When did Members of Parliament stopped wearing hats in the House of Commons? someone asked recently.
The question wasn’t something I was expected to answer but a search engine question, meaning the person who asked isn’t likely to see the answer. Still, it intrigued me. So let’s hack it apart and see what we can learn:
The short answer is 1998.
The answer is also more complicated than that, and more fun. We’ll work more or less backward in time.
The reason 1998 comes up is that it’s a dividing line. Before then, anyone who wanted to raise a point of order during a division (which in the normal world would be called a vote) had to wear a top hat while they were talking. According to some sources, that was because it made them easier for the Speaker to spot. According to others, it was just because. Traditions are like that sometimes. It’s easy to lose track of why they were once done but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing them.
Two collapsible top hats were kept on hand so that they could be passed to whoever wanted to raise a point of order.
Yes, collapsible. For all I know, the point of order might have been invalid if the hat hadn’t been collapsible, although I have read that a women MP was issued a get-out-of-hat-free card: She got got to raise her point of order without putting the hat on her head. Maybe it didn’t work with her hair style. Maybe she (or the speaker, or the god of top hats) felt a top hat was inappropriate for a woman. Or for a lady. But that’s guesswork. If it was considered inappropriate for a lady, I just know I’d have worn the thing, and I like to think I could’ve pulled it off with a certain grand absurdist style. Fortunately–or possibly sadly–we’ll never find out so I can go on believing.
Then in 1998, the Modernisation Select Committee came along and ruined everything. Let me quote:
“In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television.'”
So no more games with top hats and TV cameras and Order Papers. But take heart. They didn’t spoil all the hat-related fun. Before each sitting of Parliament, the Speaker leads a procession from his or her office to the Commons chamber. This involves someone walking behind him or her carrying the train of her or his cloak (which is long enough to look like it was cut for some much taller species) and yet another person walking behind the train-carrier carrying fuck-all but looking very serious about it.
Apologies if the swearing offends anyone. All this ceremonial seriousness will rot your teeth if you don’t counteract it with a carefully calibrated dose of profanity.
Besides, I do swear. I have ever since I was first introduced to the words, which was some time before I understood what they meant.
The two walkers-behind are–at least in the picture you’ll find if you follow the link a couple of paragraphs back–wearing frothy lace where you might otherwise find a tie. And no hats.
As they process through the members’ lobby, the police (because what’s a procession without police?) shout, “Speaker,” in case anyone hasn’t figured out that this is the Speaker. This allows everyone who isn’t the Speaker or the followers-behind to scuttle out of the way. Then (or possibly first–I have no idea what the route is), in the central lobby, the police inspector (because what’s a procession without a police inspector?) shouts, “Hats off, strangers,” and all the police take off their helmets. Because helmets are hats, sort of.
In the House of Commons, strangers are people who aren’t MPs–a.k.a. Members of Parliament. If any non-police non-MPs are around, they’re expected to take their hats off too. If they don’t, they’ll be turned into June bugs for the remainder of the day.
Have you ever wondered how J.K. Rowling came up with all the convoluted traditions of the Harry Potter books? I’m not saying it was from Parliament in particular, just that the British culture sets a person’s mind working in certain odd ways.
Now, in the interest of making some marginal sense of all this, let’s slip back a bit further in time, to the days when gentlemen wore top hats or put order papers on their heads. And keep track of the gentle– part of the word gentlemen, because the whole point of a top hat was to prove you were the sort of man who could wear something that was as expensive as it was useless.
MPs were traditionally the sort of men who wore top hats.
So Commons had rules governing the hats. You could wear them inside the chamber but you couldn’t wear them as you were coming in or going out. Or when you were addressing the house. So you had to take your hat off to come in, then you might or might not put it on your head to sit down, but if you did you had to take it off to again stand up and speak, put it back on (if you chose to) to sit down, then take it off again to leave.
Which should be clear enough for anyone to follow.
A parliamentary guide to the traditions and customs of the House says:
“In the late nineteenth century, the tall hat was de rigeur. It also served as a place reservation in the Chamber for its owner, the thinking being that the wearer could not leave the Palace without it, and would therefore soon return.
“This system was defeated by some Members bringing two silk hats into the Palace (one Irish Member, it is said, once arrived with a cab full of hats) and so the present device of “prayer cards” was adopted.”
The House of Commons–can we agree, for convenience, to call it the H of C? Thanks. I feel comfortable enough to take off my top hat now. The H of C currently has 646 members but only 427 seats. Most days that’s not a problem. Turn on the news and you can often catch slight of MPs orating to a nearly empty expanse of green benches. (Green is the color of the H of C. It reminds them not to get above their station, because red is for the H of Lords.) But when some hot-ticket item is on the agenda, everyone wants to squeeze in and there isn’t room. As the BBC’s Democracy Live explains, “Behind each seat on the green benches is a small, brass frame into which MPs can place a card with their name.
“This card must be put in place before prayers take place each day and the MP must be in that seat during prayers.
“The seat is then reserved for that MP for the rest of the day.”
Now let’s go back to hats, because we need to keep our eyes on the important stuff.
Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s first parliamentary leader, from 1906 to 1908, scandalized many a gentle (in the class-bound sense of the word) soul by showing up in Parliament wearing a cloth cap, which was as much the symbol of the working man as the top hat was the sign of a gentleman. He also wore–oh the horror of it all–a tweed suit.
Hardie was the son of an unmarried servant who later married a carpenter, and he started work as a baker’s delivery boy at the age of eight. He was, for at least part of that time, the family’s only wage earner and he never went to school . By the time he was eleven, he was working as a coal miner. By seventeen, he had taught himself to read and write.
So, no. No top hat on Mr. Hardie’s head, thank you. He was very pointedly not a gentleman and he knew he’d get nothing done if he played by gentlemen’s rules. Not that they’d have accepted him as one anyway.
What he put on his head when he wanted to make a point of order during a division I have no idea. Maybe the question never came up.
Long before him, in the seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell created a flap when he appeared in the H of C wearing a plain cloth suit that was none too clean and none too well made, along with a hat with no hatband.
The funny thing about all this is that to the people who took this stuff seriously, this was serious stuff. A hat with no hatband? Was the man born in a barn?
Mentioning Cromwell lands us conveniently in the period that explains the H of C’s obsession with hats, or at least gives us a some context for it: The whole question of who was superior to who(m, if you like) was–I was going to say more rigid in the seventeenth century but let’s change that to less hidden than it is today. Who–and this is among men, because they colonized all the positions of power, making women irrelevant to the discussion–took his hat off and who kept it on was the kind of issue you could discuss seriously. And take serious offense at. Not to mention cause offense by. Taking your hat off to someone was an acknowledgement that the someone was further up the social hierarchy than you. Or in the terms of the day, was your better. So hats were a handy symbol for all sides and everyone could agree on what they meant.
If you were on the bottom of the ladder–say, a peasant–and didn’t have a hat to take off, you were expected to tug a bit of hair above your forehead to prove you knew your place. What you were supposed to do if you were bald is beyond me.
The H of C devoted considerable brain space to when one of its members should be hatless or hatted in meetings with the Lords–who were considered their social superiors.
MPs were expected to take their hats off to hear a message signed by the king, and ditto during the king’s speech. Which made it all the more pointed–and probably more fun–when some refused, which on occasion they did.
Take that, Kingy. I keep my hat on in the presence of your writing materials.
All this obsession with who takes their hat off to who filters down to us in the H of C’s conviction that it has to regulate hats.
Even without the metal hat that goes with the outfit, though, no one, and I mean no one, is or was allowed to wear armor in the H of C.