11 Things That Are Forbidden in British Parliament

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.

The UK Parliament is one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the world. And because of that—just like all of the old-fashioned and outdated laws that still sit on the statute books of towns across the U.S.—it operates under a number of strict rules and ancient traditions that at first glance might seem at odds with modern politics. Or, for that matter, just plain odd. Here are a few of its prohibitions.

1. GIVING A SPEECH IN A LANGUAGE OTHER THAN ENGLISH ...

It’s not permitted to give a speech in the UK Parliament in any language except English unless absolutely necessary—despite the fact that from 1916–22 Britain had a native Welsh speaker as Prime Minister. (Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords notes that "The use of the Welsh language is permitted for the purpose of committee proceedings held in Wales." In 2017, the rules were relaxed slightly to allow Welsh to be used in Welsh Grand Committee meetings at Westminster.)

2. ... OR READING A SPEECH.

According to Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords, in most instances, the reading of speeches is "alien to the custom of this House, and injurious to the traditional conduct of its debates." That said, members may have "'extended notes' from which to speak, but it is not in the interests of good debate that they should follow them closely."

3. USING NAMES.

Members of the House are also prohibited from calling one another by name, meaning all comments must be addressed via the Speaker to fellow “honourable members.” Only the Speaker may use members’ first names (and will rebuke others if they fall short of the rules for correctly addressing one another).

4. LETTING THE SPEAKER "WALK" TO THEIR CHAIR AFTER ELECTION.

Tradition dictates that the Speaker must be physically “dragged” to the Speaker’s chair when they’re elected to the position (although it's more of a ceremonial dragging than an actual one). Supposedly this bizarre ritual is a holdover from the days when the Speaker of the House—once tasked with dictating Parliament’s will to the king—often found themselves first in line for imprisonment (or worse) if the king didn’t like what they had to say.

5. GETTING A VISIT FROM THE MONARCH.

On the subject of kings, no reigning monarch has entered the House of Commons since 1642, when Charles I stormed the House of Commons, an event that eventually led to civil war. When the queen officially oversees the State Opening of Parliament every year, her speech has to be read from the nearby House of Lords.

6. AND 7. TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS AND APPLAUDING.

Though members may have electronic devices—"provided that they cause no disturbance and are not used in such a way as to impair decorum"—they have to be in silent mode and can't be used "to film, take photographs or make audio recordings in or around the Chamber" [PDF]. (And don't even think about taking a phone call.) Cameras were only allowed in Parliament in 1989; according to the BBC's broadcasting regulations, “no extracts of Parliamentary proceedings may be used in any light entertainment programme or in a programme of political satire” with only a few exceptions.

Applause is also forbidden, which 56 newly-elected Scottish National Party MPs found to their cost in 2015, when they were admonished by the Speaker for spontaneously applauding their leader, Angus Robertson.

8., 9., AND 10. DRESSING CASUALLY, WEARING SUITS OF ARMOR, AND HAVING SWORDS.

Parliament’s strict rules even extend to what Members are permitted to wear, with current guidelines expecting “businesslike attire” to be worn at all times. There have been some exceptions to Parliament’s strict dress code over the years, mostly as a means of protesting or raising awareness for various causes. In 2013, British Green Party MP Caroline Lucas wore a bold t-shirt protesting against the appearance of topless women in tabloid newspapers—and was promptly pulled up by the Speaker for failing to meet Parliament’s strict sartorial rules. And even Oliver Cromwell, the records claim, raised eyebrows way back in the 17th century for wearing a “plain cloth” suit that was “not very clean” and seemed to have been made by “an ill country tailor.” Worse still, his hat “was without a hatband.”

Wearing a suit of armor is also banned, thanks to a law introduced by King Edward II in 1313. The same statute banned swords from the Chamber—although tradition states that the two opposing benches in the House of Commons are positioned precisely two sword-lengths away from one another. (There is one exception: The Serjeant at Arms is allowed to carry a sword.)

11. USING "UNPARLIAMENTARY LANGUAGE."

Of all the UK Parliament’s rules, however, those surrounding what is officially known as “unparliamentary language” are among the most curious. For centuries, the Speaker of the House has repeatedly pulled Members of Parliament up on their use of abusive, insulting, or slanderous language, admonishing them for doing so and asking them to withdraw their contribution from the parliamentary record.

