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The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a ‘filibuster’ as:
The use of extreme dilatory tactics in an attempt to delay or prevent action especially in a legislative assembly.
The filibuster is nothing new. As far back as the Forum in Ancient Rome, speakers wanting to prevent a decisive vote on an issue would simply stand up during a debate and talk. And talk.
They wouldn’t always talk about the subject at hand. Filibusters down the ages have resorted to talking about pretty much anything. Provided they can keep going long enough that, by the time they’re finished, the time allotted to an issue is gone and there’s no time left for a vote or even to properly debate the subject at hand. By this method the fearless filibuster will plough on, and on, and on ad infinitum, hopefully ensuring that proper debate and a democratic vote simply isn’t allowed to happen.
This they manage by citing their right to freedom of speech and, in exercising their right to bore, the active preservation of democracy. Which is rather like going on trial, fearing you might be convicted, then bribing or threatening jurors and/or witnesses with the defence that you did so in the interest of justice. Which, surprisingly, probably isn’t your best defence if you happen to get caught doing so.
The all-time record filibuster came in 1967 when South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against Civil Rights legislation. In order to accomplish this gargantuan feat of anti-democratic behaviour he read out the voting laws of every State in the Union followed by George Washington’s farewell speech. In its entirety.
The record for a British politician in recent years is held by master filibuster and Conservative MP Philip Davies who spent 93 minutes ‘talking out’ a Bill intended to grant free hospital parking to patients’ carers. Nor is it the first time that the Conservative Party’s Pirate King has hijacked a debate, seeing as he also spent 52 minutes sabotaging another debate intended to discuss making first-aid compulsory in schools. Pressed to account for his actions he seems to have simply shrugged his shoulders and told the Commons Procedure Committee:
I merely use the rules… I certainly don’t make any apology. If I’m accused of being effective I will plead guilty to being effective and I will take that as a compliment.
Which is rather like a slave trader describing their line of work as a respectable trade which, believe it or not, they used to. Back in the days when slavery was still legal and any slaver could easily say “I merely use the rules… I certainly don’t make any apology.”
Davies certainly doesn’t, seeing as talking out debates seems to be one of his favoured tactics. He spoke for an hour talking out the Tenancies (Reform) Bill intended to stop landlords evicting tenants for requesting basic repairs, despite the bill having cross-party support. He tabled a stream of amendments designed to block a vote on the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill that would have enshrined the aid budget into law. He also assisted in blocking a Bill intended to ban the use of wild animals in circuses.
There’s a certain irony in claiming to exercise democratic rights to subvert democracy itself. There’s also a certain irony in labelling activists and protesters as subversives, passing ever more restrictive laws against protest in general, and then partaking in filibustering. If extra-Parliamentary protest is indeed subversive and threatens our democratic structure, then elected officials using a filibuster is simply the same poison in a different bottle. The glass might be shinier, the bouquet might be artificially enhanced, the label is certainly less unpleasant (and more disingenuous), but it’s still toxic. It still makes you want to retch and vomit.
Davies is far from the only Conservative to have filibustered recently, either. His 93-minute effort against the evil of free hospital parking for carers was nobly assisted by Conservative Health Minister Alastair Burt. The same Alastair Burt who, during a debate on the Off-Patient Drugs Bill that, if passed, would have permitted the NHS to access cheaper medicines once their patents had expired. The bill had to be voted on by 2:30pm that day and Burt made his intentions as clear as the sound of the Division Bell by stating:
I will talk until half-past two and I make that very clear.
The word ‘filibuster’ is apparently derived from the Dutch word ‘Vrijbuiter’ meaning ‘freebooter’ or ‘pirate.’ While Blackbeard and his ilk cruised the seven seas to hijack ships and steal their cargo, some of our beloved MP’s like to hijack debates and steal our democracy. Whether they do so while sozzled on rum like their maritime forebears is another matter but, if they do, don’t be surprised if they claim their drinks bill on expenses.
A recent article highlighted that even Commons committees are finally beginning to regard the filibuster as less-than-democratic. The Daily Mirror reports that the Commons Procedure Committee blasted the Private Members Bill system where filibusters have seemingly free rein as:
Fraud on the people we represent.
Further unusually strong remarks followed. Committee Chairman Charles Walker described filibustering as “Distasteful” and stated that backbench debates are:
Often used to frustrate worthy proposals.
Parliament’s most recent victim of filibusters. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, was equally infuriated, stating:
The electorate do not want to pay to run a debating Chamber that is being mocked by a handful of MPs who have been told by the Government to drone on to stop real debate.
The Committee has got as far as threatening reform to limit the impact of filibusters. Proposed measures include reducing back-bench bills from 20 per year to 14 and to apply special protection to the first bill tabled on seven of the fourteen Fridays a year on which Private Members Bills would be debated, allowing the Speaker to force a vote at the traditional 2:30pm cut-off point even if MPs are still talking. Unfortunately, the Committee has fought shy of actually enforcing strict time limits which might do most to make filibusting more difficult.
So, will the Good Ship Filibuster finally be sunk by the Torpedo of Actual Democracy? Probably not. In order for even these watered-down ideas to become Parliamentary policy they would have to be approved by the very body that has tolerated filibusters for centuries and in which politicians of most parties have at some point filibustered; the House of Commons. So I wouldn’t hold your breath just yet.