A perpetual disturbance? The history of the previous question

After ‘chaos’ in the House of Commons on Monday night, our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the ‘previous question’ motion…

The confusion over the debate on Monday 10th November on the Criminal Justice and Data Protection (Protocol No. 36) Regulations 2014 – or on the European Arrest Warrant, depending on which view you take – has provoked headlines referring to ‘chaos’ or ‘a shambles’ in the Commons. Yet, as has been observed, chaos in the Commons is often a sign of politics working as it should do: vigorous argument not just on the usual party lines, but within parties and about issues on which many feel passionate about. The debate even more showed that complex issues of procedure matter deeply. In this case, the constant party battle in the Commons turned on the government’s ability to decide exactly the terms of a debate; and the opposition’s ability – through terminating that particular debate – to rob them of that advantage.

The unusual procedure which brought the debate to an end, the moving by Yvette Cooper of the ‘Previous Question’, a Motion ‘That the Question be not now put’, was justified with an argument that the motion on which the debate was taking place was the wrong one: the House should return to the business on the basis of a different motion. The Previous Question is one of the most cherished pieces of parliamentary arcanery, rarely used – though the last time was comparatively recently, only in 2009, it has only been moved three times in the Commons since the end of the Second World War. Its effect if passed, as no doubt everyone now knows, is to stop further debate on the business under debate and postpone the debate to another time; its effect if negatived, as it was on Monday, is also to stop further debate, but to make the House proceed immediately to a vote on the motion.

What’s the history of the previous question (if such a question is not philosophically impossible)? The eighteenth century clerk John Hatsell, who produced the first really systematic treatise on Parliamentary Procedure from 1776, wrote that the first instance he had found of putting the previous question was in a debate on 25 May 1604 (Hatsell, Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons, II, 104). The motion then, on a bill, was described in one of the two versions of the Commons Journal as being designed ‘to keep the Bill from the Question at that Time’. It was ‘agreed, at last, that a Question should be made, Whether the Bill shall presently be put to Question’. Surprisingly, there seems to be no instance of the device recorded in the House of Commons Journals for more than forty years afterwards. This perhaps explains why, in a debate of 1673, its invention was attributed to Sir Henry Vane, though it is not clear whether this was Sir Henry Vane senior – Charles I’s untrusted secretary of state in 1640-41 – or Sir Henry junior (1613-62) – one of the most able parliamentarian leaders in the early 1640s, central to the activities of the ‘junto’ as it slid into civil war with the king, a well-known free-thinker, eventually executed after the Restoration for his role in the execution of Charles I.

Certainly, the first time such a question appears to have been recorded is on 29 October 1641, in an intense and very angry debate, initiated by Oliver Cromwell, about whether to ask the king to delay the appointment of five new bishops. The same device was used a number of times over the following weeks, especially in the bitter debate over the printing of the Grand Remonstrance on 15 December, which not only ended in the use of the previous question, but also saw the introduction of a new device to attempt to stop debate – opposing a motion to bring in candles. There is no particular evidence of either Sir Henry Vane’s involvement in these events, but it is perfectly possible that one of them was involved.

Thereafter the ‘previous question’ became a stock device of parliamentary tactics, the usual resort of those who wished to avoid a division, perhaps because they had insufficient numbers to be sure of success, perhaps because they thought that they would be able to suppress a motion temporarily or for ever – a valuable weapon in a constant and restless battle for procedural advantage. Over the 1640s and 1650s it was used constantly, though with particular intensity in some years (64 times in 1649, which seems to have been its peak). After 1660 however its popularity seems to have diminished. To some extent this must have been a function of the fact that parliament met much less frequently in these years, but it was also perhaps an index of more stable politics (though even in the turbulent 1670s it was usually only used two or three times a year), and perhaps also dissatisfaction with its operation.

In the 1673 debate in which Sir Henry Vane was named as its progenitor (probably to discredit it), opposition voices were keen to delay a supply bill until they were more certain of government concessions. There were then differences over its effect: Sir William Coventry argued that it was just a way of adjourning the debate (and in practice the House); but Sir Thomas Littleton said that it had ‘always been the forerunner of putting the thing in Question quite out’. The Speaker complained that ‘No man can find any precedent of Sir Henry Vane’s Question’, and argued that its use meant that ‘we can never come to an end of any business – the Question in being may be the next day put, and so you usher in an impossibility of bringing things to a period’. It’s not quite clear what he meant, but Sir Robert Howard picked up the point and commented, in a reference to Vane the younger’s unattractive reputation to a Restoration audience, ‘This Question is like the image of the inventor, a perpetual disturbance’. Perhaps participants in Monday’s debate might have felt the same thing.


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