Shortly after taking the reins as Britain's Health Minister last year, Tory MP Simon Burns was gently admonished in the House of Commons by the Speaker, John Bercow. In a remark not quite sotto enough, Mr. Burns offered his reasoned opinion that the Speaker was a "stupid, sanctimonious dwarf."
Mr. Bercow can stand comfortably in a 15th-century door frame, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in common sense. He chose to ignore the remark.
However, a local charity devoted to ending calumny against dwarves was not so forgiving. The Health Minister grovelled - to the offended tiny people of the world, but not the Speaker.
It has not hurt his career. In much of the world, rudeness is a central weapon in the politician's artillery; the poisoned dart used to subdue a political opponent will be remembered, and quoted, throughout history. "His smile is like the silver fittings on a coffin," Benjamin Disraeli said, memorably, about Robert Peel, and Clement Freud's legacy rests with his description of Margaret Thatcher: "Attila the Hen." Hugo Chavez's dubious policies will be eclipsed by his observation that George W. Bush was "more dangerous than a monkey with a razor blade."
By these standards, Canadian politics seems an oasis of calm, whipped into a frenzy only over such blood-boiling topics as "Whither the Crow Rate?" and "Bring Back My Interminable Census."
How odd to read this week that researchers at McMaster University have done a study of parliamentary incivility, using various measures of aggression to determine who, in the last sitting of the House of Commons, was the least polite politician. The rudest man on the Hill? Jack Layton. This came as something of shock to me, almost as if someone had seen the Friendly Giant rampaging down Sparks Street munching a Prius along the way.
This week, Canadian MPs campaigning to become the new Speaker spoke gravely about the need for civility to return to the House, as if they were planning to preside over a Brazilian prison riot. Isn't Parliament supposed to be about cut and thrust, scoring points off your opponent, presenting yourself as the coldest, most capable wit in the land? Doesn't that prepare you for the debates that win elections?
Or, if wittiness is out of reach, then you can at least be quotably bad-tempered. How many students became interested in Canadian history only when they read that John A. Macdonald had once crossed the House to confront
Oliver Mowat over some perceived slight and bellowed, "You damned pup! I'll slap your chops!"
That would be an average day on the benches in Australia, where the sharpness of tongues is matched only by the thickness of hides. Former prime minister Paul Keating, the celebrated "Lizard of Oz," is not remembered so much for his political legacy as for his scabrous remarks (which were gathered into a popular piece of musical theatre that toured Australia). "A shiver in search of a spine" is how he described one rival, while another was "all tip and no iceberg." His feud with rival John Howard was legendary, and perhaps was sealed with Mr. Keating's description of his successor as "a piece of desiccated old coconut." In Parliament, he flung the words "scumbag" and "gigolo" with cheery abandon.
Many efforts have been made over the years to curb rowdiness in Australian politics: This project may require some tinkering, considering that eight MPs were ejected from Parliament during a single question time earlier this year (carbon tax was the hot-button debate).
When I worked at the Ontario Legislature's Hansard a million moons ago, our motto was
"virtually verbatim" (an unofficial motto, alas, which never appeared on letterhead). Occasionally, the tedium of looking up the correct spelling of obscure Northern Ontario towns would be broken by the sound of some grizzled miscreant on the back benches muttering abuse under his breath, usually about rivals' tenuous relationship to the truth or the nature of their parentage. Sadly, these half-heard and completely bonkers musings never made it into the record, and were instead rendered inert by official boilerplate such as, "Some Honourable Members: Hear, Hear." Those were the rules, and they existed for a reason, but I used to think how much more interesting Hansard would have been if people could find the nuts within its leaves.
Perhaps our politicians can work on being less sensitive, not more. The House of Commons is meant to be a deliberative assembly, not a place of all-too-sober second thought. Disraeli, who preferred the swordplay of a heated argument, once recalled the mediocrity of some Victorian Parliaments: "You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest." However rude and partisan, a fiery debate is preferable to the cold stone of loyalty. Let's keep it burning.