On the 23rd of July, Dawn Butler, MP for Brent Central, was ordered to leave the House of Commons after calling Boris Johnson a liar. After claiming that the Prime Minister had “lied to the House and the country over and over again”, Miss Butler was provided the opportunity to retract her comments by the acting Deputy Speaker. After consideration, Miss Butler refused to do so. Parliamentary protocol stipulates that “unparliamentary language” is not permitted in the chamber. While Miss Butler may have had grounds to call the Prime Minister a liar, the act itself was not permitted in the House of Commons. Twitter reacted quickly to this news, and once again questions have been raised about the archaic and confusing rules which govern the Commons.
Seemingly, being called a liar is one of the less amusing slurs on the banned list. More comical inclusions are “pipsqueak”, “swine”, and “tart”. The rules of parliament do not stop at name-calling either. Members cannot clap, must wear the correct clothing, cannot address anyone by name, must always direct their speech to the Speaker, cannot wear armour, and must not speak in Welsh. While some of these rules have quite clear logic – such as speaking in one language – others have not aged well since the thirteenth century.
Particularly, as Miss Butler demonstrated, speaking the truth does not trump parliamentary protocol. Boris Johnson has been accused on numerous occasions of lying about a wide range of things. This was most apparent during the Brexit Campaign, where Johnson repeatedly claimed that the UK would benefit by £350m a week should it leave the EU. This claim was later debunked by statisticians and the Treasury, which made it clear that £350m does not (and never did) leave Britain each week. In fact, this figure was a statisticians nightmare in the making, as it confused net and gross contributions. The UK most certainly contributed less money than was suggested, and all figures failed to account for the rebates and investment which the EU sent back!
Other falsehoods uttered by Mr. Johnson include claims that the UK would remain in the Erasmus programme and that there would be no change to the rights of EU citizens following Brexit. On the first point, demonstrating the inaccuracy of the PM is simple – the UK is no longer a part of the Erasmus programme. This scheme will be replaced with the British Turing Scheme. As for the second point, the rights of EU citizens have changed. EU citizens who wish to continue living in the UK now must apply for a settlement scheme, which has more hoops to jump through. Figures show that 76,700 applications have been refused or declared invalid. All in all, these revealing facts paint a convincing picture about the Prime Minister.
In essence, Miss Butler was ejected from the House of Commons for being bold enough to tell the truth. Boris Johnson has said things which are not true. While some may declare her language “unparliamentary”, a great deal of onlookers took the opportunity to thank Miss Butler for her candour. The biggest scandal of the day was not a member breaking protocol, but that she was thrown out because she was wholeheartedly accurate when she did so.
Naturally, some rules in the Commons have a long history and a steadfast logic. Members will find it hard to talk over one another without a stern reprimand from the Speaker and there is no chance of speech being drowned out by applause. Other rules may be quirky and peculiar but present no material obstacles to well-reasoned debate. One such guideline is the ban on armour in the chamber. I for one find it unlikely that MPs would take offence at stepping out of their chainmail before sitting down. Like most rulebooks, some of them just do not make sense and nobody quite cares. In other instances, blindly adhering to out-of-date practices may impinge on progress.
You cannot call someone a liar in the House of Commons, even if they are one. What Miss Butler demonstrated to the nation is that telling the truth is not always allowed. What Miss Butler showed us all is that this should not deter you. It is important that the MP for Brent Central and people like her continue to tell the truth, even when the truth hurts or when some people do not want to hear it.
When the rules no longer make sense, the rules must change. I have long had a great respect for the traditions and mystery which coat the halls of Parliament, but nobody should be punished for telling the truth. The people of the UK should be grateful that there is still some integrity out there in the age of misconception and post-truth. Parliament has seen eight-hundred years of British history and it has matured and adapted with each century that it has witnessed. We have had MPs who are women, MPs who are Black, MPs who are gay, MPs who are related, MPs who are old, MPs who are young, and even MPs who are Scottish (as surprising as this would be for the Kings of the 13th century). These successes have been championed. Now must also be an age where we champion MPs who are honest.
Written by Isaac Knowles
Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.