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A new Speaker of the House of Commons must first of all be confirmed in his or her post by the Queen. It’s purely a formality and she doesn’t do it in person; instead, the Lord Chancellor dispatches Black Rod down the long corridor between the Lords and the Commons to fetch the new Speaker, who arrives accompanied by the PM, the leader of the opposition and sundry other MPs who crowd in around them. It’s a point of honour among MPs that they show disrespect on the few occasions that they are called to the Lords, mainly state opening and the end of the year, to remind the place that, ever since the Civil War, it’s the subsidiary house and, crucially, the monarch is no longer the boss.

The Lords Council sits in front of the throne in the chamber, while MPs are crammed into a small area at the other end since very little room is given to them to stand in. This is the Lords passive-aggressively flexing what few muscles it has over its unruly housemates (see the aforementioned Civil War for details). “My Lords and Members of the House of Commons,” begins the Lord Chancellor grandly, flanked by the four other members of the Council. MPs last night found this hard to swallow, partly because these days the “Lord” Chancellor addressing them so loftily is Jack Straw, one of their own and definitely not a Lord, and partly because all the members of the Lords Council were wearing robes (red ermine for actual Lords, the fetching black Lord Chancellor’s garb for the Justice Secretary) along with—this never seems to get broadcast—black tricorn hats.

When the names of the men on the council are read out, the person being named lavishly doffs his hat. “Jack Whitaker Straw, Lord Chancellor,” intoned the clerk. Mr Straw doffed his hat. MPs unused to the hat business expressed mild surprise. “Janet Anne, Baroness Royall,” read the clerk. She did not doff her hat. MPs made disappointed noises. She grinned and shook her head. Next it was Tory leader in the Lords and proud hereditary peer “Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, Lord Strathclyde” who doffed his hat splendidly, to a cheer from the MPs. “Tom, Lord McNally” doffed his in turn, to another cheer, while Baroness D’Souza did not, to a crestfallen groan.

The whole ceremony was of course carefully scripted, not just the Royal Proclamation—which, technically, everyone turns up to hear, rather than just to have a gander at the noob—but also the new Speaker’s carefully modest speeches of acceptance and instructions for those in hats on when to doff them. The proclamation itself was written in the same stultifying proclamese that these things have always been styled in, presumably on the Lord Davies of Oldham principle that if you make your peroration long-winded and baroque enough, you can slip virtually anything past your wilting audience:
Whereas we did lately, for divers difficult and pressing affairs concerning us the State and defence of our United Kingdom and the Church, ordain this our present Parliament to begin and be holden at our City of Westminster the 11th day of May in the 54th year of our Reign, on which day our said Parliament was begun and holden and is there now holden; and whereas we have been informed that the Lower House of our said Parliament have lately made choice of our beloved and faithful John Simon Bercow Esquire, in the room of our beloved and faithful Michael John Martin Esquire, to be Speaker of the said Lower House of our said Parliament, of which choice we are graciously pleased to approve and to allow and confirm the same; and forasmuch as for divers causes and considerations we cannot conveniently at this time be present in our Royal Person in our said Parliament, know ye that we, trusting the fidelity and care of the most Reverend Father in God and our faithful Counsellor, Rowan Douglas, Archbishop of Canterbury... (etc) [1]

After the Speaker’s final lines (“I pray that if, in the discharge of my duties and in the maintenance of the rights and privileges of the Commons House of Parliament, I should inadvertently fall into error, it may be imputed to me alone and not to Her Majesty’s faithful Commons”, which got a distinctly pointed “Hear hear” from assembled Members), the stage directions then rather optimistically direct:
The Commons then withdraw bowing three times as they retire; the Commissioners acknowledge each bow by raising their hats as before.
There was but a single mass doff, after which an MP, the type who used to long to be described as a “wag” before Cheryl Cole muscled in on the term, yelled at the tricorned Councillors, “Where’s your eyepatch?” [2] The Lords just aren’t used to that kind of catcalling; the elected House—where all the serious business goes on, as we’re always reminded—is the one that specialises in that kind of dicking about. Then the MPs started to make their noisy way out through the single narrow exit afforded them, without bowing but with many loud comments about “Jack Sparrow” and sundry pirate noises. The Lords waited patiently until the last of them had disappeared and the noise had subsided, though they could still be heard boisterously making their way along the corridor. It was as if the junior school had been let out of assembly first.

A lot of old nonsense, obviously, but, like quite a lot of the old nonsense that goes on in the building, it serves as a reminder of something more serious. The perennial lack of respect shown by each chamber to the other stems from a time when they truly were at each other’s throats, and the fact that we ever got to a stage where we could have dull debates about planning regulations or the future of the biscuit industry is worth celebrating and preserving—though not in aspic. Not every tradition or facet of the place needs to be delicately tended, obviously; we could probably safely see the back of Rouge Dragon Pursuivant, say, or the honour system of expenses. But to junk everything that symbolises how we managed to crawl at least this far out of the murk would be unfortunate. MPs turning up to jeer at Lords serves to remind both sides of how the business of government can go very horribly wrong, surely the most important memo they’ll ever receive.

Maybe the hats should be optional, though.

[1] Even Hansard baulks at this verbiage, reporting only that “The Royal Proclamation was read out.” Back

[2] To which the only suitable response is, “I left it on your mother’s bedside table.”


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 23rd, 2009 02:09 pm (UTC)
I saw all this, including doffing, on BBC News 24 last night. It was quite unbelievable. I've never heard the word holden used so many times in one sentence. Actually, I don't think I've ever heard it used. (I'm sure there's a vaguely smutty Amanda Holden joke here, but I can't think of one, and anyway, that wouldn't be very gallant of me, would it. Bloody Commoners*.)

*I am, officially, bicameral now, so perhaps I'm becoming more civilised.
Jun. 23rd, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
> on BBC News 24 last night

This would appear to break the tricorns’ “never broadcast” duck.

> I am, officially, bicameral now

strictlytrue wantonly feeding the LJ rumour mill, there.

Edited at 2009-07-01 01:18 pm (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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