After today’s State Opening of Parliament, many MPs will also have to battle to find a seat to debate the Queen’s Speech. This is a historic problem for the Commons, as our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses…
Mr Dennis Skinner, the fabled member for Bolsover, found himself on the day the House first sat after the election in a tussle with the SNP over his favoured seat. Though the dispute (the ‘War of Skinner’s seat’) seems to have been resolved (we will find out today), it’s an interesting example of a familiar issue in a chamber where there have never been enough seats to go around. There’s a parallel in the situation of the naval surgeon, MP from 1812 to 1855 and reformer and radical Joseph Hume. Hume’s unwearying calls for government economy and inquiries into waste, delivered from his habitual seat, just to the left of the Speaker, drove many early nineteenth century ministers (and some of his allies) to distraction.
In July 1831 in anticipation of the second reading of the Reform bill, a subject of understandably massive interest to all members, an attempt was made to dispossess Hume of his seat. As he complained to the Speaker first thing on the day of the second reading, he had been subject to a meticulously planned and perfectly executed conspiracy:
Having understood, on Friday, that an attempt would be made to dispossess him (Mr. Hume) from the place in which he usually sat, he requested a friend to come down that morning, and put his name in his place, and he came down to the House himself shortly after ten o’clock. He then found that some person had been down as early as seven o’clock, and had put down the names of about 200 Members in that quarter of the House, so that several Gentlemen who usually sat near him (Mr. Hume) were obliged to seek for seats in other parts of the House. … When he (Mr. Hume) came down that morning, he found that the name of Colonel Lindsay had been put up in his place. He took down the name of the hon. Member from his place, as it had been affixed there before eight o’clock, and he put it up in the place immediately behind him. That hon. Member, however, being down when the House met, about two minutes before him (Mr. Hume), he could not dispossess him, and he therefore took down the name of Colonel Lindsay without ceremony from the place where he had affixed it, and he retained that place. If it were competent for hon. Members to take places in that way, before ten o’clock in the morning, it would be competent for a Member to do so at three o’clock in the morning, and as he (Mr. Hume) left the House at a later hour than most hon. Members, he would certainly do so, unless they had a definite rule to guide them on the subject.
As the Speaker subsequently explained, the only way to guarantee a seat was by being present at prayers. (Prayers, as a result of a process of the practical time of sitting of the House becoming later and later while its formal start time remained the same, took place at ten in the morning, even when the House did not actually sit until three in the afternoon or later.) Though it was common to place a name on a seat before prayers this was merely ‘a sort of intimation that those who did so would be present at prayers’, and did not establish a right. That could only be obtained by being present at prayers. Hume was told that this was not a subject for a fixed rule, but for the observance of courtesies among members.
The problem of booking a seat in the House was a long-standing one, as there were far fewer places than there were Members. It remained a problem even after the chamber had been reconstructed after the fire of 1834. The practice of attaching a slip of paper on a seat to reserve it had been stopped by a Standing Order of 1835. The House did still permit the reservation of a place in the chamber with a hat, apparently on the presumption that the member concerned would be within the precincts of the House, rather than go out without their hat. No-one seems to have imagined that some members might possess two hats. One member complained to the Speaker in April 1869 that:
He had often come down to the House at three o’clock in the afternoon, when important questions were expected, and had seen that forest of hats which had been mentioned; and he had noticed an hon. Gentleman have one hat upon a seat and another in his hand or upon his head, thus showing that there were hon. Members who kept a reserve of hats for the purpose of securing seats. … His right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle had pointed out that one way by which Members went to work to secure a seat was to have two hats, one of which was sent down to the House by a servant early in the day. Now, he had often wished to secure the seat which he ordinarily occupied; but when an important discussion was anticipated he found the Bench covered with hats, and, as the right hon. Gentleman had said, the House sometimes presented the appearance of a hat shop.
He may have been referring to the activities of the Irish parliamentary party, who would become notorious for keeping a stock of hats for precisely this purpose, in order more effectively to carry out their programme of disruption of the House in later years. The story would later be told of one Irish member who, at the beginning of a new Parliament, would drive down to Westminster with a cab full of his friends’ hats, in order to reserve places for the whole party. This solution is no longer available to the SNP, but clearly the basic problem avoided in many legislatures by having specific seats and desks, still remains.