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Constitutional change the UK way (part 2)

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.

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There are good and bad aspects to this.

Good in that it is much harder for a PM to manipulate the financial cycle and go for election at an opportune time.

Bad in that you will get lame duck parliaments that simply limp on until finally put out of everyone's misery.

All in all I think it's a good reform.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Sep 28th, 2010 at 01:04:17 PM EST
Has the Government mooted any changes for the Lords?  It seems to me that if they're going to copy the Australians on the AV-elected lower house, they could at least copy the (moderately) PR upper house, too.  
by FoolsErrand on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 11:05:08 AM EST
No legislation yet on House of Lords reform, but it is on the agenda for later in the Parliament.

There is a committee currently considering options for legislation. It is technically a cabinet committee, but it includes some Labour representatives. Possibly some consensus will emerge, but if not I think Clegg has the drive to impose something.

2011 might be a suitable year to finally sort out the House of Lords. It has only been 100 years since the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 promised a permanent solution would be brought forward.

by Gary J on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 08:25:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have done some research. Clegg is hoping to have a bill ready in December, on House of Lords reform.
by Gary J on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 04:01:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The fact that the Prime Minister, in the "Westminster" system and its colonial derivatives, decides the date of elections is nothing other than a carry-over from royal prerogative, as you demonstrate, Gary. It is quite unjustifiable in the current political climate, because it arbitrarily accords this vital attribute of sovereignty to a mere chief of government.

As there is no prospect of handing this power back to the constitutional head of state, nor any realistic prospect of vesting it in an elected head of state, a fixed-term parliament is the only tenable position.

The vital question in a democracy is : does the government have the confidence of Parliament?  Arbitrary dissolution turns this question on its head.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 06:53:12 AM EST
It is right that the Prime Minister has inherited most of the prerogatives of the Crown. Hopefully fixed term Parliaments will reduce the power of the Prime Minister and help the House of Commons as a whole to recover more influence over the political agenda.
by Gary J on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 08:30:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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