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 And because of that—just like all of the old-fashioned and outdated laws that still sit on the statute books of towns across the U.S.—it operates under a number of strict rules and ancient traditions that at first glance might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