Download: Annual Report 2016/17

Courteous language

Posted on by Phillip Lee

Anyone who has seen the coverage of debates in the House of Commons will have been struck by some of the strange traditions of the House: bobbing up and down when one wishes to speak in a debate, a practice known as catching the Speaker’s eye; referring to the House of Lords as “the Other Place”; and the leaving of Prayer Cards to reserve a seat on one of the benches – the parliamentary equivalent of a towel on the sun-lounger.

Of course, Parliament has its roots in a more violent age.  Indeed, there is still a 700-year-old statute in place that prohibits wearing a suit of armour in the Houses of Parliament.  Because it was intended as a place to discuss differences as opposed to fight over them, many of parliament’s traditions are in place to maintain the dignity of the House and its Members.  All speeches are directed to the Speaker, not to individual members, and members never refer to each other by name.  Instead they use the term “My Honourable Friend” or “The Honourable Member.”  (Right Honourable is used when the person concerned is a member of the Privy Council.) 

Within the Chamber, the Speaker is the only person who may refer to a member by his or her name, and it is because of this tradition that a member who is suspended from the Commons is said to be ‘named’, i.e. by using the person’s name they are no longer considered to be a Member of the House.

These practices may seem quaint, but they serve to make criticism and comment less direct and so help to reinforce that the debate represents a difference of ideas, each of which is equally valid.

Whilst this tradition of courtesy has been upheld in Parliament, during 2016 it seems to have taken a nosedive amongst political debate outside of the Chamber.  The terms liar and hypocrite (incidentally both banned in parliamentary debates) are now becoming regular terms of insult.  As with so many things, this trend is being magnified on social media, where there are no boundaries.  During the presidential election in the USA even the candidates used terms to describe their opponents that I don’t feel able to repeat in a family newspaper.

Everyone who has a public platform must consider the effect that some of these disparaging remarks can have on the people reading or listening to them.  A person is not a traitor if they wish to help people in need in other countries.  They are not unpatriotic by suggesting the country adopts a different path.  Also, I can also honestly say that during the 25 years I have been involved in public life, I have never met an enemy of the people.

This trend is unhealthy, and it is time to dial back on the rhetoric to return to the tolerance for which this country used to be renowned.

I should like to wish everybody in the Bracknell constituency a happy, prosperous, and most of all courteous, New Year.