Mind your language

Scottish Parliament chamber Carefully choose your words, the Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick has warned

Up with this she will not put. The Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, has told MSPs that they should mind their language in future, particularly as the temperature rises with regard to the debate over independence.

By contrast with Westminster, Holyrood is relatively - I stress, relatively - casual in policing debate and modes of speech. Second names - even first names - are frequently used, instead of Honourable or Right Honourable members.

Indeed, at Westminster, such matters are often taken further. Imagine, if you can, an MP who is a member of the Privy Council, a former serving soldier who became a Queens Counsel then, late in life, a Minister (of religion).

Such an individual might be entitled to be addressed as the Right Honourable, Gallant, Learned and Reverend member for wherever.

Presiding officer statement

Tricia Marwick

"Let me say a few words about the use of language and the conduct I expect of all Members in this chamber.

"Whilst context is critical, there are certain words that I consider to be unparliamentary by their very nature. I recognise that some members will seek to be creative and we will therefore make our judgments according to the circumstances at the time.

"However, whilst we will not seek to inhibit debate and the legitimate holding of government to account, I remind all members in this chamber to consider very carefully their choice of words and the tone in which they are delivered."

So Holyrood seems light by comparison. But not too light, it seems. Ms Marwick is plainly unhappy. She has advised MSPs in a letter that they must adopt "the correct tone in our debates and in our other parliamentary engagements."

Within and outwith Scotland, she argues, public scrutiny of Holyrood has been enhanced now that the referendum agreement has been reached and debate engaged.

She adds: "This is Scotland's national parliament and, as such, the Presiding Officers [herself and her deputies] are determined to ensure that the public is proud of the manner in which we conduct ourselves and engage in the challenging issues ahead."

But it is not all censorship and censure. Context, she says, will be critical and it is vital not to inhibit debate "and the legitimate holding of government to account".

Further, Ms Marwick appears unwilling to issue a list of proscribed terms, noting - rightly - that some members will seek to be creative. Judgements will be made according to individual circumstances.

However, it seems likely that - just as at Westminster - it will continue to be improper for a member to say or suggest that another member is lying.

As Ms Marwick notes, there are ways round these obstacles. MPs occasionally borrow a phrase from Churchill to the effect that a rival has, no doubt inadvertently, ventured upon a "terminological inexactitude". Mind you, the Commons Speaker - and the PO - are alert to such circumlocutions.

Then there was the Scots MP who called a rival "an arrogant little shit". Asked by the Speaker to withdraw, he replied: "Which word?" As you can imagine, he did not get away with it. Neither it seems will our MSPs under Tricia Marwick's watchful eye.

Brian Taylor Article written by Brian Taylor Brian Taylor Political editor, Scotland

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