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Mind Your (Parliamentary) Language

Everyday Expressions in English that Originated in Parliament

Not many people know that some commonplace expressions we use frequently began in the House of Commons and their origins make fascinating pub-quiz answers material.

The United Kingdom’s Parliament is the oldest in the world, and over the years it has given the English language many expressions and phrases that often take on other meanings. The result of the forthcoming General Election will focus attention on the building, the traditions and customs. Here are some phrases that have become part of the fabric of the institution.

It’s in the Bag

Behind the Speaker’s Chair – and out of sight of the cameras – hangs a large bag, into which Members of Parliament place petitions from constituents that are required to be considered by the House of Commons, or the government of the day.

Nowadays there is a form of words and procedures for petitions to Parliament, and they are published in the official proceedings, but rarely acknowledged as of burning importance, much less debated in full in the great debating chamber of state.

However, centuries ago, a Member given a petition of local importance could say in all honesty to his constituents that, yes, he had drawn attention to the issue, it would all be sorted out – indeed, with a knowing nudge and a wink – it was in the bag!

Toe the Line

Another phrase is ‘toe the line’. We understand that in general language it means the listener must obey an order just like everybody else. The Party line, the institution line, wherever it is – toe the line means there is an invisible but understood line that nobody should cross.

In Parliament it is a literal line. The Commons Chamber is a long, rather narrow corridor – built on the model of St Stephen’s Chapel where the pews were arranged when Parliament first began by groups of like-minded men sitting together facing those not of like-mind.

After the Germans extensively damaged it by incendiary bombing in the last war, it was rebuilt between 1945 and 1950 on the orders of Prime Minister Churchill, exactly as it was before, so we have still a confrontational, adversarial rectangle. He felt our 2-party system had served us well and said, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us’.

There are two parallel red lines woven into the carpet that run the length of the chamber, one each side. The distance between them is about two sword lengths plus six inches.

Members must speak from their side of the line and may not cross it. They must toe the line! Anyone standing from the front row who does allow a foot to stray across towards the opposite side, is frequently ordered back quite sharply. It is a good tactic to disconcert the Member who is speaking.

Swords in Parliament

It dates from days when Members carried swords into the Chamber as part of their daily dress, and were not afraid to use them against those opposite when passions were aroused. Nowadays of course, Members are not allowed to take swords (or any other weapon) into the chamber, but the lines persist.

As do little ribbon loops dangling from the hangers in the Members’ cloakroom by their private entrance, designed to hold their swords. The swords they are not allowed to take into the chamber!

The Whip

This term began in 18th century hunting culture and described a ‘whipper-in’, one who drove stray hounds back to the main pack using a whip.

In Parliament, both Commons and Lords, they are organisers of Party (government or opposition) business and tactics. They appoint Members to committees, sanction time off, authorise foreign and other trips and keep the secrets most Members hope never become public knowledge.

They are generally known as ‘the usual channels’. Enoch Powell once described them ‘as necessary to Parliament as are lavatories’.

To take the Whip means, to belong to and accept the rules of a particular party.

3-line Whip

This is a sign of required attendance and business notified each week by their party whips’ office to each MP on a slip of paper. One line underlining (Whip) means attendance and voting are entirely optional.

Two lines under the business indicates attendance is compulsory unless a Member can arrange a ‘pair’ with a Member in the party opposite.

Three lines is an absolute imperative to turn up and support the party. No excuses. Not even being on a trip overseas or sickness to the point of death. The fate of governments holding their majority in the Commons have hung on such matters.

No Surprises Nowadays

With the perceived decline in public respect for Members of both Commons and Lords, that they are happily involved with weekly whips raises few eyebrows and gives rise to endless jokes. In truth, however, it is all part of what is a rich cultural history and institution – one that has been an inspiration to democracies around the world.

First published on Suite 101, 5 March 2010.

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