That great institution the House of Commons meets in a room that doesn’t have enough seats for all its members (called MPs–Members of Parliament).
A good part of the time, this is fine, because most debates take place before an almost empty chamber. That probably says something depressing about how much the debates matter, but let’s move on, because it’s not the point right now. The point is that sometimes everybody does want to be present, and the only way to reserve a seat is to show up before 8 a.m. and put a prayer card on the seat you want.
Yes, a prayer card. It indicates that you’ll attend the prayer that opens each day’s session. And when you do, you and all the other MPs will stand facing the walls behind you.
Yes, the walls behind you. No one knows why, but a fact sheet published by Parliament itself says it’s attributed to “the difficulty Members would once have faced of kneeling to pray whilst wearing a sword.” Never mind the awkwardness of that sentence, or the use of whilst, pay attention instead to the explanation it offers: It would have been difficult to kneel, so they all stand backward? Couldn’t they stand facing forward? Or kneel backward? And would kneeling backward really make a sword fit any better? I’d experiment, but I don’t have the right benches on hand. Or a sword. I come from the wrong class. And country. As far as I know, none of my ancestors ran around wearing swords, never mind praying with them.
But never mind all that. We haven’t dropped into a world that puts a high priority on linear logic. Since I began researching this post, I’ve come to appreciate Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass in a whole new way.
But we were talking about seats: Having reserved one, an MP actually has to show up for the prayer, regardless of what his or her religion, or lack thereof, may be. Such are the joys and absurdities of established religion.
According to another tradition—one that makes instinctive sense to me, but probably only because I’m used to it– the MPs seat themselves according to party, with the governing party on one side and the opposition on the other. That was simple enough when two main parties controlled the Commons, with a third much smaller party in the background and behaving itself nicely, but the Scottish National Party (SNP) has become a major player very quickly, and it’s feeling its power and not inclined to play nice, so all hell’s breaking loose.
It turns out that on the first day of Parliament, the prayer card rule doesn’t apply. Well, of course it doesn’t; it also doesn’t apply when a litter of all-black kittens is born precisely at noon on a Wednesday in 10 Downing Street. (Yes, I made that up about the kittens, but it makes as much sense as anything else.) So the first day of this new Parliament was a scramble. Having taken a political seat from Labour in the election, an SNP member parked himself in the physical seat that has belonged, unchallenged, to a Labour Party MP, Dennis Skinner, since forever. He and Skinner managed not to wrestle over it, but Skinner was upset enough that he wedged himself into a crack between the seat he considered his by right and the one next to it.
After that, the SNP took a row of seats behind Labour’s traditional front bench. Apparently this defies another longstanding tradition, but I have no idea what that is. As far as I know, Labour MPs didn’t pile in and sit on their laps, but I don’t know why not.
And there you have it. The mother of Parliaments, in all its sober glory.