Britain gets a new cabinet: an update

Britain has a new prime minister, who even though he’s never been prime minister of anyplace before has the look of a second-hand car about him–the kind whose odometer broke when someone tried to set it back. So far, he’s told us that everything’s going to be wonderful with him in office. We’ll leave the E.U. by Halloween, with or (possibly preferably) without a deal, and this will make the country prosperous and united.

We’ll all have 100,000 fewer miles on our individual and national odometers.

In anticipation, the pound dropped against both the dollar and the euro.

More concretely, he’s appointed a new cabinet. So let’s check in on what a few of them have done in their limited time in government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the new leader of the House of Commons and he’s banned metric measurements in his office. And if something comes into the office speaking metric and has to go back out in the same form? Presumably it will have to be translated into imperial units to be read and then translated back out of them before it rejoins the world. 

He’s also banned a series of words and phrases, including (but, oh, so not limited to) hopefully, very, due to, ongoing, equal, yourself, lot, got, pleased to learn, and unacceptable.

Equal? Yeah, it’s on the list. It will, hopefully, prevent staff members from saying, “Go fuck yourself,” when they’re told that asking for equal pay is unacceptable.

A couple of the entries (lot, got, and I am pleased to learn) have been reported but are unconfirmed. I mention that because this stuff is important and I want to be sure we get it right. I’m an immigrant here, so to a certain kind of person the way I use the language is always going to be suspect. Which makes me very much want to say, “Go fuck yourself.” Due to having an ongoing bad attitude.

Rees-Mogg’s staff has also been instructed to use a double space after a period–which in British is called a full stop, and I’m sure he’d insist on it being called that–and not to use a comma after an and

It is possible to use a comma after an and but it’s not easy. I’m not going to bother working up an example when I’ve got a lot of simpler ways to break the rules.

Staff members should also avoid using is too often. How often is too often? You’re on your own there. Do be careful, though, please. I care about you, and the world’s a dangerous place.

I is also on the list of banned words. Maybe, like the queen, he prefers one. One is–. Nope, can’t use is. One might be pleased to find a less awkward way to avoid its use.

Since he became an MP, R-M’s speeches have used words from the banned list 1,189 times. It may have gone up since that report, so let’s take that as a minimum, especially since uses of the word  I, mysteriously, weren’t included. And yes (ha! got the comma in after and), if you’re going to be such a public nit-picker, someone will sit down and count. Gleefully.

R-M also demands that any man who doesn’t have a title get the suffix Esq. added to his name. Women, presumably, are too unimportant to worry about. Or maybe the language doesn’t have an equivalent. I wouldn’t know.

Admittedly, the guidelines were established at his old office as a plain old MP and have been transferred wholesale to his new, elevated position as Micro-Manager-in-Chief, so presumably this hasn’t occupied all his time. That is, however, speculation.

He’s commonly known as the Honourable member for the 18th Century.

After that, anyone else is going to be a disappointment, but let’s go on.

Grant Shapps, the new transport secretary, has announced a two-page limit for briefings and says he will “pay attention to the font size and margins.”

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has brought his favorite pink cup to his new office. As far as I know, it’s not a sippy cup. 

Oops. Did I just start a rumor?

Priti Patel, the new home secretary, has a £1,000-an-hour contract with a company that supplies products and services to the same government she works for. She also earns £45,000 a year for working 20 hours a month for an accounting software firm. If she cares about the spacing after a period, limits her intake of government documents to picture books, or drinks from a sippy cup, it’s not on record but it might be preferable. 

Now let’s go back to that business about a double space after a period. If WikiWhatsia is correct (and I’m not going any deeper into this than a WikiWhatsia article, earthshaking though the topic may be), a double space after a period is called English spacing. A single space is called French spacing. There are other differences between the two, but let’s stop there. We’re not setting type, just reporting on it. 

So far, it sounds clear, but the phrases are often used in exactly the opposite way, and WikiWhatsia gives a good solid list of examples without managing to help me understand why or how that happened.

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the trend in typesetting has been toward a single space after a period. It’s quicker and it’s cheaper, since in a book that small change can save a fair bit of paper. And many people think it looks better.

The U.S. seems to have made the shift to single spacing before the U.K., although even there high-end publishing stuck with the double space for a while. With the introduction of computers, designers and typographers have increasingly leaned toward the single space. In my experience, it dominates the publishing world.

So is R-M dedicated to the double space because he thinks it’s high end? Or because he thinks it’s English as opposed to French (and the English, if you’ll forgive a generalization, have a thing about the French)? Or because it was done that way in the eighteenth century and that’s his century? I can only ask, not answer. If he knew that in the early 1960s, when all girls with fingers were taught to type, no excuses accepted, I was taught that it was necessary, right, and moral to double space after a period. I was (partly deliberately, partly by nature) a monumentally bad typist, but for years I double-spaced after periods.

If that doesn’t take the shine off the double space, I don’t know what will.

Voting once is such fun, they’re voting twice: How Britain chooses a prime minister

It’s already strange that 160,000 (give or take we don’t know how many) members of a single party will choose Britain’s prime minister without the rest of the country getting a say, but the strangeness doesn’t end there. The election of the Conservative Party’s next leader is run by rules the party makes for itself, and the winner gets to lead the country because the Conservatives have–.

Okay, this is awkward. They don’t have a majority in the House of Commons. They have more MPs than anyone else and they borrowed several from a Northern Ireland unionist party to make a thin majority. But hey, everyone else is such a mess that it looks like a commanding position right now.

So what do they do? Having narrowed their leadership candidates down to Boris Johnson and Not Boris Johnson, they sent out ballot papers so all their members could choose between them. And to some they sent two ballot papers.

The BBC reports that ” the Conservative Party and the independent body hired to scrutinise the running of the leadership election were both unable to say how many ballot papers had been sent in error.” But the Conservative Party says it’s all going to be fine because the ballots say you mustn’t vote twice, so of course no one will.

