“Oh, come on!”
“No, no, no, no. Order."
“Shame on you.”
These condemnations rang out in the House of Commons on Monday, a day that exposed the poison Brexit has injected into British politics. The commotion developed when Prime Minister Theresa May delayed a crucial vote on the agreement setting out the terms of her country’s withdrawal from the European Union, receiving a tongue-lashing for her decision.
The conflict climaxed when an opposition lawmaker stepped forth in protest and took hold of an ornamental mace.
Dating from the reign of Charles II in the 17th century, the silver-gilt staff symbolizes royal authority; without it, Parliament cannot meet or pass laws. The tradition of civic maces reaches back further, to the 13th century.
To some parliamentarians, the brazen attempt to remove the ceremonial object was an affront. A wrenching break from British values. A leap into the unknown. The offender, Lloyd Russell-Moyle of the Labour Party, was banished from the chamber.
The scene displayed the quirks of British tradition and historical self-perception. These traditions are at the heart of the strife over Brexit, whose advocates have peddled a nostalgic vision of a nation with renewed control over domestic affairs and greater dominance on the global stage — similar to President Trump’s promise of “America First.”
Britain joined the continental bloc in a moment of contraction, even humiliation, in 1973, as it continued to lose imperial holdings. The mace, by representing the monarch’s continued role in democratic life, offers a bridge to a British past that some observers see as a motivating force behind Brexit.
Now, the controversy over the expected withdrawal — in which few like May’s deal but fewer can come up with an alternative, and calls for a second referendum are dismissed by the government — brings with it new fears of humiliation. As Guardian columnist Rafael Behr observed last year, “Having gone to the trouble of voting to leave the EU, a change of heart would just be too awkward: like complaining about a haircut while still in the chair.” How unlike the British, for whom etiquette is all.
That’s partly why it was so shocking when Russell-Moyle, who represents a swath of the seaside town of Brighton, breached parliamentary etiquette during Monday’s fierce debate. He strode forward confidently, between the green leather benches where members sit, and headed for the Speaker’s Chair and the Table of the House, where the mace sits when parliamentary business is unfolding.
He opened his arms as he reached the table and brought his hands down on the silver-gilt ornamental club, which measures about five feet in length. The shape comes from the war-mace or club, though the object has grown increasingly decorative over time. The stem of the current iteration is chased with roses and thistles. The head is crowned and surmounted with an orb and cross.
Russell-Moyle lifted the mace and backpedaled, stopping briefly at the center of the House’s well to stare down John Bercow, the nonpartisan House speaker, who shook his head and raised his index finger to point, ordering the lawmaker to return the object.
Instead, the renegade Labour politician turned on his heels and headed for the Bar of the House, a white line that marks the boundary of the chamber. There, he relinquished the mace to Commons officials and was suspended for the remainder of the sitting. Initially, he refused to obey the order, prompting Bercow to order, “No, no. He must leave or be escorted.”
Later speaking to reporters, Russell-Moyle said the seizure of the mace was a “symbolic gesture,” made at the “spur of the moment” to protest the governing Conservatives riding “roughshod over the principle of parliamentary democracy.”
Lawmakers were incensed by May’s decision to delay the vote, a move that the embattled prime minister sought to justify by saying she needed more time to secure “reassurances” from Brussels that would satisfy members of the House of Commons. Without reassurances, she admitted, she didn’t have the votes to win approval for her deal.
“The government has lost control of events and is in complete disarray,” said Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party.
Russell-Moyle said Parliament had “given up its sovereign right to govern properly.”
But his protest had its limits, he acknowledged.
“They stopped me before I got out of the chamber, and I wasn’t going to struggle with someone wearing a huge sword on their hip,” he said, referring to the sergeant at arms, responsible for security and for various ceremonial duties, including carrying the mace to its proper place at the north end of the chamber.
Russell-Moyle’s stunt didn’t make him the first to remove the mace from its rightful place in the House of Commons. The decorative object has occasionally become an instrument of parliamentary protest, and an outlet for pent-up frustration.
In 1930, a member of the Labour Party was suspended from the House of Commons for seeking to leave the chamber with the mace after a fellow Labour member had been barred from “making a speech sympathetic in tone towards India,” as the West Australian newspaper reported at the time.
A Conservative lawmaker seized the object and held it over his head in 1976, during an emotional debate over nationalizing parts of the country’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries. In 1988, a Labour member went so far as to throw the staff to the ground, damaging it, in protest of a government proposal on taxes. He was ordered to pay £1,500 (almost $1,900) for repairs.
And in 2009, a Labour member was suspended for five days for lifting the mace as he railed against plans for a new runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, saying the decision not to have a parliamentary vote on the matter was a “disgrace to the democracy of this country.”
Russell-Moyle, the latest lawmaker to seize on the mace to signal the depths of his dissatisfaction with the democratic process, has also pushed the boundaries of parliamentary speech in other ways.
Last month, he announced that he was HIV positive during a debate on public health, becoming the first member of Parliament to disclose his HIV status in the House of Commons.
Saying his life had been saved by the right medication, he urged ministers to review looming cuts to sexual health budgets. But that topic is one of many, from the digital economy to housing and the National Health Service, that have taken a back seat to Brexit.