Lewis Carroll and the British Parliament

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.

North Cornwall. Newly mown fields

Irrelevant photo: fields

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.

52 thoughts on “Lewis Carroll and the British Parliament

  1. It sounds just like private school shenanigans. Embarrassing, really. I understand the PM is proposing to reduce the number of MPs to 600, but whether that is to solve the seating problems or to gerrymander the constituencies for Conservative party gain, who knows? He says it is to save money!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your parliamentary posts, they make me feel all nostalgic! I hadn’t realised Dennis Skinner had stood again as MP, I’d thought he was standing down at the last election. I can imagine SNP breaking all the unofficial rules and causing mayhem, I can imagine all too clearly the response of bewildered Labour MP’s who find themselves seat-less and the bewigged officials aghast at these acts against decorum!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this. I can’t even think of a good way to frame a comeback to any of this, but a most enjoyable post nonetheless! (Surprised you didn’t get into the whole Black Rod thing as long as you’re talking about weird parliamentary traditions…)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Superb post! I tried the facing the wall part but felt silly. This was really interesting and I agree that the SNP is shaking things up. As to “whilst,” that probably hasn’t been heard here in 200 years haha. I just recently realized it’s still in common use on the other side of the pond. It’s a great word.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved watching the House of Commons meet on public television when I was a child. I think it was the combination of extremely elegant (from my 12-year-old perspective) language, and sheer temper:
    “IF the honorable Member had the slightest clue regarding the subject at hand, and IF he had a modicum of insight into the lives of the working class upon whose backs his miserably narrow and morally bankrupt perspective rests -” Labour’s rumblings erupt into shouts – “and IF he were not such a pathetic ninny as to presume to stand before this body displaying contempt for the millions of people it represents” – Labour leaps to its feet, drowning out the Opposition, also on its feet – “who labor to preserve his archiac and ornamental existence” –
    He’s ordered to sit DOWN because the Honorable Member’s time is UP, and he does so, almost instantly composed, as his Party continues with “Hear! Hear!” –
    A Conservative rises, clearing his throat and everyone sitting on his side leans forward…

    How radical I thought Labour was!

    Later in life, I felt personally betrayed by Tony Blair.

    Of course this is all purely from distant memory. I could have it all wrong, Right or wrong, it certainly made an impression on me,

    My aologies for such a long comment.

    P,S. You are a really good writer!


    • Many thanks for the compliment. Coming from you–I really admire your web site–it means a lot to me.

      I think you’ve got the tone of the Commons debates perfectly. Except my hunch is that they couldn’t get by with the word ninny. They can be as horrible as they like to each other as long as the words themselves don’t cross a certain (and to me, at least, ill defined) line.

      At the time you’re talking about, I believe Labour really was radical, and I meet many, many people here who feel as betrayed by New Labour as you do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow, thanks!! I’ve been reblogging so much that I feel a bit fraudulent re compliments, but I’m shamelessly overjoyed when someone I admire notices that in between reblogs I actually do some real writing,
        You’re the kind of craftsman who can basically step into pretty near the top of mainstream media any time you decide to. I guess you know that. I mean, I sure hope you do. The control you employ is just about masterful, which is exactly what MSM editors lust after most. You refuse to squander; it’s this essential restraint to which readers respond, IMHO – because what you do give away is trickily substantial. I’m sure that trickily is not a word; please allow it whilst I provide this example: your post on English school forms was as deft and neatly packed a piece of social commentary as any I’ve seen.

        Okay, I better shut up before I start to – as my friends unfairly and unkindly describe it – hold forth,

        Liked by 1 person

        • Actually, if someone could convince the mainstream media that I could step in any time, I’d be grateful. I’ve been trying and the editors, so far, haven’t been impressed. I know, I know, don’t let a few rejections get to you–or a few hundred–but they do. Especially since now that the SASE is a vague memory I don’t even hear back when they’re not interested.


          • Hmm. You shouldn’t think your stuff is being read and rejected. It probably isn’t being read. They’re flooded with submissions and they are also lazy, so they take a chance on missing something good by having inept editorial assistants screen it.You just have to get one editor’s attention,

            BTW, USA Today is not small potatoes! No matter that the paper sucks: It’s major big time professional. So, congratulations!

            FYI, I was just a regular pound-the-pavement beat reporter for mid-level print platforms – I mean newspapers – for so long that my transition to freelance hasn’t been too graceful – or gracious.

            But I’ve realized our positions are different in that I qualified to register with services that charge publications a fee for sending story needs to “experienced, screened reporters”. It’s pretty stupid – bullshit things like “if you write for a commercial blog, is your name listed on the front as a regular contributor?”

            Fuck them. You’ve started a nice list of non-fiction publications and youj write better than most journalists I know, including me. I just need to think and ask around and I’ll get back to you with some solid info.

            Just don’t start any community newsletters. You guys could poke an eye out (- :

            Liked by 1 person

            • Asking around would be fantastic. Thanks. The USA Today story was set up by my publisher’s publicist. (She was amazing–and, unfortunately, left just before my book’s publication date.) It helps to have someone else make the contact. Suddenly I’m not just one more pest.

              The thought that submissions aren’t necessarily read should be depressing, but it’s oddly heartening and makes it a smidgen easier to throw myself back in there. And actually it makes sense to me that the services you’re talking about want actual reporters, who know the difference between, say, a rumor and a verifiable fact. Being able to write is one skill, but being able to report is a whole ‘nother thing, and one worthy of respect. I did work on a community newspaper (several actually, back in the day, and one community newsletter), and we damn near did poke an eye out. Plus a couple of times it looked like we might poke each other’s eyes out.


    • It’s a person. I think he does real things too, but what he’s best known for is on the day of the Queen’s speech dressing up in–well, follow the link and you’ll see; for the sake of brevity I’d have said funny clothes–and summoning the members of the Commons to the House of Lords. The door of the Commons is ceremonially slammed in his face. Then he knocks (that’s where the rod comes in) and it’s opened.

      That makes sense, right?


        • All the trappings allow me to laugh even when they’re passing bills that would otherwise lead me to consider homicide. Maybe that’s a good thing and maybe it’s not. Hard to say. The House and Senate are harder to make fun of, sadly. Maybe if they dressed up in ermine robes, like the Lords do….


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