“I know that they won’t vote twice, however tempting it might be,” Not Boris Johnson, who’s behind in the polls, said. “I’m asking them not to because we want this to be an absolutely fair election”

He also said, “Of course I’m going to trust the result.”

The two candidates have been trying to out-Brexit each other, out fight-crime each other, and out-depress the rest of us.

The vote closes on July 22 and the results will be announced on the 23rd. And now excuse me while I go see if ice cream really does cure depression.

Hats and the House of Commons

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.

Irrelevant photo: I’m reasonably sure these are osteospermum. It sounds like a disease, but it’s not.

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.”

Prayer cards?

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.

You’re welcome.

Lions and bears and British politicians

Mark Harper is coming dead last in the race to lead Britain’s Conservative Party if the bookies are to be believed. They don’t conduct a poll, just take bets, but it’s what we’ve got by way of a measurement. So to lift his chances, he held a press conference, and somehow or other his campaign released his speech in advance. It began, “Now this isn’t going to be that scripted.”

So that went well.

Maybe what happened next was an attempt to recover and maybe it wasn’t, but either way he invited journalists to ask any question they wanted, promising he’d answer it. It may have really been an unscripted moment.

My best guess is that he hoped they’d ask about his drug use so he could say he’d never touched the stuff. Why? Because his fellow leadership candidate Michael Gove had recently been outed as having used cocaine before enforcing assorted anti-drug regimes on other people, including prison inmates and teachers. And once Gove was outed, all the other leadership candidates felt the need to out themselves. If you missed all that, you can catch up with it here and here.

Unfortunately, Harper had already outed himself as never having done any drugs, so the question was boring.

Never bore a group of journalists.

I can’t quite reassemble the order of what happened next from the articles I’ve read and it doesn’t really matter, although it would help me write a coherent sentence or two. Let’s just say it involved journalists, electronic messages, and an attempt to come up with the most absurd possible question. One nominee was, “How many gallons of sewage will the Thames Tideway tunnel be able to handle every nine days?” Others were who would win in a fight between an ostrich and and emu and what the value of pi is to the nearest seven decimal places. 

My favorite is, “Would he rather fight 1,000 duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?”

Eventually, someone asked out loud who would win if a lion fought a bear.

He did answer, as promised. I don’t remember which he picked. I doubt anyone much cares.

And that, my friends, is British politics in a nutshell. With the emphasis on nut.

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I know I’ve broken my pattern of posting weekly, but (talk about drugs) I just can’t leave some of this stuff alone. And you need to know about it. You know you do.

Lord Buckethead and British Politics

Lord Buckethead has been in the news lately.

Who, you might rationally ask, is Lord Buckethead? Let’s do a quick news quiz. He is:

  1. A candidate in U.K. elections.
  2. A character in a science fiction movie.
  3. Both of the above.

Answer # 3 is correct.

The only marginally useful thing I can tell you about the movie that created the Lord B. character is that it’s called Gremloids and that Lord B. is an intergalactic space lord. I’ve seen him described as a cut-price Darth Vader. I trust someone will jump in and save me from my ignorance. In the meantime, let me tell you about the candidate.

Lord Buckethead flashed onto the political scene in 2017, when he ran against Prime Minister Theresa May. In the British system, no one runs or votes directly the prime ministership, so he was running against her for a seat in Parliament. May claimed to be offering strong, stable leadership. He offered “strong, not entirely stable, leadership.”

Irrelevant photo: A rhododendron. The season’s over. Really, I need to get out there and take some new pictures.

He made his appearances in costume. (I could probably argue that she did as well.) You owe it to yourself to go back to the first mention of his name and follow the link so you can see him standing demurely alongside the other candidates, waiting for the vote totals to be announced.

I’ll make this easy: Here’s the link again.

He won 249 votes and the photo of him and his fellow candidates went viral.

At some point, the person under the Lord B. costume, Jon Harvey, got into a wrangle over control of the Lord B. character with Todd Durham, the filmmaker behind Gremloids. It ended up with Harvey surrendering the key to Lord B.’s Twitter account to  Durham.

Then Lord B. went quiet for a while.

Recently, though, he started tweeting again, and appearing at rallies backing a second Brexit referendum. He did some fundraising so he could run in the E.U. elections but dropped his bid when he realized he might take votes from anti-Brexit candidates he actually supported.

This is a new Lord Buckethead, though, not the old one. Since we’re talking about someone with a black buckety thing on his head, the difference isn’t easy to spot. The new Lord B. seems be linked to Durham, because it was Durham who said the money Lord B. crowdfunded for his E.U. election campaign had been returned when he abandoned his run.

Or maybe it is Durham, except that, according to the bios I’ve found, he’s American. Even in costume and under the name Lord Buckethead, he’s not–at least at first glance–eligible to run in European elections. And I’m going to assume that anyone registering to run as Lord Buckethead will be asked a few questions beyond the standard have you filled out this form and where’s your money?

Durham said he welcomed applications from people who want to stand as Lord B. in future British elections. He didn’t say how many, so in our next elections, whenever they turn out to happen, we may find multiple Lord B.’s running for multiple seats. Maybe we’ll end up with a parliament made up entirely of people in Buckethead costumes who all hold their seats under the same name. 

And you thought we had chaos now.

Anyway, it could have been an E.U. citizen inside the costume in this most recent almost-run. It also might not have been. We can’t tell. 

What do British electoral regulations say about people running under names that aren’t their own?

“If you commonly use a different name from your actual name, you can ask for your commonly used name(s) to be used instead of your actual name. “

The name does–at least in theory–have to be a commonly used name that you commonly use.  And it can’t be obscene or offensive. So if you commonly call yourself Lord Buckethead, you’re okay. If you don’t, you’re on shaky ground, although you can fix it all by convincing your mother to call you Lord Buckethead for a week or two.

Can I listen into that conversation? Please?

As far as I know, you don’t have to wear the costume all day or sew yourself Lord Buckethead pajamas.

