On the placement of the Parliamentary mace

Those who have been watching the recent Brexit debates in the House of Commons (or any other Parliamentary business) will have noticed the ceremonial mace that normally rests in a cradle on the chamber’s central table. More astute observers will have noticed that underneath this cradle are two hooks—Googling turns up the occasional image where the mace is resting on these hooks below the table instead of the cradle above it. I was curious about this, and so discovered the following explanation on the UK Parliament’s website:

OK, so that explains how they decide where to put the mace during a given session. But it doesn’t explain why this decision has to be made in the first place. What’s the history and significance of having two different mace positions? Is this just supposed to serve as a visual reminder to MPs that Commons is sitting as a committee? (And is this even something that MPs are likely to forget? I mean, shouldn’t the fact that the Speaker is not presiding be enough of a reminder?)

No one knows. And it is not as if anyone is sure what exactly the mace is supposed to symbolise. The power of the Crown? The Speaker? The Serjeant at Arms? But the tradition dates back at least to the eighteenth century, which is why it could be copied by the US House of Representatives.

It may simply be the easiest way for the Serjeant at Arms to remove the mace without the Serjeant also having to leave the chamber, however briefly.

Never underestimate our capacity for ceremonialising and symbolising. Actually it represents the authority of the Crown as devolved to the House of Commons for the business it undertakes; but committees of the House exist and work by and to the authority of the House alone, not directly to that of the Crown-in-Parliament, so the mace doesn’t need to take pride of place, but it needs to be there to show there is parliamentary business of some sort going on. If it weren’t there at all, then symbolically whoever’s in the chamber at the time has no authority for anything, and whatever goes on then is just some gathering of random people (as indeed happens when tours go round, MPs allow visiting school parties from their constituency to act out being MPs, and so on).

Although that is often asserted, the better authorities on parliamentary procedure actually tend to point out that there are too many minor anomalies surrounding the use of the mace for anyone to be certain. It’s not as if there needs to be a coherent interpretation and on the very few occasions over the centuries when anyone has tried to make an issue about it, those have usually been less about logic and more about political point-scoring.

Do you want the romanticized answer or the real one?

The romanticized answer is that when meeting as a Committee of the Whole House the House of Commons excludes all representatives of the Monarch including the Speaker thus the symbol of the monarch - the Mace is hidden from view thus “excluding” them from the proceedings.

The real answer is that a member can walk in, look at the mace, and know if the House is meeting or if it is a Committee of the Whole with its less strict rules on debate.

Again, wouldn’t it be easier to simply glance at the much larger and more prominent Speaker’s chair and see that it is not occupied?

Speaking as a computer programmer, no. It’s better to use a named constant rather than a literal. It’s easier to manage if you separate the symbolism from the implementation.

Of course, DBA’s (database administrators) will notice that using artificial keys is unnecessary and inefficient. To which I can only reply that sometimes efficiency is less important than clarity.

Or more simply, just know what the order of business is. It’s not exactly hidden from MPs

Not necessarily. At least in Canada, and I assume in the Mother of Parliamnets, there are Deputy Speakers who don’t wear the robes. If so, it might not be immediately apparent if it’s a Deputy Speaker (House in session) or Committee chair (House not in session).

  1. The Speaker is the representative of the House of Commons, and is not a royal representative. See the example of Speaker Lenthall, refusing to comply with a direct royal order:
  1. Since that episode, no monarch is ever allowed in the Commons.

  2. The only quasi-representative of the monarch, Black Rod, has the door slammed in his face when he comes to summon the Commons to the Lords to hear the Monarch. Black Rod is not allowed in to give the summons until he humbly asks permission to enter the Commons, and the Commons votes to admit him.

Is he any relation to Ruby Rhod?

As a colonist, I find it odd that Black Rod has the door slammed and must knock to request entrance but then states that the Queen “commands” attendance in the House of Lords. To be consistent, shouldn’t the House refuse a command?

