UK Politics

Gallant or not: How should MPs recognise active service?

Chamber of the House of Commons
Image caption There are nearly 60 MPs who have or are still serving in some capacity in the armed forces

In the "theatre of war" that is the House of Commons, gallantry is not always to the fore - particularly during the partisan jousting of Prime Minister's Questions.

But the Chamber was positively awash with it on Monday as MPs debated how they should address their colleagues - especially those who have served in the armed forces.

In recent weeks, Defence Minister Julian Brazier has revived a time-honoured parliamentary practice of referring to colleagues who have served their country as the "right honourable or honourable gallant member".

He has even extended the courtesy to those, such as Crispin Blunt, who have been rather less than complimentary about current changes to the armed forces, which will ultimately see the regular army downsized by a fifth and, if all goes to plan, more than 10,000 new reservists recruited.

Mr Brazier, who himself served as an officer in the Territorial Army for 13 years, has been in the firing line as he has had to defend the level of recruitment to the reserves amid claims that only 20 new members have been signed up in the past year.

As he has faced questions on the subject, the MP for Canterbury has been quick to recognise those with personal experience of the subject at hand.

He was at it again during monthly Defence Questions in Parliament when he offered the sobriquet to a number of fellow MPs.

This prompted Labour MP Barry Sheerman to seek guidance from Commons Speaker John Bercow, in the form of a point of order, as to who qualified for such recognition.

'Parliamentary taste'

For instance, he wondered whether he, having served in the cadet force at school, should be accorded such status.

"I have tried to find out who is gallant and who is not," he told Mr Bercow. "Could you clear up who is gallant and who is not gallant in this way?"

On a more serious note, he added: "I am told that a non-commissioned soldier, an ordinary soldier who won the Victoria Cross, would still not be able to be called gallant as it only applies to officers."

Image caption Mr Robathan suggested former school cadets did not really deserve such recognition

Mr Bercow, who has rarely been described - even by his critics - as a member of the officer class, was able to reassure Mr Sheerman that the honorific title could be applied to Army, Navy and RAF personnel no matter what their rank.

As for the question of its use, Mr Bercow said this was a matter of "parliamentary taste" and there was no need for a formal ruling from him.

He remarked that one of Mr Brazier's predecessors in the Ministry of Defence, Andrew Robathan, had been "partial" to using the phrase and that MPs should always seek to refer to their colleagues in a "tasteful" manner.

Mr Robathan's own gallantry can certainly not be called into question.

He served in the Army for 15 years and then came out of retirement during the First Gulf War to head a unit guarding prisoners of war in Iraq and Kuwait.

Giving his view on the matter, Mr Robathan said the title should "not be taken too far", and while insisting this was not a dig at Mr Sheerman, added: "I am sure you would agree that we should not extend it to former members of cadet forces."

'Sending a message'

Veteran Labour MP David Winnick had his own perspective on the matter, saying he had "no wish" to be referred to as gallant despite his two years of national service.

While acknowledging not all parliamentary traditions are respected, Sir Gerald Howarth - a former RAF reservist - said this was one that should be jealously guarded, particularly at a time when the country was commemorating the centenary of the start of World War One.

Image caption Mr Bercow said there was no need for a formal ruling on the matter

"Whilst the traditional practice may have fallen into desuetude, surely at this time when the nation has been committed to military operations and there is an enhanced concern for the welfare of our armed forces, there is a purpose served in maintaining the tradition in that it indicates that many members have served," he remarked.

"I think that sends a message to the nation and surely in this case, tradition will serve the house and the nation."

The sheer number of former military personnel in the Commons, on all sides of the House, means that a regular outbreak of gallantry is unlikely to disappear from the green benches when defence matters are discussed.

Nearly 60 members of the House of Commons have either served in the regular army or the reserves, Armed Forces Minister Mark Francois pointed out.

"That is almost one in 10 members of the House of Commons," Mr Francois, himself a member of the club, added.

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