21 Things About The Houses Of Parliament Which Are Completely Mental
1. They have an official snuffbox
Smoking has been banned in the House of Commons since the 17th century, so a snuffbox is maintained next to the entrance in case MPs want perking up before a long policy debate. It's the kind of thing that could be called a disgraceful drain on taxpayers money - if anyone actually used it. But luckily they don't. Because it's snuff, and we don't live in a Charles Dickens novel.
2. Parliament is opened with a gold mace
Every time the house sits, the speaker is led in with a procession headed by a big gold stick. If anyone touches the big gold stick they're in contempt of parliament – which occasionally happens. Michael Heseltine got so angry during a debate in 1976 that he picked it up and started waving it at the opposition. In 1987, Labour MP Ron Brown chucked it on the floor and had to shell out £1500 to have it repaired.
However, if a member of the public ever disagrees with a politician, they are authorized to wave the big gold stick directly in your face until you submit to their authority.
3. Commons are Green, Lords are Red
The two houses are colour-coded, with green carpets and seats in the Commons, and red furnishings in the Lords. This makes sense, as the Commons is there to make laws, while the Lords is there to stop them if they're no good. Red for stop, green for go. Pretty impressive forward thinking for a building designed in the 1840s.
4. They had to put in lines to prevent swordfights
Check out the two red lines on the floor of the Commons above. They're designed to be two sword-lengths apart, so that if anyone ever takes a lunge at the PM he has enough space to draw his own sword and make a foole of them. MPs are prohibited from crossing the lines to prevent physical fights. Which is probably why this has never happened in the UK:
5. MPs vote by shouting
If you've ever watched the passing of a law on BBC Parliament you'll know that it's about as scientific as a primary school talent contest. A bloke rings a bell, and then asks everyone in favour to shout "Aye" and everyone against to shout "No". Whoever's loudest wins. If it's too noisy to tell, everyone has to stand up instead. If that doesn't work out, the speaker yells out "Division!" and everyone files out in a line and has to queue up to be counted. All of which could have been done in a few seconds using the technology from 90s gameshow 50/50.
6. There aren't enough seats
Even though there are 650 MPs, the House of Commons can only sit 427 members. The Lords can only sit 400 and has a massive 783 members, with David Cameron planning to push another 40 through next summer. Luckily, many of the members are happy to help out with the lack of capacity by not turning up at all.
7. It's absolutely flipping massive
The complex covers 8 acres, has 100 staircases, over 1,000 rooms and more than three miles of passages. A Houses of Parliament edition of Cluedo would take ages.
8. There are secret tunnels
Rumours abound of secret tunnels and tube stations that would allow MPs and royals to make a quick exit from the capital if shit ever went down. A few tunnels are confirmed though. One which leads between the Houses of Parliament and Downing Street was used by Nick Clegg in 2010 to hold secret coalition talks with Gordon Brown and his pals. Another one allows entrance to the Houses directly from Westminster Tube Station, and is actually in full view of the public.
9. It's full of mice
Mice are commonly sighted "scurrying around the members' tea room" and the house is supposed to be full of them. Calls to bring in a cat in the mould of Larry the Downing Street Cat (aka Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office) have been rejected, probably because they're already giving twelve grand a year to a bird of prey to get rid of their pigeons. Hey hawkeye – what are we paying you for? How about picking up a mouse from time to time?
10. It has its own hairdresser
Parliament has an in-House hairdresser called John Simon. Prices range from £50 for a lady's restyle down to £6.50 for a gentleman's beard trim – essential if you want to be in with a shout of winning Parliamentary Beard of the Year (current holder one Jeremy Corbyn).
11. There's a rifle range
It's hidden in the basement of the Palace of Westminster and very few details are available about it, except that it has survived several attempts to be turned into a crèche. Makes sense – babies vs rifles isn't exactly a fair fight.
12. They segregate the canteen like in Friends
The arrival of 56 SNP MPs created a stir at the start of this parliament, with many of them refusing to respect centuries old traditions. Youngest MP ever Mhairi Black caused the biggest ruckus when she refused to eat in a canteen segregated between MPs and staff, saying "it actually reminded me of an episode of Friends where Joey can't sit with Ross when he begins working as a tour guide in the museum because, ‘blue coats don't sit with white coats'."
Mhairi Black is officially our favourite MP.
13. If you don't work there you're a "stranger"
Anyone in the building not a member of parliament or a parliamentary official has traditionally been referred to as a "stranger". That convention was ended in 2004 by the Modernisation Committee (which is clearly doing a great job) with the recommendation that outsiders be referred to as "the public". Despite that, the viewing gallery is still commonly referred to as the "Strangers' Gallery" and there's even a "Strangers' Bar" which sounds like something you'd visit in a 1940s film noir to meet a suspicious-looking Austrian lady smoking a cigarette. Which it probably is, knowing this place.
14. The House of Lords is insanely expensive
Catering for the House of Lords cost the taxpayer £60,000 a week. They get £300 a day expenses to cover food and accommodation. They've spent about half a million quid since 2000 buying new paintings and they got furious when it was suggested that the catering department could use a slightly lower vintage of champagne. They even have a bar that's just for bishops. Imagine being in a pub where everyone was a bishop. You can't. Because it's fucking weird.
15. They have to literally drag the speaker to their seat
Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was so common for speakers of the house to be executed that they had to be dragged unwillingly to their seats. As a light-hearted nod to that era of brutal state oppression, new speakers are still dragged to their seats when assuming their position. Though to be fair, speakers are still regularly crucified in the Daily Mail.
16. The Lord Speaker sits on a big sack of wool
The Speaker's seat in the House of Lords is the "woolsack", a big sack of wool first introduced in the 14th century as a permanent symbol of Britain's biggest industry: the wool trade. It hasn't been updated in centuries, probably because sitingt on a pile of investment banks would be quite uncomfortable.
17. You have to swear allegiance to the queen and God
When new members join the Commons or the Lords they are required to pledge allegiance to the queen with the words: "I (name of Member) swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."
Even devoutly republican SNP MPs had to take the oath on joining parliament, though it was suggested that they were secretly crossing their fingers. Ladies and gentlemen: British politics.
18. They still say prayers
Though it's never shown in public, before every single session in the Lords and Commons, members turn towards the wall and say a Christian prayer. And they have the cheek to call the Welsh parliament an "assembly".
19. They're not allowed to swear
You might not think it when watching Prime Minister's Question Time, but MPs are not allowed to use language that could "offend the dignity" of the house, and insults against fellow members are strictly forbidden. Hence the insane level of sarcasm whenever they say "the right honourable member".
20. MPs touch statues for good luck
There are statues of former prime-ministers including Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher dotted around the buildings, and MPs like to touch their favourite for good luck. It's definitely not a terrifying thought that the people in charge of building sensible plans for the future of our country are highly superstitious. It makes you wonder if the deficit is as bad as they say, or whether someone just got some dodgy tarot cards.
21. It's falling to pieces
It's in such a bad state of repair that at one point there was urine pouring down the ceilings:
Urine seems to be pouring through the ceiling into my Commons office for the second day running!
— Ben Bradshaw (@BenPBradshaw) November 28, 2012
It could cost £7 billion and take up to 40 years to repair the place. Some have called for parliament to be moved somewhere like Birmingham or Manchester. Others say it's impractical to move and temporary accommodation can be found in London.
That shouldn't be too hard. They just have to find somewhere with a rifle range, a hairdressers, several private bars, underground tunnels linking to anywhere involved with national security, a partitioned canteen, somewhere convenient to hang a snuffbox, and two massive chambers covered in gold.
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