The ‘Blackford Paradox’ – how can accusing someone of lying to parliament result in a greater sanction than lying to parliament?
19th April 2022
There was once a Scottish MP whose probing gave rise to the ‘West Lothian question’ – named after his constituency.
Now the situation of another Scottish MP gives rise to a thorny constitutional puzzle.
Ian Blackford, parliamentary leader of the Scottish National Party, was in January 2022 ordered to leave the house of commons because he called the prime minister a liar.
The effect of this stark: there is a greater sanction for a member of parliament who calls a prime minister (or other MP) a liar than there is for a prime minister (or other MP) who lies.
This cannot be right – but it is true.
One reason for this (what I will dub) Blackford Paradox is that the policing of the language used in the house – the speaker – does not have authority over the content of what is said.
The speaker can police tone, not substance.
Another reason is that – sensibly – there are rules in a legislature – as there are in a court room – about how things are said, with the aim of taking the edge off otherwise confrontational situations.
And so there are rules on when MPs can accuse other MPs of dishonesty.
Indeed, if MPs could accuse each other freely of being liars, they would probably not accuse each other of anything else.
These reasons are a triumph of form over substance.
For what can you do with a dishonest prime minister (or other MP)?
There are some procedures for formally making such a serious allegation – as this blog has described before.
But they are cumbersome – and do not lead necessarily to the sanction that was meted out to Blackford.
If a minister or other MP is found to be dishonest, the sanction should be at least as onerous as that which was imposed on Blackford.
Otherwise the polity cannot stand with stability, and the Blackford Paradox will harden into a contradiction, that will exploited by knavish ministers and others.
Whatever happens with ‘Partygate’ there has to be some reform of our constitutional arrangements so that the Blackford Paradox is resolved rather than hardens.
There has to be a change so that lying to parliament is taken at least as seriously as accusing someone of lying to parliament.
And that reform can, in turn, perhaps be named after the current prime minister.
It will be one way to remember him.
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