4 Ridiculous Things Actually Suggested in Parliament
The Parliament of the United Kingdom is often referred to as the ‘mother of all parliaments’, after an 1865 speech by John Bright.
The phrase is occasionally used in praise of the British parliamentary system. More often, though, it’s rolled out in opposition to or criticism of it, usually by people who wish to reform the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, who criticise the under-representation of women and minorities in parliament, or simply as an ironic counterpoint to a particular point of political stupidity. The principle that the UK has “the mother of all parliaments” is also frequently called into question, as the claim hinges on the numbers of countries around the world that based their parliamentary system on the UK’s own – most of which did so not through a process of assessing different systems and concluding that the UK’s was best, but because of their history of colonial occupation by the UK.
The British parliament has seen plenty of turbulent times, including a Civil War centred around protecting its freedoms, but it’s also seen plenty of ridiculousness. There’s the silliness of questions asked to the Prime Minister by MPs, for instance. Some recent examples include: “To ask the Prime Minister, when she has met leaders of the Overseas Territories”, response, “details of Ministerial overseas travel is published quarterly and is available on the gov.uk website” (which the same MP had also asked a fortnight previously, getting the same answer); and “To ask the Prime Minister, on what occasions she has met and conversed with members of the public in her official capacity since she became Prime Minister on 13 July 2016”, response, “I meet members of the public all the time.”
In this article, we take a look at four examples of the weird and wonderful discussions that MPs and the British Parliament have genuinely had.
1. The hedgehog debate
We’ve written before about the memorable Parliament hedgehog debate, but it’s worth revisiting in more detail (and even reading the full, joyful text of the debate – scroll down to ‘Hedgehog Conservation) as it may go down as one of the silliest and most entertaining debates that the British Parliament has ever had.
Raised by Oliver Colvile, Conservative MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, it was a debate intended to raise awareness of the need for conservation of hedgehogs, a species which is undergoing a precipitous decline in the UK, through the suggestion that the hedgehog should become Britain’s official national species. Currently there isn’t an official species, but it is implicitly the lion. And to a certain extent, it worked – there was the first Parliamentary debate on hedgehogs since 1566 (when, in contrast to the recent concern over wildlife conservation, a bounty of tuppence was put on any hedgehog killed) and national newspapers covered it extensively. Hopefully a few people even looked into joining the Hedgehog Preservation Society or converting their gardens into hedgehog-friendly habitats.
Some MPs had fun with the question – Martin John Docherty, the SNP MP for West Dunbartonshire, poked gentle fun at his own party’s preoccupation, by asking, “Does the hon. Gentleman agree that hedgehogs are a devolved issue to be decided on by the Scottish Government?” Others took it more seriously, sharing ideas for hedgehog conservation, such as designating specific conservation areas, or cutting holes in garden fences to allow hedgehogs to roam as much as they need to in order to find a mate. Similarly, Colville highlighted the importance of checking bonfires for hibernating hedgehogs, as Bonfire Night can be a dangerous time of year for them, as well as becoming a Hedgehog Champion in the local community.
However, probably the starring role in the debate was taken by Rory Stewart, then the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He opened his speech in Latin, quoting Erasmus saying “Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum” (the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one important thing). He then went on, in a remarkably well researched speech, to reference the history of hedgehogs in the UK and around the world, to quote Shakespeare, to discuss the biology of the hedgehog, to refer to scientific misunderstandings about hedgehogs through time, and to talk at length and in detail about further points of conservation and how hedgehogs can prove a particular challenge to traditional conservation practices as they prefer “liminal land” such as hedgerows, rather than wide-open nature reserves. He agreed that hedgehog preservation was essential, but ultimately thought that the lion – “majestic, courageous and proud” – made for a better national symbol than the hedgehog.
Despite the subject matter, the Deputy Speaker described it as “one of the best speeches I have ever heard in this House”.
2. Pigeon bombs
Early-day motions, or EDMs, are short, formal motions that are submitted for debate in the House of Commons. They are only very rarely debated but can get media interest and public attention, so they are a valuable mechanism for encouraging change all the same. They have to be short (no more than 250 words), and they can draw attention to an event, publicise an MP’s views, or generally demonstrate support for a particular perspective or opinion that may not be supported or considered important by a mainstream parliamentary party. It’s worth bearing in mind that most EDMs are sensible and useful, especially when you consider EDM 1255, which is worth quoting in its entirety:
“That this House is appalled, but barely surprised, at the revelations in M15 files regarding the bizarre and inhumane proposals to use pigeons as flying bombs; recognises the important and live-saving role of carrier pigeons in two world wars and wonders at the lack of gratitude towards these gentle creatures; and believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out thus giving nature the opportunity to start again.”
