The rules governing UK parliamentary procedure, not surprisingly, don’t often get much public attention. However, some of the recent decisions by Speaker Bercow serve as an important reminder that the practices of the past can have an important bearing on modern politics. In the absence of a written constitution, political history continues on occasion to have a special relevance in British public life.
One striking example of this is the convention that the same question cannot be put again and again within a parliamentary session. The origin of this might seem obscure, stemming as it does from the early 17th century power struggles between the Crown and the Commons. By the Victorian era, however, it had evolved into an underlying principle of the British parliamentary system, shaping political strategies and enabling the Commons to deal with an ever-increasing amount of business. So much of what the Victorian Commons achieved – from overseeing the creation of Britain’s modern infrastructure to major constitutional and democratic reforms – would not have been possible without this key convention in place. Perhaps more controversially, a great deal of political manoeuvring that took place during this period often involved tactical use of this rule to block the plans of opponents.
Significantly, when Thomas Erskine May (1815-86) published the first of his famous series of books on parliamentary procedure in 1844, he devoted an entire chapter to this regulation. The rule is ‘necessary’, he explained, ‘in order to avoid contradictory decisions’ and ‘afford proper opportunities for determining’ questions. ‘If the same question could be proposed again and again’, he declared, ‘it would be resolved first in the affirmative, and then in the negative, according to the accidents or the tricks to which all voting is liable’. (Click here to see the original 1844 chapter)
Because the convention was so widely understood, it rarely warranted commentary from the Speaker. When it did, however, the message was unequivocal. A typical incident occurred in 1840, when John Easthope MP, the Liberal owner of the Morning Chronicle newspaper, tried to bring in a bill to exempt Dissenters from being forced to pay local church rates. This was a highly charged issue, touching on the constitutional relationship between the Established Church and the British state. Easthope’s plan involved Dissenters making a declaration of their faith. However, it was ruled out of order by the Speaker, Charles Shaw Lefevre, on the grounds that six months earlier another bill had proposed giving Dissenters exception certificates. The details may have been different but in the Speaker’s view the ends amounted to the same thing. As he explained:
It appears to me, that these two questions are substantially the same; and as the House is aware, that according to the rules, the same question cannot be twice entertained in the same session, I apprehend that they will be of opinion, that I cannot now put this question.
As Erskine May later noted, ‘a mere alteration of the words of a question, without any substantial change in its object, will not be sufficient to evade this rule’.
Bypassing the same question rule, however, has always been possible. In 1845 a series of related motions on the surveillance activities of the Post Office were allowed by the Speaker, because their form varied ‘sufficiently’ for them to ‘constitute a new question’. This ruling helped to confirm the discretionary powers of the increasingly important institution of the Speakership on these and other procedural matters in the Victorian period. It has also always been the case that the Commons can vote to lay aside or modify the rule for a particular issue. In more recent times, for example, this tactic was used to facilitate the proceedings on reforming the House of Lords.
Ultimately there is the option of starting a new session by proroguing Parliament. This has not been resorted to often, and usually only during moments of constitutional crisis. It was famously deployed to break the political deadlock over the Whig ministry’s ‘Great’ Reform Act, after the Lords defeated the second reform bill in October 1831. In this case the prorogation lasted for seven weeks. In theory, however, a prorogation can be far shorter. In 1721, for example, Parliament was prorogued for just two days in order to enable bills relating to the South Sea Company to be introduced.
For more on Speakers of the House of Commons throughout parliamentary history see: