On calling people liars

Last week, MP Dawn Butler was removed from the House of Commons for calling the Prime Minister a liar.

  “What was the problem with her accusing him of lying?” you may well be asking. Isn’t Mr Johnson notorious for having a questionable relationship with the truth? Hasn’t that been the problem for him so many times? Wasn’t he called out for it as a journalist and then as a shadow minister? Didn’t he have a bit of an issue with questionable claims put on the side of red buses during the referendum?  And indeed, isn’t this the problem we associate with most politicians. As one wag once put it

Q “How do you know that a politician is lying?”

A “Their lips are moving”

However, Butler was breaking an important parliamentary rule.  There is a presumption that members of the House of Commons are “honourable” and therefore will be truthful and have integrity. Therefore, it is against the rules to accuse someone of lying or being a liar.  Over the years MPs have found ways around this and used elaborate turns of phrase to accuse each other. Additionally, there are rules about misrepresenting the House.

Quite a few people have suggested that Butler was doing something heroic and important. Her expulsion from the House of Commons highlighted the arcane nature of the rules. Isn’t it ridiculous that the PM can get away with actually lying but an MP can get punished for pointing out what we all know?

I have some sympathy with this, however, I think Dawn Butler got it wrong.  Why? Well, first of all I think there are some good reasons for having such rules and conventions in place. First of all, there’s an assumption in debate that we play the ball not the man or woman. In other words, we deal with the substance of the argument at hand. It is the job of an opponent to bring evidence and reason to bear to show that their interlocuter is incorrect and their argument false, resorting to accusation removes that.  The result is that we just get a slanging match and more heat than light is generated.

Secondly in order to enable MPs to speak freely without fear they are protected by Parliamentary privilege. They can say things in the House free from fear of legal proceedings. That privilege should be used responsibly. Think for example of how it was recently misused to name a soldier linked to Northern Irish Court proceedings potentially putting him and his family at risk.

Thirdly, there is a recognition that Parliament operates as a form of court, there is a judicial as well as legislative element to the activities of the House.  So, an accusation cannot be allowed to just sit, it must be tested and evaluated.  A lot of politics is about interpretation and opinion, so the assumption is that the House isn’t really qualified and competent to make judgements of this kind.

Linked to this third point, it is helpful to consider the examples that Dawn Butler used. In particular, note that she picked up on a claim made by the PM that the link between COVID cases and severe illness/hospitalisation had been severed.  Butler said that this was a lie.

Now, the claim that the link between admissions and cases has been severed is subject to question.  On the one hand, we know that back at the peak of COVID prior to vaccination that ~9% of cases resulted in hospital admission. That’s not the case now, instead we see about 2.4% of cases end up in hospital. Yet, can we say that amounts to a severed link? Well, the reality is that there is still a proportionate link, if cases go up then admissions go up. Indeed, that must remain true for as long as vaccines are less than 100% effective. If the vaccine was 99.999999% effective and there was one hospitalisation then that would still be based on a proportional link to admissions.

So, on the one hand we might question whether the language of “severed links” is helpful or whether it leads to confused communication. Equally though, it might be argued that it is so obvious that there will always be a link that no reasonable person would assume that Boris Johnso is making a literal claim.  You might as well accuse him of lying for talking about the sun rising and setting. It is clear that he (and others who have used the term) is using a manner of speech or layman’s language. We can grasp the point he is making which is that COVID now offers a much reduced threat of serious illness.

And here’s the big point. The question of how we manage our response to COVID is significant and complex. It’s important that we get this right and it is crucial that the Government are subject to proper scrutiny and held to account. Yet, Dawn Butler’s stunt had the affect of trivialising the debate in exchange for headlines and social media coverage. She made her actions the story rather than the question of how we deal with COVID.

For those reasons I consider her stunt unwise and unhelpful.  I don’t think we saw truth spoke to power. Rather we saw one powerful person, a politician shouting accusations at another powerful person. Speaking truth to power requires more than that we just yell out accusations or label people. It means that we robustly engage with those in power, that we properly challenge them, that we not merely accuse them of lying but that we expose the lies with evidence and reason.

Does that mean though that Boris Johnson is off the hook?  Am I excusing lying?  No I am not.  I’m simply saying that there is a right way, time and place to address such things. For clarity there is a right time place and way for this to happen in Parliament This is important because of the confusion we have on moral matters.  You may remember my recent article about ad-hominem attacks and defences.  We should avoid them because it is about our own integrity.  However, in the same way that challenging the scholarly accuracy of a history professor’s argument in one book is not an attack on their status as an academic, in the same way, to argue that a politician wasn’t lying about a specific point does not mean that I don’t think they have lied on other occasions or even that a propensity to lie might be one of their defining characteristics.

Furthermore, it doesn’t mean that honesty doesn’t matter. It simply means that the problem lies elsewhere. You see, the House of Commons assumes the best of its members, that they will be honest, that they will have integrity.  If the men and women who we send to represent us at Westminster are unfaithful, liars, law breakers, racists, antisemites, boorish etc then who is responsible for that?