At the Heart of the British Parliament

Posted on 22 juin 2013 par

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The Palace of Westminster, which houses the British Parliament, blends politics, traditions and folklore. A visit. An article by Géraldine Vessière in L’Echo. 22 June 2013.

A court official holds the mace of the Lord President of the Court of Session, during a Doors Open Day. This mace is also known as the Old Exchequer Mace. Made in London in 1667, of silver coated with 24 carat gold, and weighing 17 pounds, it carries the monogram C.R. for the then monarch Charles II.

A court official holds the mace of the Lord President of the Court of Session, during a Doors Open Day. This mace is also known as the Old Exchequer Mace. Made in London in 1667, of silver coated with 24 carat gold, and weighing 17 pounds, it carries the monogram C.R. for the then monarch Charles II.

“Please stay in the corner, behind the line…I said behind the line!” shouts an official in uniform – black tailcoat, white shirt and well-matched bow-tie. “Silence” he thunders, his badge in silver and gold (22 carats) shining on his bulging torso. One of his colleagues, identically dressed, solemnly crosses the hall from right to left. The sound of his steps resounds on the paving stones. A military half-turn. A clicking of heels. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Lord Speaker.” The Yeoman Ushercarrying the mace, a long wooden and gilded metal staff, symbol of authority, passes under the gaze of several visitors, followed by the Lord Speaker, as it happens a woman, Baroness D’Souza, and by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, or Black Rod, officer of the order of the garter. The heavy doors of the House of Lords close on the procession. Silence. The public and the journalists will have to wait until the end of the opening prayer before being able to enter. Democratic Show A little earlier, in the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron faced questions. Each Wednesday at noon “Question Time” takes place, a rhetorical joust between the Prime Minister and MPs. For 30 minutes, the head of Government is put to the test, following a well-established protocol: 6 questions for the leader of the opposition, 2 for the third party, if there is a third party, and one for each MP given permission by the speaker, the apolitical president of the House. Cheers and boos burst forth. Words are unleashed, jibes are thrown. It’s a case of who can shine the most. The game is unequal from the beginning, the PM, being the last one to speak, will always have the last word. “Question Time is a show, a piece of theatre, where there are more questions than answers. It’s a case of who can shout loudest”, comments David Wilby, former BBC Parliament correspondent, “it’s about taking the temperature and winning points. The leader of the opposition and the Prime Minister therefore try to rally their troops around them and to attract the attention of the electorate.” The event is one of the rare few where the House of Commons is full. There are many MPs who are forced to stand, since the chamber only disposes of 450 seats for 650 elected members. Despite the excitement of the moment, the parliamentarians don’t allow themselves to get carried away. Their interventions, even when spirited, are perfectly controlled. For example, a brutal and charmless “you have lied” is rarely heard, but rather “you have misled Parliament”. Civility remains the rule, even when a lack of restraint is shown by other MPs or by the public. Members of the public have over time been known to throw leaflets, flour, manure and even tear-gas at MPs to try to make their voices heard.

An Omnipresent Tradition

The Queen delivering her speech in 2013

The Queen delivering her speech in 2013

Considered by the British as the mother of all Parliaments, the Houses of Parliament impressively upholds traditions anchored in history. If the Lord Speaker is required, every day, to march to the Lords Chamber preceded by on-watch officers, it’s because the position has not always been without danger. Several Lord Speakers (before 2005 Lord Chancellors) were decapitated between the 14th and 17th centuries. It was therefore in the interest of those who took over the position to surround themselves with bodyguards if they wanted to continue to sleep soundly at night. The risk of losing ones head may have disappeared today, but the tradition has remained. If, every year, before the Opening of Parliament, guards dressed all in red search the cellars of the building to check for a possible bomb, it’s because, in 1605, a catholic plot aiming to kill the protestant King James I and to blow up the House of Lords was narrowly thwarted. If, during the same ceremony, a member of the House of Commons is symbolically taken hostage by the representatives of the Crown, it’s because in the 17th Century, the relations between Charles I and Parliament were so strained that a MP was taken hostage to guarantee the King’s safety. Today, the hostage, in the person of the Vice Chamberlain, is consenting and takes part in the game with good grace. And if the ceremony takes place in the Lords Chamber, it’s because in 1642 the same Charles I (1625-1649) burst into the House of Commons to arrest 5 parliamentarians. The coup failed and resulted in a civil war, but since then, the monarch is not allowed into the lower chamber of Parliament. Each year, Black Rod must go to the House of Commons in ceremonial garb and invite the MPs to come to the House of Lords to listen to the Queen’s speech. Whether due to bitterness or protocol, MPs underline their independence and their right to debate in the absence of representatives of the crown by always shutting the door in his face before accepting his invitation. “We can only ask ourselves why Parliament officials continue to wear costumes from another era”, smiles David Wilby, referring especially to clerks who from under their wigs ensure that procedure is respected during the debates. Built in a neo-gothic style, the Houses of Parliament is made up of more than a thousand rooms and two miles of corridors. It houses, besides the Lords and the Commons, the offices of parliamentary commissions, libraries, vestibules, dining rooms, bars and even gyms. One of the most famous attractions of the Palace of Westminster is its clock tower, renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012, for the jubilee of the Queen. It accommodates Big Ben, the third heaviest clock in the United Kingdom. Why such an attachment to traditions? “Probably for reassurance, to make sure we keep going in the right direction”, reckons Patrick Bresnan, former journalist for The Economist. “Great Britain believes in evolution, not in revolution. We want to build the present and the future on the past.” For Lieven De Winter, professor of comparative law at UCL (Belgium), “the British Parliament is over 800 years old. The Belgian Parliament was created in 1831. Belgium’s constitution and parliamentary system with a limited monarch were revolutionary at the time. There wasn’t a tradition to protect, or perhaps we didn’t want to protect tradition because we had to create something new.” The Marks of History

