Lies, Personalities and Unparliamentary Expressions

It often puzzles people that accusing someone of lying in parliament seems to be taken more seriously than actually lying – at least that there is some consequence. The member who has made the accusation is called on to withdraw, or rephrase, the allegation; whereas it is rare that anything is done to reprove the member who is alleged to have lied. The reason probably lies in the sixteenth-century conventions of gentlemanly violence.

The Hansard report of the debate on Roman Catholic emancipation on 17 April 1823 records a heated and tense exchange between the prominent and bitter-tongued opposition spokesman Henry Brougham and George Canning, now foreign secretary and effective leader of the House of Commons. Brougham, in the course of a strenuous attack on Canning, a previous supporter of Catholic rights, accused him of abandoning his principles in order to secure office in an anti-catholic administration. It was, he said ‘a specimen, the most incredible specimen, of monstrous truckling, for the purpose of obtaining office, that the whole history of political tergiversation could furnish’. Hansard records Canning interrupting: ‘I rise to say, that that is false’. What Hansard records next tells you a lot about the conventions surrounding the accusation of lying in the nineteenth-century House of Commons. There was, the record says, ‘a perfect silence in the House during some seconds’; and then the speaker said ‘in a low tone’, ‘that he hoped the right hon. secretary would retract the expression he had used. An individual of his high rank and station could not fail to be aware, that such an expression was a complete violation of the customs and of the orders of the House. He deeply regretted that, even in haste, it should have been used’.

There is an oddity in the fact that the speaker picks up the angry rejoinder from Canning, rather than the original insult by Brougham; ‘we have’, as the political journalist Michael McDonagh commented eighty years or so later ‘a charge of political tergiversation used without reproof from the chair, while the natural retort that the charge was false—implying, as it did, that in the making of the accusation a lie had been told—elicited an immediate reprimand.’ (MacDonagh, Parliament: its Romance, its Comedy, its Pathos, 310). The reason is that a charge of lying in the codes of gentlemanly conduct was the trigger for a challenge and a duel: Hansard preserves that moment of silence when everyone, shocked, waits to see what will happen next. The ‘words used’, one speaker in the subsequent discussion said, ‘tended to a consequence which could not be mistaken’ (it’s striking that no-one in the discussion actually uses the word ‘duel’: the idea is tiptoed around, as if saying it might actually bring it on). In fact, in this case, there was no challenge: there was a protracted discussion and negotiation on the floor of the House in which Canning was repeatedly appealed to to retract his words. Only when Brougham was persuaded to give a tortuously involved explanation of what he had said which may or may not have amounted to an actual apology, did Canning say that ‘he should think no more of it’, which non-retraction, given, perhaps that he was the leader of the House, was apparently taken to be sufficient as a retraction.

The elaborate theory and culture of honour duelling was an import to England from Italy in the mid-sixteenth century, part of a fashionable renaissance language of gentility and courtesy disseminated in manuals of aristocratic and gentlemanly behaviour, most famously Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, published in an English translation in 1561. In some of these manuals the whole etiquette of honour and how one might respond if one’s honour was affronted was dealt with in complex and minute detail, in particular what it was that would make it imperative to fight. Among all of the ways of causing offence, the key one, it was generally agreed, was to give the lie: in the words of one of these manuals, ‘the sum of all therefore, is in these cases of honour, that he unto whom the lie is wrongfully given, ought to challenge him that offereth that dishonour, and by the sword to prove himself no liar’: the accusation of lying went to the heart of a man’s status as honourable and therefore as a gentleman. (Peltonen, 59-60) The elaborate language of the honour code is satirised by Touchstone in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: you might remember the progress from the Retort Courteous through the Quip Modest, the Reply Churlish, the Reproof Valiant, the Countercheque Quarrelsome, the Lie with Circumstance, and finally the Lie Direct – ‘all these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too, with an If’. With an if: the conditional in the sixteenth century as now is the sly way of getting round any accusation of a deliberate insult. As the Speaker responded in 1835 to someone who complained that Daniel O’Connell, the great and famously sharp-tongued advocate of the repeal of the Anglo-Irish union, had told him that he would be wilfully lying if he accused O’Connell of perjury, ‘terms only conditionally applied were not such as called for the interposition of the chair’ [29 June 1835, quoted by McDonagh, 319]

The accusation of lying is not the only trigger for violence, of course: personal insults – what used to be referred to as ‘personalities’ – were naturally just as provocative, though since they were usually responded to with a lie direct the latter was as likely to be the immediate occasion as the original insult. Personality, meaning a disparaging or offensive remark survives these days only in US law; but it aptly conveys the distinction between a comment that is aimed at a general class of people – the ‘government’ or the ‘opposition’ for example – which are usually taken as part of the common currency of parliamentary debate and a comment that is aimed at one person in particular.

