British parliamentary traditions

I know, I just wrote a post about red phone boxes and came down on the side of tradition, but really, folks, there’s a limit, and I believe a recent BBC TV series on Parliament has helped me locate it.

The series looks at everything from the building itself (which is falling apart) and the people who keep it running to the MPs and what they do and how they do it. How they do it is often in very arcane ways. How does one MP hand over some papers for a particular category of bill he’s introducing? He walks five steps, bows, walks five more steps, bows again, then walks the rest of the distance and hands over the papers. Makes me wonder what would happen if he didn’t bother bowing, or walked six steps. We played a game like that when I was a kid, Captain, May I? It involved giant steps and banana steps and going back to the starting line if you got it wrong.

Surprisingly relevant picture: a Yoeman of the Guard. Picture by Snapshots of the Past.

Surprisingly relevant picture: a Yoeman of the Guard. Picture by Snapshots of the Past.

The series is alternately fascinating, boring, and horrifying, and it wouldn’t be complete without a few Parliamentary traditions that predate the ox cart. And possibly the ox itself. I will, therefore, ignore the serious stuff and dive directly into the silly (in case I haven’t already done that with the MP and his banana steps). Because we all have enough serious stuff in our lives.

Before the Queen’s Speech (which gets capital letters, implying that it’s her only speech; for all I know, she maintains a regal silence the rest of the year), the Yeomen of the Guard walk through the basement pounding the corridor floors with fancy staffs, checking for barrels of gunpowder. It’s quite a sight, since these are the guys—and these days, I’m happy to say, at least one woman—who wear those memorable red uniforms.

But excuse me? Gunpowder? Barrels? Has anyone heard of drones? Or, I don’t know, intercontinental ballistic missiles? Semtex? There are so many ways to blow things up these days. And explosives aren’t the only danger a monarch faces. She could trip on the hem of her cape. She could fall victim to some prankster substituting one of my posts for the approved speech and there she’d be, with the wrong sheaf of papers in her hands and nothing to do but stop, doggedly read on, or ad lib. And ad libbing doesn’t look to me like one of the skills she’s practiced much.

She reads, by the way, from real paper. Yes, folks, paper. Talk about traditional! And while I’m interrupting myself, I can tell you that I just googled Semtex to make sure I wasn’t mistaking an explosive for a dishwashing liquid. That probably put me on somebody’s watch list. If I wasn’t there already.

But never mind all that. They tap the floors for gunpowder, not semtex and not rogue blog posts. It all dates back to Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot.

I want to be clear about this. I’m not recommending you blow up Parliament. Regardless of how you feel about monarchy or the British government or anything else, it would not help the political situation in any way. But there are certain ideas that shouldn’t be planted in people’s heads, and this is one of them. They made it all so picturesque. And I can’t help playing with scenarios. I’m a fiction writer, your honor. And a vegetarian.

No, I’m not sure that’s relevant either, but I mention it just in case—

[A late insertion here: When I first posted this, the paragraph above read, “I’m recommending” instead of “I’m not recommending.” Thanks to K.B., who wrote to say I really would end up on someone’s watch list. This is what happens when you recast a sentence too many times. Bits and pieces of the earlier versions get left in until it becomes meaningless, or means the opposite of what you meant it to mean, your honor.]

Let’s move on before they pass sentence. The Queen’s Speech also involves Black Rod. This is a guy dressed in clothes from another century—possibly another planet, but then who am I to judge?—and he runs around with, yes, a black rod. At the State Opening of Parliament, he’s “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 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 to hear the Queen’s Speech.”

That, by the way, is from Parliament’s own web site. You can tell it’s not mine by the British spelling of symbolise. Not to mention the quotation marks and the straight-faced tone.

This bit of symbolism dates back to the 1600s, when Charles I tried and failed to arrest five MPs, which Parliament considers to mark the autonomy of the Commons from the crown. Slamming the door in Black Rod’s face is like checking for gunpowder. It meant something once and they’ve been re-enacting it ever since.

So as far as I’m concerned, that’s where the far edge of tradition lies. I am, honestly, fascinated that the more, ummm, picturesque traditions continue on. I imagine that with each century they take on a more ceremonial and less meaningful tone, but no one can get rid of them. Maybe no one wants to. Maybe it’s only rude outsiders who see it all as a touch—shall we say bizarre and unnecessary? I don’t want to sound like I think the U.S. has it all figured out. We’re at least as crazy as the next country. But in other and (to me, at least) less picturesque ways.

48 thoughts on “British parliamentary traditions

  1. I used to work at the UK Parliament and sometimes gave tours of the building and would explain the State Opening and all the traditions that go with it, including checking the non-existent cellars (by banging on the floor) for gunpowder. Yes, in today’s context these rituals are pretty silly but there is some meaning behind them and it’s essentially commemorating the independence of the legislature from the executive, which is worth remembering and trying to remind the government of from time to time. Mostly though I think Brits just love clinging to the past (maybe because we used to matter a bit more in a global context many years ago) and embrace all our stupid traditions as historical quirks with silly outfits.

