‘Shitshow!’ Britain’s potty-mouthed parliament

LONDON — Britain’s politicians can’t seem to stop swearing. The British public don’t like it.

The air around the famous green benches of the House of Commons is turning increasingly blue these days as MPs — and their House of Lords counterparts — indulge in record levels of cursing in speeches and debates. Others have been left squirming after their muttered profanities from the backbenches were caught on a hot-mic.

Britain’s straight-laced opposition leader Keir Starmer — the favorite to become prime minister later this year — added his own expletive to the record last week when he used his appearance at prime minister’s questions to repeat an anonymous briefing to a newspaper which had described the government’s childcare policy as a “shitshow.”

Labour strategists insist they don’t plan to make a habit of Starmer’s swearing in parliament, noting the phrase was pulled from the front page of the Times.

But Starmer’s profanity was very much on trend. Data from Hansard, the official parliamentary record, show politicians’ usage of words such as “shit” and “fuck” have soared in recent years.

Only weeks earlier, Home Secretary James Cleverly was accused by another MP of having described the English town of Stockton as a “shit hole” during another session of PMQs. Cleverly denied the specific claim, although admitted using “inappropriate language” in the chamber.

For some, the increasing use of foul language in parliament is a sign of the times.

“I think the swearing is just a by-product to match the ridiculousness of British politics in recent years,” said Scottish National Party MP Mhairi Black, who was herself told to watch her language in parliament last year by House of Commons Deputy Speaker Rosie Winterton.

Black received a dressing-down after claiming Tories were “pished”— a Scottish slur meaning drunk — during the Covid lockdown. It was the first recorded use of the word in Hansard’s long history. 

Tory Brexiteer MP Michael Fabricant — who famously shouted “bollocks” at a pro-EU colleague in the Commons chamber during a 2016 debate — insists swear words can be effective tools for MPs to deploy.

“Keir Starmer’s swearing sounds contrived and read from a script — but occasional expressions of frustration can be effective,” Fabricant says.

Though he cautions: “Like anything, too much swearing — apart from being offensive — devalues the commodity.”

Rules of the game

There are, in fact, curbs on MPs’ vocabulary under the rules governing U.K. parliamentary debate. 

Using “unparliamentary language” can break the rules of politeness in the House of Commons, and MPs can be asked to withdraw their comment immediately by the Commons Speaker.

“Coward,” “git” and “guttersnipe” are among the words to which different Speakers have objected over the years, according to the U.K. parliament website.

But MPs are allowed to swear without sanction if quoting others — and while some, like Starmer, may use this loophole to slip in a profanity to score political points, others have deployed such vocabulary for far graver reasons.   

The word “cunt” — perceived by the public as among the most offensive swearwords available — has made it onto the parliamentary record three times, all of them in the last six years.

Tellingly, both MPs to have used the word — Tory MP Andrew Percy, and Mhairi Black — were illustrating some of the abuse they had received while doing their jobs. In the House of Lords, Tory peer Anne Jenkin used the same word to describe the language used against a Conservative parliamentary candidate during a debate on social media.

“Fuck” — also deemed highly offensive — has made it onto the parliamentary record 13 times, nine of those since 2017. Each time the MP or peer had been quoting others, often to recount verbal abuse. 

Swear with care

But MPs who deploy strong or fruity language for more frivolous reasons should swear with care, those monitoring public opinion caution. 

“The public can understand the odd slip of the tongue in frustration — most people accept that politicians are only human,” says Luke Tryl, director of the More in Common consultancy, which conducts focus groups around the U.K.

But he warns: “The public have no time for those MPs who deliberately or gratuitously swear — the most common response to that sort of behavior from MPs is ‘imagine if I did that in my workplace, I’d lose my job!’ MPs who can swear, or otherwise behave badly, without consequence are seen as another example of ‘one rule for them’.”

“Parliament has become a slightly more informal place over the years, which you could argue is probably the right approach,” notes one former political adviser, granted anonymity because they were not authorized to to speak publicly in their new role.

But they agreed that in general, the public “quite like it to be kept clean.”

“I think people like a straight talker, but don’t necessarily think they would get away with swearing in the workplace. So why should MPs?”

On current trends, it’s a question that will be posed frequently in the months ahead.