Forms, Dimensions and Characteristics of Debates

As we have seen, also the concept of debate contains multiple levels of meaning and has a history of its own. To analyse debates politically, it is important to consider the actual dimensions of debate from different perspectives. Taking the parliamentary debate as a paradigm, we can take up here a closer discussion of the following aspects that characterise and structure it: its rules and procedures, the agenda-setting and the items on the agenda, the participants in the debates, the regulating of debates, its stages and layers and, more generally, the political times of debates.

Rules and Procedures of Debate

The ideal-typical and paradigmatic character of parliamentary debate is connected with the explicitly procedural character of parliamentary politics as well as with the controversies over procedure as a core feature of the rules themselves. Such controversies involve the role of interpretative struggle and remind us of the possibility to change the rules when new situations arise for which the old rules appear insufficient or have unwanted consequences. For example, the increasing willingness of parliamentary members to intervene in plenary debates has necessitated restrictions of speaking time and opened up the question of how to do this in a fair way.

The specific rules of debate vary to a considerable extent according to the type of parliament in question. Roughly speaking the British parliament is the best historical approximation of a deliberative assembly, while the US Congress may be regarded as a parliament of more narrow scope, that is, as a legislature, and the French Assemblee Nationale has been regarded as the model of a representative assembly. In continental European countries, elements of all three are available in different mixtures, whereas the European Parliament was formed according to the French model, for example, in its committee system and in the powers of the President. The three types of parliament have much in common, but also differ from each other in remarkable ways. For the study of parliamentary debate, the deliberative character (as a rhetorical genre, as opposed to forensic, epideictic and negotiating genre) of the British House of Commons offers the best historical model, and will be used below as our main point of reference.

There are few written rules in the Westminster parliament. The Westminster tradition of parliamentary rules relies on precedents, as manifested in the title of John Hatsell’s four-volume Precedents and Proceedings in the House of Commons, with Observations (1779-1796, revised edition 1818). In contrast, French parliamentary procedure relies on written rules, reglements (see esp. Pierre 1887). Also in Westminster since the early nineteenth century the role of Standing Orders, that is, procedural rules that have been adopted until further decision, instead of being valid only for the current parliamentary year, have become more important. The prolongation of the parliamentary agenda has made such a tendency unavoidable.

Regulations based on precedent could be the more flexible. Gilbert Campion defends the Westminster practice of ‘the unwritten rules, or practice’ of the House which exist principally for the sake of ensuring fairness and fullness of debate, and are on the whole in the interests of Private Members; and the Standing Orders which aim at ‘getting work done, and are on the whole in the interest of Government’ (Campion 1929, vii). His concern is that the individual members are losing their control of the rules of parliament to the government, which threatens the ‘fairness and fullness of debate’. While nowadays the regulations have grown more complicated, the parliament has also taken precautions to give more occasions for debate initiated by the backbenchers of all parties (see Griffith and Ryle 2003). Every parliamentary session can also alter its Standing Orders.

There is a distinct type of ‘parliamentary order’, but its exact content remains a matter of debate. For instance, the distinction between ‘parliamentary’ versus ‘unparliamentary’ language and conduct has been used in Westminster since at least the 1620s. It presupposes a divide between what is legitimate to say and do inside the parliament and what is not. The tracts on parliamentary procedure are major resources for discussing such questions (see Palonen 2014c).

The tracts by Hatsell, Bentham, May and Campion on parliamentary procedure are largely inventories of the history of the procedural controversies and their current status. There are frequent possibilities for applying different rules when making decisions on how to proceed, and new realities—the Internet, for example—prompts situations for which no rules exist, but in such cases members can apply analogies to existing rules of debate. Do the blogs of parliamentarians, for example, fall under the domain of ‘unparliamentary language’, or must this concept be strictly restricted to speeches held in parliament (see Vaarakallio 2015)?

In extreme cases, as when the obstructive speeches of Irish members were paralysing the House of Commons in 1881, Speaker Brand, supported by Prime Minister Gladstone, invented a rule of urgency to stop the debate. It was recognised that the continuous functioning of the parliament is something presupposed by its rules, even if it was not and could not have been regulated by a distinct rule (see Redlich 1905; Vieira 2015). In other words, behind the existing rules and actual controversies on their interpretation, there exists a second-order debate concerning parliamentary order. It is conducted by the members themselves, by the Speaker, by the committees on procedure and by the authoritative interpretations of the tracts of procedure, written by the parliamentary staff or by members themselves. Contributing to the parliamentary character of the rules of debate is the fact that they themselves are subject to debate as to how they should be interpreted.

Recently intra-parliamentary debates on procedure have been contrasted with attempts to apply universalistic rules of ‘good governance’ or ‘codes of conduct’ to parliaments and their members (see Beetham 2006). Such quasi-legal instruments might help, for example, in regulating the financial dependencies of the members, but in principle they are as controversial as intra-parliamentary rules, and raise the question of parliamentary autonomy against the powers of outside legal or other experts, who are subject to no parliamentary-style debate.

This contrast is between the parliamentary principle of fair play and the forensic principle of good order. Parliamentary self-regulation as practised in Britain and in the Scandinavian countries is in contrast to the powerful constitutional courts of the USA and post-war West Germany (for a defence of the former systems, see Tomkins 2005, Bellamy 2007; for the latter, see e.g. Rawls 1993). For the analysis of debate, the intra-parliamentary debates on procedure are most interesting, but struggles between parliamentary bodies and Supreme Court or Bundesverfassungsgericht decisions are also a highly relevant topic for a second-order debate.

Comparative analysis of intra-parliamentary debates on procedure and the changing interpretations of procedure form another valuable topic for debate analyses. The analyses may concern, for example, judgements about speaking to ‘the matter’ or ‘the question’, the powers of the Speaker (President), or the changing interpretations of unparliamentary language and conduct (which in some parliaments are based on a list of prohibited expressions, in others on more contextual criteria). Accusing a member of ‘lying’ has been a classic example of unparliamentary speech, which from early on has been circumvented by a variety of expressions such as being ‘economical with the truth’.

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