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.

Parliament, Cromwell, Charles I, and Tourette

In 1653, with Charles I beheaded, Charles II in exile, and the rebellions in Ireland suppressed (brutally, since you asked), Oliver Cromwell had no one left to fight with but his allies. So off he toddled to the House of Commons and closed it down.

How’d we get to this point?  

Before Charles I was executed and when the odds of him losing his throne looked about the same as the odds that he’d invent the rechargeable battery, he knocked heads with his parliament over money and power. It’s hard, when you’re not just the king but the head of your country’s church, not to think that god meant you to be the head of everything else too, so Charlie believed he had a divine right to be king.

Semi-relevant photo: Minnie the Moocher believes she has a divine right to be in bed.

He wasn’t the only one. It was a long-standing European belief, but that didn’t make it any less of an issue, because  Parliament, for the most part, didn’t believe it. It believed in the Magna Carta, which said (with just the slightest bit of paraphrasing), Sure, this guy can be king but there are limits. So Parliament voted him money by the teaspoonful and did everything it could to limit his power.

Charlie sent them home, because that was one of the powers that they both agreed he had.

Bad Parliament. You can’t play at Our house anymore.

Did I say “house”? I meant “palace.”

But dissolving Parliament turned off his largest money tap. He cobbled together assorted of ways to raise money, but after eleven years he needed those pesky parliamentarians again. He’d gotten himself in a war with Scotland over prayer books and bishops. No, seriously: That stuff mattered. Either that or it stood in for what mattered more but didn’t play as well to the crowd.

Whatever they’re about, though, wars are expensive.

So Parliament met and and the new one didn’t get along with the king any better than the last one had. The most Protestant Protestants among its members suspected Charles of edging the country toward Catholicism, what with his Catholic wife and his stained glass church windows and his priests in fancy dress.

No, I’m telling you. All of that mattered.  

In 1641, the new Parliament arm-wrestled Charles for various sorts of power and passed–barely–a list of complaints about the king, called the Grand Remonstrance. When Charles didn’t email back immediately and say, Hey, guys, great talking points, let’s discuss them, my door is always open, its supporters circulated the Remonstrance to the public.

And with that, the Parliamentary debate had broken powerfully into the world, where ordinary people were already debating these issues.

Before long, Charles broke into the House of Commons and tried to arrest the five members who annoyed him most, which must’ve been a hard choice. They were all getting on his refined and kingly nerves.

Within weeks, armed bands had invaded Westminster. The king and queen fled. Parliament held London.

Both sides armed themselves, the Scots came in on the side of Parliament, and everyone fought back and forth for a few years, with neither side knocking the other one off the board. That was the First Civil War.

Where did the army stand in all this? Funny you should ask. The country didn’t have a standing army. It raised one when it needed to, then sent it home when it didn’t. That’s how it had always been done, and it saved having to feed and pay soldiers to sit around during peacetime.

In 1645, Charles escaped a siege at Oxford and handed himself to the Scottish army for safety. After nine months of negotiations, Scotland sold him to Parliament for £100,000 and a promise that England would never enter the haggis market.

No, no, no. That bit about the haggis? Please don’t link to it.  

Charlie escaped again and made a deal with the Scots: You get rid of these pesky rebels and I’ll make England Presbyterian for three years.

What would have happened after three years if he’d had a chance to make good on the deal? Someone would have taken one chair away and the music would’ve started all over again. And they all pretty much knew that, but no one could tell who’d be chairless when the music stopped, so they all jumped in and started the Second Civil War, which ended with Charles captured again.

This left Parliament with an awkward problem: What were they supposed to do with this guy? No matter how many times he lost his tail feathers, he was still the king.

In the meantime, Parliament wasn’t getting along with its army much better than it had with Charles. Like everything else, this had a religious element to it. Everything had a religious element. It was the language of politics. It was the language of everything. If they’d had cooking shows, they’d have had a religious element to them as well.

What mattered more immediately was that Parliament wanted to negotiate with the king and that Oliver Cromwell, on behalf of the army, didn’t.

How do you settle a problem like that? Ollie tossed out the MPs who didn’t take his side and made his deal with the ones who were left.

And since everything had a religious element, God said it was okay.

The MPs who were left were called the Rump Parliament, not after anyone’s hind end but because the word also means a small part of something that used to be bigger, and they put the king on trial. The House of Lords and the highest available judges said it wasn’t a good idea, so they established a new court, tried the king, found him guilty, and executed him. No one called it revolutionary justice, but that’s pretty much what it was. When you tear down the old order, you make new laws because the old ones don’t work anymore. Is that right? Is that wrong? It depends on your point of view.

England was now a republic, or a commonwealth. The House of Lords was abolished.

Did they all live happily ever after? No, they fought the Third Civil War. The remaining royalists and Scotland rallied about Charles part Two, but by 1651 it was all over. When the last Irish resistance ended in 1653, there was no one left to oppose Cromwell.

And that’s when he lost it with the Rump Parliament. Cromwell and the army wanted it to dissolve itself so they could elect a new, godly assembly. Parliament thought it was plenty godly, thanks, and wanted to stay where it was.

It sounds familiar? It is. We’re still watching the same play, but Cromwell’s playing Charles and Parliament’s playing Parliament. The difference is that Cromwell was a better Charles than Charles was: He stomped into the House of Commons with some musketeers, had them seize the mace, that symbol of Parliament’s royal authority, and sent the MPs home.

The symbol of royal authority? Wasn’t the king dead? Well, yes, but old habits die hard and history–not to mention humans–is nothing if not contradictory. They were still using the thing.

The members of the new Parliament were chosen by the army’s officers for their religious fervor. But it turned out to be too radical and in 1653, when its more problematic members were in a prayer meeting, the remainder of the group dissolved itself.

