MPs often obscene, but seldom heard

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK a television documentary on the former England football manager, Graham Taylor, will show him using the F-word 36 times. A nation which is just coming to terms with press disclosure of the Prime Minister's private language - 'bastards' and the so far unsubstantiated 'f***ing' - will wonder once again about the discrepancy between public and private behaviour, even among the most bloodless of our leading figures.

The parliamentary facts about unparliamentary language are these: John Major swears. Most of his Cabinet swears. John Smith swears, and of his Shadow Cabinet only Harriet Harman is positively acquitted of swearing: it is gallantly suggested that she doesn't know the words.

Most backbenchers have been heard using unparliamentary language, and not many political journalists can get through a conversation with MPs without swearing. Sometimes, the cussing in the bars of Westminster gets so heroic that it even reaches the ears of the office of the Serjeant at Arms. He rarely intervenes.

Nobody knows much about this verbal free-and-easy because the rules of the palace of varieties entail a vow of discretion. There has traditionally been a conspiracy among the players that it would be a bad thing all round if the punters knew that their legislators could be as foul-mouthed as a market porter. Perhaps those honeyed words on the hustings would not sound half so convincing.

But whether the Prime Minister did or did not promise 10 days ago to 'f***ing crucify' the hard-right awkward squad in his Cabinet, everybody now knows that he swears in private.

Not only has Mr Major used the F-word on the telephone to Kelvin MacKenzie, during his heyday as editor of the Sun, he has made free with the C-word - about his ministerial colleagues. Even Norma Major is said to have expressed strong views about the single parenthood possibilities of some ministers.

Such robust talk has a long political pedigree. Sir Winston Churchill, who enjoyed bricklaying, cussed like a brickie. Lord Boothby, the gravel- voiced Tory MP rather better known for his role as a social carer (of Lady Macmillan, in his case) is credited with being the first British politician to utter the F-word in public, while electioneering in Aberdeen in the 1950s. His notoriety was eclipsed by the Watergate tapes, which exhibited President Nixon in full verbal undress. Swathes of the American public were more upset by their president's language than his wrong-doing.

Some traditional Tories, fearing that the voters have prim views about their legislators' language, swear that Westminster is a foul-mouth-free zone. 'We don't even swear to each other in private conversation,' said a member of the executive of the Conservative 1922 backbench committee.

Not so. MPs eff-and-blind their way through the long parliamentary day without slipping up in public. The only recorded hearing of the F-word in the chamber, say House veterans, was during the 1970s when the left-wing Labour MP Reg Race read out a prostitute's advertisement challenging customers to 'find me and f**k me'.

Outside the chamber, the House does have its robust tongues. The language of the pit, the signal box and the staff-room mingles with the braying cadences of the public school, Oxbridge and the City. Only the words are the same.

John Prescott, the voluble shadow Employment Secretary, plainly learned a thing or two about swearing while working as a steward on the Cunard liners. But even his colourful vocabulary pales alongside the free-ranging discourse of Frank Dobson, the Yorkshire railwayman's son who is now Labour's ebullient shadow Transport Secretary.

He does try to moderate his language in front of women - 'I don't do it for show.'

Nobody pretends that the world of bad language does not impinge from outside, but they take it in their stride. Barry Porter, Conservative member for Wirral South, received a Christmas card bearing a nativity scene on the front with the charming message: 'Jesus loves you.' Inside, it read: 'Everyone else thinks you're a c***'.