If the whole culture of duelling was regarded by many as a pernicious and ridiculous habit, it had taken firm root by the beginning of the seventeenth century and was impossible to eradicate, despite the efforts of successive monarchs to do so. Parliamentarians were acutely aware of the potential for violence as a result of exchanges in either House, even though the opponents of duelling often observed that there was, remarkably, no evidence of the practice in any surviving account of debates in the Senate of ancient Rome: that (as Francis Bacon pointed out) ‘extreme and exquisite reproaches were tossed up and down in the Senate of Rome and the places of assembly, and the like in Grecia’, but ‘no man took himself fowled by them, but took them but for breath, and the style of an enemy, and either despised them or returned them, but no blood spilt about them’. (Peltonen, 130)

It became common for the House to intervene collectively whenever this sort of quarrel threatened to turn nasty. An entry in the Commons journal from 1604 is often referred to as the first time the House took action. The House reviewed an ill-tempered debate the previous day on the subject of purveyance (the right of the royal household to purchase goods from local retailers at artificially reduced prices), and in particular, a speech of the eminent lawyer Lawrence Hyde. It was agreed ‘for a Rule of the House; Qui digreditur a materia ad personam [whoever descends from talking about the subject to talking about persons], Mr. Speaker ought to suppress.’ Unfortunately it isn’t known what it was that Mr Hyde had said.

This quite probably was not the first time such a rule had been articulated, just the first time it is recorded in a journal. We have two extended descriptions of the operation of the House of Commons from the sixteenth century, and they both suggest that the House spontaneously enforced a collective sense of proper behaviour, though they don’t imply that the Speaker was empowered to intervene. Thomas Hooker wrote in the early 1570s that ‘Every one ought to be of a quiet, honest, and gentle behaviour, none taunting, checking or misusing an other in any unseemly words or deeds, but all affections set a part to do and endeavour in wisdom, sobriety and knowledge, that which that place requireth’. If anyone should misbehave, ‘he is to be corrected and punished by the advice and order of the residue of the House’ (Snow, Parliament in Elizabethan England, 185). Sir Thomas Smith about a decade earlier wrote, quaintly, ‘No reviling or nipping words must be used. For then all the house will cry, it is against the order’, a couple of sentences that were quoted in various procedural manuals across the globe well into the late nineteenth, if not twentieth, centuries. It is possible though that the increased propensity of members to fight by the beginning of the seventeenth century required more strenuous intervention than the collective disapproval of the House. The House of Lords adopted a similar, though more elaborate, rule to the commons as one of its early standing orders in 1626:

To prevent misunderstanding, and for avoiding of offensive speeches, when matters are debating, either in the house or at committees, it is for honour sake thought fit, and so ordered, that all personal, sharp, or taxing speeches be forborne; and whosoever answereth another man’s speech, shall apply his answer to the matter, without wrong to the person; and as nothing offensive is to be spoken, so nothing is to be ill taken, if the party that speaks it shall presently make a fair exposition, or clear denial of the words that might bear any ill construction; and if any offence be given in that kind, as the house itself will be very sensible thereof, so it will sharply censure the offender, and give the party offended a fit reparation and a full satisfaction.

The order followed an altercation in a committee the previous day between two unidentified peers.  

In the early seventeenth century it became common for the House to vote to send one or other or both of the quarrelling members into the custody of the serjeant-at-arms until things had cooled down. The Lords in August 1641 strengthened its own standing orders with an addition to require any peer who felt himself affronted to appeal immediately to the House; shortly afterwards the Commons gave the speaker powers to take into immediate custody Members who sent challenges, or who accepted them. One scholar has tabulated instances of the Commons or the Lords intervening to prevent duels, which suggests, unsurprisingly, that they were at their peak in the 1640s, the time of the Civil War, when it records 15 such interventions in the Commons; there were 6 or them in the 1660s, 4 in the 1670s, 3 in the 1680s, and then 5 or 6 a decade over the next thirty years. Thereafter, there were fewer: 4 in the 1760s and 4 in the 1830s, which was really the last hurrah of duelling in Britain, though it wasn’t the end of bitter and disruptive rows on the floor of the House about accusations and insults, nor the threat and possibility of violence, which was still real well into the 1840s.

