I wonder if the reluctance to clap in the House of Commons goes back to a German tradition. Certainly, when attending University functions in Munich, the convention seemed to be to knock on the table, rather than applaud.

The SNP rebuke

Yesterday, John Bercow, the current speaker, made it very clear that clapping was against the traditions of the house ("the convention of this chamber is very, very, very long established" note the use of 3 "very's" in the absence of an effective adverb). He was responding to an outburst of support by the new SNP members for their leader Angus Robertson.

Bercow offered a deal - he would respect their wishes to speak in debates if the SNP, in return, were also to "show some respect". Odd, coming from a man who, himself, has ridden roughshod over so many parliamentary traditions.

In the commons, the tradition of waving order papers and tapping the bench, and shouting variations of "hear hear". When Tony Blair left the commons, there was applause. When Bercow himself was dragged to the speaker's chair, there was applause. When the clerk of the Commons resigned; there was also applause (from Labour) when Charles Walker spoke from the Conservative backbenches about being "an honourable fool (rather) than a clever man."

When did the rule begin?

While it is possible the clapping rule emerged under Hanoverian influence, it is also possible that it was a parliamentary reaction to what happened, on 16th October 1834, when the palace of Westminster burnt down. The fire had begun in the House of Lords during the afternoon. There was a low tide and the river fire engine could not get close enough to use its hoses until the fire had all but gutted the main buildings at 2am.

But great crowds had gathered on the bridges to watch the Parliament burn and the flames were even visible from Windsor Castle. One detail that is often omitted is that "there was clapping and cheering" from the crowd. It was a theatrical spectacle before the days of electricity, before even the days of limelight. Certainly before famous buildings were routinely floodlit.

Just for one night, then, as Parliament burned, the great Churches around Westminster were bathed in an eerie glow and huge shadows were sent up of the firemen rescuing the Parliamentary maces and what books they could possibly lay their hands on. It was awe-inspiring and fast. There was a frantic effort to save the 14th Century Westminster hall- "Damn the House of Commons - let it blaze away - but save, oh save the Hall!" cried the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The effect of the fire

The fire led to a number of things: the setting up of a National Archives in a Public Record office, the commission of a new building, which was built partly on a concrete pontoon so it was, in the future, more accessible to the river fire-brigade.

Barry and Pugin who got the commission both witnessed the fire at first hand, as indeed, did Charles Dickens (according to popular belief). But I wonder if the prohibition of clapping might not also date from the shock parliamentarians must have felt witnessing so many ordinary Londoners clearly enjoying what was in reality a terrible national tragedy.