No one has thought to make a rule governing multiple people running under the same commonly used name that just happens to belong to a fictional being.

Yet.

The earliest Lord Buckethead campaigns were personed by Mike Lee, who ran him (or maybe that should be plain old “who ran”; grammar doesn’t know what to do with this) against Margaret Thatcher in 1987 (131 votes) and against John Major in 1992 (107 votes).

Lord B.’s manifesto (that seems to be the second Lord B., not, I think, the first or the third, although really, your guess is as good as mine) includes the following position on nuclear weapons: “A firm public commitment to build the £100bn renewal of the Trident weapons system, followed by an equally firm private commitment not to build it. They’re secret submarines, no one will ever know. It’s a win win.”

The current Lord B. tweets as @LordBuckethead.

And Jon Harvey–the second Lord B.? He’s pointing out that crowdfunding can allow candidates to be funded and controlled from abroad. The most recent Lord B. campaign, he said, was being run by an American from Beverly Hills.

When the second (I think) Lord B. was interviewed on CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the interviewer asked,  “Are you like Dr. Who, do you regenerate for each election?”

“I am Buckethead,” he said. ” We are Buckethead. We are Legion. Does that answer your question?”

Which is an impressively accurate prediction, since he made it before he had any idea how legion he was about to become.

Welcome to the insanity of British politics. Sadly, most of it this much fun. Or this sensible.

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I owe thanks to someone for suggesting that I write about Lord Buckethead, but I’ve lost track of who it is. When I looked him up at the time, I couldn’t make the story come together. It took the latest uproar for it to cohere into what you just read. By now, though, I’ve lost the note I left myself. Whoever you are, thanks and please let me know who you are. I’ll post a link if you blog.

The House of Lords: debate and carpeting

A recent search engine question about the carpet in the House of Lords brought some poor soul to Notes recently, and since it raised an important question that I’d never written –or thought–about, I did some digging.

Yes, my friends, I’m here to research the things you have too much sense to bother with.

And just so you don’t think the question was a one-time thing, a couple of weeks later another one came along: “carpet colours in house of lords and rules on where you can talk.” I’ll do rules and traditions another time. This is long enough already, and surely the carpet’s more important.

Let’s start with what the carpet looks like. I won’t steal a copyrighted photo, so you’ll have to click a link. Is it worth bothering? Probably not. But in case you need help finding the topic of the conversation, it’s the stuff on the floor.

Irrelevant photo: This is not the carpet in the House of Lords, it’s a windflower.

What else is there to know about the carpet? Oh, lots. Let’s look at a couple of freedom of information requests on the subject that Lord Google led me to.

Yes, folks. Someone somewhere thought the carpet mattered enough that they used the Freedom of Information law to pry this sensitive information out of a reluctant government. In response to a 2018 request, here’s what someone or other wrote:

The House of Lords and House of Commons are separate organisations and also separate public authorities for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The carpet in the House of Lords chamber is a Wilton Brussels weave carpet (supplied by Wilton Carpets Manufacturing Ltd). We do not hold information relating to the House of Commons.” 

Well, when someone in politics evades a question that obviously, you have to figure it’s important. So I kept going. A separate (I think) request, also from 2018, unearthed the following:

“Information about the carpet used in the House of Commons Chamber is held, and is as follows: the carpet is in a Wilton weave style and is supplied by Wilton Carpets Manufacturing Ltd. It has two colours of Scott Mottle, green and brown. The pattern has been copied ever since its first installation, in October 1950.”

Oh, they make it sound so innocuous, but let’s turn to a 1966 debate. I was going to cut it back, because they go on and on. Also round and about and in all directions that aren’t necessarily forward. But the puffery and nonsense tells you a lot about the House of Lords, not to mention how important they consider the carpet.

I copied it from Hansards, which records Parliamentary debates on all the important topics of the day. It came with its own links embedded. If you’re relentlessly interested, you’re welcome to follow them. Me? I can’t even be bothered taking them out. 

A bit of background, since this is about two red stripes in the carpet. I did my humble best to find an authoritative source to explain what the hell these are about. The best I can do is tell you that the Commons has two red stripes that are two swords’ widths apart and MPs aren’t allowed to cross them. If someone wanted to spill blood, surely they’d step over them, but they don’t. Because they’re not allowed.

And, of course, they have pink ribbons in the cloakroom to hang their swords on so they don’t bring them into the chamber.

So let’s assume the red stripes in the House of Lords has something to do with all that.

LORD AMULREE My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. [The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have put a red stripe down the carpet on each side of the House.]

LORD SHEPHERD My Lords, I recognise that the noble Lord has raised a matter of great importance to the business of the House. I hope the House will accept the view that a question of this type might perhaps in future be more suitably addressed to the Chairman of Committees, who is Chairman of the Administration Committee which is responsible for the area in which the House of Lords conducts its business.

I understand that there are two very clear precedents for this stripe. If we refer to the portraits which can be found in your Lordships’ House, there is, for instance, in the West Front Corridor a picture by Mr. F. Sargent bearing the date 1880. From that it can be seen that there is a stripe running the full length of your Lordships’ Chamber. Furthermore, I believe that in the Bishops’ Corridor there is a portrait of your Lordships’ House sitting during the Home Rule debate, and although the stripe is not as distinct as the one in the picture hanging in the West Front Corridor, it is quite clearly there.

The noble Lord may remember that before the recent renovations in this House there was sisal matting throughout, which contained strips of carpet with an edging of colour. The view then taken was that this represented the old stripe which was evident in those portraits. It was decided by the Administration Committee on February 8—and the noble Lord himself is a very distinguished member of that Committee—that when the new carpet was laid the stripe should be included. The House may be interested to know that there is no reference in our Standing Orders to this particular stripe. Therefore, the noble Lords who sit on the Cross-Benches will not be inhibited in addresing [nope, the misspelling isn’t mine, it’s theirs] us from their place. If I may give a personal view, I think it is a very considerable improvement.

