The Blog

In Defence of 'Dodgy'

Monday's decision by the Speaker to eject veteran left-wing MP Dennis Skinner from the Commons, after the latter called the Prime Minister 'Dodgy Dave', provided some much-needed entertainment. You can always count on Skinner to make a scene, he has decades of form on this. One of his most memorable outbursts of recent years was his 2005 diatribe on George Osborne's alleged drug use.

But it was mildly surprising to see "dodgy" being added to the peripatetic lexicon of "unparliamentary language", alongside such improbable terms as guttersnipe, ignoramus and stoolpigeon (although the House of Lords has permitted at least three variants on "fuck" since 1964). It was a bizarre decision, as there are already at least 625 instances of the word "dodgy" in Hansard.

The first parliamentary use of "dodgy" was by the Liberal MP Thomas Lough in 1917, condemning the propriety of how a coal-mining bill was introduced: "It is a very dodgy thing to have brought this Bill in without the money Resolution." He then repeated the word, with still no intervention from the Speaker, James Lowther. "Dodgy" then went unmentioned for 36 years until the Conservative backbencher David Gammans interjected, "I am not trying to be dodgy" in 1953, again, with no adverse response from Mr Speaker Morrison. Six years later, the word had its third outing, with Labour MP George Willis complaining of public spending cuts, "Up to now, the Government have been so dodgy, cagey and secretive about the whole business", yet again, with no rebuke from the Speaker.

It was in the 1960s that the word "dodgy" started to be used with any great frequency in parliament, and this also brought about its first rebuke from a Speaker. Labour's George Wigg said of the Conservative Aviation Minister Julian Amery in 1964, "There is no more dodgy character in this House", only for the Deputy Speaker Sir William Anstruther-Gray to demand that he withdraw the expression "Dodgy character". Perhaps Deputy Speakers are more sensitive than Speakers? Wigg responded that he would, "Withdraw the use of the phrase 'dodgy character', I will do so and in my subsequent remarks prove that what I said was true." By the end of the decade, even the Prime Minister was using the term in Parliament.

In the last twenty years, the word "dodgy" has exploded in popularity amongst MPs. In particular, the debates around the build-up to the Iraq War led to extensive discussions of the government's "dodgy dossier", as well as various derivations from this; for instance, Harry Cohen asked, "Did the Foreign Secretary show a lack of discernment about that very dodgy claim?" Martin Linton even used "Dodgy Dave" sixteen years ago, in invoking an associate of the Kray twins. And dodginess has entered the height of the parliamentary mainstream, Prime Minister's Question Time, with Michael Howard baiting Tony Blair over, "Just how desperately dodgy the Prime Minister's position has become", again without rebuke from Mr Speaker Martin.

This isn't even the first time Skinner has called someone "dodgy" in the chamber; he's used the word over 20 times in Parliament, sans punishment. For instance, in 1989, Speaker Weatherill saw no need to intervene in Skinner denouncing "a dodgy bill", which he twice identified as the work of "Dodgy government lawyers". Nor is Skinner alone among venerable parliamentarians in using the phrase. Michael Foot, as Leader of the House of Commons in 1977, poured scorn on a "Rather dodgy supplementary question" asked to him by a young Jonathan Aitken.

Of course, there is a difference between an accusation of dodgy conduct, particularly one aimed elsewhere (with bankers being a favourite subject for MPs to level accusations of "dodginess" at), and "dodgy" as an adjective to describe another parliamentarian. One could argue that the Speaker John Bercow was perfectly within his rights in stopping parliament from descending into petty, personal abuse in this way. But then, the finest parliamentary rhetoric has often consisted of a heavy measure of personal abuse, albeit of the more imaginative variety which Skinner is rather adept at. Who can forget his reply, when ordered by the Speaker to withdraw his original remark, "Half the Tory Members opposite are crooks", and his substitution with, "Okay, half the Tory members aren't crooks"?

Whether or not this new "Dodgy" precedent is upheld, one thing is certain: As long as the "Beast of Bolsover" has breath in his lungs, you can be pretty sure that he'll aggravate, amuse and confound in equal measure.