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.

Making fun of the House of Lords: an appreciation

One of the joys of living in Britain is that you get to make fun of the House of Lords, and I’ve had at least my share of fun with that and probably used up someone else’s portion as well, but a recent (okay, not so recent; it’s taken me a while to get around to this) article in the Guardian’s weekend magazine made me wonder if the chamber may serve some genuine purpose.

But let’s go for the ridiculous first. I learned from the article that the House of Lords has a blue carpet that you can only walk on silently. If you stop and stand on it, you get told off. I’m not sure how you walk on a carpet noisily—maybe you need spurs—but you can’t do that either. The house’s senior official is called Black Rod, but his full title is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. He comes to work in pantaloons and wears a ruffle where a twenty-first century male would wear a tie. Or—well, he probably wears street clothes until he gets to work and then changes. Absurd as the get-up is in the House of Lords, wearing it on the bus would be worse. (I’d love a photo, though. Rush hour. People hanging on the poles. Frilly tie. Pantaloons. I don’t know what kind of shoes you wear with that.)

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

When the lords vote, they line up in corridors, one for Content (adjective, not verb, with the accent on the last syllable) and one for Not Content. Their names are ruled off a list and they’re then counted off by a peer holding a drumstick (“musical, not chicken,” added the lord who described the procedure). When women first joined the Lords, they weren’t allowed to address the doorkeepers.

Why not?

Because.

In case anyone’s interested, I’m capitalizing Lords when it stands in for House of Lords but not when it applies to members of the house, unless the name’s included, in which case it becomes a title and is capped. Is that baroque or what? Normal usage is probably to capitalize it both times but it just seems too damn worshipful and, good (L)lord, I can’t do it. Besides, a lot of Brits capitalize all sorts of words that I’d leave lower case. I suspect they’re overdoing it not just according to American usage but to British as well, but it’s so widely done that it must mean something. Maybe that they’re closer to the German roots of English than Americans are. Or maybe capital letters are on sale and no one’s told me.

I should rush out and Buy and half Dozen.

But back to the Lords: The speaker sits on a woolsack (the current speaker is, apparently, short enough that her feet dangle) and the clerks are equipped with both white wigs and iPads. Is that a great combination or what?

The lords meet in a room built to seat 240 members and there are now 859. Of those, 92 are hereditary. Under Tony Blair, there was a massive cull of hereditary peers; they’re what’s left. Why them instead of some of the others? Haven’t a clue. Other peers are appointed for life and the theory is that they’re experts in one thing or another—science, history, law, medicine, chutney, building blocks—but they also include party hacks and donors, former civil servants, a cheese maker, a children’s TV presenter, a rock star or two (or seven, but who’s counting?), former MPs, 26 bishops (whose bench is the only one that has arms), and the occasional stray novelist.

Peers are nominated by political parties and can be nominated by the public as well. Good luck with that, public. If anyone wants to nominate Wild Thing, go ahead. It’ll be interesting. The governing party gets to make more appointments than the parties that aren’t governing. Are you surprised? Then the appointees have to be approved by an independent commission (exactly how independent it is I’m couldn’t say, although I could take a reckless guess or two), which can make its own nominations, and the list is then approved by the prime minister. I don’t know if he gets to do any final tinkering or not. After all that, the queen waves her magic feather over it. Of 45 appointments in August 2015, 26 belonged to the party currently in office, the Conservatives. One of them is a former MP (that’s Member of Parliament, in case you don’t speak British) who stepped down in 2010 after the public learned that he’d claimed the £2,200 he spent for cleaning his moat on his expenses.

So yes, the system’s working perfectly. They don’t seem to have appointed the guy who got caught claiming the cost of a floating duck island for his country house.

The average age is 69, but the lone Green peer is quoted as saying “You can’t die in parliament. You’re not allowed.” I’d put that down to comic overstatement, but since we’re dealing with the House of Lords it’s probably not.

When the Lords were considering a bill that many people thought would have a disastrous effect on the National Health Service (it passed, and we were right: it has), several friends and I divided up the list of lords who we thought might be swing votes and wrote to all of them. I learned from this that some of them are elderly or ill and don’t show up anymore. They’re not required to, although they’re paid only for days they show up. Last I heard it was £300 a day.

A person could live on that.

I also learned that the peers aren’t provided with a clerical staff. They answer their own mail or they don’t. Mostly they don’t, but one member, Baroness (that’s what the women are called; the men are called Lord) Someone or Other, emailed back. And I emailed her back and she wrote back again and we argued the bill endlessly and purposelessly, since it quickly became clear that neither of us was going to change the other one’s position. It was all I could do to keep from asking, “Why are you writing me? Don’t you have a country to run or something?”

Anyway, she assured me that the bill would work to the benefit of the entire universe and that the sun would shine twenty-five hours a day and Britain would bask in eternal summer. I later saw her name on a list of peers who had investments that should have barred them from voting on the bill (but didn’t), since they were conflicts of interest.

I comfort myself with the thought that when she was writing to me she wasn’t accomplishing anything else.

But. Some of the peers interviewed in the Guardian article made a good case for the Lords having a use.

“A lot of bills are not debated at all in the House of Commons,” one said. “They fall to the House of Lords.”

A lot of the MPs barely even read them.

In the Lords, a certain number of members will actually read the damn things, line by line by dreary line, instead of just voting as their party tells them to. For one thing, they have the commitment and time. For another, since they’re appointed for life they can, if they want to, be independent of their party.

Still, the Lords is an unelected body, and that’s a dangerous way to govern.

The Lords has less power than the Commons (don’t ask; it’s as complicated as the rules governing carpets), but it can in some situations slow legislation down and in others amend or kill it. Since the British system gives a hell of a lot of power to the party that holds a majority in the Commons, the Lords is the only brake the system has. The current gridlock in the U.S. has made me understand what’s wrong with the checks and balances system the U.S. Constitution created. All it takes is one party dedicated to stopping the other for everything to grind to a halt—as long as that party is large enough and ruthless enough. But the British system has made me understand what’s wrong with efficiency. The governing party has a huge amount of power, which can be equally destructive if the governing party’s ruthless enough. The Lords is the one place it may (emphasis on may) not entirely control. Unless it’s in office long enough to stuff it with donors and hacks.

I don’t know what the answer is. But as long as the senior official wears a frilly tie and you can’t stand still on a blue rug, at least we get to laugh about it.