I’m not sure what robes have to do with it, since I was talking about the Speaker’s chair being occupied versus vacant. In the UK Parliament, Committees of the Whole are chaired by a Deputy Speaker sitting at the table, not in the Speaker’s chair (which I presume remains empty). Are you saying that Deputy Speakers do not sit in the Speaker’s chair, even during a House meeting when they are filling in for the Speaker (due to sickness, etc.)?

I cannot speak to the UK Commons, but I am familiar with the ritual in Canada. The door to the Commons is not so much slammed in Black Rod’s face, as it is that he is simply ignored.

By tradition, Black Rod knocks three times. The first knock is ignored, and the second is too. Only the third is answered. By ignoring the first two knocks, the Commons is essentially saying, “We know who you are, and who sent you, but we don’t necessarily have to respond until we feel like it.”

I also would not characterize Black Rod’s summons as a command. It is more an invitation, at least in the Canadian Commons. Since it is just an invitation, the Commons does not have to attend if it does not wish to, but by tradition, it does. Fun to watch (on TV) the members of the commons walking down the hall to the Senate chamber. They look like schoolchildren on a field trip.

It’s a lot of what might seem to be needless or silly tradition, but it has a point: it serves to remind the Monarch that he or she has no power over the popularly-elected Commons. The people who elect the members of the Commons hold the power, in other words, not the Monarch.

Mmm. Bit less than a command; bit more than an invitation. What the Usher says is “Mr. Speaker, it is the desire of His Excellency the Governor General of Canada that this honourable House attend him immediately in the Chamber of the honourable the Senate.”

In Westminster they are a bit more blunt: “Mr. Speaker, the Queen commands this Honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately, in the House of Peers”.

The House of Commons is loyal to its Queen; but it reserves to itself solely the way it organises its internal business. That’s what the ceremony with Black Rod is for: to show that the Queen, while the Sovereign, is a constitutional monarch.

As for the Mace location - it’s a symbol that goes back centuries, and symbols matter. By hiding the Mace away it indicates that the House of Commons is technically no longer in session, but is merely a committee. A fancy committee, yes, but still merely a committee.
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George VI is the only reigning monarch to have set foot in the Commons Chamber since Charles I. Parliament underwent major repairs after WWII and the House sat elsewhere for a while. George was given a quick tour the night before the re-dedication, so it technically wasn’t the Chamber at the time.

Hmm. Let me try to parse this and tell me if I am right. The House is loyal to the Queen and agrees with her sovereignty over the country which, in a large bit of traditional fiction, means that she can order people to do this or that or come here or go there as all Brits are her subjects.

However, the House of Commons is an exception and due to the King Charles tradition, the House while sitting may refuse the Queen entrance to the chamber and may do what it wishes. So it ceremoniously refuses the Queen’s entrance (through her representative Black Rod) and then “allows” her to come in. Once in the House, the members must then obey her commands like all good royal subjects.

Right, or no?

Just as an aside - The Colony of Victoria lost its Parliamentary Mace back in 1891. Stolen in the Dead of Night from Parliament House in Melbourne… Never recovered.

Now, I could tell the boring, most likely explanation (involving maintenance workers doing some repairs after hours), but where’s the fun in that? So…

Rumour has it that the Mace was a regular visitor to Madame Brussels’ establishment (Madame Brussels being the city’s foremost promoter of horizontal dancing and associated activities - some say Annie Wilson was queen, but it’s hard to get a definite ranking here), where the mace was often the star of various decidedly ‘unparliamentary activities’. It was left there once, and no one was brave enough to go back and ask ‘Excuse, but did I leave something behind when I was last not here?’.

Primary political suspect seems to be Speaker Tommy Bent (No, I’m not making him up).

There’s still a reward of $50,000. There have been numerous digs, searching of rivers, deathbed confessions etc. To be honest, it’s probably best if it’s never found. Certainly more fun.

No, they’re free to go or not go as they please. Some make a point of staying behind for one reason or another. Before the law was changed in 1967, Black Rod was knocking on the door on a very regular basis to summon MPs to hear royal assent granted, and members would occasionally protest against the interruption by remaining in the chamber and continuing to make speeches.