The History of Parliament and The Evolution of Parliamentary Procedure - continued

The Evolution of Parliamentary Procedure

Last week I suggested that there was an observable rhythm in the evolution of Parliament; that over 7 centuries it had developed in accordance with a certain interior logic of its own; and that a vital part of this logic was the idea of representation, first to be seen in the gatherings of villagers at the shire moots of the 8th and 9th centuries. Representation, with its implication of democratic government, is indeed a dynamic and active element in the life of Parliament; but there is another, often considered the opposite, the force of tradition and precedent. Tonight in considering the growth of procedure in the two Houses, I would like to attempt some estimate of the nature of this second factor in the life of Parliament. In order to do this I shall discuss (though in outline only) the main elements in the work of Parliament: legislation, adjudication, debate and question time.


My starting point chooses itself, for its seems today obvious that Parliament exists to make laws. Some historians tell us, indeed correctly, that originally this was not so; and other writers suggest that reading bills is no longer the most valuable part of Parliament’s work; but it is undoubtedly a vital constituent of the sessional time-table; and the outcome, the Act of Parliament, is still a final determinant of national life.

The general picture of legislative procedure may quickly be summarised. A Member or Members introduce into one House or the other a complete text of a measure which it is desired to make law. This has 3 readings in each House; it is usually considered in Committee after 2nd reading and a Report is made by the Committee to the House. Amendments accepted in one House are submitted to the other; and, except under Parliament Act procedure, the bills need to pass both Houses, before becoming law by a ceremony of Royal Assent.

The first stage in the establishment of this traditional bill procedure may seem perhaps an obscure and remote affair; but it was of vital importance in the assertion of Parliament’s authority. Initially, let us say in the 13th century, there were no bills in our sense of the word, that is, embryo acts, but only petitions that such and such a thing be done. After discussion in Parliament, the King gave some sort of assent or dissent to the petition, sometimes couched in words which have come down the centuries to us today, such as ‘Le Roi le veult’. If the response were indeed favourable and the petition appropriate for a statute, Judges and other servants of the Crown were told to draw up the text of a statute that would give expression to the royal will. For two centuries therefore the law itself was usually, in some sense, made by the government, and not by Parliament. Then, the Commons objected In the reign of Henry V, in the first petition which has survived in English (and not in French) the Commons asked that from then onwards, when they petitioned for something, no Law should be made, ‘neither by additions or diminutions, by no manner of term or terms’ (the Commons, you see, were emphatic and wanted to leave the King no loophole) which would change the sense and intent asked by the Speaker’s mouth, or by the petition they had passed. King Henry V returned a vague answer to this, but between 1461 and 1509 what the Commons asked for came into being. Thus after some 2 centuries the Crown handed over to Parliament one of its most powerful rights, that of framing the exact and detailed terms of each law passed in Parliament. The conflict under the Stuarts would have been very much more uncertain in its outcome if the precedent had not been set in the late 15th century that Parliament should not only make the law, but should compose its exact text.

Today the passing of a bill entails 3 ‘readings’ of this text. For centuries, of course, certainly well into Elizabethan and Stuart times, the reading of the bill was literally a reading aloud. Sir John Neale tells us of a reading of the text of a subsidy bill in 1585 which occupied almost two hours, and he says ‘Very tedious these mornings would have seemed to us … especially when not enlivened by much debate; and even hardy Elizabethans, for whom time flowed more serenely, and prolonged listening was second nature, felt the tedium. They had no smoking room, no library, no room at all to which to retire and yet be on call. Inevitably, the man who bore the full drudgery of it all was the Speaker. He had no deputy, and sat in his chair six days in the week’.

The reading-over was done by the clerk, and when he had finished, the speaker taking the bill in one hand and his cap in the other, said ‘You have heard the bill, the contents whereof be these’. And it was then the Speaker’s duty to summarise the bill in order to help members fix the details in their minds. Some of the Speaker’s paper summaries, breviates or briefs as we call them, survive amongst the Parliamentary records from 1593-1714, and you may have seen one on display here. It became customary only towards the end of the 17th century for printed copies to be made of the bill. Then, both the habit of reading over the text, and, of preparing and reading out a brief, came to an end, but each practice has left its memorial in present day procedure. We still speak of the ‘readings’ of bills, and when a new bill is first printed there may appear at the head of it a section of ‘explanatory memoranda’ which does for the present generation very much what the Speaker’s brief did in Elizabethan days.

