History of Parliament Trust’s Annual Lecture: A Brief History of Parliamentary Time

Earlier this summer the History of Parliament Trust enjoyed their public annual lecture in Portcullis House, Westminster. This year’s speaker was Paul Seaward, British Academy and Wolfson Foundation Research Professor at the History of Parliament Trust. Below he offers a taste of his lecture about the power of time in the Parliament…

Time is inescapable anywhere, but a sense of time passing is oppressively insistent in the Palace of Westminster, whose most recognisable symbol is not just a clock, but the nation’s favourite timepiece, and which was dominated by one well before Big Ben existed. The past few months have reminded us constantly of a relationship between time and power in Parliament which, hidden in plain sight in Standing Order No. 14, rarely gets the attention it deserves until a crisis comes along to make its significance crystal clear.

The problem of finding time goes back to Parliament’s earliest existence. From a government’s point of view, Parliaments were a tedious and unpleasant necessity in order to get its hands on taxes, to be got over and done with as little fuss and as quickly as possible. From a Member’s point of view, Parliaments were an opportunity: to raise the grievances of or to secure special privileges for their communities, themselves and their associates; or simply to enjoy a moment in the sun of royal attention and the notice of the great.

Governments, as a result, generally had to tolerate with as much grace as they could muster members’ assumption of an absolute right to speak and to raise such issues as they felt necessary – the basis, by the eighteenth century, of a procedural system that placed so many obstacles in the way of achieving anything that it was remarkable that the House came to any decisions at all. That it did was probably because for most of the time only the government had the organisational capacity to ensure that its supporters turned up in the right place at the right time and did the right things; and because, again, for most of the time, there was an acceptance that the government should take a leading role. The government was, in the eighteenth century, essentially in control of the time of the House, but by deference, consent and gentlemanly arrangement, rather than because of any formal rule.

That changed in the nineteenth century. Part of that was down to the inexorable rise in the amount of business it dealt with, the result of the unions with Scotland and (especially) Ireland, an expanding empire, a growing state and an apparently insatiable appetite for private legislation. But a good deal of it was because those eighteenth century assumptions were breaking down. Creative campaigns for parliamentary reform, for the abolition of slavery, for the removal of the income tax, and many others, often linked to powerful external movements, took advantage of the fact that there were, essentially, no rules governing exactly how the House used its time. The result was that the management of government business became impossible.

It took almost a century for the problem to be overcome, for even ministers, exasperated though they could be by the amount of time and effort they wasted in the annual struggle to get their legislation through the House, were deeply reluctant to change the basic principles on which the House operated. Instead, it was addressed piecemeal, with the government reserving specific days throughout the session for its own business: the basic assumption that the government had a right to get its business through meant that, despite grumbling, the House usually accepted. But as the number of days increased, the result was the effective colonisation of more than four fifths of the time available.

Major change to the procedures of the House governing time is usually attributed to the crisis over the disruption of business by Irish members in the 1870s and 1880s. That certainly brought a swathe of new and important rules, including the closure and the guillotine. But in some ways the more significant innovations came in 1896 and 1902: for in those years the Conservative leader Arthur Balfour introduced a new and more systematic way of organising the business of the House, with the lion’s share of the time formally reserved for the government by Standing Order, rather than arranged ad hoc throughout the session. A number of Members saw in it both a threat to the basic principle that it should be possible for Members to raise the concerns of their constituents as and when they needed to, and the influence of Joseph Chamberlain, the charismatic leader of the Conservatives’ coalition partner, the Liberal Unionists. Chamberlain had made his name by developing the caucus as a way of using grass-roots organisation to put pressure on the central party leadership, and this interest in party democracy spilled over into an impatience with Parliament and its capacity to block or to delay legislation for which a government considered it had a mandate. Supporting Balfour’s reforms in 1902 he put the argument forcefully:

I believe that the people who elect the majority of the House have a right to see that that majority has power to carry out what is ex hypothesi the will of the majority of the nation; our elections and our representative system are a perfect and absolute farce if with one hand you pretend that the majority elects a Government, and then with the other hand prevent that Government from doing its proper work.

The argument had become a claim couched in democracy: that a single general election should give the government the right to overcome any obstacle to its legislative power.

The Standing Order approved in 1902 is now, though much amended, Standing Order No. 14, the basis of the way the business of the House of Commons is now organised. Still seen as ensuring that the government has an iron grip on the great majority of the time of the House, leaving private members with few opportunities to initiate significant business, it is the chief obstacle in the way of those who have in recent months been keen to ‘seize control of the order paper’. Some have seen it as a basic principle of the British constitution; others have seen it as an abuse of fundamental parliamentary rights. Both views have something to support them, for the British parliamentary tradition has tended to be fiercely defensive of Parliament’s rights in principle, but often deferential to the executive in practice. Whichever it is, it has proved a formidable element in the government’s ability to manage the House.


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