January 21, 2009

Pecksniffian Guttersnipes Need Not Apply

While members of the U.K.’s House of Commons often mount savage verbal attacks on each other, the actual words they can use are surprisingly tame. That’s because these legislators are not allowed to call each other cheaters, liars, or drunkards, and they must always preface remarks by saying, “The honourable gentleman/lady.” Of course, there are ways around these types of rules. Winston Churchill once accused a rival of “terminological exactitude.” (Translation: "Liar!")

As referenced in the House of Commons website and Sarah Lyles’ excellent The Anglo Files, other words that are unbecoming of a Parliamentarian include:
  • blackguard
  • blowhard
  • coward
  • git
  • gutternsnipe
  • hooligan
  • political skunk
  • rat swine
  • stool pigeon
  • traitor
  • Pecksniffian cant (Pecksniff was the hypocrite in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit)
I think many Americans envy the raucous spectacle that the Parliamentarians put on. Each member seems capable of an eloquent speech at the drop of a hat, as opposed to the dreary monologues that U.S. senators and representatives subject us to on C-SPAN. Perforce, members of the House of Commons have to pay attention, be prepared, and must possess fully-functioning frontal lobes.

More fascinating bylaws from the H. of C.:
The style of debate in the House has traditionally been based one of cut-and-thrust; listening to other Members' speeches and intervening in them in spontaneous reaction to opponents’ views. It is thus very different from the debating style in use in some overseas legislatures, where reading of set-piece speeches from a podium or from individual desks is more common.

This style of debate can make the Commons Chamber a rather noisy place with robustly expressed opinion, many interventions, expressions of approval or disapproval and, sometimes, of repartee and banter…..Speakers have taken care not to bridle the traditional vigour and forthrightness of the expression of opinion in the House, for the style of the House of Commons has never thrived on excessive politeness and restraint. The profound deference towards Ministers and
Prime Ministers apparent in some overseas parliaments is generally lacking in the Commons.

To maintain the spontaneity of debate, reading a prepared speech is not allowed though using notes is…..Ministers do have notes on possible supplementary
questions, drawn up by their Civil Servants to aid them in providing answers to Parliamentary questioning.

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