We are used to there being 3 readings and 3 readings only of each bill in each House. The use of 3 readings is known to have occurred during the 15th century, although in the 16th century (when the Journals give us more exact information about what happened) we find that in the House of Commons between 1547 and 1558 there were instances of 4, 5 or 6 readings, and of sending the bill to a Committee on any reading. During the reign of Elizabeth, 3 readings became established in both Houses. Sir Thomas Smith, the Elizabethan commentator on procedure, says quite explicitly: ‘All bills be thrice, in 3 diverse days, read and disputed upon, before they come to the question’. He adds that ‘the dispute must not include any reviling or nipping words; for then all the House will cry "it is against the order"’. These 3 readings, of course, represent, very fairly, 3 necessary stages in legislation: the introduction of a bill; the discussion of its general character; and the approval of its detailed and complete text.

The approval of the complete text of a bill which comes finally on the third reading must at some stage involve a clause by clause and line by line scrutiny of the bill. The value of the committee stage in which this is usually undertaken is nowadays generally appreciated. The fewer members and their right in Committee to speak more than once make for freer debate, and, incidentally, Parliamentary time is saved, in that since 1833 committees have been able to sit at the same time as the House.

A limited use of committees stretches back to the early days of parliament, perhaps back to 1340. Parliamentary committees, however, seemed to have been an unusual and occasional means of carrying on business. Sir John Neale describes committees under Elizabeth as being chosen only to consider amendments which had been already proposed. In other words, until about 1558, most bills were not sent to committee. Then the practice began to spread. The Speaker noticed in 1585 that individual members did not always welcome this. He said then when men were called to sit on committees ‘you think to please them, but they give you no thanks for your labour, for they are unwilling’. By 1600, however, practically every bill is being committed, and the committees themselves were increasing in size from 10 or so to 40, 50 or 60.

At about the same time, the House stumbled on a valuable new piece of procedure. In 1593 a large committee, presumably for convenience, had not retired to the outer room but had actually sat in the House, that is in St. Stephen’s itself. Then on 11 March 1607 the first true Committee of the Whole House of Commons sat, a committee being nominated at which ‘any of the House to be present, and every man present to have a voice as a committee’. By 1614 the Commons went into such a committee on the least occasion, and Committees of the Whole House became daily occurrences.

The general increase in the use of committees, and in particular the use of committees of the Whole House, were of great political importance. It was one of the ways by which the Commons won an initiative as against the Crown and against the Crown’s nominees, that is, against the Speaker of the House and the Privy Councillors. Whilst the House itself was dominated by the Speaker and the Privy Councillors, who sat in a tight group together at one end of St. Stephen’s, the Committees were never presided over by the Speaker – and under James I did not include many Privy Councillors. Committees therefore became, inevitably, important centres of anti-monarchical opinion; and were established as a vital element in Commons procedure. It should be added that Parliamentary Committees are not merely legislative, but are also used to enquire into general matters of public policy although, in the course of the last 100 years, they have been to some extent replaced by the use of Royal Commissioners and departmental enquiries. Today, the further extension of the Committee system is widely advocated, firstly to speed Public Bills by having committees for second reading debates; and secondly to enable Parliament, through the agency of specialised committees of the Commission, to increase its influence over the actions of the executive. This second purpose, most recently argued by David Coombes in his book The Member of Parliament and the Administration, thus returns to the original character of the Parliamentary committee as, in part, a device for gaining the initiative against the government.