That left Oliver Cromwell to become the Lord Protector: a king in all but name.

History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but with the way it barks our repeated phrases you have to wonder sometimes if it doesn’t have tourette’s.

The Mother of Parliaments and the mother of all silliness

After I promoted a post on political absurdity, a Google+ user, Andrew Knighton, wrote to say that “when Caroline Lucas [Member of Parliament for the Green Party] became an MP she received a ceremonial dagger on a ribbon days before she received the computer equipment she needed to do her job. I love absurdity as much as the next man, but as a Brit I’d really like to see the traditions swept up and replaced with decent processes.”

I can’t disagree—what happened is completely batty and I’m sure politics would make more sense if they stopped handing out ceremonial daggers and started handing out computers—but you have to admire the sheer insanity of it all. Or at least, I do.

Before I go on, I should either remind or inform you that Parliament likes to call itself the Mother of Parliaments. I’m not enough of a historian to know if that’s a fair claim, but it does at least explain the title I used.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher (left) and Fast Eddie

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher (left) and Fast Eddie

With that behind us, I should tell you that I tried to confirm that whole dagger business by googling variations of Caroline Lucas, ceremonial dagger, and so forth. I ended up with articles on Sikh ceremonial daggers, The Vampire Diaries (I’m sure there’s some connection but I didn’t click through and try to figure out what it is), fracking as a dagger pointed at I didn’t click through to find out what—the heart of England, if I had to guess—and so forth. I did click through to something about the City Remembrancer, whose role dates back to 1571 and who does I didn’t read enough to find out what but damn, wouldn’t it be fun when someone asks what you do to say, “I’m the City Remembrancer”?

Anyway, I can’t confirm that the thing about Lucas and the dagger is true, although I’m sure it is. It’s too batty not to be. What I did find was an article by Lucas on what no one tells you before you enter Parliament.

Among other things, she reports that although the parliamentary smoking ban dates back to 1693, snuff is available at taxpayer expense. She’s never seen anyone dip in, but she did try it once, just to see what it was like. She says Parliament is like Hogwarts meets Gilbert and Sullivan. In the old palace, “The wood panelling is gloomy, the carpets have come straight from a 1970s pub, and there’s a pervading smell of school dinners.” Ah, the majesty of it all.

MPs don’t refer to each other by name when they’re speaking in the chamber. They call each other “the honorable member from [wherever]” or if the person being talked about is of higher status “the right honorable. . . .” She capitalizes all of that. There’s probably a rule about that too. These people can talk in capital letters. Me, I can manage italics once in a while, but I’m sparing with capital letters.

She also writes that most MPs have no idea what they’re voting on, so they have to follow party discipline and vote the way they’re told.

She doesn’t mention daggers, but I recommend the article anyway. Whether you agree with her politics or not, this woman can write. And she’s got a sense of humor.

Lewis Carroll and the British Parliament

That great institution the House of Commons meets in a room that doesn’t have enough seats for all its members (called MPs–Members of Parliament).

A good part of the time, this is fine, because most debates take place before an almost empty chamber. That probably says something depressing about how much the debates matter, but let’s move on, because it’s not the point right now. The point is that sometimes everybody does want to be present, and the only way to reserve a seat is to show up before 8 a.m. and put a prayer card on the seat you want.

Yes, a prayer card. It indicates that you’ll attend the prayer that opens each day’s session. And when you do, you and all the other MPs will stand facing the walls behind you.

North Cornwall. Newly mown fields

Irrelevant photo: fields

Yes, the walls behind you. No one knows why, but a fact sheet published by Parliament itself says it’s attributed to “the difficulty Members would once have faced of kneeling to pray whilst wearing a sword.” Never mind the awkwardness of that sentence, or the use of whilst, pay attention instead to the explanation it offers: It would have been difficult to kneel, so they all stand backward? Couldn’t they stand facing forward? Or kneel backward? And would kneeling backward really make a sword fit any better? I’d experiment, but I don’t have the right benches on hand. Or a sword. I come from the wrong class. And country. As far as I know, none of my ancestors ran around wearing swords, never mind praying with them.

But never mind all that. We haven’t dropped into a world that puts a high priority on linear logic. Since I began researching this post, I’ve come to appreciate Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass in a whole new way.

But we were talking about seats: Having reserved one, an MP actually has to show up for the prayer, regardless of what his or her religion, or lack thereof, may be. Such are the joys and absurdities of established religion.

According to another tradition—one that makes instinctive sense to me, but probably only because I’m used to it– the MPs seat themselves according to party, with the governing party on one side and the opposition on the other. That was simple enough when two main parties controlled the Commons, with a third much smaller party in the background and behaving itself nicely, but the Scottish National Party (SNP) has become a major player very quickly, and it’s feeling its power and not inclined to play nice, so all hell’s breaking loose.

It turns out that on the first day of Parliament, the prayer card rule doesn’t apply. Well, of course it doesn’t; it also doesn’t apply when a litter of all-black kittens is born precisely at noon on a Wednesday in 10 Downing Street. (Yes, I made that up about the kittens, but it makes as much sense as anything else.) So the first day of this new Parliament was a scramble. Having taken a political seat from Labour in the election, an SNP member parked himself in the physical seat that has belonged, unchallenged, to a Labour Party MP, Dennis Skinner, since forever. He and Skinner managed not to wrestle over it, but Skinner was upset enough that he wedged himself into a crack between the seat he considered his by right and the one next to it.

After that, the SNP took a row of seats behind Labour’s traditional front bench. Apparently this defies another longstanding tradition, but I have no idea what that is. As far as I know, Labour MPs didn’t pile in and sit on their laps, but I don’t know why not.

And there you have it. The mother of Parliaments, in all its sober glory.