“Change comes when people are prepared to break the old rules.” So said, Deborah Meaden, businesswoman and TV show star of the BBC’s Dragons’ Den yesterday in response to events in the UK Parliament yesterday when Labour MP, Dawn Butler was expelled from the House of Commons for one day for calling the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a liar. Butler’s exact quote in the House of Commons chamber was that Johnson had “lied to the House and the country over and over again.”
Two principles had come into conflict. On the one hand, misleading the House is supposed to be a serious charge. It was once the kind of thing you’d resign over, or at the very least apologise for. But even though Butler’s examples are well documented, that has not happened. On the other hand, parliamentary rules state that MPs are not allowed to accuse each other of lying in the House of Commons. So when Butler made her speech, it was clear what would follow. She was told to retract. She refused. She was thrown out. What’s the difference? Why did one principle hold while the other fail? It’s because one is directly enforceable by the Speaker and the other is not. If an MP accuses another MP of lying, the Speaker must intervene. But the rule on misleading the House is much weaker. It is a convention governed by the Ministerial Code of which the Prime Minister is the final arbiter.
The person misleading parliament can escape any consequence. The person who points it out is censured. This is the outcome the system has generated: he who lies gets away with it, while she who tells the truth is punished. The UK system is based on honour. It presumes that the prime minister is a person of unquestionable moral stature, so they can be handed the power to regulate themselves and others. You can see how this might go wrong…
But actually I was more interested in Deborah Meaden’s tweet – is she right? Does breaking the rules eventually bring change? What does history tell us? Of course there is good and bad change, and bits that fall in the middle – the Suffragette movement saw many women protest about the right to vote which finally led to universal suffrage in the UK in 1929. The 1990 Poll Tax riots were one of the catalysts that ended that unpopular UK tax in 1991, but not without serious violence and disorder. The campaign for Civil Rights in the United States for African Americans were marked by symbolic rule breaking like Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of bus. Later, similar advances were made by the Gay Liberation Front and rights for LGBTQ people – think how common same-sex marriage now is across many countries of the world. Donald Trump claimed to be breaking the rules by not being part of the political establishment and that he come to ‘drain the swamp’. That change sounded appealing to some until people found out that he came to profit from the swamp instead with four years of grift for himself, his company and his cronies.
However, on the whole I think Meaden was right in her short analysis. Most of the time change has come when people have broken the rules, but also intertwined with the ruling classes fearful of their own fate, and fear of the mob. The French Revolution, which saw the many French nobility, and eventually Louis XVI lose their heads to the guillotine, cast a long shadow and saw the British ruling classes put down many early nineteenth century protests, but fear of revolution and a burgeoning working class during the rest of the century inevitably helped fuel reform of the House of Commons and gradually expanding the voting franchise. Indeed by the end of the 19th century the newly emerging Labour party had grown out of the growing trade union movement that had campaigned for workers right and better conditions, that at its outset had been illegal. But workers formed trade unions and broke the rules, withdrew their labour, and protested and started the organising of community politics. Dawn Butler would not be a Labour MP without the long history of the labour movement and Labour party behind her.
There are of course notable exceptions. When Margaret Thatcher decided to tackle an already declining UK coal mining industry the strikes that culminated in the 1984 Miners’ Strike did not bring welcome change for the miners and their union; they lost their protest and the decline and change of coal-mining communities across the UK’s coalfields continued until nearly all the pits were shut, with significant adverse social consequences.
But it does seem rather odd that lying in Parliament is acceptable, but calling out the lies, assuming there is good substantiated evidence to do so, is not. That seems like sensible rule breaking to me, and there’s a long history of breaking the rules to bring about positive change across the United Kingdom. Just ask the Suffragettes.