From Committees, bills return to the House, and after they have had their third reading in both Houses, then await the Royal Response. It was by no means certain through most centuries of Parliamentary history that this royal reply would be favourable. The historic method of refusing was that the King said he would take advice about the bill, ‘le roi s’avisera’. This formula was spoken quite often. The last occasion on which it was used was when in 1707 Queen Anne refused to agree to a Scottish Militia Bill. (the constitutionally significant document containing this last use of ‘la reyne s’avisera’ is displayed tonight). Whether the royal reply was favourable or unfavourable, however, it was customary for it to be given in the actual physical presence of the monarch himself. It is said that King Henry VI was even brought by his nurse as a babe in arms to assent personally to a bill. This practice of royal attendance at the last stage in the making of a law continued uninterrupted until the year 1542. In that year a bill was prepared and passed for the attainder of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Queen Catherine Howard. This was in the days when the texts of bills were read aloud not only at the 3 main stages of legislation, but also at royal assent . The Lord Chancellor in 1542 told Parliament that a new method was to be adopted for the Attainder bill. King Henry would not be attending on this occasion ‘lest the repetition of so grievous a story, and the recital of so infamous a crime, in the King’s presence, might re-open a wound already closing in the royal bosom’. Instead, therefore , a number of peers were appointed by royal commission, to give the King’s assent to the bill, and this royal commission, signed by Henry VIII and bearing the waxen Great Seal hanging from it, can be seen here. It represents the first use of a device to save, not so much the royal feelings, as the royal time, which was increasingly used by the sovereigns, until under Queen Victoria in the years after 1854 it became habitual.

The ceremony of the Assent takes place in the Lords’ Chamber, a room more properly called the Parliament Chamber since it is here that Parliament as a whole, Sovereign, Lords and Commons, meets together; and the Commissioners for Assent have always been members of the Upper House. Here then is a specifically Lords, contribution to legislative procedure; are there any others? This is a difficult question to answer. It is a remarkable thing that new stages in procedure often appeared at the same time in each House, and it is not clear to which the credit should be assigned, as when, for instance, the custom of 3 readings became standardised both in Lords and Commons practically at the same time during Elizabeth’s reign.

It is possible, however, that the Lords anticipated the Commons in one of the crucial precedents – that of the whole House going into Committee. This came, as we have seen, in the Commons on 11 March 1607; but it has been pointed out by a recent writer that this had already happened in the Lords, for on 1 December 1606 the Lords went into a Committee of the Whole House and inscribed in their Journals quite explicit reasons for doing so; it was thought, they said, the best and readiest means for speed and it made for liberty: ‘every one may deliver his mind and meaning upon any point, as occasion may serve’; and it seems that in the Committee of the Whole House Peers in fact spoke out who would not have dared to do so in the House.

Summing up the development of bill procedure in both Houses, it can be said that whilst petitions – that is, the raw material for bills – are part of the aboriginal procedure of Parliament, much of the remaining procedure on bills evolved within the second period of Parliamentary history, between 1425 and 1605; the discussion of a final text instead of a petition; the set number of readings; regular use of varied types of committee; and the method of giving Royal Assent by Commission.

To the Clerk of the Records, may I add, the immediate physical outcome of the business of legislation has been the formation of a sequence of about 60,000 rolls and books, the ‘Original Acts’. Some of these are on display tonight, and you will see that until 1849 each act was handwritten on vellum. A short act perhaps only needed a single piece of vellum six inches in length; but acts got longer and longer, and the clerks sewed skin to skin until they made rolls of incredible length – some of the 18th century rolls are a third of a mile long, probably the longest documents in the world. Some of the Tudor acts bear the signature of the Sovereign, HENRY R, MARYE THE QUENE, and so on, but royal signatures cease after 1603, and the acts are guaranteed as the genuine text simply by the handwritten formula, ‘Le Roi le veult’, or its appropriate variation, written at the top, and by being kept in the care of the Clerk of the Parliaments. There are no seals. Parliament has never possessed a seal of its own, and the Great Seal of the Realm, kept at Westminster in the custody of the Lord Chancellor, is only affixed by him to the Commissions for Royal Assent and similar letters patent.

