A major part of any politician’s job is to cast votes on the important matters of the day. There are many ways of doing this, from electronic ballots to the roll call method used in the United States Congress. In the United Kingdom, Westminster has a particularly peculiar system, with an amusing side effect.
Votes in the House of Commons or the House of Lords are known as a division, with members dividing into “Ayes” or “Noes” (Content or Not-Content for their lordships). The moment a division is called, members have eight minutes, and not a second longer, to make it to the voting lobbies in person.
At Westminster, members of Parliament are alerted that a vote is taking place by a network of around 380 bells, similar to those found in schools. These bells are found mostly in the Palace of Westminster itself, or in the nearby buildings that house the offices of politicians. But what if the voters happen to be out of the office?
As votes are often preceded by several hours of debate, politicians can frequently be found in the lounges, pubs, bars, and restaurants around Westminster, especially if votes are expected to take place in the evening. As a result of this, several establishments maintain their own bells to ensure they don’t lose any business.
This can sometimes lead to the entertaining (or unseemly, depending on your point of view) sight of politicians quickly finishing their drinks upon hearing the bells and making a mad dash to Parliament to cast their vote.
An unsuspecting tourist visiting The Westminster Arms, The Red Lion, or the Marquis of Granby for a drink might be startled by the unusual alarms and attempt to evacuate, mistaking them for fire alarms, instead of British democracy in action.