Back to Westminster for MPs this week! Our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the history of the parliamentary timetable…
It may be a warm October, but with the nights drawing in, the party conferences over and Parliament back, there’s still the feeling of the beginning of the autumn term. The October start of the political term is a routine that is part of the British political landscape, one of those elements of our mental calendar that seems almost immutable: it provides structure to political life.
Parliament’s meeting times used to be part of the structure of aristocratic London life, too, built in to the ‘London season’, the time into which key London social events were squeezed simply because the rhythm of Parliament’s meetings tended to determine the presence in London not only of the royal court, but a large proportion of the aristocracy and gentry, and, generally, their wives too. A journalist observed in 1844 that:
As a general rule, we may mention that the commencement of the London year is determined by the meeting of Parliament; that Parliament meets when the minister thinks proper; and the minister thinks proper as soon, and no sooner than he can safely postpone the meeting aforesaid. Grouse-shooting, in like manner, terminates Parliament and the season; the surplus talk of both Houses is bottled up for another session; as much business as can be huddled through both Houses is “lumped,” and “read a third time,” and “passed,” with astonishing rapidity; Parliamentary clerks, and gun-makers, are much hurried; and, about the beginning of August, the collective wisdom, their dogs, guns, and gamekeepers, set out together for the moors. [J. Fisher Murray, ‘The Physiology of London Life’, Bentley’s Miscellany xv (1844), 507]
As Fisher Murray wrote, the date of the assembly of Parliament after the summer could fluctuate considerably: it was a date of consuming interest to all of those involved, who would have to tailor their continental visits, local business and perhaps their London rentals accordingly. When it happened, it would usually mean a formal opening of Parliament, with all of the flummery of soldiers and heraldry, and a speech from the throne. In the days of Walpole, in the 1720s and 1730s, the King’s speech would normally be in January or early February, with the session brought to an early close in May or June – so a brief session of only around 5 months was normal. By forty years or so later, in the 1774 Parliament, the King’s speech had been brought forward, normally taking place in very late October or November, with the session drawing to a close in late May or early June, though occasionally extending to July. Fluctuating particularly wildly during the war years in the 1790s and early part of the nineteenth century, it settled in the 1820s into the routine that would last a century: a King’s or Queen’s speech in late January or early February, with a session lasting usually until early August.
Squeezing all the business in to that time was clearly getting more and more difficult: in the 1880s the date of prorogation – the end of the session – was creeping into late August, well beyond the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ of the beginning of the shooting season. In 1893 and 1895 Parliament was still meeting in September. Occasional emergencies – such as the extra session squeezed into late 1899 as a result of the beginning of the South African War, or the sittings required after the death of Queen Victoria – would disturb the pattern, as would general election dates; but it remained broadly consistent until the early twentieth century. Arthur Balfour’s decision to require the House to sit in the autumn of 1902 in order to complete the Education bill produced considerable dismay. There would be ‘spillover’ sessions in 1906, and 1908, and in 1909, the crisis year of the ‘People’s Budget’, there was no month except January in which Parliament did not meet. Meeting in the late autumn to finish off business before prorogation over Christmas and a state opening in January/February would thereafter become the normal pattern.
At least, that was the case until Stanley Baldwin, in his speech on the King’s speech on 8 February 1927, announced a change to the parliamentary year, telling the House that ‘it has for a long time past been borne in upon me that by far the best way of dividing the Parliamentary year is to begin the new Session in the late Autumn’. With growing demands for legislation, it was becoming impossible to squeeze all of the legislation in before the summer. Instead, by opening Parliament in the autumn he planned to get the Second Reading of the big Bills in the Government programme over before Christmas so they could be got into Committee in February, and for all of the main legislation to be passed by about the end of July or early August. In fact, it was not long before the House was back to having a short spillover session in the autumn before the opening of the new session – an indication that Baldwin’s hope that all the bills could be finished before the summer recess was already impractical.
With the addition of a short recall period in the middle of the party conference season in September there the annual timetable stood until 2010, when the government announced a shift from a late October or early November Queen’s Speech. Part of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act set the date of general elections henceforward, making it much more complicated than before (as we frequently hear these days) to hold a general election sooner than the statutory 5 years. The government introduced fixed-term sessions to complement it; to bring greater certainty to the parliamentary timetable, and to avoid a short final session in the run up to the May 2015 election.
So now, the connection between the autumn and a new political year, as well as a new school year, has been broken. Perhaps it goes with a greater sense of all year-round politics than there was in the past, and it’s been easy to feel this year with the narrowly averted leadership election for the Conservatives and the actual election for the Labour party, as well as the aftermath of the referendum, that politics has this year been with us all the time. But if the back-to-school feeling is no longer quite so acute as it was, there still persists that sense that politics is back on full power. Not long to Christmas!