Britain’s Parliament was divided by a common language on Thursday, as one politician was forced to repeat a question twice when his colleague couldn’t understand him, before eventually submitting the question in writing after his attempts at verbal communication failed.
Both politicians, of course, were speaking English.
The incident took place during a meeting about the House of Commons Commission, a body that oversees the administration of Parliament and its grounds, as David Linden of the Scottish National Party asked Conservative member of Parliament Paul Beresford about planned renovation works.
“I know from speaking to a number of parliamentary colleagues that there are still certain aspects of the estate, including the northern estate, that are not great for disabilities,” Linden said, referring to the facilities used by Parliament.
“Can I ask the honorable gentleman what work is being done to make sure this place is more accessible, particularly for some of our colleagues who have a disability?” he asked.
Beresford, however, did not have an answer.
“I’m sorry, it must be something to do with my antipodean background,” he said (Beresford was born in New Zealand). “Could you please repeat the question, because I didn’t follow it?”
The remark sparked nervous laughter from other politicians in Parliament.
“Oh, well,” Linden said. “I’m very popular today.”
He tried again: “I’m saying that a number of parliamentary colleagues who have disabilities do find it quite difficult getting around certain parts of the estate. Given that we’re doing this refurbishment work, what can be done to make sure that those with disabilities are able to move around more freely and that the place is accessible?”
But the confusion remained. “I’m really sorry,” Beresford said. “Please could you do it very slowly and in antipodean English?”
The two politicians represent constituencies in Britain that are roughly 350 miles apart — only a little farther apart than Los Angeles and San Francisco and closer together than D.C. and Boston. But Beresford, who represents Mole Valley in Surrey, England, could not understand the accent of Linden, who represents Glasgow East in Scotland.
Despite being a relatively small country, Britain has a vast array of different regional accents. The Glaswegian accent is particularly distinctive, known for features such as the “glottal stop” (where a “t” sound gets dropped) and often considered hard to understand by those from other parts of Britain: In 2010, to the amusement of the Scottish press, a London-based firm even hired a Glaswegian interpreter.
The fact that Linden wasn’t understood in Parliament prompted a variety of comments on social media. “It seems having a Scottish accent can be an occupational hazard in the House of Commons,” said Catriona Matheson, head of communications for the Scottish National Party.
“The Scottish accent really isn’t even that strong,” wrote Henry Zeffman, a journalist with the Times of London.
Britain’s Press Association reported that another member of the SNP, Alan Brown, was often asked by Parliament’s official transcribers to write down his remarks. The issue of his thick accent had become a “running joke,” Brown told the news agency.
Amid the confusion on Thursday, it took Lindsay Hoyle, deputy speaker of Parliament, to step in to help communication. “I think the answer might be helped if he can reply in writing,” he said, in his own Lancashire accent.
“I’ll try it on my first go,” said Labour member of Parliament Chris Elmore as he stepped in to ask the next question. “I’m Welsh, so God help him.”
As he returned to his seat, Linden mimed writing on a piece of paper to Beresford — an indication that he would later send a written question. Later, on social media, he chose a photograph from the classic British sitcom “Fawlty Towers” to describe how he felt.