Codification, constitutional morality and the ‘good-chap’ theory: Analysing Dawn Butler’s expulsion from the Commons and the scope of unparliamentary language

Another – as it appears to me – constitutional catastrophe in the United Kingdom has ushered in the ritualistic calls for a written/codified constitution. 

Dawn Butler, the Labour Party MP representing Brent Central, was suspended from the Commons yesterday for calling the Prime Minister ‘a liar’ on the floor.  The suspension triggered a tumultuous debate on the need for a hard-headed method to address ministerial dishonesty. A ‘codified constitution’ was seen by many as a way out of this mess (The ‘manifest absurdity’ and ‘oddity’ in ministers lying with impunity whilst MPs are receiving suspension). 

Not by any means.

This post will probe the following three questions;(1) What are the current provisions which set out the scope for unparliamentary language? (2) Why are the demands for a codified constitution fallacious? (3) Why are the elements of ‘constitutionalism’ and ‘constitutional morality’ a pressing priority?

While Members of Parliament are granted the parliamentary privilege of free speech by the Bill of Rights 1688, they are subject to certain regulations. One of these regulations is the obligation to not use unparliamentary language. 

Paragraph 21.21 of Erskine May, the formal guide to the rules of Parliament, provides the general requirement for parliamentary acceptable/moderate language:

So, unless the language used is insulting, abusive, or likely to create disorder, an intervention or ejection – which seems rather extreme – by the Speaker, would not be expedient. The MPs set an example to their constituency – more so to the greater populace – on how political dialogues should take place. 

While the aforementioned restrictions exist, nothing is preventing a Member of Parliament from indicating that another Member has misled the House using an alternative to the word ‘liar’. To render myself immune to ejection, I would have used the term ‘terminological inexactitude’. An instance of this was observed during a parliamentary debate on the death penalty in 1965, where similar allegations of dishonesty were made. 

Mr Harris was later called a liar by another MP, who was instructed to refrain from using the word liar. This is how he responded:

If Dawn Butler felt it was necessary to use the term ‘liar’, the appropriate method of doing so – as set out in Erskine May – would have been to table a motion about the conduct of the Prime Minister:

Having said that, Ms Butler was mindful of the consequences of using the term ‘liar’ on the floor of the Commons. Being a member of Parliament for a long time, she also must have been aware of other alternatives to the term ‘liar’ and other instances where unparliamentary language was used, such as when Dennis Skinner referred to David Cameron as ‘dodgy Dave’. However, she instead took a decision that got her suspended instead of receiving an apology. 

The outrage following the suspension was mostly directed towards the lack of a mechanism to address ministerial dishonesty. As always, the demands for a codified constitution are seen as a sufficient reaction to solving such a problem. Nonetheless, such reactions are ill-judged and may elicit mere derision.

There are merits in having a codified constitution, an accessible and portable document which, on paper, would be an exemplar of how fundamental rights and liberties should be protected. Nonetheless, it appears to me that there is no practical approach available to lay down a codified constitution in the United Kingdom. Changing the status quo drastically and re-establishing an entire political system from scratch does not seem plausible, unless attempted on a blank slate. Even if a codified constitution is put in place, it would not necessarily prevent executive dishonesty, interference with the workings of the Parliament or lead to politicians simply becoming more liberal in a broad-based aspect. Regimes with written constitutions have had similar problems in the past. Such a knee-jerk demand for a codified constitution would hinder any possible discussion on improving the present – uncodified – constitution. 

As some of my posts accentuate the pressing need for constitutionalism, I will once again reiterate the same. Peter Hennessy founded the ‘good-chap’ theory of government. ‘The good chaps knew where the lines were drawn and did not push it.’ Essentially, those holding virtually unrestricted powers exercised self-restraint. This can be applied to the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom government. Likewise, a theory was postulated by John Stuart Mill, labelled as ‘constitutional morality’, which was based on a similar idea of those in power exercising self-restraint and adherence to bottom-line principles of constitutional values.

What happens when this system of self-restraint is undermined and disrupted, or the ‘good chap’ simply crosses the line? 

This is where constitutionalism comes into play. The notion that certain constitutional/political principles and rules hold greater value than partisanship. If an MP is getting away with lying, it is a result of a majority of the Commons is letting them do it. Irrespective of party, if politicians start accepting the unacceptability of dishonest conduct, the speaker could eventually have the power to not just deal with the allegations of dishonesty, but also the dishonesty itself.

It is to be noted that this is an independent judgement of this discussion, and many other perceptions and facets to this debate could be conceived. This game in optics may solve the wider constitutional predicament the United Kingdom could face. A codified constitution, however, won’t.

Brace, brace!