Tea on the terrace of the Palace of Westminster sounds exciting, but it usually only amounts to cucumber sandwiches and strawberries and cream. The invitation, however, should enable you to see for yourself some of the ceremonies of Parliament, to sit in the Central Lobby as private grievances are aired to Members, to find a corner in the Debating Chambers where other traditional formalities are noted.

#"Mr. Speaker, I call for candles!" These six words belong to the House of Commons and are the archaic form of asking for light when dusk creeps into the Chamber. This is but one of the many ways in which the continuity of Parliamentary tradition has been preserved throughout the centuries in this Palace of Westminster. It is easy, however, for the casual observer to feel that many of these customs are void of meaning. He is insensitive to their significance. There is, for instance, a privilege exercised in the first hour of every session of the House that invariably escapes attention. The Speaker, preceded by the Mace, symbol of the authority delegated to him by the Crown, enters the House, followed by his train-bearer, chaplain and secretary. The Mace is laid upon the table. The chaplain reads a prayer and bows himself out. The Speaker takes his seat. The proceedings open with Questions to Ministers, which were handed in the day before. Question Time is the clearing-ground of domestic detail. The hour when back-benchers are free to reveal their individuality. And frequently the rank and file are dissatisfied with the answers they receive. It is then that the familiar formula is used:

"In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I give notice that I shall raise the matter on the adjournment."

These words embody a closely guarded privilege of the Commons . . . the right to be heard ... a postulate linked with the Petition of Rights that was passed in 1628, the Speaker on that occasion being forcibly prevented from adjourning the House.

Another feature that the visitor may notice is the way Members, upon entering or leaving the Chamber, bow towards the Speaker's Chair. This signal of respect is not directed to the Speaker. It represents a reverent act of obeisance to an altar that no longer exists ... an altar that stood in St. Stephen's Chapel, for centuries the meeting-place of the House. The site is now a bleak corridor tenanted by marble statesmen, yet here it was that Charles I came to demand from Speaker Lenthall the names of the five Members who had escaped by barge to the City . . . that Cromwell seized the bauble and dismissed the Long Parliament . . . and the walls once echoed to the voices of Chatham, Pym, Canning, Hampden, Fox, Townshend, and the younger Pitt.

#These are but two of innumerable ceremonial observances. They range from such moments as when a Minister on the Front Bench rises and says, "Mr. Speaker! I spy strangers" ... to the searching of the cellars at the beginning of every Session., and the application of a Member for "the Chiltern Hundreds". It is interesting to note those which mark the place and influence of the Crown within the Constitution. The origin of constitutional authority is traced to the Sovereign. Justice is dispensed by the judges in her name. Cabinet Ministers are theoretically the Queen's advisers and servants. Her Proclamation is necessary before Parliament can be summoned or dissolved. Royal prerogative determines the creation or prorogation of its Session. The Royal Assent, pronounced in Norman French, is required before an Act can become law.

The ceremony surrounding this last formality is rich in detail and tradition. During a debate, the Serjeant-at-Arms walks past the Bar and locks the doors ... an act symbolizing the right of the Commons to preclude even the Queen or her representatives from their Chamber. Three knocks are heard. Black Rod, the Queen's Messenger, enters, bows to the Chair, and announces at the Bar . . .

"I am commanded by the Lords to desire the attendance of this Honourable House to hear the Royal Assent given to certain Bills/'

The Speaker, followed by Members, thereupon proceeds to the Upper Chamber, where three Commissioners, robed, wigged, and wearing three-cornered hats, sit on the Woolsack. The titles of the Bills are read by the Clerk of the Crown. The Commissioners solemnly raise their hats to each. And the Clerk of Parliament replies ... or, in the event of a Money Bill . . .

The Speaker returns to the Commons, bows three times to the vacant Chair, informs the House what had happened, and the Bills become Acts.

The most colourful ceremony of all is bound up with the State Opening of Parliament . . . the most perfect ceremony of its kind in the world. It takes place in the House of Lords. It is an aristocratic Chamber, the lavish decorations and gilding, though tarnished by age, reflect the romanticism of Pugin and Barry. On this particular occasion the sheer beauty of pageantry that moves across the floor of the Upper Chamber is breath-taking. The scarlet and ermine of the peers . . , bishops in ecclesiastical robes . . . judges in ermine cloaks . . . splashes of gold of the Ambassadors to the Court of St. James . . . the loveliness of England's women in the galleries . . . the medieval appearance of the Gentlemen of the Bodyguard. Here is a magnificence that even Reinhardt never eclipsed.

As the hour draws near, conversation drops to a murmur, then ceases. All this time a golden story-book coach drawn by eight stallions with postillions in rich liveries has been carried from Buckingham Palace on the crest of cheering. The faint echo of a salvo from a salute of guns in Hyde Park indicates that Her Majesty has arrived. She must now be in the Robing Room. Then comes a moment that those who have known it can never forget. The sudden crash of sound as the silence is shattered by a fanfare of trumpets that echo and re-echo throughout the Chamber. Every light comes to life . . . and Her Majesty appears ... a rustle of silk and ermine as peers and peeresses rise to bow . . . the slow stately progress of the Queen to the throne . . . and the Commons are summoned by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod to hear the Speech of the Queen at the Bar of the House of Lords. The Queen stands. Her speech, couched in archaic phraseology, outlines the policy of her Government. The end comes on a note of regal dignity. A fanfare of trumpets is sounded. Her Majesty departs. The greatness and traditions of the centuries have been united. Parliament has been opened. The fundamental tenets of our Constitution have been embodied in a wealth of ancient ceremonial detail.

But these are hours of greatness. They pass. And Parliament turns to routine and work. The casual visitor looks down from one of the galleries upon a scene that is neutral in its unreality. The Chamber resembles a monotone of mellow parchment against which any accidental colour stands out in vivid contrast. The day's session is over. The Speaker leaves the Chamber, preceded by the Mace. The passage-ways, lobbies and chambers resound to the ancient cry ... "Who goes home?" ... a relic of an age of lanterns and link-boys. And the House disperses on the same note on which it began ... the dignified observance of tradition, upon which the House of Commons was founded and sustained.

London Season, Louis T. Stanley, [As Written]
#


AVictorian.Com - © 1997-Present | Hosted by Network Solutions