It is not permitted, for instance, to accuse a fellow MP of being a liar, a hypocrite, or a traitor. It is also against the rules to accuse anyone in the Chamber of being drunk. But there is not, according to Parliament’s own rules, a “hard and fast list of unparliamentary words.” Whether something is in breach of the rulebook depends simply “on the context” in which it was said. Nevertheless, some of the words that have been deemed unparliamentary over the years include:

  • Ass
  • Blackguard
  • Coward
  • Git
  • Guttersnipe
  • Hooligan
  • Hypocrite
  • Idiot
  • Ignoramus
  • Pipsqueak
  • Rat
  • Slimy
  • Sod
  • Squirt
  • Stoolpigeon
  • Swine
  • Tart
  • Traitor
  • Wart

Any MP found to use language along these lines is typically asked by the Speaker to withdraw their comments (as Labour MP Tom Watson did in 2010 when he called Education Secretary Michael Gove “a miserable pipsqueak of a man”) or else will be asked to leave the chamber (as fellow Labour MP Dennis Skinner did when he refused to withdraw calling Prime Minister David Cameron “Dodgy Dave” during the Panama Papers scandal in 2016).

Some MPs, however, have found ways of getting around Parliament’s rules on unparliamentary language. The phrase “terminological inexactitude” is used to avoid accusing a fellow member of telling what would otherwise be known as a “lie.” In 1983, Labour MP Clare Short attempted to get around the ban on accusing fellow members of drunkenness by euphemistically claiming Conservative Junior Employment Minister Alan Clark was “incapable.” And according to one (almost certainly apocryphal) tale, in the 19th century, opposition leader (and future Prime Minister) Benjamin Disraeli was asked to withdraw a statement he had made accusing half the government of being “asses.” In his half-hearted apology he stated, “Mr Speaker, I withdraw. Half the cabinet are not asses.”

6 Explosive Fart Controversies

iStock/MaryValery
iStock/MaryValery

Last week, the world of professional darts became embroiled in controversy after a player competing in the quarter finals of a major tournament partly blamed his loss on his opponent’s noxious flatulence. The loser, Wesley Harms, told the Dutch television station RTL7, "It’ll take me two nights to lose this smell from my nose." (Harms’s rival Gary Anderson denied being the fart’s founder, saying, "It was bad. It was a stink. It thought it was him, and he started playing better, I went, 'He must needed to get some wind out.'") Now that the niche world of competitive darts is clouded in Fartgate, it seems like an appropriate time to step outside and dutifully reminisce on a few other gassy controversies.

1. German police fine man over $1000 for letting it rip

In 2016, police in Berlin detained a man at a party and asked for his ID. Instead of offering his name, the man gave the police a whiff of his unique perfume, sending two rocketing farts in the direction of the officers. The police summarily fined the offender €900 (just over $1000) for disrespecting law enforcement. The ensuing "Crazy Toot Trial" would involve 23 officials and prompt a public outcry over wasteful public spending.

2. Fart sparks regime-change in Ancient Egypt

Around 570 BCE, the Egyptian Pharaoh King Apries had a problem: Invaders had slaughtered some of his soldiers and people's morale was low. So Apries sent his best general, Amasis, to quell the troops' discontent. Instead, the troops rallied around Amasis and declared him their personal king. When King Apries sent a messenger to accost Amasis, Amasis let out a fart and effectively said, "You can send that message back to the king!" Hearing this, King Apries unwisely decided to punish his messenger. That decision made King Apries even more unpopular and gave the gassy Amasis a chance to stage a revolt and successfully oust his old boss.

3. Cargo plane makes emergency stop because of reported goat gas

In 2015, a Singapore Airlines cargo flight was forced to make an emergency stop in Bali after more than 2000 goats reportedly filled the cargo hold with too many toots, setting off the fire alarm. "The smoke indication was identified to be the result of exhaust gases and manure produced by the sheep," The Aviation Herald reported. Despite this initial report, Singapore Airlines refused to acknowledge that the cause of the stopover was fart-related.

4. Fart fuels mid-flight fight

On a 2018 flight from Dubai to Amsterdam, a Transavia Airlines plane had to make an unscheduled stop in Vienna after an elderly man refused to stop cutting the cheese—even after receiving instructions from the pilot to cease firing. The man's stinkers fueled so much consternation among the surrounding passengers that a fight broke out, prompting police to remove four people from the flight.