The awkwardness of handling these long Act rolls can be imagined; indeed, to re-roll them satisfactorily after students have consulted them, we have had to install a special electrically driven machine; but although the texts of bills were being printed for the use of Members from about 1700 onwards, the official copy of the bill had to be handwritten on skins for another 150 years. In part, this was the result of a tradition dating back to the earliest days; but it has been said that clerks who were paid so much per skin for writing the bills by hand, were reluctant to give up this simple but remunerative way of passing the day, and resisted change. At length, in 1850, the roll form was abolished, and since then the authoritative statute has been printed in book form. Continuing the ancient tradition, the Acts are still on vellum, and still with ‘La Reyne le veult’ at the head, though now with the signature of the Clerk of the Parliaments as an extra form of authentication at the end The care of these Original Acts in the Victoria Tower is one of the principal tasks of the Record Office. We preserve them firstly as master-texts from which printed texts can be corrected; secondly, as the sole existing texts of many thousands of private acts never printed, which form an important source for English history; and thirdly, as the texts from which certified copies are made and transmitted into courts of law all over the world. The majestic sequence of some 60,000 vellum acts is to us the backbone of the 2 million records of Parliament, and indeed of all the public records of the realm.

From legislation and its records, I would like to turn to what is a less well-known aspect of the work of Parliament, the exercise of judicial functions concerning the population at large, functions vital to the parliaments of the 13th century, and today vital to the whole English legal system, though to the public so little known that I imagine visitors are extremely surprised as they walk from the Peers’ Lobby on some mornings into the Chamber of the House of Lords to find counsel in wig and gown pleading at the bar about some complicated financial fraud, a collision at sea or some other type of civil litigation. They may have been still more surprised during a period earlier in this year after the Dissolution – when no Parliament was in existence at all – to find Peers actually sitting to perform judicial functions in this way.

The history of this form of Parliamentary activity has a special significance in that it witnesses to an important stage in the conflict between King and Parliament. The modern jurisdiction of the Lords originated in the reign of James I. The ordinary Judges of the land in Westminster Hall, the Commons then felt, were too subservient to the Crown. In 1621, therefore, the House sought to do two things, one, so it turned out, successfully, the other unsuccessfully. The first was in accordance with mediaeval precedent. In February, 1621, they impeached before the House of Lords Sir Giles Mompesson for extortions and other exorbitant behaviour as the holder of a royal grant of monopoly of silver and gold thread manufacture. The Lords very willingly exercised long disused powers, and eventually sentenced Mompesson to degradation from knighthood, imprisonment for life, and a heavy fine. This as we saw last week, was the beginning of a sequence of many impeachments by the Commons, ending with that of Lord Melville in 1806. I am showing an example of one of the articles of impeachment brought up by the Commons to the Lords which led to the still more famous, indeed the notorious trial of Warren Hastings in the eighteenth century. Impeachment served its turn, in this and other instances, as a convenient method by which Parliament could displace over mighty subjects, including amongst them, the King’s ministers although it was not, however, a method for constant use.

The second but unsuccessful attempt of the House of Commons in 1621, was to obtain for itself a means of dealing judicially with lesser men. In1621, for the first time in the history of Parliament, the House of Commons claimed a direct criminal jurisdiction over men at large and the right to exercise without the help of the House of Lords. They summoned to the Bar a man called Edward Floyd and accused him on a criminal charge of seditious speeches. James I’s strong and historically justified objections to these actions led to the Commons abandoning the case to the Lords – though losing it themselves, yet preserving it for the Parliament. The ultimate result was the revival and indeed the extension of the Lords’ judicial power, so that from then to the present day the Lords have heard appeal cases, though mainly of a civil rather than a criminal type, from lower courts. Their decisions have done much to shape English law, and incidentally have contributed vast series of records to the Victoria Tower, a recent example of which I am showing tonight.


