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The professor will see you now – how often do politicians fight?

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. Here: how often do politicians fight?

In 1951 the MP for Knutsford is said to have kicked the Belgian ambassador down a flight of stairs. A former soldier and boxer, Colonel Walter Bromley-Davenport MP was a whip of the old school variety; thinking he had spotted one of his flock daring to leave Westminster before the 10 ‘o’clock vote without authorisation, he dispensed summary justice. This case of mistaken identity was enough to end Bromley-Davenport’s tenure in the Conservative whips’ office, where he was replaced by a young Edward Heath.

That’s how the story is usually told anyway – although in Heath’s version it was actually an MP who got kicked and the ambassador was apocryphal. Either way, I have always thought it revealing about the way whipping was then conducted that most versions of this story imply that had it been an MP that would have been just fine and dandy. 

And whatever happened, it was an unusual, but not unique incident. Eugene Wolf’s Dangerous Seats contains multiple examples of physical violence at Westminster. As late as 1914 one MP was offering another “satisfaction in any form of combat he desired”.

A recently published piece of research studied parliamentary brawls across almost 40 years in more than 200 countries. The resulting database goes by the title Fistfights In parliamentary Sessions Time-Series (FISTS for short) and contains 375 separate acts of violence, close to four times the number of cases than were previously known about. 

Even this figure almost certainly underestimates their actual frequency. Older cases are harder to detect using online searches and not all brawls become public (I suspect some readers of this magazine may well be nodding along at this latter point). 

It is also not always easy to decide what counts. Fights in the chamber, obviously. But what about drunken altercations in Strangers, as in 2012? Or heavy-handed whipping? Do we count the events in the division lobbies in October last year – about which views differ? And how would we code Bromley-Davenport, who may or may not have assaulted another MP but thought he was?
In this case, the researchers went for a narrow definition, focussing on acts by MPs in parliament that were about parliamentary business. So Eric Joyce doesn’t count – and we can treat the 375 as a minimum figure.

We could still note that such cases remain relatively infrequent. In more than over two-thirds of the countries studied, there were zero. Even in the countries where they did occur, they average about one a decade. Brawling in parliament is a breach of democratic norms, but when extremely contentious matters are being discussed tempers can run high. We might expect things to boil over occasionally.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is where they take place. MPs fight more in parliaments when the majority is slim or where there are lots of smaller parties. You also don’t tend to get many fights in parliaments in authoritarian regimes (what’s the point?) or in places with high levels of electoral democracy. 

The problems mostly come with the inbetweeners, those countries where the legislatures are important enough to matter, but where democracy is not functioning quite well enough. 

Although for the most part it is better to be a lover than a fighter, one intriguing interpretation of this research is that parliamentary violence isn’t always negative. It can be a sign that a parliament is beginning to matter more, as previously autocratic states become more open; there is a reason the Russian Duma started to see punch ups in the 1990s.

On the other hand, if we start to see fights in states that were previously settled democracies, it could be a sign of democratic backsliding. 

Intriguingly, there is no evidence that having more women in a parliament reduces the propensity of its members to fight. Who remembers Bernadette Devlin slapping the Home Secretary in 1972?

It is perhaps not setting the bar very high, but for all the pressures that British politics have come under in recent years, at least MPs haven’t started punching each other. It is one behavioural norm that seems to have survived. It is if they start that we should be worried. 

Your further reading for this week: M Schmoll and W L Ting, Explaining Physical Violence in Parliaments, Journal of Conflict Resolution (2023); E Wolfe, Dangerous Seats: Parliamentary Violence in the United Kingdom (2019). 

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Read the most recent article written by Professor Philip Cowley - The Professor Will See You Now: Politicians wrong about nearly everything