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7 February 2008

Lies, swearing and utter b**locks

Lib Dem Greg Mulholland reflects on his "mace moment" -when he was recorded swearing at a minister i

By Greg Mulholland

Even before I entered the House of Commons, I always I knew wanted to have my “mace moment”. I remember, as an A-level politics student, being something of a fan of Michael Heseltine. In particular, I remember reading an article by then MP, Matthew Parris, about MH’s rise to the cabinet, and how it suggested that all such rises were achieved by one of two ways (I paraphrase from memory); either by crawling up the staircase of deferment on your belly, or by kicking down the door. Mr Heseltine was not, it concluded, a staircase man. That’s the kind of MP I want to be one day, I thought.

I may now have ruined my slim chances of getting into the cabinet, and whether using a rude word is quite up there with swinging the historic mace, I doubt. But it has been interesting to be at the centre of the latest furore about unparliamentary language.

Hansard actually records that I called care minister [Ivan Lewis] an a******* in a debate on hospice funding in Westminster Hall last week. It has been suggested that I called him an aardvark, an abattoir or perhaps even an american.

But unlike defence minister Bob Ainsworth, who was reported (literally) as talking “bollocks” in the chamber, before he claimed it ‘wasn’t him guv’ and it was deleted – I will accept what was said and that it was me. I cannot, to use an unparliamentary term, tell a lie.

Calling a Minister an arsehole was not quite as verbally creative as Winston Churchill remarking that some fibbing MP had used a “terminological inexactitude”. But to be frank, I think it made the point better, if in a rather vulgar way.

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This was not actually the first time the word “arsehole” has been used in parliament, and I think my usage of it was considerably less offensive than Nicholas Fairburn’s extraordinary description of gay sex in 1994 during a debate with then shadow home affairs minister, Tony Blair. Although Mr Fairburn was asked to sit down, he wasn’t asked to apologise.

I have to confess, however, that last week was not the first time I had broken the code of language in parliament. Last year, it was my turn to clash with Mr Blair during one of his last PMQs as prime minister, when during a heated exchange of views I said, indeed shouted, “It’s a lie, it’s a lie”. Which it was (though perhaps claiming I hadn’t bothered going to a meeting I was never invited to is hardly in the same league as lying about why we going to declare an illegal war – but a lie is still a lie). But in the playground melee of PMQs, this wasn’t picked up by the official recorders, whereas in the quieter setting of a Westminster debate on hospices, my recent comment most certainly was.

The convention of unparliamentary language is a long one. Listed unacceptable words still include: blaggard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, ignoramus, liar, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor. (And strangely, many considerably ruder modern expletives are not on this prohibited list – not that I am proposing testing the water, in case my Whips are reading!) Apparently, “shit” is not unparliamentary language when used as a noun to refer to faeces. You can’t say another MP is drunk, as Clare Short did of Alan Clark but was subsequently forced to withdraw (Clark admitted in his diaries she had been quite correct). And accusations of dodgy deals or insinuation of the use of illicit substances are considered most unparliamentary (all regularly done by Dennis Skinner, who has been ‘named’ more times than any other MP).

So is it time to update this list? Is it time to allow MPs to speak in a way that reflects better modern Britain? The mind boggles. Parliament does move, albeit very, very slowly, with the times. Only last year, I was pulled up by describing the prime minster’s factually incorrect statement about the meeting as “misleading” (I had only been an MP for two years, but knew I couldn’t get away with, “he lied through his shiny white teeth”), the Speaker asked me to amend my comments to “inadvertently misleading”. However a few months later, new PM Gordon Brown used the same language to describe David Cameron and whilst the speaker appealed for more “temperate language”, the comment was allowed to stand.

Alas, of all the things we say to each other in parliament, the one that seems to offend the public most at the moment, is probably MPs referring to each other as “honourable”, particularly in light of recent financial scandals. It is that kind of offence we really need to take more seriously. Parliament does indeed need to clean up its act, even if it doesn’t need to wash its mouth out with soap.

But as for my language, I have learnt my lesson. In the future, if I want to give a minister, or any other MP, a piece of my mind, I will wait till the debate is over and we are outside the chamber. And I won’t be calling them a stoolpigeon. Unless of course I think they have behaved like one.

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