Six absurd things you probably didn't know about the UK parliament

Our democracy has some bizarre traditions that are less than orthodox, and highly entertaining

Anna Rhodes
Sunday 29 May 2016 20:21 BST
The Speaker of the House of Commons (John Bercow) and Black Rod (David Leakey)
The Speaker of the House of Commons (John Bercow) and Black Rod (David Leakey) (AP)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Britain is looked upon by the world as a beacon of democracy. And if you consider the amount of vitriol thrown back and forth on Twitter between the Corbynites and, well, everyone else, we take our politics pretty seriously.

But behind the veneer are some pretty ridiculous traditions that underpin our democratic system. If you thought our voting system of “first past the post” – the political equivalent to an Olympic 100m final – was absurd enough, you may be surprised to learn about some of the other special traditions that prop up British politics. Frankly, you might also be embarrased.

We pick our laws out of a goldfish bowl

Private members bills are laws suggested by a private member of Parliament (an MP) that are not part of the Government's planned programme of legislation. These bills are not listed by manifestos, and they rarely become law – which begs the question of why we bother with them in the first place.

The interesting part? Because there isn't time to discuss every MP's ideas for a new law, each year the MPs who are allowed to introduce a bill are picked out of a hat – and this year they were selected from a goldfish bowl in a sort of House of Commons lottery draw.

How it can be justified to pick an issue to be debated, that could in fact become an implemented law, in a Church fete-style lucky dip? We'll never know.

The MPs are given a number at random, and this year they were picked out of a goldfish bowl
The MPs are given a number at random, and this year they were picked out of a goldfish bowl (UK Parliament)

We kidnap an MP every year

During the Queen’s Speech, it is customary for an MP to be “kidnapped” and “held hostage” at Buckingham Palace. This is so the reigning monarch has a bargaining tool in case anything happens to them during their time at the Houses of Parliament.

It's a custom more suited to the 16th Century, when the monarchy and parliament actually had serious arguments about who was in charge, but it is still carried on today. Presumably the poor MP isn't chained to a toilet cistern with a gag ball in their mouth, but we can only hope.

We write our laws on £80,000 animal skins

There was outcry earlier this year when it was suggested that UK laws could be written on archive paper, as opposed to vellum paper, as a cost saving exercise. Vellum is a combination of goat and calf skin which lasts for up to 500 years. After MPs kicked off, calling for a “safeguarding of our great traditions”, the Cabinet Office offered to pay the cost of continuing to use vellum.

The yearly cost? £80,000. Has anyone ever heard of a laminator?

You can stop a debate by running off with a golden stick

The Mace is a gold staff which resides in the chamber when Parliament is in session, and it represents the authority of the Queen. Any debate that is carried out without the Mace in place is illegal.

It is always there, in a rather unsuspecting manner, but has caused its fair share of controversy over the years. In 2009, the now Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, got in a serious strop over Heathrow expansion, marched down the stairs and took the Mace back to his seat with him. He was swiftly suspended after a telling off from the headmaster. Sorry, I mean the Speaker.

John McDonnell grabs mace

The Speaker has to be dragged into work

When a new Speaker of the House is elected they are physically dragged to the chair by two MPs. In centuries past, if the Speaker offended the reigning Monarch he was likely to lose his head; they are dragged to the position to remind us that, historically, no one in their right mind wanted to do it.

It's a surprise that anyone still does today.

Bercow re-elected as Speaker

We slam the door on Black Rod. Three times

Much less exciting than it first sounds, Black Rod is a senior officer in the House of Lords. During the State Opening of Parliament, he bangs on the door of the Commons chamber with, surprisingly, a black rod, and then the door is quickly slammed in his face, to iterate the independence of the Commons. He then bangs on the door three times, and then he, and the MPs in tow, is allowed in.

Similar to when you come home drunk and forget your keys, but more entertaining.

Queen's Speech: Black Rod

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