Something obviously had to be done in order to prevent violence between members. But by mandating the Speaker to intervene when things threatened to turn nasty, the Commons turned him into an on-the-spot judge and adjudicator and condemned itself to protracted negotiation-cum-debate on the floor of the House on who had traduced whom and what should be done about it. It’s worth noting, in passing, that violence between Members very rarely took the form of an open brawl in the middle of the House, though it has happened: these incidents usually involve an offence being given and taken, and a challenge sent and accepted, and efforts made to patch up the quarrel before an actual fight takes place. It should also be said that the vast majority of duels involving Members were nothing to do with things said in the chamber, but were more often the result of purely private arguments, or perhaps continuing bitterness over an election.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the procedural side of parliamentary rows has been the notion of an unparliamentary expression: that there are certain words and phrases that ipso facto are unacceptable in parliamentary debate. The notion that something was or was not ‘unparliamentary’ was often used in the seventeenth century, usually of underhand procedural manoeuvres, though occasionally of words used in speech (such as this example from 1669 when exception was taken to a speech by Sir Charles Wheeler ) . The eighteenth century clerk John Hatsell cautioned against any attempt to try to codify what should and what should not be allowed, in his Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons:

It is impossible to lay down any specific rules upon this point, or to declare beforehand what expressions are or are not contrary to order; so much depends upon the tone, and manner, and intention of the person speaking:–something upon the person to whom they are addressed, whether a minister in a responsible station, or a private Member not in office;–whether the words are meant to be applied to his public conduct, or to his private character;–the degree of provocation which the member speaking had received from the person he alludes to: all these considerations must be attended to at the moment, as they are infinitely various, and cannot possibly be foreseen in such a manner as that precise rules can be adopted with respect to them. When the speaker observes upon any expression as personal and disorderly, and tending to introduce heat and confusion, and this appears to be the general sense of the House, the member offending ought immediately to make an apology, and to ask pardon of the House for this breach of their order, in as large and liberal expression as possible, so as in such apology to comprehend the person of whom the words were used.

Hatsell’s words were seemingly forgotten as Speakers routinely condemned individual expressions as unparliamentary, conveying the impression that it was the word, rather than the word in context, that was damaging. There developed a sort of case-law of insult throughout the nineteenth century. The pantomime that surrounded the word ‘calumnious’ is a case in point. Palmerston in 1855 escaped censure for saying that charges made by Layard (outside the House) were ‘false and calumnious’ on the grounds that he was describing the charges, rather than referring to the Member who had made them; but Palmerston himself in 1864 complained when Layard protested that one of his colleagues had made a ‘calumnious statement’. His argument, that ‘when one member imputes to another that he has made a calumnious statement’ it implied ‘that he made that statement with the motive of distorting the truth’. There were repeated discussions over the rest of the century concerning whether ‘calumnious’ was or was not a word that necessitated intervention. From 1873, the various editions of the procedural manual originally created by Hatsell’s successor, Sir Thomas Erskine May, in 1844 began to list expressions which had been condemned by the Speaker as ‘unparliamentary’. The 1879 edition for example recorded rulings against ‘dodge’, ‘factious opposition’, ‘jockeyed’, ‘villains’, and ‘impertinence’. May seems to have limited itself to the more tame expressions, perhaps on the grounds that these were frequently used: it doesn’t record, for example, the Speaker intervening when John O’Connell accused J.A. Roebuck of attacking the Irish party in 1849 ‘with all the grimaces of a mountebank and the spite of a viper’. But as Michael McDonagh, the parliamentary journalist, observed in 1902, the ‘unparliamentary’ expressions used at Westminster tended to be ‘very mild indeed, especially when compared with the language used in the legislatures of other countries’. He might have meant the United States, where, as Joanne Freeman has shown in her The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018) parliamentary insult and violence had an almost ritualistic flavour.

The continuing greater inventiveness of unparliamentary language elsewhere is also suggested by the list maintained by the Society of Clerks at the Table, an association of parliamentary clerks throughout the commonwealth. The list of unparliamentary expressions was purged from new editions of Erskine May in the 1950s, presumably as it was increasingly recognised to be pointless, but it was kept up instead in the Society’s journal, The Table, which incorporated the much more colourful expressions used in some commonwealth parliaments, such as ‘ranting ratbag’ (from Queensland, in the 1950s) or ‘big bellied, flat nosed, Yankee speaking pilot fish’ (from Trinidad, in 1952), or a particularly daring attack on the speaker himself, also from Queensland: ‘I should like to ask you Mr Speaker to advise the House why, when you are in the chair, you do not wear a helmet and look like Ned Kelly as well as act like him’.

Further reading

Markku Peltonen, The Duel in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2003)

Eugene Wolfe, Dangerous Seats: Parliamentary Violence in the United Kingdom (Stroud, 2019)

Joanne Freeman, The Field of Violence: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War (Picador, 2018)


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