5. Canada's Parliament debates the appropriateness of saying "fart"

In November 2016, Canada’s parliament began to spontaneously debate whether it was appropriate for members to use the word fart on the chamber floor. The discussion rose after Conservative MP Michelle Rempel asked, “Why does the government treat Alberta like a fart in the room that nobody wants to talk about or acknowledge?” Eventually, the rules regarding “unparliamentary language” had to be read aloud and the offense was taken under advisement. (You can read a transcript of the exchange here.)

6. Secret Service takes the blame for Presidential retarade

The Secret Service will not only take a bullet for the president, they’ll also take the blame for the Commander-in-Chief’s errant cheek squeaks: Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, would often fart and blame it on his Secret Service agents, loudly saying, "Jesus, was that you? Show some class." (This must have come as a shock to Lyndon B. Johnson, who once said, “Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.")

Every New Movie, Series, Documentary, and Special That's Coming to Netflix in December

Alfonso Cuarón directs Roma (2018)
Alfonso Cuarón directs Roma (2018)
Carlos Somonte, Netflix

Netflix has made no secret of its desire to bring top-tier entertainment to streaming devices around the world. After successfully testing the waters with a range of critically acclaimed series, from Stranger Things to The Crown, the streaming giant is now making a major push into the feature film market—which we’ll see play out in December with the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box.

Much has already been made about how these films, along with the Coen Brothers’ recently-recently The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, are disrupting the line between streaming and cinemas. How will it all play out come Oscar time? We’ll just have to wait to see.

In the meantime, here’s every new movie, television series, documentary, and comedy special making its way to Netflix in December.

DECEMBER 1

8 Mile
Astro Boy
Battle
Bride of Chucky
Christine
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Crossroads: One Two Jaga
Friday
Friday After Next
Hellboy
Man vs Wild with Sunny Leone: Season 1
Meet Joe Black
Memories of the Alhambra
My Bloody Valentine
Next Friday
Reindeer Games
Seven Pounds
Shaun of the Dead
Terminator Salvation
The Big Lebowski
The Last Dragon
The Man Who Knew Too Little

DECEMBER 2

The Lobster

DECEMBER 3

Blue Planet II: Season 1
Hero Mask
The Sound of Your Heart: Reboot Season 2

DECEMBER 4

District 9

DECEMBER 6

Happy!: Season 1

DECEMBER 7

5 Star Christmas
Bad Blood
Dogs of Berlin
Dumplin'
Free Rein: The Twelve Neighs of Christmas
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
Nailed It! Holiday!
Pine Gap
ReMastered: Who Killed Jam Master Jay?
Super Monsters and the Wish Star
The American Meme
The Hook Up Plan (Plan Coeur)
The Ranch: Part 6

DECEMBER 9

Sin senos sí hay paraíso: Season 3

DECEMBER 10

Michael Jackson's This Is It

DECEMBER 11

Vir Das: Losing It

DECEMBER 12

Back Street Girls: Gokudols
Out of Many, One

DECEMBER 13

Wanted: Season 3

DECEMBER 14

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: "A Midwinter's Tale"
Cuckoo: Season 4
Dance & Sing with True: Songs
Fuller House: Season 4
Inside the Real Narcos: Series 1
Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons: Season 3
Prince of Peoria: A Christmas Moose Miracle
Roma
Sunderland Til I Die
The Fix
The Innocent Man
The Protector
Tidelands
Travelers: Season 3
Voltron: Legendary Defender: Season 8

DECEMBER 16

Baby Mama
Kill the Messenger
One Day
Springsteen on Broadway
The Theory of Everything

DECEMBER 18

Baki
Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable
Terrace House: Opening New Doors: Part 5

DECEMBER 21

3Below: Tales of Arcadia
7 Days Out
Back With the Ex
Bad Seeds
Bird Box
Wolf (Boru)
Derry Girls
Diablero
Greenleaf: Season 3
Last Hope: Part 2
Perfume
Sirius the Jaeger
Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski
Tales by Light: Season 3
The Casketeers

DECEMBER 24

Hi Score Girl
The Magicians: Season 3

DECEMBER 25

Watership Down: Limited Series
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown: Season 11
Marvel Studios' Avengers: Infinity War

DECEMBER 26

Alexa & Katie: Season 2
You

DECEMBER 28

Instant Hotel
La noche de 12 anos
Selection Day
When Angels Sleep
Yummy Mummies

DECEMBER 30

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

DECEMBER 31

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man

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