Politics is a rough old game. One moment you’re prime minister, blithely waffling on outside the famous black door, the next you’re howling with laughter on the backbenches as your successor manages the implausible feat of making you look like an absolute Commons-bestriding colossus.
But if the language coming out of MPs on Twitter lately is anything to go by, politics has got fucking heaps rougher in recent years and it’s all thanks to, yup, Brexit.
We looked at MPs tweets going back to the start of 2014, tallying up the swearwords, and found that, amid the self-congratulatory videos about potholes and photos of summer fetes, our political representatives have become much more comfortable with letting slip the odd expletive, or even, in some cases (*cough* Jess Phillips *cough* Nicholas Soames), a metric shit-tonne of them.
Obscenity can be in the eye of the beholder, of course, and George Carlin’s list of seven dirty words you can never say on television is sounding a little dated, so for our analysis we based our definition of swearing on the results of Ofcom’s 2016 study of public attitudes towards offensive language. If you’re not expecting to hear it before the watershed, it’s reasonable to assume it still counts as a Proper Swear.
We’ve excluded some words Ofcom found are considered strong language, either because they are not always swearwords (“beaver” and “knob”, for example) or because they are too esoteric – like over 60% of the participants in the study, I didn’t know what “bloodclaat” was until Ofcom enlightened me. And, just so you know, “arse” and “bollocks” are totally fine. Ofcom says so.
The, uh, c-word has also been excluded as there’s only one MP who has used that particular epithet in the past five years. You’ll never guess who it is. No really, guess.
MPs, and more-often-than-not female MPs, have been subject to some horrendous abuse both offline and on social media and some, such as Stella Creasy, have called it out by quoting the worst examples on Twitter. Those tweets have also been omitted from the tally, as have retweets. While there have been two general elections during the past five years, only those MPs who were elected in 2015 and remain in the House of Commons, plus those who lost their seat in 2015 and regained it in 2017, have been included in the tally, ensuring the results aren’t skewed by a particularly sweary MPs who is no longer in parliament (like, say, the potty-tongued Jamie Reed).
However, even with all those exclusions and caveats, a clear trend emerges from the tweets of the 485 MPs analysed.
From just 28 instances of swearing by British politicians in 2014, that number has now soared over tenfold to 308 times this year and 2019 isn’t even over, with shit and its numerous derivations the darling of MPs’ cursing vocabulary. And the inflection point for the use of this word and its non-scatological siblings was 2016, i.e. the year of the Brexit referendum.
While some might argue this explosion in profanity is due to more MPs joining social media in recent years, the most prolific swearers have accounts that long predate the referendum – Jess Phillips, for example, joined in 2009, as did Michael “please sack your hair stylist” Fabricant.
Being serious for a moment, what it seems to be instead is further evidence that Brexit has not only sharply polarised people, but it has also coarsened public debate. Politicians are meant to be maturely finding a way to deliver on what was a very close referendum result, charting a course that hopefully wins a broad enough consensus to mean we don’t spend the next few decades retreating into ever more divergent, and increasingly worryingly violent, camps. Instead, they’re lobbing insults at one another and howling obscenely into the social media void.
On the other hand, Wes Streeting called George Galloway a wanker and that’s one opinion that does unite the nation.