LORD AMULREE My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for that very long and detailed reply. I will certainly bear in mind what he said about where such questions should in future be addressed. But may I draw his attention to the painting in the Cholmondeley Room, which bears no date but which shows no stripe; and at the same time to the painting in the Bishops’ Corridor which again I think does not show the stripe. Is it not possible that some mistake occurred in the painting in the Ministers’ Corridor? Furthermore, is it not a fact that such a stripe is not needed in this House, where the presence of the Lords Spiritual [those are the bishops who sit in the Lords] is probably enough to curb the exuberance of the Lords Temporal [those are the non-bishops]?

LORD SHEPHERD My Lords, I should not wish to reduce the precedents which I have quoted, but the noble Lord will be aware that there is such a thing as artist’s licence, which may have applied in the recent portrait of your Lordships’ House. In regard to the Bishops, well, we know that our present Bishops are well behaved, but history records that that has not always been the case.

LORD CHORLEY My Lords, is the noble Lord satisfied that the increasing use of green in the carpets and elsewhere in this House does not mark an insidious infiltration from another place? [That’s a reference to the House of Commons, which is color coded green.]

LORD SHEPHERD My Lords, I gather that in the past the carpets were green. I am not sure whether I am colour blind, but I have been informed that this colour is blue. However, I think that the pink breaks up the blueness—there may be no political significance in this—and makes it a little more palatable—shall I say?—to noble Lords on this side of the House.

End of excerpt. We’re talking among our own ignoble selves now.

A 2017 discussion, also in Hansards, was about why the carpet in the Cholmondeley Room had been removed and whether it would be replaced–and when (although no one was so gauche as to use a dash). The answer was about the Cholmondeley Terrace. It said the carpet in the Cholmondeley Room hadn’t been altered.

Sounds like a coverup to me.

So what can we learn from all this? That precedent matters. Why? Because the U.K. has an unwritten constitution. That means no one knows what the hell is in it. It includes the Magna Carta, law, precendent, and the entire library of scripts from The Archers.

The Archers? The world’s longest-running radio soap opera. 

Or maybe it only feels like the longest-running soap opera. *

Where were we? Ah. Precedent. Precedent is part of the unwritten constitution, so if precendent says there’s a red stripe, then that’s part of the constitution. You don’t want to get this wrong. Consult the portrait gallery. Go through the trash. This matters.

And you thought Brexit was difficult.

We can also learn that you could spend a lifetime writing about Parliament and never run out of material. And that the Lords sound every bit as pompous as you’d expect.

And that you couldn’t possibly make it up.

 

  • The Archers really is the longest running radio soap opera. And it feels like it is.

How Britain’s parliament casts a vote

Let’s talk about how the British Parliament, in all its majesty, passes a bill into law.

We’ll skip all the sensible stuff that comes first–or that should, although you have to wonder sometimes. That’s stuff like researching the need for the law,  the impact it would have (expected and unexpected), and the result of using this set of words as opposed to some other set. That sort of thing.

Or failing all that, how it’ll play on the 6 o’clock news and what it’ll do for your career.

We’ll also skip over the politicking. Let’s get straight to the vote.

Irrelevant photo: A tree. Pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds.

When a bill comes to a vote, the first attempt to pass it is a voice vote. That doesn’t mean each person being called on and responding individually. It’s a sort of mass bellow. The Commons (I don’t know about the Lords–they don’t appear as often on the news) bellows like a herd of mistreated cows. A British politician needs a good set of lungs.

In the Commons, they vote either aye or no. Why don’t they use a matching pair of words, either aye and nay or yes and no? Because that’s not how they do it. How things are done is very important around here.

If there’s any question about which side has a majority, the Speaker (if it’s the Commons) says, “Division. Clear the lobbies.”

There’s a history to that clearing. This is Britain. There’s a history to everything.

In 1771, Thomas Hunt, who wasn’t a Member of Parliament, strategically placed himself among the MPs voting no on I have no idea what, and his vote was counted, the clever devil.

What’s more, he turned out to have done this before. Or so says Wikiwhatsia, although I couldn’t confirm it or find the missing pieces of the story. Treat it as urban legend if you like.

So they sweep anyone who doesn’t belong in the lobbies out of the lobbies, no doubt turning up all sorts of riffraff in the process, from mice (the place is infested) to bloggers. Then the MPs file into their separate lobbies: right (from where the speaker sits) for aye and left for no.

Now let’s check in with the House of Lords, where they do things differently because they’re Lords and it’s important to distinguish themselves from the House of Riffraff.

The Lords don’t vote aye and no, they are content and not content–or as Parliament’s website puts it, Content and Not Content, with glorious capital letters. These at least have the virtue of at being a matching set, even if it sounds like their users are making overarching statements about their emotional wellbeing.

If the voice vote isn’t clear, the Lords don’t clear the lobbies, they clear the bar.

What bar? Why, the bar of the House.

Do they serve alcohol right inside the Lords’ chamber?

Not inside, no. It’s a railing.

An important railing.

A railing that visitors aren’t allowed to cross when the Lords are in session.

And to prove that the Lords are classier than the Commons, the bar in the Commons is nothing but a plain old white line.

Don’t you MPs wish you had a railing?

According to Wikiwhatsia, the Lord Speaker announces a division by saying, “The Contents to the right by the Throne, the Not-Contents to the left by the Bar.” At that point the Contents and the Malcontents file into separate lobbies, just like the riffraff in the House of Commons.

Wait a minute, though. What throne?

Why, the throne in the House of Lords, of course. The House of Lords keeps a throne on hand for the queen or king’s yearly visit at the opening of Parliament. The rest of the year, it’s used by the mice.

Okay, I’m guessing about the mice using it, but I do know that in 2017 Parliament spent £130,000 to get rid of mice and moths and assorted other creatures who weren’t (as humans calculate these things) supposed to be there, and I’d be surprised if it got them all. There’d been building work. It had sent the mice scurrying and the number of sightings had gone up from the previous year–411 as opposed to 313.