Aside from the fact that it demonstrates at least one MP doesn’t know how to spell “life-saving” and whoever put it the EDM on permanent record didn’t see fit to correct them, this EDM is particularly noteworthy for its signatories. Along with its writer Tony Banks, there are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, then known as a couple of particularly rebellious back-bench MPs, now known as the Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Chancellor – or to put it another way, two of the most important and influential members of the House of Commons. Yes, that’s two of the most important men in Britain (though no one would have suspected it at the time) celebrating the potential destruction of the Earth.
Also enjoyable are the amendments by Peter Bottomley, a Conservative MP who possibly had a bit too much time on his hands. If amended as Bottomley suggested, the EDM would read:
“That this House recognises the important and life-saving role of carrier pigeons in two world wars and wonders at the lack of gratitude towards these gentle creatures and looks forward to the day when humans and other creatures may with luck have the chance to live together again.”
… which is sweet, but possibly not quite the message that the writer, Corbyn and McDonnell intended.
3. Laws on vellum
Not every ridiculous debate ends in failure. Since as long ago as 1999, the House of Lords agreed to print laws on paper instead of vellum, which is parchment made from calfskin – you may have seen it used in medieval Bibles, for instance. The UK has printed its laws on vellum for around a thousand years, and the oldest law still in parliamentary archives was inscribed on vellum in 1497. But in 1999, parliament blocked the move to paper by 121 votes to 53, and in the recent discussion, ministers moved to block it again.
The debate is one of tradition and endurance on one side, and cost on the other. Those who oppose the use of vellum note that it costs at least £80,000 a year and that high-quality archival paper, which would be used instead, lasts for hundreds of years – nearly as long as vellum does. There’s also the animal-rights argument, of course; no calves die for laws to be written on paper. But the vellum advocates say that the use of vellum is an ancient and valuable tradition, and that while paper can be long-lasting, vellum indubitably lasts longer, and may even be able to outlast digital storage methods. They argue that it is a false economy.
And the end result was that while the Lords got to save money, it was only because the Cabinet Office agreed to cough up the required £80,000 a year instead. Matt Hancock, then the Cabinet Office minister, tweeted his delight at the news, using the hashtag #Vivavellum – which did not go viral.
4. The Trump debate
In 2011, the government set up an e-petition website, which can be found here. Petitions on it receive millions of signatures every year, encouraged by the rule that the government will respond to all petitions that get more than 10,000 signatures, and consider any petition of more than 100,000 signatures for debate in Parliament. It has the potential to be a hotbed of ridiculous suggestions, but in fact most of the top petitions have been either sensible, or at least reflective of sentiments held by a sizeable chunk of the British population, such as the call for a second EU referendum, for all children, not just newborns, to be offered the Meningitis B vaccine, for the legalisation of cannabis, and for a fairer petition system for women born in the 1950s.
In January 2016, the most-signed petition at that time was one that called on the government to block Donald Trump from entering the United Kingdom, arguing that “the UK has banned entry to many individuals for hate speech. The same principles should apply to everyone who wishes to enter the UK. If the United Kingdom is to continue applying the ‘unacceptable behaviour’ criteria to those who wish to enter its borders, it must be fairly applied to the rich as well as poor, and the weak as well as powerful.” At that point, of course, Donald Trump was only one of many possible Republican candidates for the presidency, and very few people thought he would even win nomination. The petition reached 573,971 signatures by the time that it was debated in parliament – nearly one in every hundred people in the UK had signed it.
So on 18 January 2016, the British parliament debated the idea of banning a man from entering the UK who would less than a year later become President-Elect of the United States, on the basis on his hate speech. Many MPs supported the ban, and very few who opposed it did so on the basis that Trump’s comments were reasonable; the majority of those opposing the ban gave their reasons along the same lines as Labour MP Paul Flynn, who argued “the great danger by attacking this one man is that we can fix on him a halo of victimhood. We give him the role of martyrdom, which can be seen to be an advantage among those that support him.” Other MPs welcomed Trump to Britain on the basis that he could be shown the error of his ways. DUP MP Gavin Robinson (not a party that is usually known for political cuddliness) said, “Let him come here … let him go home with his tail between his legs.” Victoria Atkins, MP for Louth and Horncastle, described him as a “wazzock” – an onomatopoeic British insult that Trump may never have heard before, but that he would hopefully understand without explanation.
What this says about the British parliament – or indeed, the future President of the United States of America – is a matter for debate. But it is impressive that a petition started by a single member of the public and backed by huge popular support could have an impact where the mother of all Parliament holds such a debate – no matter how ridiculous it now seems in light of subsequent events.
Image credits: parliament; men in suits in house of commons; hedgehog; pigeon; parchment; no entry sign.