So far, in dealing with legislation and adjudication, I realise that I have not mentioned directly what the public mainly associates with Parliament, and what critics today, friendly and unfriendly, increasingly regard as its main purpose – to act as the Grand Debate of the Nation and to exercise in debate a supervisory role over national life. The word, debate, is from ‘debattre’, French for ‘to fight’. Fights need rules, and I would like now to say a little about the rules of the Parliamentary fights in the Commons. Parnell, as you may remember, was once asked by a new member how he could learn the rules – ‘By breaking them’ was the prompt reply of that great rule-breaker. But there are other ways. Since the reign of the first Elizabeth there have been little books on procedure; not represented by our vast and learned treatise originally compiled by Thomas Erskine May, Assistant Librarian of the House, in 1844, and now in its 17th edition. Herbert Morrison once described it as ‘This great, and valuable, changing, and living volume’ – he thought it so persistent and powerful in its influence in the House that he sometimes felt ‘that the ghost of Erskine May was floating above the Speaker’s Chair and the Clerk’s Table’. One of the first of May’s predecessors as an expert on procedure was William Lambarde, the historian of Kent and Keeper of the public records – a fellow archivist I am proud to recall. I would like to read quickly to you what Lambarde gives as the four principal Orders to be observed in debate by Members in Elizabeth I’s reign. You will see how close they are to today’s rules. The first deals with the actual choice of a member to speak. He says:

‘If two persons shall arise to speak, the Speaker must appoint him to speak first that arose and offered to speak.’

The ‘Speaker must appoint’, you notice, deprives the Speaker of any choice. In 1844 Erskine May described the ‘general voice of the House’ as being in a position to change the Speaker’s decision; since 1863, however, the decision has rested with Mr. Speaker alone.

Secondly, Lambarde says:

‘One man may not speak twice to one bill in one same day, although he will change his opinion, except it be only for the moving of some order’.

This obviously wise provision in an assembly of several hundred members has been continuously observed ever since, apart from a few modifications. Nowadays, of course, a misunderstanding may be explained; in certain cases a reply can be made at the end; and, of course, as we have seen, in committee the restriction on speaking twice is removed.

Our Elizabethan commentator thirdly directs that:

‘Every man that will speak must direct his speech to the Speaker and not to any other person, neither may he name any other person but only by circumlocution, as by saying, "He which spake with the bill" or "He which made this or that reason" ’.

(Bowyer in 1607 tells us that names were not even used in Divisions ‘lest the names should be shewed to high persons and so some particular members might have displeasure’). This cautious Elizabethan and Jacobean habit of avoiding precise identification lasted perhaps a century; but in 1844, Erskine May, no doubt following Onslow, allowed members the custom which still prevails, to name other members by the office they hold, or the place they represent.

Lastly, Lambarde refers to what might be called ‘Explosion time’ – Speaker Peel as you may remember, said that in the House passions are strewed about the floor like gunpowder, and though every reasonable precaution is taken as in powder factories, yet now and then an explosion will occur. Explosions in Elizabethan as in Victorian times were matters for Mr. Speaker. Lambarde says that if any Member refers to other members with nipping or unreverent speeches, the Speaker may admonish him. He is to ‘admonish’; yet he is not to stop him. No one could stop an Elizabethan speech unless it contained treason. We read that ‘If any speak too long, and speak within the matter, he may not be cut off; but if he be long, and out of the matter’ he may be admonished, as he also may when he ‘ranges in evil words’. In the 18th century, Speaker Onslow, and Hatsell, Clerk of the House, formulated more precise restrictions on debate (summarised by Erksine May in 1844). Thus, a member, by then, was restricted in a number of new ways: he could not refer to prior debates of that session; nor allude to debates in the Lords; nor speak offensively of Parliament and its proceedings. Disorderly words could be taken down; and Members in extreme cases could be disciplined not only by the traditional reprimand, but also by commitment. It was only in 1877 – and then on account of the Irish Nationalist campaign – that one of the most powerful disciplinary weapons was forged. In that year under Mr. Speaker Brand an addition was made to the penalties, the punishment of Suspension from the House, a punishment which had until then only been used exceptionally, on a few occasions in the 17th century - quite a remarkable fact when one considers the revolutionary passions moving the House during that century.