Yes, someone counts mouse sightings. The unreported ones are counted telpathically.

A few MPs took matters into their own hands and declared an informal Take Your Cat to Work Day (or week, or year), although no one thought to call it that. And they got their hands slapped for it–the ”it” being bringing the cats, not missing the chance for a joke.

As the Serjeant at Arms explained, “This rule is in place because of the duty of care that would arise in relation to animal welfare and the health, safety and wellbeing of members, staff and visitors on the parliamentary estate.”  Translation? Cats are only there because humans bring them, so we’re responsible for any trouble they cause to humans or mice, or that humans or mice cause to them. We can’t be blamed for what the mice do, however, because we’re trying to get rid of them, and we’re doing everything short of bringing in cats.

But we were talking about the throne.

Parliament’s website says, “The Sovereign’s Throne is one of the most important items of furniture in the Palace of Westminster. The elaborately carved woodwork is gilded, inset with rock crystals and upholstered in sumptuous red velvet and intricate embroidery.” And, I’d add, garlanded with sumptuous prose. If you want to see it, follow the link. I’d call it a little over the top, myself, and if someone inflicted it on me I’d hide it in the garage. It’s just not a good match for my living room furniture but you, of course, might feel differently. 

In 1901, “a second throne, known as the consort’s throne, was created. Almost identical to the sovereign’s throne, but an inch shorter, the consort’s throne is brought back to the Palace of Westminster once a year for State Opening of Parliament from its permanent home in Houghton Hall, Norfolk.”

It is not as heavily garlanded in sumptuous prose as the monarch’s throne.

And that inch it’s missing? It’s a highly symbolic one in case the consort’s tempted to forget who’s who.  

Now we need to backtrack a bit, because not everyone who votes on a bill has been sitting in the chamber, listening to the debates. Debates are dull. Some are full of rhetoric. Some are even full of facts, and what’s duller than facts? Many a deadly speech has been delivered to a nearly empty chamber. So has many a rousing one. The folks who don’t need to be there aren’t there, and from the look of the chamber not many people do need to be.

Why debate issues when almost no one’s listening? Because that’s how it’s done. Because it gives everyone the nice warm feeling that they’re doing their job and that the country’s being run well. Or if they’re in the opposition, that it’s not being run well and they’re protesting like hell.    

Also because they get printed in Hansard.

So both the Commons and the Lords ring a bell to summon all the straying politicians from their offices. And those bells ring not only in Westminster but in the surrounding pubs and restaurants where politicians are regulars. That’s a total of 380 bells, one for every day of the week with 15 left over to go play in traffic.

Once the bell has rung, the MPs or Lords have exactly eight minutes to lock their office doors or slam down their drinks and fill their pockets with the mashed potatoes they were saving for last and rush to the right (or left) lobby before the doors are locked. Because they will be locked.

And if they’re late? Tough. No excuses are accepted.

Electronic voting has been proposed at times, but no single proposal’s managed to gather enough support to change the system. I’m taking that from Parliament’s own website, which doesn’t bother to explain why or how more than one way of setting up electronic voting has been proposed at any given time. It does say that “many Members view the procedure of voting in person through the lobbies as an essential opportunity to speak to or lobby senior colleagues.”

In other words, they get to corner all the people who’ve been ducking them in corridors and not returning their emails and phone calls. Such is the life of a politician.

So, like many other arcane traditions, the division of the house continues.

MPs can abstain by staying in their seats during a division, but it’s frowned on. They can, more respectably, pass through both lobbies.

If an MP is too ill to go through either lobby but their party’s desperate for their vote, they can be brought to Westminster–at least once an MP was brought in an ambulance after a heart attack–and be “nodded through” if the tellers agree to it. The only two conditions are that the MP has to be within the precincts of Westminster and alive.

*

My thanks to Bear Humphreys for suggesting this topic. Sort of. His interest was snagged by the bells and the eight-minute dash back from the pub and I got caught up in the preliminaries and the mashed potatoes. Still, I wouldn’t have found them without him.

British traditions: the ceremonial mace

Let’s talk about ceremonial maces. Because, um–.

Never mind the because. Let’s talk about them anyway.

In December 2018, an MP (that’s a member of parliament, and let’s not bother with the capital letters; they bore me) seized the ceremonial mace and started out the door with it.

What ceremonail mace? We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about why he grabbed it. It was to protest the way the government was handling Brexit. (A quick translation: Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union, and pretty much everybody, from every party and every point of view, was protesting the way it was being handled. Even the people who supported it opposed it, and if that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s a sign that you understand the situation. It’s still a mess, but I write these posts well in advance and by now it’s a slightly different mess.There’s always room at the bottom.)

Irrelevant photo, to cheer us up after a mention of Brexit: This is not a ceremonial mace but an azalea. In a pot whose color doesn’t do much for the flowers. Sorry.

Now let’s go back to where we were before those pesky parentheses and the irrelevant photo got in the way. The MP grabbed the mace and headed for the door, walking as if he was leading some sober ceremony in full silly dress, complete with lace frills and an ermine robe. Not that he was wearing anything silly or that MPs get to wear ermine robes. That’s reserved for members of the House of Lords and only on special occasions. But carrying the thing made him surprisingly stately, either because of the weight of the mace or the weight of tradition. Even when you’re disrespecting it, the mace makes you move respectfully.

Before he got to the door, he let someone take it away from him and she carried it back to its place, equally ceremoniously.

And that was enough to create a huge flap. Because people take this stuff seriously. So seriously that he was probably relieved to let someone take it away before he got out the door and had to decide what to do next. Lean it in a corner in his office? Take it home on the bus and store it in the bathtub? Head for the pawn shop and see what it’s worth?

