by Gary J
Tue Sep 28th, 2010 at 10:27:58 AM EST
The next installment of constitutional change, coming down the Westminster cart track, is the ''Fixed-term Parliaments Bill". The bill was introduced on 22 July 2010 and was approved, on 2nd reading, on 13 September 2010. It awaits the committee stage, before a committee of the whole house (of Commons).
(For details see below)
First a little history. The Parliament of England originally sat for as long or short a time as the King wanted. Typically a Parliament assembled, grumbled a bit about royal misdeeds (petitioned for a redress of grievances) and then grudgingly authorised some taxes to pay for the latest war with Scotland or France. This usually took a week or two and then everyone could go home.
By the seventeenth century things had developed. Parliaments either proved very unhelpful to the King and were dissolved quickly (like the first Parliament of 1640) or were entirely subservient to the Crown (like the Cavalier Parliament elected in 1661) and were kept in being for many years.
A King who was not getting sufficient deference from a series of Parliaments could just not call one (as King Charles I did for eleven years before he really needed some taxes to pay for a war with the Scottish covenanter rebels). Unfortunately the first Parliament the King called in 1640 was just as unhelpful as those in the 1620s and the second Parliament of 1640 was the Long Parliament (which eventually fought the Civil War against the King).
After the Glorious Revolution of 1689-90 it was decided to pass a law so that Parliaments met at least once every three years and that the maximum term of a Parliament was three years from the date it was first summoned for (specified in the writ of summons, the official instruction to hold a general election).
The monarch retained the power to dissolve Parliament before it expired and in practice no Parliament of England, Great Britain or the United Kingdom has ever been left to expire (although a few Parliaments like that of 1959-64 came within a week or so of doing so).
The resulting law was known as the Triennial Act and long afterwards was given the official short title of the Meeting of Parliament Act 1694.
The period of triennial Parliaments led to something known as the rage of parties. Frequent elections and the need to spend large sums to buy votes, made the political class unhappy as it was difficult to recoup the expense however many sinecure offices were handed out to deserving government supporters.
Eventually the Septennial Act 1715 increased the maximum term for a Parliament to seven years. This helped cement the control of the Whig supporters of the Hanoverian Kings as well as giving more opportunities for corrupt politicians and fewer for corrupt electors.
More time passed. Victorian killjoys cleaned up the political system and successive Reform Acts expanded the electorate.
The Parliament Act 1911 reduced the maximum term of Parliament from seven years to five (where it has remained ever since, apart from extensions to the Parliaments sitting during the two world wars).
The new legislation provides for the next general election to take place on 7 May 2015. Subsequent regular general elections would take place on the first Thursday in May every five years.
The royal power to prematurely dissolve a Parliament is to be abolished, but the Prime Minister would be able to change the fixed date by plus or minus two months, by an Order in Council.
There are two situations in which an early general election could be called.
The first would be if a motion of no confidence was passed and no alternative government is found within 14 days.
The second trigger for an election would be a vote by two thirds of the members of the House of Commons calling for an early general election.
The next regular general election, after an early one, would be five years after the last first Thursday in May before the early election.