The story of Order in the Lords shows more differences from Commons procedure than appeared in legislative procedure. To begin with, rules of order were completely codified at a far earlier date in the Lords; the roll of Standing Orders in the Lords was drawn up in 1621 whereas a full code does not appear in the Commons until the 19th century. Secondly, the Lords have never sought to have a chairman regulating business in the same sense that Mr. Speaker presides over work of the Commons. The Lord Chancellor sits on the woolsack, he adjourns the House, he puts the Question, but he does not preserve order; the Clerk at the Table reads out the Orders of the Day and also calls those who have Questions to ask. Thus the Chancellor shares responsibility with the Clerk, and the late Lord Jowitt said that he and Sir Henry Badeley, the then Clerk of the Parliaments, were like a couple of tick-tack men, signalling to each other across the Table.

The final control, of debate in the Lords, I should add, is by the House itself . Any Peer can rise to object to what is happening as contrary to Standing Order, or to decency, and move that a Peer be no longer heard, a motion last moved and accepted in 1960. Or, a rather milder measure, any Peer can have the Order against asperity of speech read – and this was last done in 1950.

In general, as may be assumed from this, order in the Lords has not presented a serious problem; the House historically was far smaller than the Commons – with only 85 members in 1600 as against 450 or so in the Lower House; its sittings have been shorter; and there has never been an organised body of relentless opposition such as the Irish Nationalists once were in the Commons.

Debate normally finishes with a Division. A Division is a physical dividing of the House, in which two parts of it move in different directions. This did not occur in the Middle Ages. Then there were only Votes, when Peers stood up and declared their vote, and Members of the Commons sitting in the House shouted their Ayes or Noes and their voices were weighed by the Speaker. The physical division as we know it, subsequent on the taking of voices, seems only to emerge between 1532 and 1554. It may be that the physical division of the Commons into two groups for the purpose of voting was made possible by the House of Commons’ change of accommodation. When, for instance, they were all in the Chapter House of the Abbey there was no adjacent Chamber into which the Ayes or the Noes could go. Only when in about 1550 the Commons moved into St. Stephen’s did they acquire space to divide. One side then stayed in St. Stephen’s Chapel. The other went into the outer ante-chapel.

By the end of the 16th century this form of Division is well-established, and is described by the commentators. Finally, when two adjacent lobbies became available in 1836 the present system by which both Ayes and Noes leave the Chamber was arrived at. (May I add two footnotes about Divisions. When the noting down of those taking part in Divisions also began in 1836, Members greatly disliked it, and tried to edge past anonymously; and, until 1906, Members present were forced under penalty to take part in every Division; to abstain was an offence).

In general however, there have been few changes in the basic rules of debate since the days of Elizabeth I; what is new and important is the modern practice of publicity. Debate within parliament originally was secret. What had been said in the mediaeval House of Lords was as secret as what had been discussed in the Council Chamber or what is today said in Cabinet. Commons’ debates were, if anything, still more secret. When the formal House records start in the 16th century, it can be seen from the MS Journals that are shown here tonight that the Clerks of both Houses contented themselves with listing business done, and particularly, bills read. At first, no words uttered by Members appeared in the Journals. So long as conclaves remained secret, Kings admittedly were kept at arm’s length, but so were the communities at large, democracy itself.

