbled. The thread of logic is, from there, wound through the warp and weft of Britain’s unwritten constitution until now, and our elected representatives are allowed to assume this mantle of rectitude.
Yeah, right, you might well be thinking–or at least you ought to be–because, if you don’t know as well as I do, the noble Knights of old were the most rapacious, brutish, boozy, thieving rabble in history. Similarly, politicians make a career out of lying.
The nobility of the old gentry is rather questionable, anyway, as anybody with £20 to spare could petition the College of Heralds for Letters Patent and a Coat of Arms. The Thorpe Arms depict a Knight Errant facing a rampant Gryphon over the motto Super Ancient Vias (“Upon Ancient Ways”). Like I said, they’d have any rabble.
How can a relevant debate take place when participants cannot call each other liars, even though each side knows the other is a pack of liars? In Britain, we get around that by accusing people of lying while not actually calling them liars. Winston Churchill, the old rascal, was a master of this. He once accused his Labour opponent of a “terminological inexactitude” and, on another occasion, accused the Labour leaders of being “economical with the truth.”
In the weekly ritual of Prime Ministers Question Time, the Prime Minister and Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition routinely face each other across the floor and bat accusations of lying backwards and forwards without ever using the term “liar.” All remarks are, of course, addressed to the Speaker.
- “The Honourable Gentleman is misleading the House”
- “I suspect the Honourable Gentleman is answering the question he wanted me to ask rather than the one I asked.”
- “The Honourable Gentleman appear to be suffering from conceptual confusion.”
It was no better in the past. Benjamin Disraeli famously said that “there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics,” thus damning statistics for all time. A famously devious Liberal leader, David Lloyd George, was once accused thus: “It would be unfair to accuse the Right Honourable Gentleman of lying, he clearly does not understand the concept of telling the truth.”
The shots fired at Prime Ministers Question Time are of course Carnivalesque insults; the participants, after all, are playing to the crowd. It is no more than a political pie fight. In more reasoned debate, the insults must be more opaque. “An oversimplification of the case,” was one leveled at Tony Blair as he marshaled a very fragile argument to railroad Parliament into supporting war.
A technique used very cleverly by current Conservative leader David Cameron is to turn an accusation into a question:
“You are, are you not, aware that the facts do not support the information given in your answer?” Cameron recently taunted Gordon Brown while probing him on unemployment figures. Cameron, a compulsive showboater, then looked over his shoulder at his own supporters as if saying “See what I did there?” Jeers and shouts of “resign!” greeted Gordon Brown as he rose to respond.
There is a purpose to all this elaborate pretence of politeness. Anyone who has seen footage of the House of Commons will have noticed the benches occupied by the two sides are separated by a wide aisle — this is to keep opposing factions two sword-lengths apart. In the days when Westminster was a far more boisterous part of London than it is now, it was necessary for members of the assembly to arm themselves with swords to get to the debating chamber. In a heated debate which had probably been preceded for most members by a lunch involving a “pint of port” (a heavy, gout inducing fortified wine), members inevitably became over-excited.
Anybody who stepped into the aisle with a drawn sword was liable to expulsion.
Weapons are not allowed in the chamber now, but there have been several instances recently of MPs seizing the Mace–an elaborately ornamental silver gilt club that is the symbol of Parliamentary authority–and threatening opponents with it. Most famous of these incidents involved Michael Heseltine, a mangificently maned partician who felt as though the Labour Party had cheated to win a confidence motion by a single vote–that of the supposedly impartial speaker–and clung to power, and was infuriated when Labour MPs started singing The Red Flag. Brandishing the near sacred Mace, Heseltine shouted something along the lines of: “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!”
Many people thought Michael Heseltine was the best leader we never had. I’m not sure about that. I liked him — but, then again, I’m drawn to hotheads.
The tradition of physically fighting in Parliaments, through frowned upon in Britain and America, is alive and well in places where the national temperament is more volatile. The Taiwanese parliament is famed for its fisticuffs. Regular skirmishes are commonplace in Serbia. And in the Italian Parliament a few years ago, a punch-up between two members with a track record of mutual loathing developed into a free-for-all as about fifty others piled in.
A stroll along the ancient city wall is an ideal way to work off a heavy lunch in the EU Commission staff canteen. I hope nobody was naïve enough to believe organizations like the EU base themselves in such delightful locations in order to benefit the local economy. All politics is lies.
Drunkenness is also a prime cause of disorderly behaviour among politicians. Long lunches are fatal and the free meals at the European Union centres are accompanied by beer and wine that is sold far too cheaply. Debates in the European Parliament can become very boisterous, particularly since parties that oppose federalisation gained strength. I remember from my own six-month contract at the EU Commission in Luxembourg that nobody ever got anything done in the afternoon. We were fortunately not required to argue at such times over contentious issues of principle and national pride.
Though drunkenness is one of the reasons members can be excluded from Parliament, it is seldom used. One of the most famous exchanges (totally off topic but I love it) was between Winston Churchill and Mary Astor. Churchill had arrived in the Chamber for a late-night debate and, hoping to embarrass him into withdrawing, Lady Astor rose and said in an imperious tone: “You, sir, are drunk.”
To which Churchill replied: “Yes Madam, I am drunk … and you are ugly. But in the morning, I shall be sober and you will still be ugly.” Insults had class in those days.
In Britain, it is only a no-no to call a politician a “liar” in the Houses of Parliament. Call them liars in print or in public and you will be a lot safer. While it is clearly defamatory to accuse someone of lying, what are the chances a politician will sue and risk all sorts of inconvenient details of their private lives and relationships being exposed? Of the last three MPs to risk litigation after having their honesty questioned, two have served prison terms after details that emerged in the libel trials resulted in criminal prosecutions while the other was so damaged he now makes his living by appearing on reality TV shows. Now, I’m not recommending Joe Wilson should call Barack Obama a liar in print, however. People who question the American president seem more likely to end up sleeping with the fishes than facing a libel suit.
That’s the way they do politics in Chicago, or so I hear.
Mr. Wilson will have to apologise, but if he is smart his statement will be worded as an apology for bad manners and a brench of etiquette while simultaneously suggesting Mr. Obama rereads the relevant passage in his health care bill before commenting again. It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it — as Conservative European Parliament member Daniel Hannan knows.
*Britain’s Parliament was not truly part of government until after the Restoration. Iceland, The Isle of Man and Switzerland can all claim to be the oldest functioning democracy but Britain cannot. We had a 700-year break between the Saxon Witan (great council) and Cromwell’s Parliament during which Parliament was usually subject to the whim of the Monarch.
Ian Thorpe is a British satirical writer. Before retiring at a rather tender age following a serious illness, he was a consultant specializing in integrated digital networks. His projects involved him in utilities, banking and finance, oil and chemicals and many branches of commerce and government. He currently maintains his own Web presence at Greenteeth Multi Media, and has been contributing at America’s Right since March 2009.