Something you didn’t know about the House of Commons

As a result of my web site, I receive e-mails from all around the world and I’m always happy to hear from readers. Today I had this e-mail from a German student of 27 in response to my web essay on “A Short Guide To The British Political System”:
“I am studying English and Portuguese at the University of Heidelberg (translation and interpretation). Next week, I will have to talk about the UK Parliament in class. During my researches I came across your article which I consider quite helpful.
My concern: Since I don’t want to bore my audience with plain facts only, I was thinking about including some anecdotes or simply some “everyday life stories”. Maybe something that is very strange, typical or special about the Parliament and its members.
I’d be so glad hearing from you!”
So – how did I respond? As follows ….

“I think I know what you want, so let me offer a couple of suggestions.
If one walks from the lobby of the House of Commons into the chamber of the Commons, one passes through an archway which looks odd because it is evidently damaged. In fact, most of the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by German bombing in the Second World War but, when Parliament was rebuilt after the war, Winston Churchill proposed that the original archway with its obvious damage be retained as a reminder of the war. Today it is called The Rubble Arch.
You can see an image here and, if you click on the ‘i’ in the top right, you’ll see a picture of the arch after the bombing.
When one passes through the archway and enters the chamber, there is one surprising feature of the seating – there is simply not enough. The current membership of the House of Commons is 646 (it will rise to 650 at the next General Election), but there are only enough seats for 427 members.
The reason that this arrangement works is that, unlike other Parliaments, there are not assigned seats for each member; instead members take any seat they want on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, although there are various traditions (notably blocks of seats for particular political parties, most especially those in Government and those in Opposition).
The reason that the arrangement was chosen is so that the chamber does not look too empty when (most of the time) very few members are present for the debates. Conversely, when there is a major Commons occasion (such as a Budget statement), so many members try to enter the chamber that all the seats are taken and members have to sit on the stairways or stand at the entrance. This all adds to the sense of excitement.”


  • Philip

    OK, here is one. The Palace of Westminster sits between two bridges, Westminster and Lambeth.
    Westminster Bridge is painted green to match the colour of the House of Commons, which is the chamber nearest the bridge. Lambeth Bridge is painted red to match the colour of the House of Lords, which is the nearest chamber to that bridge.
    Didn’t know this until I did a Duck tour recently.

  • Roger Darlington

    Very impressive, Philip!

  • Mavis

    It is a pity that they did not keep DUKW Tours.
    Dukw’s were used in WW11.

  • Roger Darlington

    I wondered what DUKW stood for and checked Wikipedia only to find that it is not in fact an acronym:
    “The designation of DUKW is not a military pun – the name comes from the model naming terminology used by GMC; the D indicates a vehicle designed in 1942, the U meant “utility (amphibious)”, the K indicated all-wheel drive and the W indicated two powered rear axles.”

  • David Barry

    Surely you should mention that, these days it is impossible to die in the Place of Westminster? This is because if someone dies there they are not under the jurisdiction of the ordinary authorities regarding the legal formalities that must follow a death; so in practice anyone taken fatally ill on the premises is regarded as being deceased on arrival at the hospital as the administrative complications of admitting that they died in Westminster are so huge!

  • Bruce Dodd

    Re House of Commons
    A number of years ago I was a Canadian member of a committee on the unification of American, British, and Canadian draughting/drafting practices.
    The British Standards people hosted a little reception at a hotel not far from Westminster. As my wife and I emerged and set out on foot for our hotel near Marble Arch, we met two of the US delegates standing on the street corner getting their bearings. We were not as new to London as they, so they asked if they could walk along with us.
    As we walked along Victoria Street (I think: haven’t checked a map) we could hear Big Ben chiming and could see the lantern above it. I suggested that we go and visit the Commons, the best free entertainment in London.
    My US friends (known of yore) laughed and told me not to be silly, since it was past eleven pm.
    I explained the lit lantern, indicating that the House was sitting. They were a bit dubious, but we went, nevertheless, and a policeman let us into the Visitors’ Gallery.
    Sure enough, the House was debating a Drug Abuses Bill amid a welter of newspapers and rubbish.
    My friends were surprised that a policeman was in charge, so I explained that the Queen is guarded by the army, whose head she is; and the Commons by the police, whose creature they are.
    It was very much later when I was able to drag my fascinated friends away.
    As we left, they were determined to write to their Congressmen to demand to know why they couldn’t follow the example of these Brits who were still attending to the business of their country at one in the morning.
    I didn’t tell them what time the House begins its sitting.

  • Philip

    It was a DUKW we were in. The company is still running and called London Duck Tours
    The one we were in was used to ferry ammunition during D-Day and had been used in “Saving Private Ryan” too – although the roof and yellow paint job have been a later development!


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