Why the British House of Commons is more interesting to watch than the US Congress

When you watch proceedings of the British parliament, you cannot help but notice how all the MPs are seated very close to one another, most apparently without designated seating, This level of proximity can lead to situations where an MP can notice, as happened recently, that the member next to them was watching pornography on their phone. The seats are in sets of rows facing each other with the two front rows just 13 feet apart. The Speaker sits on a raised throne between the two rows, looking straight down the center aisle. This arrangement lends a certain intimacy to the proceedings and gives the sense of a real debate going on with people from opposing sides alternating to pop up, hoping that the Speaker will call upon them to speak. In the US House of Representatives, it looks less like a debate and more like a series of speeches given from a central podium to a cavernous room.

What I also noticed is that when I have observed events that are of great interest, there is a cluster of people standing at the opposite end of the room from the Speaker, who seem to be just milling around. I wondered who they were and I now realize that they are also MPs who could not snag a seat because there are just 427 seats and there are 650 MPs, so only about two-thirds of the body can be seated at any given time.

How did that happen? I thought that it may be because when the chamber was first constructed the number of MPs was fewer and thus the seating was initially sufficient but got outgrown. That may have been the case way back when the Houses of Commons first came into being back in the 14th century and was subordinate to the House of Lords but since the 17th century, when the House of Commons became the premier legislative body, the number of MPs has not been fewer that 558 and since 1801 has fluctuated around 650 so you would think that they would have made it bigger.

Apparently there have been proposals to make the chamber large enough to accommodate all, a major push occurring in the aftermath of World War II. But Winston Churchill was among those who opposed that plan.

Despite its large membership, the chamber of the House of Commons seats only 427 persons. After it was destroyed by a German bomb during World War II, there was considerable discussion about enlarging the chamber and replacing its traditional rectangular structure with a semicircular design. Among those who argued against this proposal was Winston Churchill, who wanted overcrowding and maintained that a semicircular chamber

appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes.…A chamber formed on the lines of the House of Commons should not be big enough to contain all its members at once without overcrowding, and there should be no question of every member having a separate seat reserved for him. If the House is big enough for all its members, nine-tenths of its debates will be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty or half-empty Chamber.…[T]here should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency.

The chamber was rebuilt in 1950 to match its original size and shape.

So how does one conduct votes if so many MPs are standing around at one end of the room? This article explains the process.

Each item of business that MPs consider in the Commons – be they motions or pieces of legislation – is framed in terms of a question. At the end of a debate, that question is “put” by whoever is chairing the debate (usually the Speaker) to MPs.

At first, MPs indicate whether they agree or disagree by shouting “aye” or “no”, when invited to by the chair of the debate. If one side is clearly louder than the other, and it is clear what the position of MPs is, then the Speaker declares that either the ayes or the noes “have it” – in other words, that that particular side has won. This is known as voting “on the voices”.

But sometimes, if shouts of the ayes and noes are evenly matched, and it is not obvious what the position of MPs is, then the Speaker will call for a “division” – the parliamentary term for a formal vote.

Divisions involve MPs casting a vote by physically walking down one of two corridors on either side of the main Commons chamber: either the “aye” lobby or the “no” lobby. In this sense, the House literally divides.

The Speaker announces a division by shouting “clear the lobby”. A system of bells will ring across the entire parliamentary estate so that MPs who are not in the chamber but may be in other parliamentary buildings know there is a vote. MPs have eight minutes to make it to the lobbies to ensure that their vote will be counted. After eight minutes, the doors to the lobbies will be locked, and MPs will not be able to get in to cast their vote.

Meanwhile, the Speaker will put the question to MPs again, just two minutes after first putting it, to ensure that MPs still want to press the matter to a division. At this point, four tellers must be appointed. Tellers are MPs (usually whips) who stand in the division lobbies and count the votes. There are two tellers for the ayes, and two for the noes. If no tellers can be found for one side, they automatically are judged to have lost the vote.

MPs then walk through either the aye or no lobby, where their name is recorded by three clerks – members of the parliamentary staff. Once all MPs in each lobby have gone through and had their votes recorded, the Speaker is informed that the lobbies are clear.

The tellers then return to the Commons chamber and inform the parliamentary staff of the result. All four tellers line up at the table in the chamber, and then step forward to read out the result of the division to the House. It is convention that the tellers for the winning side stand on the left-hand side of the Speaker – meaning that even before the exact results are read out, it is possible to know which side has won.

I think that the smaller size is a good idea for the reasons Churchill gave. Of course, I only watch the proceedings in the House of Commons during major events and it may be that most of the time it too is largely empty as Churchill said and becomes a snooze fest. But the proceeding of the US Congress is almost never interesting. At its best, the House of Commons is far more interesting to watch than the US Congress at its best, with the Speaker sometimes struggling to control boisterous sessions. The former Speaker John Bercow was particularly fun to watch and became somewhat of a celebrity.

Here is a compilation of some of his efforts.

John Oliver also made a compilation of some of Bercow’s best put-downs.


  1. says

    Bercow’s neckties are kinda cool too, at least when we see a succession of them in compilations like this.

    Does anyone know whether any US broadcaster is still covering Question Time, and if so, when it’s on?

  2. garnetstar says

    I thought that the House of Commons was more interesting because they had Glenda Jackson delivering speeches in her Royal Shakespeare Theater voice and we had senator Dumb Inhofe throwing snowballs to prove that climate change doesn’t exist. But, I see that the room does make a difference. And it’s true that the sea of empty seats in the American chambers is depressing.

  3. Marja Erwin says

    If the house of commons is supposed to represent the commons, then it should be universally accessible. And crowded spaces can’t be univerally accessible, they’re crowded, and they’re often painfully loud, and they’re often full of movement.

  4. Jazzlet says

    @ Marja Erwin
    For starters you are making the common mistake of thinking that the House of Commons represents the commons . . .

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