I recently took a tour around Leinster House, the Dublin home of Ireland’s Parliament. It seemed to have many features that echoed its historic links with the Palace of Westminster but none of Westminster’s idiosyncrasies. Then I discovered that since 1998, when modernisation fever struck, even Westminster has been purged of much of its quirkiness. But not entirely.
First the casualties. The opera hats have gone. Before 1998 if a Member of Parliament wished to raise a point of order during a division he had to do so ‘seated and covered’. At all other times an MP must stand to speak. That’s why, if you watch a televised debate, they’re up and down like meerkats with haemorrhoids trying to catch the Speaker’s eye. ‘Covered’ meant wearing a hat, and for that purpose two collapsible top hats were kept in the Commons’ chamber, to be passed hastily along the benches to whichever MP required ‘covering’ before he could raise a point of order.
I’ve searched in vain for a photograph. I wonder what happened to those redundant opera hats. I did enquire at the Commons' Information Office but they didn’t get back to me. I guess it wasn’t the most urgent enquiry of the week.
Eating is now prohibited in the Chamber though this wasn't always the case. In the 18th century MPs would crack nuts and suck oranges and leave the debris behind them, much appreciated by the resident vermin (of which, more anon). Nowadays the problem must be getting MPs to turn their phones and pagers to Vibrate.
‘I spy Strangers’ has been hollered for the last time. The public gallery is now rarely closed. And what used to be the Strangers’ Cafeteria is now called The Terrace Café, which sounds much more appealing. Espresso macchiato instead of tea and buns? The Strangers’ Bar lives on, and the Strangers' Dining Room, and why not? Parliament can do its business efficiently without rearranging all the furniture.
So no swords, not now, not ever, and there is still a non-negotiable proscription against wearing armour. Just so you know.
When the House rises, often at an ungodly hour, the Doorkeeper still calls, ‘Who goes home?’ though it apparently sounds more like ‘Hooooome?’ This is a revealing relic. It dates from a time when Westminster was a dangerous place, the haunt of cut-throats and footpads. It was safer for MPs to leave the building in groups, and for those who lived on the Surrey side of the river, there was also the possibility of splitting the cost of a ferryman. Rather like sharing a taxi today.
Finally, no account of the oddities of Parliament would be complete without mentioning its non-human members. The story that Charles II obtained an exemption from the general ban on dogs so his beloved spaniels could accompany him to Parliament is apocryphal. Blind MP David Blunkett’s succession of guide dogs have had the place to themselves.
The Palace of Westminster used to have a falconer on the payroll but that work is now put out to tender. A self-employed falconer brings in his Harris hawk on an As Required basis. His mission: to encourage the pestilential pigeons to... relocate.
Vermin - no jokes, please - have always been a problem in the Palace of Westminster, as in any old, riverside building. The Parliamentary Estates Directorate keeps a monthly record of Mouse Sightings. Moth Sightings are also recorded. Somewhat surprisingly there is no register of Rat Sightings. Perhaps the humans aren’t expected to distinguish a small rat from a big mouse. You’d think they’d employ a cat but whenever the matter has been raised - ‘given full and proper consideration’ is the actual phrase, it has been rejected on the grounds of ‘clear practical and technical difficulties’. Perhaps the cat food bill would have implications for the snuff budget.