How the term ‘Whip’ came to be used in Parliament

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 14 May 2006

IF THERE is a contest for the most common four-letter word in Parliament recently, the clear winner would be this fear-provoking one: Whip. 

The mere mention of the word conjures up an image of violence. 

As a noun, it is a tool of inflicting pain, such as a belt, a strip of wood, a strap or a lash.  

As a verb, it means the disturbing depiction of being struck continually with a strap or a rod or a combination of both. 

We now know that the Whip was used to reject a motion to refer a Barisan Nasional Member of Parliament to the House Committee of Privileges but how did a word connected to causing pain end up in the lexicon used in the august house of legislators? 

For the answer, we have to go back to the origins of parliamentary practice, way back to the ancient tactics used to discipline men’s best friends – not the common curs but the pedigreed hounds used by British aristocrats in foxhunting. 

While any comparison of our Yang Berhormats to dogs is grossly unfair, the original use of the term “whip” by British politicians was really meant to ensure that they thought and acted like, well, a pack of canines. 

Assistant huntsmen in the still popular but becoming politically-incorrect sport of foxhunting are called “whippers-in”. 

The job of a “whipper-in” is to keep the hounds chasing their quarry as a pack. If the dogs stray, he has to rein them in by cracking his whip. 

The formal title of the British parliamentary “whippers-in” was shortened to just “whip” in the 1840s. 

Their roles, however, remained similar, that is, to ensure that the MPs in their party behaved as a single horde and not run off in their own directions trying to be independent or “vote according to their conscience”. 

In the context of the British Parliament, on which our two legislative Houses, the Dewan Rakyat and the Dewan Negara, are modelled, the Government’s whips are Ministers of the Crown.  

In Malaysia, the Deputy Prime Minister is by tradition the Chief Whip of the Government. 

The key function of the Chief Whip is the running of government business in the House. He or she must ensure that, in spite of the activities of the opposition, Parliament must pass all the legislation tabled and tasks planned for the session are completed. 

In Britain, the Whip is also the name of the document sent to MPs briefing them on the forthcoming matters to be raised. Items are often underlined once, twice or thrice, depending on the order of importance. 

While still on the subject of whips, let’s look at two other terms that are also frequently used to describe politicians in the British parliament – whipping boy and whipper-snapper. 

The first means someone who is made to take the rap for another’s fault. The original whipping boys were those who were made to study with princes in the ancient royal courts of Europe. Each time the prince made a mistake or was tardy in learning his lessons, his commoner companion was whipped to strike fear into the royal hide. 

Whipper-snapper is the term given to an MP who is unimportant but is cheeky and presumptuous. 

One wonders if these terms could be applied to those in our current batch of Yang Berhormats. 

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