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    • Non-existent cellars? I thought those were the cellars they were walking through. Sigh.

      I was in France once when they trucked some flocks of sheep into town so they could walk them through and commemorate what used to be the only way to get them from the winter pastures to the summer ones. So Britain must not be the only country to cling to its traditions. Although it does more of it than the average country. And I say that authoritatively on the basis of no research whatsoever.

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      • Nope, the cellars they check don’t actually exist and haven’t for at least 150 years. Still good to check, just to be on the safe side though! Ooh I like the sheep. Geneva has an event it commemorates once a year of a night siege the residents defeated 400 years ago, which, for some reason I have not fathomed, entails a gaggle of geese. No idea why. I will however bow down to your substantiated authority on this matter that Brits are the worst :)

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    • Plus, of course, you have a LOT of it – unlike the Johnny-come-latelies on the far side of the pond and other sites of former colonies. I’ll never forget my day roaming around London on the upper level of one of those topless buses, while people with microphones yattered on cheerily about the doings of various royals, LONG dead, as though they were updating one on a recent episode of a soap opera.

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  2. I think each country has its “oddities” that have become part of the charm, so to speak, of the place! It is quite ridiculous, though!

    Yeah, what is up wit the mumblings?

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    • In the snippets of parliamentary debate (if you can call it that) that I hear on the news, they spend a crazy amount of time harassing each other. It’s like listening to a bunch of schoolyard bullies turned loose to run a country. I’m guessing the mumbling is what they do in low gear, trying to work up to full-scale harassment.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oops. Deeply embarrassing mistake for a (former) copy editor.

      I don’t know a thing about football chants, in either country for either kind of football. I have a severe sports allergy that keeps me form goig to games, or watching them on TV. But I’d be happy to hear (or here) what you can tell me about them.

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      • You can listen to a lot of football chants on youtube. But hearing upwards of 20,000 people chanting, “Knick, nack, paddywack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City f— off home” is quite something! There are far more scurrilous ones than that, of course!
        I didn’t realise it wasn’t done in the States until I was watching a match with some friends and they wondered, “What are they singing? Why are they doing it all at once?”
        Funny and irreverent.

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  3. If they don’t come after you for Semtex, that ‘black rod’ might get you on the porn watch list . Just sayin’ …. No, actually you said it and my mind wandered to the nether region .

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  4. Many years ago, when my husband and I spent several days visiting London, we had the privilege of touring Parliment. (It was an experiment at that time–letting visitors actually walk on the floor of the Houses, touch Churchill’s toe, see behind the scenes . . . I don’t know whether the program still continues.) Fascinating sights and tales to me, who loves all things British. Among the many perplexing rituals that I recall hearing of are these: When the Queen comes to address Parliament, the Sergeant at Arms, himself nearly as old as the Queen (or perhaps older), walks backward onto the floor to announce her coming (because one never turns their back on the Queen). The other tradition occurs in the House of Lords: members say the opening prayer with their backs turned to the center of the room, because in years past, when they bowed, their swords would cut up the benches. I love this stuff!

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  5. I had a visit to the House of Lords some years ago, hosted by a Life Lord. Got to run into another Life Lord, Margaret Thatcher, in red gown and looking regal as hell. Also, Benazhir Bhutto who was sitting at the next table and was visited by a pantheon of the leadership (talk about a good spot for people watching). They have their own wine and champagne labels, and since I was with one of the Lords I could make purchases. I was fascinated by the tradition — nothing in my own heritage to compare it to. I was really visiting a foreign country. Also, learning about the sack and what it means to be “sacked”

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    • What does it mean to be sacked? I never stopped to think about where the phrase comes from.

      Apparently both the Lords and the Commons have many, many bars, most of which visitors aren’t allowed into–and the booze is subsidized. The Lords recently declined to buy champagne jointly with the Commons, because even though it would save money in these days of austerity (for everyone else) it might lower the standard of champagne.

      It’s not another country, it’s another planet.

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    • What about being “made redundant”? I think I’d prefer to be “sacked.” Of course, I’m American, so I guess I’d rather be “fired” because at least that sounds like I left the workplace in a blaze of glory. Or, at least, a blaze.

      Or maybe even “laid off” because that sort of sounds like I had sex. ;)

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      • Being made redundant always sounds strange to me–as if there’s one too many of me. Well, I’m sure some people feel there is. But I do like the directions the other phrases take you in.

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        • Sacked referred to the fact that the Prime Minister sits on a large sack (originally of grain) in Parliament — not literally any more. Originally it had nothing to do with loss of job

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      • As regards redundancy, no better movie than Brassed Off. If you haven’t seen it be sure to get a look at it. It is one of my favorite British movies of all time, and is about Thatcher’s policies re: the miners (against a wonderful story about a Colliery Band and about brass band music — entire sound track is brass music

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  7. I’ve always thought the various rigmaroles and rituals enacted in Parliament are daft – and I’m UK born and bred. I mean, they must all know what time the State Opening is, so why waste money paying a guy to run around with a black stick? It puts me in mind of another great British tradition known as Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In fact, Monty Python makes more sense to me.

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