The MP told reporters, “The symbolic gesture of lifting the mace and removing it is that the will of Parliament to govern is no longer there, has been removed. I felt Parliament had effectively given up its sovereign right to govern properly.

“They stopped me before I got out of the chamber and I wasn’t going to struggle with someone wearing a huge sword on their hip.”

I’ve watched a video of the incident and I couldn’t see who had a sword, huge or otherwise, but given the symbolic silliness that goes on in parliament I’m sure he didn’t make it up. Of course someone would be running around with a sword. I doubt the sword’s sharp enough to cut anything tougher than cheese, but I don’t really know that. Maybe tradition insists that it has to be sharpened daily. I have a nice block of local cheddar in the refrigerator in case anyone wants to experiment.  

Now let’s go back to the question of what the mace is. The Radio Times–which isn’t the place you’d normally go for political reporting–says, “The ceremonial mace is a five-foot-long, silver gilt ornamental staff that represents the royal authority of Parliament. Without the mace, Parliament cannot meet or pass laws.”  

Seriously?

Well, they all think so, so they make sure it’s true.

Oliver Cromwell made an impressive demonstration of its power and at the same time won the prize for most effective mace-grab: In 1653, he got frustrated with the MPs and told the Commons, “I say you are no Parliament. I will put an end to your sitting.” Then he told his soldiers to walk off with that “fool’s bauble,” a.k.a. the mace, which they did and since the swords were on their hips no one stopped them.

After that, he threw the MPs out of the House and locked the door. A month later, he formed another parliament–one he figured he could get along with. 

So there.

Whether he brought back the mace so they could pass laws or they went ahead without it I don’t know. If anyone does, I’d love to hear from you. 

According to WikiWhatsia, maces originated in the ancient Middle East during the late stone age and were symbols of authority. It says, “A ceremonial mace is a highly ornamented staff of metal or wood, carried before a sovereign or other high official in civic ceremonies by a mace-bearer, intended to represent the official’s authority. The mace, as used today, derives from the original mace used as a weapon.” 

The mace that the Commons depends on is a symbol of royal authority. It’s carried in every day by the “Serjeant at Arms. It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.”

In contrast, the House of Lords has two maces, probably to prove they’re better than the Commons. One is placed (ceremoniously, I’m sure) on the woolsack before the House meets but isn’t placed there if the monarch comes to the chamber. Presumably because the monarch represents royal authority more impressively than a five-foot silver gilt symbol of monarchy.

I have no idea where the other mace is. Probably gathering dust ceremoniously under the Lord Speaker’s bed.

The woolsack? That’s what the Lord Speaker sits on, of course.

Stop that giggling in the back. We’re trying to learn something here.

The woolsack tradition started when Edward III (1327–1377) ordered his Lord Chancellor to sit on a bale of wool while in council. At the time, the lord chancellor presided in the Lords, so that’s where the woolsack went to live and that’s where it stayed.

This wasn’t just wooly thinking. Wool was central to the economy. The lord chancellor was to remember that. 

You want scandal, though? In 1938, someone discovered that the woolsack was stuffed with horsehair. It was duly taken apart and restuffed with wool. By rights, they should’ve gone back and un-passed every law that had made its way through the Lords while the speaker was sitting on the imposter wool sack, but World War II wasn’t far away and people were distracted.

Sprinkle a little salt on that, would you? On the first part of the sentence, please, not the second.

Anyway, the Lords can’t meet or pass laws without their mace either. And if the woolsack’s stuffed with horsehair, they can’t know about it or they’ll all have to burn their wigs.

Salt, please.

By now the Americans among us (and possibly a few other nationalities; I can’t predict that) are laughing helplessly, not because I’m funny but because of all these sober traditions. I can predict the American reaction because I’m close to that state myself and I’m still mostly American. If anyone wants to discuss what it means to be mostly American, let me know. I’m happy to wander off down that dark alley. But for now, allow me to sober everyone up: The U.S. House of Representatives has its own ceremonial mace, and if it’s not in place, then the House isn’t meeting. That’s not quite the same as saying the House can’t meet without it, but the two symbols are within spitting distance of each other.

Any number of state legislatures have them as well.

If you’re still giggling, think about how many Americans get worked up over someone burning the flag. Not because the thing has any intrinsic value–it’s just a piece of cloth–but because of its symbolism. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in other countries, but  let’s agree that we can all get silly about this stuff and mistake a symbol for a law of physics.

Because the British mace is so freighted with symbolism, periodically some MP or other loses it and grabs the mace. Or doesn’t lose it but makes a calculated decision to grab the mace, because if you want to make a point–not to mention the front pages and the 6 o’clock news–grabbing the mace is a reliable way to do it. It probably won’t be good publicity, but they will at least spell your name right. Or try to.

England, St. George, and the flag

The mayor of Genoa wrote to the queen recently, demanding the back rent on England’s flag, the St. George cross.

I’ll come back to that, but first let’s talk about the flag itself. It’s a red cross on a white field and if you’re not British you may be thinking of the wrong flag. This isn’t the red, white and blue one with crosses and Xs running every which way. That’s Britain’s flag. We’re talking about England’s.

Here’s how it works. England is a nation. Britain, however, is the country that the English nation’s part of. Think of England as a ping-pong ball. Now think of Britain as the fish tank someone threw the ball into at a fair. Someone who had good aim and won a stuffed goldfish and walked away happy, leaving England inside the British fish tank.

Irrelevant photo: Yeah, any serious blogger would show you a picture of the English flag. This isn’t a flag. It isn’t even England. It’s a stone circle in Scotland.

A week later, the someone looked at the goldfish, wondered why they thought it was worth winning, and dropped it off at a second-hand store (or since this is about Britain, a charity shop).

But the ping-pong ball stayed inside the fish tank. And it brought a flag with it. Also (the metaphor’s breaking down quickly) some of its own laws. The fish tank has a different flag, which incorporates the ping-pong ball’s flag, along with the flags of some of the other ping-pong balls that were thrown in. So the English ping-pong ball has two flags, its own and the fish tank’s.

