Final Word

Parliamentary whips’ blood thirsty colonial legacy


How can any element of our colonial past be regarded as ‘not all bad’ if even an old parliamentary tradition has its roots in the blood thirst of the ‘mother of all colonial powers?’

Parliamentary whips of political parties have been in the news quite a bit lately in South Africa, especially as two heads of government became the targets of motions of no-confidence from their opposition. First it was President Jacob Zuma in the national Parliament, and now Premier Helen Zille in the Provincial Legislature of the Western Cape.

In both instances the baring of their teeth by members of the opposition at the top dog, so to speak, in the legislative bodies happened – only a few hundred meters removed from one another – in Cape Town, the city with the longest colonial history in the country.

Having served as a parliamentary whip for four years after 1994, I was well aware that we inherited the system of whips from also the ‘mother of parliaments,’ in the United Kingdom. I always assumed that the term comes from the whips used on coaches to ensure that the horses pull together in a straight line.


The definition/description of a parliamentary whip given by all dictionaries we managed to consult, read basically the same: “Party whip is the name given to an official of a political party, whose task is to ensure party discipline in a legislature.

We know that the Brits are the masters of the understatement, and in the same breath as describing whips as the “enforcers” of the party in parliament, it is said that they invite their members of parliament (MPs) to be present in the assembly or ‘house’ during voting sessions – in parliamentary terminology called “divisions.

It is the whips that relay the parties’ voting instructions to members of the caucus, and is tasked with ensuring that there is always the required quorum present in the assembly. Leave to be absent from the house, when it or its committees, are in session must be arranged by MPs with their respective whips.

To ensure that the power-proportions in parliament is not disturbed by members who, for good reason, cannot be present during important sessions, a tradition of ‘paring off’ between parties developed over the years.

Whips of opposing parties agree to ‘pair off’ (give leave) to the same number of MP's from each party so that the power relations between parties are is not affected in the assembly. In practice, it means that an opposing member will not vote while the paired-off member is not present in the house.

Members of the “whips” of the different parties also serve on joint committees to assist office bearers like the Speaker of Parliament, and officials to arrange the programme (including parliamentary committees) of parliament.

In the process the chief whip, or main whipper-in, of the majority party in parliament has become a prestigious and influential figure. In some countries, it carries the status of a member of the cabinet with sitting rights at cabinet meetings to ensure proper coordination between the legislative and executive arms of government.  

Real origin of term

All this, enforcing discipline and ensuring the orderly functioning of parliament, sounds pretty much in line with the picture of keeping the horses in line, pulling the coach most effectively in the desired direction.

However, truth is that the term comes from one of the oldest blood sports – fox hunting – practised by the nobility from before democracy dawned in the land of the mother of all parliaments, the United Kingdom.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term whipper-in as, "a huntsman's assistant who keeps the hounds from straying by driving them back with the whip into the main body of the pack."

In his work The Whips in History, Deryck Abel writes that the whips in parliamentary context, first functioned in the 1640s in the house, mainly to ensure the house met, and maintained quorums.

However, the Oxford maintains the term was first used a century later in a 1742 letter by one Heneage Finch to Lord Malton, stating: “…'the Whips for once in their lives have whipped in better than the Tories.”

Final word

We are not able to pronounce on the dispute about the date of the first use of the term whip in the parliamentary context. But, what cannot be disputed is that parliaments’ whipper-ins played an important role in the development of democracy in history, to deliver orderly, well-functioning parliaments to nations across the globe.

However, in the light of the recent, heated, public debate over the so-called Zille-tweets, we leave it to up to our readers to decide for themselves whether this is a, not so bad or otherwise, legacy from the days of colonialism.

by Piet Coetzer

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