Built in a neo-gothic style, the Houses of Parliament is made up of more than a thousand rooms and two miles of corridors. One of the most famous attractions of the Palace of Westminster is its clock tower, renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012, for the jubilee of the Queen. It accommodates Big Ben, the third heaviest clock in the United Kingdom.

The British parliamentary institution is one of the oldest in Europe. Its roots reach back to the thirteenth century. For a long time, however, it was subject to the King, and its power was inversely proportional to the monarch’s. The evolution towards more autonomy was slow and sometimes chaotic. It didn’t have a fixed home at first. Parliamentarians had to wait until 1550 when Henry VIII left the Palace of Westminster following a fire, and also, according to rumours, to flee the nauseating stench of the Thames, before Parliament finally had an official residence. It was only in the 19th century that, following another fire and the near-total reconstruction of the palace, the building was finally endowed with rooms suitable for its functions. Today, only Westminster Hall still dates from the 11th Century. The famous clock-tower, which houses Big Ben, was erected in the 19th century, as was the House of Lords and a large part of the building. The House of Commons had to be reconstructed after the Second World War, having been left in ruins by German bombs. Confrontational Architecture The architect charged with rebuilding the House of Commons respected the original plan of the chamber: the benches of the majority and those of the opposition face each other, separated by an empty space and a line that cannot be crossed. This layout dates from the era parliamentarians met in St. Stephen’s chapel. It nevertheless also reflects the British electoral system. The one-round majority system in effect favours bipartism and therefore a clear identification of the two forces present, the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition being an exception. “Whilst at the heart of the Belgian Parliament, proportional representation is the rule and parliamentarians are placed in a sort of fan-shape, historically marking the transition from the right to the left of the political chessboard, in Great Britain, the majority and the opposition face each other, in two clearly opposed blocs”, explains Frédéric Bouhon, lecturer at the faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Liège. “In Belgium, the culture of compromise dominates, in the UK, it’s about confrontation.” This logic is however a little less obvious in the House of Lords. The majority of its members (647) are effectively unelected but are named for life in recognition of their careers and what they have given to society. Among them are still some hereditary Lords (88 out of 760), the last survivors of a reform that got rid of hereditary transmission of seats, and 25 Bishops of the Church of England, “an anachronism that does not have much influence on the workings of the State”, according to François Van Der Mensbrugghe, Professor of Comparative Law at Saint Louis University in Brussels. House of Commons and House of Lords Party Discipline As in Belgium, parliamentarians are obliged to respect their parties’ vote instructions. Rebels are punished at least by a warning or in the most severe cases by exclusion from their political group. “In a parliamentary system, the government has to be able to stay in power. It therefore needs a majority that supports it. A Parliament without discipline can have difficulties functioning”, Lieven De Winter explains. “Discipline is even more strict in Belgium than in Great Britain, because the majority is weaker. In the United Kingdom, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition currently has 360 seats, the opposition 255. The British Prime Minister therefore has a margin.” Given the number of MPs to keep in check, the system is more organised than in Belgium. Whips, as the origin of the word suggests, are in charge of party discipline. Vote instructions can be more or less restrictive: the vote is sometimes free, notably for matters to do with questions of conscience such as abortion or, more recently, gay marriage, or inversely, the party’s injunction can leave no room for personal decision. However, over time, we have seen several rebellions. The latest was in regards to a 2012 reform of the House of Lords. Its aim was to halve the number of its members and to elect them directly. The Conservatives were told that it was imperative to vote in favour of a motion to limit the duration of the debates but 91 Tories rebelled and voted against this. Seeing the tensions raised by this bill, David Cameron withdrew it, to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s considerable displeasure.

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