LONDON — British lawmakers endure a lot of distractions when they speak in the unruly Parliament, where their colleagues jeer, wave papers and stop them to pose questions. But one lawmaker faced a very different, harder-to-ignore sort of interruption on Monday.
Protesters stripped nearly naked in the public gallery, proclaiming that climate change, not the stalemate over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, was the real emergency facing the country.
“I encourage everybody to look in this direction rather than another direction,” said Peter Kyle, the Labour lawmaker who was trying in vain to hold the room’s attention as he presented a motion for a second referendum on Britain’s departure, the process known as Brexit.
[Read more about Monday’s debate.]
To his disappointment, most of the people in the elegant, wood-paneled chamber gazed upward, at the spectacle in the visitors’ gallery. There, a dozen men and women, all with messages scrawled on their bodies, stood in a row, turning their backsides to the protective glass barrier separating the public from the House of Commons, in full sight of sitting lawmakers.
Some lawmakers took out phones and snapped pictures. Others sighed or gasped in dismay.
One lawmaker, Nick Boles, said: “Mr. Speaker, it has long been a thoroughly British trait to be able to ignore pointless nakedness, and I trust that the House will now be able to return to the issue that we are discussing.”
On Twitter, Extinction Rebellion, the protest group that organized the demonstration, posted images from the gallery, and several members of Parliament posted photographs of the scene taken from their vantage points.
Many on Twitter and in the news media highlighted the reaction of Ed Miliband, a former Labour leader, whose eyes appeared to pop at the sight of the protest.
In the chamber, Mr. Kyle soldiered on, apparently struggling to keep his composure. With classic British understatement, the closest he got to acknowledging what was happening above was a reference to “the peripheral vision that was tempting my eyes elsewhere.”
“I congratulate him on speaking in the way that he is, notwithstanding some other stuff that may be going on,” Anna Soubry, a proponent of a second referendum, said when she took the floor. She added with a smile that it was important that everyone support Mr. Kyle’s motion, “and doesn’t get distracted by anything else.”
In a nation where “bottom” is a semi-naughty word and a staple of juvenile humor, Mr. Kyle said, “the bottom line is,” drawing laughter and cheers.
For most of its history, the chamber had no physical barrier between lawmakers and observers. In 1978, a visitor threw horse manure over the railing.
Parliament installed the bulletproof glass in 2004, citing the threat of terrorism, but the change divided the house, with some members seeing it as an unnecessary barrier between Parliament and the public. Soon after, protesters still managed to hurl purple flour at Prime Minister Tony Blair from a side gallery.
The incident on Monday will not help the reputations of Britain’s Parliament and democracy, which have been battered by the fighting over Brexit — not only between the major parties but within them — and lawmakers’ inability to agree on any way forward, despite a looming deadline.
The police struggled to clear the gallery, where at least one protester had been glued to the glass. They arrested 12 people on accusations of outraging public decency.
On the house floor, the debate — and the double-entendre — continued.
That was not enough for Extinction Rebellion, which organized the protest.
“It seems like that some of the MPs in the UK are more interested in making lewd innuendos than acting on global heating and ecological collapse,” the group wrote on Twitter.