Parliamentary Decorum and How Canadians Perceive Britons


Earlier this year, I noted that the current Speaker of the British House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, does not enforce the Standing Orders properly and allows members to address one another in the second person unchecked, with entire flocks of “yous” flying around the chamber. Sir Keir Starmer and other Labour shadow ministers often address Boris Johnson in the vocative sense as “Prime Minister,” – second-person-adjacent, let’s say – instead of referring to “the Prime Minister” firmly in the third person. Hoyle needs to start enforcing the proper rules after the Commons returns from its summer recess in September.

The British House of Commons just provided this week some other amusing examples shattering the myth of its “decorum” and demonstrating once again that Canadian MPs are generally far better behaved than their British counterparts. From what I’ve seen over the last two decades, Canadian MPs of all parties respect the Speaker of the House of Commons and his authority to enforce order in the chamber, and they generally refer to each other more respectfully than do their British counterparts as well.

On 13 July, British MPs shouted and jeered and barracked about like Australian MPs. One breakaway Scottish separatist (too extreme even for the absurd Scottish National Party) kept interrupting the Speaker and the Prime Minister about holding a second once-in-a-generation referendum on Scottish independence, which prompted Speaker Hoyle to yell at him, and some Conservative MPs who joined in the jeering, to “shut up!” Hoyle then named two members and instructed the Sergeant-at-Arms to escort them out. In contrast, the Bloc Quebecois here in Canada has never demonstrated that sort of contempt for the House of Commons, not even in the most heated debates in 1995 in the lead up to Quebec’s second referendum.

Later that day during Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir Starmer kept addressing outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson the second person, though this has become par for the course under Hoyle. Unrepentant to the last, Johnson took great relish in denouncing Starmer as “Captain Crasherooney Snoozefest” – a typical nonsensical Johnsonian bluster – and concluded that he shall “leave office with [his] head held high.”

The full exchange of what will be either Johnson’s penultimate or last PMQs provides much amusement as well, mostly because Sir Keir needles the chaotic Conservatives so effectively. Captain Crasharooney Snoozefest appears at 3:25.

I’ve watched Question Period here since the late 1990s, and I can’t recall an example off hand where Chretien, Martin, Harper, or Trudeau ever denounced the Leader of the Opposition in terms like “Captain Crasharooney Snoozefest” – and Chretien especially did not lack Johnson’s wit. Yes, we’ve never had a prime minister like Johnson, but I’ve cited many examples over the years which have nothing to do with Johnson either.

Why do Canadians seem to agonise over declining civility and decorum in Canada and hold up the British as an exemplar? The prestige of Received Pronunciation probably plays a role in this perception that Canadians hold of the United Kingdom. But not all these MPs speak it – Speaker Hoyle, for instance, does not – and I think that this phenomenon goes beyond accent as well. In general, Canada has this bizarre view of Britain which renders the British more orderly than they truly are, and English Canadians tend to believe that their cultural traits of deference to authority and orderliness come directly from Britain — which ironically forces them to gloss over just how riotous and unruly the English and British have been throughout their history.

The English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish fought each other for centuries. The English Plantagenets ultimately destroyed themselves in the War of the Roses. Civil wars stemming from political and sectarian grievances rocked the British Isles in the 1640s, and the remainder of the 17th century saw huge upheaval as well, culminating in the Glorious Revolution. And even in the 20th century, the British – especially the English – riot with some regularity, like in 1990 over Thatcher’s poll tax or in 2011 over hikes to tuition fees. And the widespread political violence in Northern Ireland since its creation a century ago should put the lie to British gentility, too.

I think that this problem in Canadian perception of Britain comes from when English Canada was settled, during the relatively peaceful 18th and 19th centuries, after the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian Succession. Without delving too much into the Hartz-Horowitz Fragment Thesis or Albion’s Seed, we English Canadians don’t tie our vague sense of British identity back much earlier than the reign of George III – anything before that is definitely British and not Canadian – and we therefore exclude the bloodiest and messiest bits of English and British history. Ultimately, the way that Canadians view Britons and their British ancestors says more about Canadians than it does about Britons. English Canadians don’t give themselves enough credit and attribute their own traits to British antecedents that probably aren’t even true.  This really does seem to stem from a colonial mentality, where we can only derive our meaning as Canadians with Canada remaining part of a broader British Empire or British world, and where we try to justify Canadian traditions or traits by appealing to British authority instead of celebrating them as Canadian.

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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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