‘You Lie’: Not Quite the House of Commons

Inevitably, Republican South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson’s heckling of President Obama on Wednesday, and other shouted remarks reported by (among others) Dana Milbank in the Washington Post drew comparisons with the habitual rowdiness that British prime ministers face in the House of Commons.

To many commentators it recalled the political theater of a Tony Blair or — for those with longer memories — a Margaret Thatcher deftly handling members’ questions despite the barrage of catcalls and shouted remarks. The session takes its toll. This correspondent, who once worked briefly for Prime Minister Thatcher, can report that after the cut and thrust of Question Time the Iron Lady would shut herself alone in her House of Commons office for 15 minutes, to recover her composure.

Still comparing what happens in the British parliament with Wednesday’s incident in the Congress was apples and oranges. In the U.S. institutional structure, the executive combines the political role of prime minister with that of head of state. As head of state, the U.S. president’s counterpart in Britain is the queen.

The queen appears regularly before the twin houses of parliament when with much pomp and circumstance she opens each session of parliament and outlines the government’s program for that session. Any thought of heckling the queen as she reads her government-prepared speech would be inconceivable — and has never happened.

Also, heckling in the House of Commons may seem like a free-for-all, but is allowed within long-standing parliamentary rules. To publicly accuse the prime minister of lying in the House, as Joe Wilson did to Obama, is considered a very serious offense, and would probably lead to either an inquiry if the charge is not withdrawn, or disciplinary action.

Most of the loud comments are of a very general nature such as “Hear, hear,” or (a favorite one from the opposition) “Shame!” This is because members do not, in fact, address each other directly, but usually through the speaker, and furthermore not by name but by their constituency. For example, some years ago when a Labor member was criticized with surprising vigor by the normally mild-mannered Conservative former foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, he famously said dismissively, “Mr. Speaker, being attacked by the Hon. Member for East Surrey is like being savaged by a dead sheep.”

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