how does the British House of Commons work

By Philippe Bernard

Posted today at 11:48, updated at 12:02

"Order! This "speaker" cry, the Speaker of the British House of Commons, became famous with the heated debates of Brexit. Westminster Palace, home to the United Kingdom Parliament, has for several years become the place where the positions around the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union crystallize. This "citadel of British freedom", dear to Churchill, has its rituals that seem amazing to the uninitiated.

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The architecture. Unlike the hemicycles where members meet in most countries of the world, the House of Commons is distinguished by its rectangular shape and relatively small size. Destroyed by a fire in 1834, the Westminster Palace was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style under Queen Victoria. Bombed by the Nazis, the Commons were rebuilt identically between 1945 and 1950. The layout of the place is inherited time when the deputies sat on the stalls of the chapel of Saint Stephen (1547-1834). Today, they reflect the two-party system of institutions and the single-round electoral system that marginalizes parties other than Tories and Labor.


The face-to-face. According to the tradition, only the length of two swords separates the two red lines which, on the ground, delimit the benches of the party in the government (on the right of the speaker, president) and those of the opposition (on the left). The close proximity of the political adversaries was designed both to promote lively debate and to create a sense of intimacy.

The benches. The green color of their leather has been emblematic of Communes for three centuries. They can accommodate 427 people, while the deputies are 650 in number, and do not include registered seats. Only first-comers can sit down. Others can stand up, but not speak.


The harrow and the crown. A portcullis, a symbol of the Kingdom's borders, surmounted by a crown of St. Edward's royal authority, is the symbol of the two Houses of Parliament of Westminster (Commons and Lords). Portcullis comes from French "porte coulissante".

"Frontbenchers" and "backbenchers". The benches located opposite the central table, not far from the speaker, are occupied by the "frontbenchers" ("deputies of the first rank") who are on one side the prime minister and members of the government (who remain deputies), the other the leader of the opposition and members of his "shadow cabinet". Sitting behind them, the backbenchers are the simple deputies.


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