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 And because of that—just like all of the old-fashioned and outdated laws that still sit on the statute books of towns across the U.S.—it operates under a number of strict rules and ancient traditions that at first glance might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 Facts About International Women's Day

iStock.com/robeo
iStock.com/robeo

For more than 100 years, March 8th has marked what has come to be known as International Women's Day in countries around the world. While its purpose differs from place to place—in some countries it’s a day of protest, in others it’s a way to celebrate the accomplishments of women and promote gender equality—the holiday is more than just a simple hashtag. Ahead of this year’s celebration, let’s take a moment to explore the day’s origins and traditions.

1. International Women's Day originated more than 100 years ago.

On February 28, 1909, the now-dissolved Socialist Party of America organized the first National Woman’s Day, which took place on the last Sunday in February. In 1910, Clara Zetkin—the leader of Germany’s 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party—proposed the idea of a global International Women’s Day, so that people around the world could celebrate at the same time. On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was held; more than 1 million people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark took part.

2. The celebration got women the vote in Russia.

In 1917, women in Russia honored the day by beginning a strike for “bread and peace” as a way to protest World War I and advocate for gender parity. Czar Nicholas II, the country’s leader at the time, was not impressed and instructed General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to put an end to the protests—and to shoot any woman who refused to stand down. But the women wouldn't be intimidated and continued their protests, which led the Czar to abdicate just days later. The provisional government then granted women in Russia the right to vote.

3. The United Nations officially adopted International Women's Day in 1975.

In 1975, the United Nations—which had dubbed the year International Women’s Year—celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th for the first time. Since then, the UN has become the primary sponsor of the annual event and has encouraged even more countries around the world to embrace the holiday and its goal of celebrating “acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

4. International Women's Day is an official holiday in dozens of countries.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration around the world, and an official holiday in dozens of countries. Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Uganda, Mongolia, Georgia, Laos, Cambodia, Armenia, Belarus, Montenegro, Russia, and Ukraine are just some of the places where March 8th is recognized as an official holiday.

5. It’s a combined celebration with Mother’s Day in several places.

In the same way that Mother’s Day doubles as a sort of women’s appreciation day, the two holidays are combined in some countries, including Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan. On this day, children present their mothers and grandmothers with small gifts and tokens of love and appreciation.

6. Each year's festivities have an official theme.

In 1996, the UN created a theme for that year’s International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future. In 1997, it was “Women at the Peace Table,” then “Women and Human Rights” in 1998. They’ve continued this themed tradition in the years since; for 2019, it's “Better the balance, better the world” or #BalanceforBetter.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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