Political bust-ups: the worst moments

A list of recent parliamentary punch-ups. Warning: contains violent scenes.

The physical fight that erupted inside the Italian Parliament on 27 October over pension reforms caused quite a stir -- but it was by no means the first time politicians have come to blows. Here, we present an assorted collection of parliamentary pugilism that makes The Thick Of It's Malcolm Tucker look like a pacifist. Judging from these clips, Bob Dylan might have had it right when he hummed "democracy don't rule the world, you'd better get that in your head; this world is ruled by violence."

Ukraine - April 2010

This footage, showing carnage inside the Ukrainian parliament, ranks highly on our list of "low-lights", if only for the sheer variation of methods of attack employed. The speaker, Volodymyr Litvyn, was shielded by umbrellas as opposition members hurled hundreds of eggs. Several smoke bombs are also thrown, in protest against Viktor Yanukovych's newly formed coalition passing a motion allowing the Russian navy to extend its stay in a Ukrainian port until 2042.

India - June 2007


Before a debate over a sensitive civil-rights issue had even begun, members of minority parties converged on the House Leader's bench, quickly sparking a violent free-for-all. Gandhi would have wept if he had seen how quickly the debate descended into all-out war, with seriously dangerous-looking metal microphone stands becoming menacing projectiles.

South Korea - July 2009

Here, hundreds of lawmakers clash over plans to ease restrictions on the ownership of television networks. The chaotic scenes began after members of the ruling Grand National Party attempted to rush the bill through, only for opposition parties to barricade the main entrance to the National Assembly. After a concerted surge, GNP members gained entrance and a full-scale brawl ensued. This video stands out for the scale of the fight, which seemed to involve the entire parliament and notably, its female contingent. The bill was eventually passed.

Taiwan - July 2010

The accompanying Metro headline for this confrontation read "Taiwan parliament descends into traditional massive fight", as similar clashes had occurred only months earlier. Along with the usual punches and kicks, legislators can be seen flinging rubbish bins and jostling for space on the speaker's podium, as if any words could calm the situation down. The fight broke out between the ruling Kuomintang party and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, after calls to discuss a controversial trade-pact with China were rejected.

United States: Alabama Senate - June 2007

In explanation for this seemingly unprovoked attack on Democratic Senator Lowell Barron, 65, Republican Senator Charles Bishop claimed he had been called a "Sonuvabitch". He went on, "where I grew up, that's someone talkin' bad about your mother", and so "I responded with my right fist". Quite how 69-year-old Bishop became so aggrieved by this supposed slight against his (admittedly"long-dead") mother is unclear, but it shows how tensions can rapidly boil over even in an otherwise sedate atmosphere. It seems that when it comes to acting like children, old-age is no barrier.


Finally, the case of the mysterious politician who can be seen calmly flipping his opponent through the air. Details of the origins of the clip are fairly sparse, but it has to rank as a favourite. The film has become a YouTube sensation and contrasts to the scenes of all-out mayhem witnessed above. As one of the comments succintly points out: "When engaging in a political brawl, its best to stay away from Judo practitioners."


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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.