The Myth of Civility and Decorum in the British House of Commons

I support the adoption of the British Question Time model as a replacement to the Question Period in the Parliament of Canada, as I will explain further tomorrow. However, the overhaul of Question Period is altogether separate from the pseudo-controversy about the supposed lack of decorum in the House of Commons. Some Canadians stubbornly cling to the myth of a civil past and paradise for decorum in our House of Commons that never existed. For instance, they can never identify which of this country’s 41 Parliaments lived up to their ideal of decorum. Don Newman once proffered the absurd suggestion that the incivility of the House of Commons in the 40th Parliament results from the Reform Party’s legacy in the 35th Parliament (1993-1997). The tone of the 38th, 39th, and 40th Parliaments may have declined slightly relative to the Mulroney and Chretien years, but by no means did it attain the level of a national emergency or crisis of parliamentarism. It came about merely because all three of those parliaments were hung and thus lacked the stability and certainty of majority government. If you want to bear witness to incivility, look no further than the fist fights that regularly break out in the Taiwanese parliament.

One former parliamentarian of sound mind on this issue is Shelia Copps. At the Canadian Study of Parliament Group’s conference on Question Period Reform on 21 September 2010, she argued that parliamentarians have never been well-behaved and that during her tenure at Queen’s Park in the 1970s, many MPPs showed up inebriated prior to the arrival of television. Copps praised television for having eliminated these aspects of the good ol’ boys’ club but suggested that MPs still need to improve their decorum. As a member of the infamous Liberal “Rat Pack” in the 1980s, I consider her an authority on this subject!

More bizarrely, these same misguided reformers put the British House of Commons on a pedestal of high civility and treat it with biblical reverence. British parliamentarians are not more civil; they are merely more tactful and possess a greater wit when insulting one another that escapes their Canadian counterparts.

As you can see, British Prime Minister’s Questions often become quite raucous, or as the Brits would say, involve a lot of barracking.

British Prime Minister’s Questions, 9 March 2011: PM Cameron says to Opposition Leader Ed Miliband, “There’s only one person I can remember around here knifing a foreign secretary – and I think I’m looking at him!”

Chancellor George Osborne calls an openly gay Labour member opposite “a pantomime dame.”

Speaker John Bercow engages in a petulant denunciation to Conservative Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin.

Speaker John Bercow fails to bring the boisterous House to order and grows increasingly frustrated at a cabinet minister.

On a lighter note, current Foreign Secretary William Hughes told a witty allegory about the troubled Blair-Brown relationship in the last parliament.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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6 Responses to The Myth of Civility and Decorum in the British House of Commons

  1. Pingback: British Question Time Better Supports Parliament’s Core Function Than Canadian Question Period | Parliamentum, by James W.J. Bowden

  2. Pingback: British Question Time Better Supports Parliament’s Core Function Than Canadian Question Period | Parliamentum

  3. Pingback: Decorum in the Australian House of Representatives | Parliamentum

  4. I do agree that the UK MPs are far more witty and literate (for the most part) than our motley crew, plus everything just sounds better when spoken with a posh upper class British accent. However, your mistake is focusing on PMQs only. If you look at the ministerial Questions (the daily, ministry-specific oral questions), these are, almost always, conducted in the most civil manner. Ditto for ministerial statements and urgent questions – such as the recent ministerial statement delivered by Chancellor George Osborne on the same day that the revelations about his interest in bondage and cocaine use came out. I fully expected that at least Ed Balls would try to sneak in some sort of snotty comment about that, but nope – not one MP made a single reference to anything other than the economy. It was only at PMQs the next week that Ed Miliband made a deliberate reference to that matter. PMQs to me is the equivalent of our daily Oral Questions and utterly forgettable. A show yes, but little more than that.


    • I’ll look at the other ministerial questions. Today, I’m going to write about the Canadian Study of Parliament Group’s fall conference from 21 September 2010, at which Michael Chong discussed his motion for reforming the Oral Questions. He never said so himself, but his reforms would essentially amount to the adoption in full of the British format, which I support.


    • George Osborne does cocaine? I wouldn’t put anything past politicians….


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