However, confidence grew under Elizabeth. The recently discovered Journal of Fulk Onslow (which I also have here tonight) shows him not only summarising speeches but making such personal remarks of his own as ‘Much talk and to no purpose’ of Mr. Snagge’s Speech; and, of the Recorder of London’s discourse; ‘A long and tedious talk nothing touching the matter in question’. And from 1581 onwards, brief summaries of debates, though without rude comments, appear in the Commons’ Journals. As Crown and Members clashed, however, this became dangerous, and eventually in 1628 the Commons ruled that ‘the entry of the Clerk, of particular men’s speeches, was without warrant at all times, and, in that Parliament, by Order of the House, rejected’. A little later, Sir Edward Dering summed it up: ‘he did not dream we should tell stories to the people’. This remained the rule for the Commons, and indeed also for the Lords, from then onwards for nearly 2 centuries. But there were Members busily jotting down notes; and also members of the public extremely anxious to find out what was going on. A slight concession from the House came during the Popish Plot scare in 1680 when Votes and Proceedings were first ordered to be printed and issued to the public. This publication was, however, somewhat dry fare, and the Commons did not face the issue of ‘letting the public know’ until 1738. Opinions were then mixed. Wyndham thought the public ought to be able to judge of the merits of their representatives; but Pulteney refused to be made accountable without doors for what he said within; and Walpole was certain that if speeches were published no Member would be safe against misrepresentation. The House then decided to condemn publication as a breach of privilege. Any account of debates which appeared in the monthly or quarterly magazines thereafter had to be disguised with fictitious names. They appear in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ as ‘Debates in the State of Great Lilliput’, for instance. The House was, however, behaving very much like Mrs. Partington, and the ocean waves could not be swept away. In 1771 the House failed in its attempt to prevent Wilkes publishing reports, and explicit accounts then began to appear in the daily papers. In 1803 reporters were assigned a bench in a gallery – and Cobbett began the series of contemporary reports which were taken over in 1812 by T. C. Hansard. Eventually, in 1908, these became verbatim, and a dominant feature of each of our Libraries is the massive series of some 1,500 volumes of Hansard’s Debates.

Today, we seem to be moving forward to publication by television, but even today none of the 1,500 volumes of Hansard can be found amongst the official records of Parliament in the Victoria Tower, and still, to this day, papers presented to the Commons, unless ordered to be printed, remain secret and inaccessible to the public, although duplicate copies presented in the Upper House are available to anyone interested. Here is historic testimony both to the ancient fear that the Crown might proceed against individual members of the Commons, and to the equally ancient insistence of the Commons’ right of free speech.


I have spoken of the House as the grand debate of the nation; and I cannot leave this aspect of Parliament without referring to what has become for many the most lively and effective part of the grand debate: the daily Question Time. This, unlike so much else in Commons’ procedure is almost a modern invention. The very idea of one Member asking another Member anything even indirectly through Mr. Speaker, would have been regarded as an abomination in Elizabethan Parliaments. It was mere ‘conversation;’ and, as such, disorderly. It remained so for a long time. We are often told that Questions began in the Lords with Earl Cowper asking a question in 1721. Cowper was certainly an innovator – he wrote a book in favour of polygamy – but it is doubtful whether his single question was a very effective precedent. In the 18th century, in fact, one did not need to ask specific questions, standing on their own and not related to motions or ‘questions’ in the technical Parliamentary sense. There were so many opportunities for slipping in demands for information, or criticisms of current activities of the government. Every order of the day had to be moved, and amendments could be proposed of the widest irrelevance. Adjournment could be moved almost at any time and for any reason. Every time the House went into committee a motion was needed and any issue could be raised. And in the Commons, as still today in the Lords, motions were often made for papers on any subject. In other words, in the classic days of the Commons, any crucial matter could be introduced by an Member practically at any time,. As the pressure of business grew, however, these opportunities became limited. It was, you may remember, only in the 19th century that Parliament began to work hard, continuously, through long sessions. Time then began to be valuable, and business had to be simplified and hastened. From 1848, Orders of the Day ceased to need motions being put. From 1882 all debate on delaying or dilatory motions had to be relevant. And so on. The private Member under Queen Victoria was (perhaps inevitably) losing his remarkable freedom to raise almost anything at any time.

But he was not entirely without the sympathy of authority. Governments perhaps had always objected to the random character of the old system and themselves may have preferred to have questions directed at their Ministers at stated times, under clear rules, and with greater brevity than in debate. Mr. Speaker in 1783 had agreed that a Member had in principle a right to ask a question, and a successor in 1848 said that he thought questions were ‘convenient’, as they did away with the need for specific debates. And questions, so encouraged, increased in number. In 1835 they had begun to appear on the Order paper: in the 1870s the Speaker began to allow supplementaries by any Member; and in 1886, to bring a little more organisation into an exciting business, notice had to be given of all the Questions Something very much like the present system had come into being, and by the end of the century Questions amounted to over 5,000 a year.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the backbencher was to acquire for Questions what was in practice something like first place in the daily timetable. Originally questions had been asked merely at ‘convenient times’; but in 1849 questions on the notice paper were grouped together as the first item, under the heading ‘Notices of Motions’. Questions were then unlimited in number; and in the days of the Irish Nationalists they seemed to be getting out of control, holding up the main business of the day for hours. Joseph Chamberlain in 1901 saw them as a menace, directed by a small group of men, who insulted and outraged the House and aimed at dominating the majority. Arthur Balfour joined, more mildly, in the criticism; to him. Questions were becoming ‘something of a scandal’. The House agreed, and adopted a resolution proposed by him, that Questions, though still being taken before public business, should only occupy 40 minutes a day. A slight change in 1906 altered this limit in practice to between 45 and 55 minutes. Question Time as it is known and appreciated today had arrived.