Like the English ping-pong ball, the tank has a set laws, and they apply to all the ping-pong balls.

The point is not to confuse the ping-pong balls with the fish tank.

Did that clarify things?

I didn’t think it would, but I had to try because–and I have no excuse for this–I often read questions on Quora, and I’ve come to understand that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between a ping-pong ball and a fish tank. Or between England and Britain. Or between a hole in the ground and a part of their anatomy that you’d think they’d have familiarized themselves with by the time they’re old enough to leave questions on a public website.

I used to not just read questions on Quora but answer them. I’ve pretty much stopped now because it was bringing out the worst in me. That’s not hard, but I don’t much like myself when I make fun of people publicly. At least, not after the first rush of damn-that-was-fun.

I’m not being snotty about people not knowing Britain from England, by the way. That’s just a lack of information. It’s the deeper ignorance that I’m talking about. But I am, as usual, off topic.

So, briefly, repetitiously, and more sensibly: Britain has a flag. That’s not the one we’re talking about. England also has a flag. So do Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall (which isn’t recognized as a ping-pong ball but has its own flag anyway; take that, England). Northern Ireland’s also part of Britain and it’s recognized as a nation but it doesn’t have its own flag because all hell would break loose if it tried to choose one. This symbolism stuff can turn ugly pretty easily.

To read a Greek immigrant’s explanation of the Northern Ireland flag situation, follow the link.

With that out of the way, let’s move on:

Genoa adoped St. George as its patron saint in 1190, during the Crusades, and with the saint came his flag. Why was that particular design his flag? Haven’t a clue and by now I doubt anyone else does either, although I expect it was clear at the time. Milan uses the same design but calls it St. Ambrose’s cross. If there really are saints, they’re probably up there arm wrestling over who owns the design.

Or laughing their immaterial asses off.

In the thirteenth century, the English (who weren’t yet British; the fish tank hadn’t been invented yet, never mind the ping-pong ball) adopted the flag from Genoa and, according to an article in the Week, agreed to pay for the privilege. It was “to be flown by its navy to deter enemies from attacking.”

The article doesn’t say why that particular design would deter enemies. Maybe because Genoa was a scarier naval power, but I’m guessing.

Wikipedia (when I last checked) called the Genoa connection a common belief in Victorian times but says it can’t be substantiated. It adds that Richard the Lionheart was supposed to be responsible for adopting the saint and his flag.

According to the Flag Institute (yes, there is such a thing–or at least a website that makes it look like there is), during the Reformation “all religious flags and other saint’s banners, except for St. George’s, were abolished. St. George’s flag had first been used as a maritime flag seven years earlier.”

It was the Flag Insitute–she said defensively–that put the apostrophe in the wrong place. It’s a quote, so I left it. Three points if you spotted the problem.

Those dates don’t match up with the quote from the Week, but let’s not agonize over it. It won’t be on the test. It argues for what Wikiwhatsia said, that it can’t be substantiated.

But England didn’t just buy–or rent–the rights to St. George’s flag, it got George himself as a patron saint. So let’s talk about who he was.

Legend says George was a Roman soldier, born in what’s now Turkey. According to an article in the Independent, “In 303 [the Roman emperor] Diocletian, as part of a crackdown on the growing influence of the Christian community, ordered that all Christian soldiers in the army should be expelled and all Roman soldiers be forced to make the traditional pagan sacrifice.

“St George refused and denounced the edict in front of his fellow soldiers, declaring he was a Christian.

“Diocletian initially tried to convert him with offers of wealth and land but when he refused he was beheaded on 23 April 303.”

Legend has George slaying a dragon at some point–presumably before his death. It was feeding on townspeople. But freedom from dragons doesn’t come free: He’d only do it in if the entire town converted to Christianity.

Nothing in legend connects George to England, but in 1327 Edward III made him the country’s official saint anyway. The beliefs of the time didn’t demand that a patron saint have anything to do with the country that drafted him. He had to embody the country’s characteristics–or to be more accurate about it, the characteristics it wanted to think it had. Or wanted its enemies and possibly even friends to think it had.

There was no practical way for the saints to be consulted about this. They didn’t get to say, “No, I don’t like this country–its topography offends me, its language is too complicated for me to learn, and if that isn’t enough they eat fish and chips and back when I was alive I hated fish.”

They got drafted, and if people prayed to them in a language that was too complicated for them to learn, that was the people’s problem. They prayed for rain and their warts disappeared.

It explains a lot.

So St. George got landed with not just England but also Portugal, Venice, Beirut, Malta, Ethiopia, Georgia, the Palestinian territories, Serbia, and Lithuania. And, of course, Genoa. I don’t think any of the other countries thought they had to rent him from Genoa and why England started that arrangement I don’t know.

I haven’t been able to untangle what flags–if any–all those other places consider to be St. George’s, but I do know that if you google St. George, flag, and Lithuania (I chose Lithuania because it was at the end of the list, not knowing that my fingers don’t like the sequence of the letters), you come up with lots of flag images, the red cross on a white background being only one of them.

What was George expected to do if two of his countries or territories went to war with each other? Intervene on both sides? Pull the covers over his head and weep for humanity? I’m no a expert on religion. In fact, I’m not religious and my lack of religion doesn’t even from this particular religion, so I won’t try to answer. All I can do is raise awkward questions.  

But back to that agreement about the saint and the flag: For years, England paid Genoa for the use of the flag, but it stopped when Genoa was occupied by Austria in 1746. And now, after all those years, Genoa’s mayor is making a claim for unpaid rent, writing to the queen, “Your Majesty, I regret to inform you that from my books [it] looks like you didn’t pay for the last 247 years,” He is, apparently, digging through the archives to figure out how much that comes to.

“That means we are owed over 250 years of back payments,” he wrote, before admitting he was only “half serious”.

“Instead of cash, we could ask England to restore one of our old palaces or make a donation to charity.”

