There’s been some, although not a lot, of talk recently about the Queen and price Charles use of the royal veto. The royal family have been shown through the release of Cabinet Office papers to have amended or vetoed at least 39 bills in recent years. (It should be noted of course that the cabinet office tried their very hardest to stop this information from being released.) As well as an affront to democracy this revelation highlights the downright absurdity of the British Houses of Parliament. These traditions are largely archaic, unnecessary and all representative of a house of commons completely out of touch with the people. Below you will find some of the more bizarre traditions of the British institution.
Firstly, the building itself.
Parliament currently has enough seats for 457 members of parliament. The current MP count is 650. The layout of the building itself entrenches the two-party system of the UK (three parties at a push.) They don’t even have desks. Making notes on debates is done on the MPs knees if they’re lucky enough to get a seat.
The Red lines
The floor has two red lines running in front of each of the benches. MPs are forbidden to cross these lines during debates. Why? The lines are two swords lengths apart.
Catching the speakers eye.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a parliament debate on TV or in person. It’s boring as hell but that’s not the point. When a person in parliament tries to speak they do so by attempting to catch the speaker’s eye. There is no way to cue up a point you want to make. An MP must wait until they can, stand up and hope the speaker allows them to make their point.
Furthermore once it actually comes down to a vote the UK still uses and “aye” and “nay” system. MPs are asked to vote on the motion and they voice their vote. Whichever groups sounds like it has the most, or can shout the loudest wins. This is of course open to problems of accuracy so in particularly sensitive issues or counts where the speaker can’t quite work out which category had the most voices there is an alternative. Makes sense, right? Maybe not so much, MPs then leave the chamber and trudge back in through the division lobby to break up yes and no votes. In high school I worked on a Tech project where I pushed a button and a red light lit up. When I was 14 I built a better means of counting votes than currently used by the houses of parliament.
Wigs and Woollen Sacks
Next door an unelected old man in a wig sits on top if a sack of wool discussing bills and legislation with other unelected people including seats reserved for bishops of the Church of England. The Judges in the House of Lords also sit atop Woollen sacks. I’m not quite sure why.
Dragging the Speaker to Seat.
When a new speaker is elected he is ‘dragged’ to his seat by other members of commons. There is a history here. Traditionally the speaker voiced the opinions of the commons to the king. If the king didn’t like it the speaker would become shorter by about a head. The idea of ‘dragging’ the speaker to the commons apparently symbolises the speakers reluctance to take on this position.
I spy strangers.
This one was actually repealed a few years ago but needs a mention. The houses of parliament debates in public, it’s on TV, if you want to go watch you can. They do however, retain the right to debate in private and until only a few years ago an MP could cut a debate short by shouting “I SPY STRANGERS” a stranger being any non-MP or parliamentary staff member. The Speaker would then put it to vote whether or not the debate should continue in private and the ‘strangers’ be asked to leave. In 1895 Irish Nationalist MP Joseph Bigger used this method to have the Prince of Wales (who later become King Edward VII) removed from parliament.
The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.
The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, although usually just referred to as the Black Rod, is a position appointed by the crown. He is tasked with protecting the Mace and has an absurd ceremonial role in the opening of parliament. The Black Rod is the usher and gatekeeper in parliament and serves to remove rowdy MPs from parliament, amongst other roles. The Black Rod summons the House of Commons to attend the Throne Speech (the speech given by the crown at opening of parliament). As the Black Rod approaches the House of Commons the doors are slammed in his face; apparently to symbolise the separation of powers between the Commons and Monarch. The Black Rod then knocks on the door three times before being let in. (Oh he also makes over £80,000 a year)
This is but a few of the bizarre traditions retained by the Houses of Parliament. One may view this as harmless tradition, a bit of fun almost, to hark back to the tradition and grandeur of times gone, but in many ways it is representative of a greater problem within the houses of parliament. The old-boy attitudes and ceremony are out of touch with modern day society. The houses of parliament are like a boys club society with odd rules and traditions than exclude outsiders from their goings on. The parliament should be open, accessible and relatable to the modern man. ‘Tradition’ at the cost of seats for MPs, wasting time and strange ceremonies is a waste of resources and further highlights the separation between the common people and the elitists in government.