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Unparliamentary Expressions

Volume 61: debated on Wednesday 6 June 1984

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall yesterday, Mr. Speaker, the exchanges on the use of the word Fascist by Opposition Members to describe certain Government supporters. It would be improper for me and out of order to challenge your ruling or rulings on that issue, but I think that there was an element of confusion in the rulings which you gave. In column 166 you said:

"we all know that the word Fascist has a connotation here which is not pleasing."
The presumption of that remark is that there might be another connotation where it would be pleasing.

Later, in column 167, Mr. Speaker, you said:
"I hope that we shall not hear this phrase"—
I presume that you meant "this word"—
"used in this House."
There was an air of finality about that. That suggested that in no connotation would we be able to use the word.

In column 168, in response to a representation from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), you conceded
"that there are Fascist parties that contest elections but they have not been elected to this House."
It is true that they have not been elected under that name.

It seems that in the three exchanges to which I have referred there was an element of confusion. At one stage there was an element of rigidity and at another an element of flexibility. There was the concession that Fascist
"is a serious political term." —[Official Report, 5 June 1984; Vol. 61, c.166–68.]
that was the expression used by my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood—and that Fascists stand for Parliament. I have looked up the word "Fascist" in the Oxford English Dictionary. It describes a Fascist as a person of
"right-wing authoritarian views."
That seems to be an accurate description of a large majority of Conservative Members. I looked up further the definition in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. It describes Fascism, which I presume is the philosophy that is supported by Fascists, as
"any program for setting up a centralized autocratic national regime".
That fits this Government's programme like a glove.

I have been in this place for a fairly long time, and in my view the House is in danger of becoming far too sensitive in its use of the English language. Compared with earlier days we are like a namby-pamby church tea party. It is time that we stopped that. There should be, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday, a degree of flexibility and much greater liberality in the use of our rich language in the House.

I shall deal with this matter first. I would not wish there to be any misunderstanding in the House about my ruling yesterday. The basic guidance on which the House relies in considering unparliamentary expressions is set out in "Erskine May" on page 432, which states:

"Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language. Parliamentary language is never more desirable than when a Member is canvassing the opinions and conduct of his opponents in debate."
Whether a word should be regarded as unparliamentary depends on the context in which it is used. Context is all-important. "Context" means how the word is said, the circumstances in which it is said and when it is said.

In the context yesterday I am satisfied that the use of the word Fascist was intended to give offence to a Member and amounted to a reflection on his honour.

I am not, of course, ruling that the word Fascist can never be used in debate. On this day, of all days, the anniversary of the day on which many of our fellow countrymen died to ensure that this country remained free from Fascism, we should refrain from using that word to attack each other. I remind the House that we are all honourable Members, and we should debate with each other in that spirit.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that the House is grateful to you for that amplification of yesterday's ruling in response to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). A distinction has been drawn about context. Although the whole House accepts that you have the ultimate and proper authority for deciding whether the context rules out the use of a particular word, other hon. Members have the right to disagree with you. Nevertheless, hon. Members accept your authority on that matter.

Yesterday, hon. Members, especially Labour Members, were greatly and genuinely disturbed by the apparent, though now amended, statement from the Chair that the use of the word Fascist was initially unparliamentary. We were concerned because, in the whole of the 40 years since we found ourselves at war with the Fascist states, during which time unparliamentary words were listed in "Erskine May", the word Fascist was never ruled unparliamentary.

There are occasions—this is an important point—when the use of the word Fascist is not an attack on the honour of a Member of Parliament. There may be occasions when it is a reasonable description of an hon. Member's beliefs and values. I am sure that, although we fully understand that the context is all, you have drawn a distinction that will go a long way towards satisfying the doubts that were expressed yesterday.


On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to refer back to your earlier ruling on the use of the word "Fascist". I am not 100 per cent. sure whether you intend to permit the continued use of the word, or whether it will depend on the context in which it is employed. I should point out that the Prime Minister used the word during Prime Minister's Question Time on 8 December 1983. In column 467 of the Official Report she referred to the nature of "the Fascist Left." One of the problems is that the Official Report uses a capital "F" for Fascist, whereas if it used the lower case for it, and treated it as an adjective, it would fit in with the correct readings given by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) of the interpretations used in both Chambers and the Oxford dictionary.

For some reason, the 20th edition of "Erskine May" omits the appendix of unparliamentary expressions. Perhaps it might be in order at some stage, Mr. Speaker, for you to look through the list in the 19th edition to see whether some of the words still considered unparliamentary could be loosened for more regular usage. For example, I was referred to as a "hooligan" by a Conservative Member. Frankly, knowing the hon. Gentleman who used the expression, I felt that it was something of a compliment. Nevertheless, it appears in the 19th edition of "Erskine May" as being unparliamentary, as do "humbug" and "Pharisee". I would cheerfully call Conservative Members Pharisees if I thought that they would be in any way insulted. But perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you will look at the 19th edition of "Erskine May".

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I readily accept the good sense behind your ruling on the label "Fascist". However, is it in order to refer to Conservative Members as the lumpen bourgeoisie?

If the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) study carefully what I have said in the Official Report tomorrow morning, they will find the answer to their questions.

However, let me make it doubly clear that I did not intend to rule yesterday that the word Fascist may never be used in debate. My ruling applied to the use of the word when addressed to an hon. Member — as it was yesterday—in a way that is intended to give offence and to be a reflection on that hon. Member's honour.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your clarification. Would I be in order to use the word "Tory" when it impugned the honour and character of a Member of Parliament, who objected to that word being used against him? For example, I often use the word "Tory" when referring to the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), and I wish to continue using it when I refer to him.

I was dealing seriously with these matters and I do not think that we want to reduce them to a farce.