House of Commons

Seating arrangements in the House of Commons tell us a lot about what is distinctive about the British Parliament. There are just two rows of benches facing each other. There are the government benches on the left, where the MPs of the governing party is. On the right, there are the opposition benches. This physical division is emphasized by the table on the floor of the House between the two rows of benches. The Speakers Chair is also here. The Commons has no special place for people to stand when they are speaking. MPs simply stand up and speak from wherever they are sitting. Moreover, there are no desks. This makes it easy for the MPs to drift in and drift out of the room. The room itself is very small. In fact, there isn´t enough room for all the MPs. There are about 650 of them, but there is seating for fewer than 400. The ancient habits are preserved today in the many detailed rules and customs of procedure which all new MPs have to learn. The most noteceable of these is the rule that forbids MPs to adress one another by name.

The Speaker is the person who chairs and controls discussion in the House, decides which MP is going to speak next and makes sure that the rules of procedure are followed. It is a very important position. In fact, the Speaker is, officially, the second most important ´commoner´ (non-aristocrat) in the kingdom after the Prime Minister. Hundreds of years ago, it was the Speaker´s job to communicate the decisions of the Commons to the king (that is where the title Speaker comes from). Because the king was often very displeased with what the Commons had decided, this was not a pleasant task. As a result, nobody wanted the job. They had to be forced to take it. These days, the position is a much safer one, but the tradition of dragging an unwilling Speaker to the chair has remained. MPs in the House always address the Speaker as ´Mr Speaker´ or ´Madame Speaker´. Once a new speaker has been appointed, he or she agrees to give up all party politics and normally remains in the job for as long as he or she wants it.