Written by: Martyn Bennett, Professor of Early Modern History, Nottingham Trent University
Queen Elizabeth II has consented to a request to prorogue parliament. It is clear that her chief minister, Boris Johnson, intends to compromise the protective bastion of British democracy.
For several centuries the residual powers still held by the monarchy have been used sparingly. For a long time, the British public has been able to comfort itself that these powers are generally dormant. But the decision to suspend the democratically elected House of Commons spells the end for complacency.
The move is a reminder that the UK is still a monarchy. True democracy is under very serious threat. If a government with a graphene thin majority can close parliament using monarchical powers to bypass the fact that it has not got the democratic mandate to attempt such an act, then democracy is doomed.
Former prime minister, John Major, Brexit campaigner, Gina Miller, and many MPs of most parties have made public their determination to prevent Johnson from closing parliament – a move, in their view, designed to drive through a no-deal Brexit.
And there is precedent that will give them hope. It was in early 2017 that Miller won the backing of the Supreme Court to ensure that the then prime minister, Theresa May, could not use monarchical powers to force through a Brexit deal without first getting the consent of parliament.
Murky powers and revolutions
The use of these prerogative powers, once exercised by a monarch to “get around” the tiresome practices of a democratic practice, have never been effectively repealed. They lurk behind the scenes until such an occasion as this and now reside in the hands of the executive. However, monarchs were enjoined to understand that they were used, even in the past, with extreme caution. When they were not, they could inspire dramatic and revolutionary reactions.
In March 1629, Charles I grew tired of a parliament which would not support financially, or otherwise, his disastrous and expensive foreign policy errors and ordered the dissolution of parliament. The MPs were so incensed when speaker John Finch announced the closure of the session, they promptly left their seats and sat on him. Holding him in the chair meant that he could not rise from his seat, and thus close the house. While he writhed under at least five members, the MPs passed a series of motions condemning the king’s policies.
It may well be that this should be considered a valid response to Johnson’s actions. On the other hand, as the current speaker, John Bercow, has called Johnson’s decision a “constitutional outrage” it seems unlikely that he will need sitting on. The closure of parliament in 1629 led to ten years of extra-parliamentary rule in England and Wales – known variously as Charles I’s Personal Rule or the 11 Years’ Tyranny.
The Scots rejected the king’s use of executive power in November 1638 when he tried to close down Scottish assemblies as well. No one was sat upon: this time his representative, the Marquis of Hamilton, tried to close the assembly by leaving the chamber. The door was locked against him: the key hidden. This time the meeting did not end: the king’s powers were severely dented.
When the Westminster parliament again met in 1640, it was because the Scottish crisis had led to two wars, both of which Charles I’s extra-parliamentary government lost and bankrupted. Despite again using his prerogative powers to close the first parliament of 1640 after just three weeks, it got worse. The second parliament called that year passed two acts intended to secure its position in the constitution. The Triennial Act of February 1641 ended a monarch’s right to summon parliaments: a later act prevented one from closing or proroguing a parliament without its consent. Were this still the case, Johnson would not be able to get a majority to back prorogation.
This act made it impossible for the king to use his prerogative power to prorogue or close parliament. Not surprisingly, the Edinburgh parliament had already done the same thing. With the breakdown in trust between parliament and the executive across the British Isles, revolution followed and the monarchy fell a few years later.
What’s French for ‘prorogation’?
It was not only in the British revolutionary period when the threat to elected houses from prerogative powers resulted in drastic action. It was clear by June in 1789 that France’s “parliament” the Etat Generaux, the first assembled since 1614, could not be controlled by the executive. Under the pretext of renovation works to the assembly building, King Louis XVI tried to prevent it from sitting. Members moved to a nearby tennis court and took an oath to stay together.
Although this predated the climactic seizure of the Bastille the following month, the decision to remain in session effectively limited the king’s power and sealed the fate of the French monarchy. It could be said that the Tennis Court Oath as a reaction to prerogative power was the real beginning of the French Revolution.
Alternative sessions and even locations for parliaments are not new – even Charles I established one during the civil war at Oxford, for example. Now MPs are raising the possibility that an alternative parliament will meet during Johnson’s “Personal Rule”. It may be staged in the Palace of Westminster itself as some MPs were suggesting that they, like their 1629 predecessors would remain defiantly in the house when the prime minister prorogues the Commons. And they may well have a figurehead in Bercow.
Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government.
Martyn Bennett has in the past received funding from the AHRC and the British Academy. He is not currently in receipt of any such funds.