Robes, Black Rod and flamingos: How the U.K. just shut down its Parliament

Image: BRITAIN parliament
Leader of the House of Lords Natalie Evans, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, center, reads a speech by the Queen flanked by Lord Speaker Norman Fowler, Baron Fowler, left, and Convenor of the Crossbench peers in the House of Lords David Hope, Baron Hope of C Copyright UK Parliament via AFP - Getty Images
Copyright UK Parliament via AFP - Getty Images
By Alexander Smith with NBC News World News
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Lawmakers tried to pin down the speaker of the House of Commons, others sang a socialist anthem.


LONDON — Even by the bizarre, arcane and lately chaotic standards of the British Parliament, Monday night was something else.

There was always going to be a febrile atmosphere after Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth II last month to suspend Parliament for five weeks.

But few expected the unprecedented spectacle of some lawmakers trying to pin down the speaker of the House of Commons, others singing a socialist anthem and being treated to a left-field rant about flamingos.

Amid the enigmatic protocols of this centuries-old institution — the ermine, the tights and the robes — it can be tough to distinguish planned theater from unexpected outburst.

Many of the events of Monday night running into Tuesday morning left even seasoned Parliament-watchers dumbfounded.

Johnson's prorogation has been criticized because it's the longest for decades and comes at a moment of acute constitutional crisis for the U.K. Though the prime minister denies it, his opponents say suspending — or "proroguing" — Parliament is a cynical move designed to stop them scrutinizing his plans for Brexit.

But prorogation alone is not unusual. It happens at the end of each parliamentary cycle, which usually lasts one year. As such, many of the antiquated rituals performed by lawmakers and officials were to be expected.

The scene began with three advisers appointed by the queen telling another senior official, a woman named "Black Rod" — real name Sarah Clarke — to summon the House of Commons.

When she tried to get into the Commons, Black Rod was met with a shout of "Close the door!" and it was promptly slammed in her face. Don't worry, this is all part of the ritual. She then hammered on the door with her 3 1/2-foot rod, which is — yes, black — and decorated with a gold lion and and a gold orb.

After Black Rod was let in — well after 1 a.m. local time (8 p.m. ET) — this is where things started to go off script.

John Bercow, the colorful and loud speaker of the House, was marauded by lawmakers from the opposition Labour Party, who attempted to hold him in his seat and held up signs saying "SILENCED." This was a reference to Johnson's shutting down of Parliament, which they see as an undemocratic power-grab.

Seasoned Parliament-watchers had pointed out that if Bercow refused to move from his chair, Parliament could not be suspended. The chamber is a raucous place, but it's usually restricted to shouts of "shame" and other bizarre verbal outbursts.

So the sight of lawmakers having to be physically restrained by staff was rare if not unprecedented.

Lady Usher of the Black Rod Sarah Clarke walks with Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow from the House of Commons to the House of Lords during the ceremony to prorogue, or suspend, parliament.
Lady Usher of the Black Rod Sarah Clarke walks with Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow from the House of Commons to the House of Lords during the ceremony to prorogue, or suspend, parliament.UK Parliament via AFP - Getty Images

After a moment of suspense, Bercow did eventually rise and have his say. He noted, "This is not a standard or normal prorogation," and condemning it as "an act of executive fiat."

This was met with an uproarious response from ruling Conservative Party lawmakers, to which Bercow responded by repeatedly bellowing "I require no response from you." At one point he told one lawmaker that, "I couldn't give a flying flamingo what you think."

The Conservatives then left the chamber to chants of "shame on you" from the Labour benches. Bercow and others then marched to the House of Lords, where all the legislation passed this parliamentary cycle was read out.

Here's another quirk though: The clerk responded to each bill by saying, "La Reyne le veult" — which means "the queen wishes it" in Norman French. That's right, a centuries-old language that's still used because some procedures haven't changed much over time.

The whole thing would usually be wrapped up with some tipping of bicorn hats and handshakes, but not this year. Still sat in the House of Commons, some Labour lawmakers struck up a rendition of the socialist tune "The Red Flag," while Scottish and Welsh members rang out their own traditional tunes.

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