British parliament: Quirky rituals mark change, continuity

British Parliament. — Alamy Stock photo
British Parliament. — Alamy Stock photo

Quaint customs from the past still prevail in the Palace of Westminster as a nod to how history unfolded over the ages

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 16 Sep 2021, 11:22 PM

The past is ever present in modern Britain, particularly reflected in the Palace of Westminster, which witnessed the difficult transition over the centuries from a monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, while evolving new highs in democracy. Parliament continues to preserve several past rituals and laws, some of them odd, adding to the quirkiness of British public life.

For example, an MP is ‘kidnapped’ and held hostage in Buckingham Palace every time Queen Elizabeth opens a parliament session and delivers the Queen’s Speech that outlines the government’s plans for the next 12 months. The practice is from the time when the monarchy had a difficult relationship with parliamentarians, when the MP was used as a bargaining tool in case the King or Queen were threatened during their time in Westminster. The Queen delivers the speech in the House of Lords because monarchs do not set foot in the House of Commons due to a precedent: King Charles I once tried to arrest five MPs in 1642, and the speaker at the time (William Lenthall) refused to tell him where they were.

Every MP has a named peg to hang coats, but there is also a purple ribbon attached to it, which is meant for MPs to hang their swords from — another relic that continues to this day.

Look up any image of the House of Commons in session and you see many standing. The reason: there are 650 MPs, but there are only 427 seats in the chamber. One way to ensure a seat is if an MP reaches the House around 8am, grabs a ‘prayer card’ and places it in the preferred seat. The only condition is that such MPs need to attend the prayer that marks the beginning of the day’s proceedings — and face the chamber’s wall throughout the prayer.

One of the senior parliamentary officers is called Black Rod, responsible for controlling access and maintaining order in the House of Lords. Black Rod’s role at the state opening of parliament is one of the most well-known images: the Black Rod is sent from the Lords chamber to the Commons chamber to summon MPs to hear the Queen’s Speech. Traditionally, the door of the Commons is slammed in Black Rod’s face to symbolise the Commons’ independence. He or she then bangs three times on the door with the rod. The door to the Commons chamber is then opened and all MPs — talking loudly — follow Black Rod back to the Lords’ chamber to hear the Queen’s Speech. The current Black Rod is Sarah Clarke.

Most of the rituals have no relevance in modern Britain, but MPs and others observe them to sustain tradition. For example, there is a forced sense of disdain in the House of Commons about the House of Lords. There was a time when relations between the two Houses were not cordial, but to this day you would never hear the ‘House of Lords’ mentioned in the House of Commons — it is invariably referred to as ‘the other place’.

A five-feet-long Mace is the symbol of royal authority and without it neither House can meet or pass laws. The House of Commons Mace is a silver gilt ornamental club, dating from the reign of Charles II. On each day that the House sits the mace is carried to the chamber at the head of the speaker’s procession and is placed on the table of the House.

In 2018, Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle caused more than a flutter when he grabbed the mace and tried to walk away with it when the then Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she would delay a vote on Brexit. He was suspended for the rest of the day’s sitting, but later said: “It is a historical precedent that the Mace has been lifted when parliamentarians have felt the parliament is a rotten parliament or no longer governing”. He described it as a “symbolic stunt” adding: “I won’t be doing it again anytime soon”, and wrote in The Guardian that “for the vast majority of people a gangly man in moleskin trousers holding a 5 ft golden rod might look a bit odd. But I work in a very odd place, which rests heavily on symbol and ritual.”

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