Why is he claiming both 247 years’ worth of payments and over 250 years’ worth? Especially when 1746 was neither 247 or 250 years ago? I can’t answer that. Maybe he sat, dazed, though the same math classes that I did, with roughly equivalent results. I’m in no position to criticize.

What happens if England doesn’t pay up? Genoa isn’t likely to declare war, and if some court has authority over a medieval agreement that can’t be verified, I’m not sure which one it would be. Some European Union court, maybe, but Genoa had better hurry.

How do people read the symbolism of a saint’s cross in the modern world? Most people, I suspect, don’t think about saints when they see it. England’s pretty relaxed about religion.

Personally, I find it a bit weird to live surrounded by flags with religious origins. I’m Jewish and I’m an atheist. I don’t think about either of those things daily, but they set me apart in both predictable and surprising ways. Cornwall’s flag is St. Piran’s cross–white on a black background. I tend to see a symbol of Cornwall, but it is a cross and I can’t not see it as a cross. British history’s bound up with Christianity, with all its symbols and its wars and its beliefs. I accept that. What else could I do with it? It’s not as if it would change if I didn’t. But it reminds me regularly that I’m an outsider here.

The St. George flag doesn’t get much official use these days. Sports fans backing an English team use it some but, awkwardly, the English ultra-right and neo-nazis have adopted it as their emblem, so when you see it displayed you can’t tell if you’re looking at a sports fan or a nazi.

There are, mercifully, more sports fans in the country than neo-nazis and unless the context is clear, I tend to assume sports fan. Still, it’s not something you–or at least I–can put out of your (or my) mind.

The queen may well decide to skip the payment.

British values and chicken tikka masala

Britain has a long-standing identity crisis.

Or maybe that’s a recent one. I suppose it depends on how long you consider long. But never mind the numbers. Ever since I moved here, politicians have been fretting over British values—what they are, who doesn’t have them, and how to get immigrants to adopt them.

Speaking as an immigrant, it’s hard to adopt British values when the British are hazy about what they are. Or maybe that’s what they should be. But hey, we do what we can. Or I do, so while the important people are trying to figure it all out, let’s talk about the important stuff, like British food. Because nothing runs deeper into a culture than food. You don’t believe me? Move to another country and see what you miss.

Irrelevant (and less than sharp) photo: Winter trees. I have got to get out there and take some more photos.

Okay, “nothing runs deeper” could be overstating the case. I’m using a time-tested way of making a point here, which is to exaggerate and toss in a bit of bullshit. But who’d notice if I didn’t point it out?

Let’s move on. After reading my post about fish and chips, Derrick J. Knight commented,

“I believe fish and chips has been supplanted by chicken tikka masala. Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, in 2001 claimed: ‘Chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.’”

Cook wasn’t being original in claiming chicken tikka masala as the British national dish. The idea’s so prevalent in the national joke-o-sphere and all a person has to do is reach out and snag a version as it flits past, then claim it as their own.

The ponderous explanation of why it’s so gloriously British, however, I’m willing to credit to Cook alone.

So let’s talk about chicken tikka masala.

Before Britain voted to leave the European Union, a group of MPs tried to get the dish Protected Designation of Origin recognition from the EU. That would (or would have if the move’s been abandoned) put it on a level with champagne and parmesan–foods whose names are reserved to those products made in the region where they originated.

Their claim was based on a origin story that traces it back to Ahmed Aslam Ali, who is supposed to have invented chicken tikka masala in his Glasgow restaurant.

“We used to make chicken tikka,” he told the Telegraph—or possibly someone else, but it doesn’t matter because the Telegraph quoted him and that’s who I’ll attribute the quote to, “and one day a customer said ‘I’d take some sauce with that, this is a bit dry,’ so we cooked chicken tikka with the sauce which contains yoghurt, cream, spices.”

In other versions of the story, he tossed in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, some spices, and a bit of yogurt. I was reading happily enough until I got to the can of tomato soup, at which I went into such a deep state of shock that I lost the URL that would’ve proved I didn’t make that up.

Applying for Protected Designation of Origin recognition meant that all hell broke loose. We’re quoting from the Telegraph again.

“Zaeemuddin Ahmad, a chef at Delhi’s Karim Hotel, which was established by the last chef of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, said the recipe had been passed down through the generations in his family [presumably without the canned soup, but what do I know?].

“’Chicken tikka masala is an authentic Mughlai recipe prepared by our forefathers, who were royal chefs in the Mughal period. Mughals were avid trekkers and used to spend months altogether in jungles and far off places. They liked roasted form of chickens with spices,’ he said.

“Rahul Verma, Delhi’s most authoritative expert on street food, said he first tasted the dish in 1971 and that its origins were in Punjab. ‘It’s basically a Punjabi dish not more than 40-50 years old and must be an accidental discovery which has had periodical improvisations,’ he said.

“Hemanshu Kumar, the founder of Eating Out in Delhi, a food group which celebrates Delhi’s culinary heritage, ridiculed Glasgow’s claim. ‘Patenting the name chicken tikka masala is out of the question. It has been prepared in India for generations. You can’t patent the name, it’s preposterous,’ he said.”

In another version of the tale, “Chicken tikka masala originated in British India where its spicy precedent was toned down to suit British palates. They also claim that butter chicken was the first protoype of chicken tikka masala. In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham takes an excellent look at the history of Indian food. She has an entire chapter dedicated to chicken tikka masala and writes, according to food critics, that it, ‘was not a shining example of British multiculturalism but a demonstration of the British facility for reducing all foreign foods to their most unappetizing and inedible forms.’”

Take that, Robin Cook. And for the record, I have no opinion of my own about how appetizing or unappetizing the stuff is. I’m been a vegetarian for decades now and have never tasted the stuff.

Now, can we talk about what British values are and what it would mean to the country if I do or don’t adopt them? I’ll make us a nice plate of chocolate chip cookies to eat while we talk.