And so, with the appearance of Question Time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Parliamentary programme virtually became complete. I would add, as a footnote, a brief comment on the daily timing of this whole programme.

Originally both Houses of Parliament had followed the practice of the courts of law and had met during the hours of daylight, starting as early as possible. Elizabethan Members came to the House at 8 in the morning and sat until noon, the hour of dinner. Committees in both Houses sat either before – at dawn in fact, at 6 or 7 in the morning – or, alternatively, in the afternoon. James I was not entirely unreasonable in condemning the great Protestation of 1621 as irregular because it had been debated by candlelight. But as more and more lawyers sat in the Commons in the 17th century, the clash of time with the sitting of the law courts in Westminster Hall was felt to be increasingly annoying. Sometimes sittings therefore took place in the afternoons, and between 1600 and 1718 ‘closing time’ had been advanced from noon to 2, 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Then in 1718 it was decided that no special motion would be needed to bring candles in – the Serjeant at Arms when ‘daylight be shut in’ was to bring candles automatically. Morning sittings ceased and by 1832 the House began as late as 4 p.m. and habitually sat through the night.

If Elizabethan Parliaments were affairs of the dawn, Victorian were of the night – indeed Townsend remarked in 1844 that to adjourn at midnight was a real realease. By 1900, however, a contrary movement had begun. The sitting was put back to 2 o’clock, and morning sittings were re-introduced for the first time for 2 centuries – at first, on Wednesdays, then instead, on Fridays, as today, and all night sittings, although remaining a feature of Parliamentary life, mercifully became a relatively infrequent one.


In these two lectures I have tried to outline the great stages in the evolution of Parliament and to pinpoint the origin of some of the elements in its every-day life most familiar to us. One conclusion is obvious: that what Parliament does today is the result of trial and experiment extending over many centuries, going back certainly to the readings of petitions in the 13th century and to the Commons’ winning of a financial initiative in the 15th century, but deriving some of its most marked features from the period of conflict under James I and Charles I.

The historic past is therefore a pervasive influence at Westminster; on occasion indeed it has seemed inhibiting. The attitude of Parliament to the invention of printing, for instance, as we have noticed, penetrated Westminster slowly. Bills continued to be read aloud for centuries after it had become possible to supply members with printed copies; and only in 1849 was it thought suitable to have the final Act in print instead of in handwriting. Yet in great matters, Parliament has shown a far greater readiness to modify or transform the custom of ages. By resolution in the House, by the formulation and codification of decisions by Mr. Speaker, and in other ways, Parliament has been able to adapt itself to new circumstances. The ceremony of Royal Assent by commission was an ingenious invention in the 16th century, wholly breaking with the Parliamentary precedents of 300 years, and incidentally (but not intentionally) marking a stage in the withdrawal of the Monarch from the active life of Parliament; the idea of a committee of the whole House in the following century gave Parliament additional freedom at a crucial moment; the new challenges both of business and of obstruction 80 years ago called forth striking innovations in the ordering of debate; and, perhaps the most remarkable example of Parliament’s power of improvisation, Question Time, unnecessary and proper in the 18th century, became a dominant feature of Parliamentary life under different circumstances in the 19th century. In all this, the history of Parliament has appeared not as the accumulation of an increasingly heavy burden of precedent; but rather as the exposition of what Charles James Fox called the ‘gradual and progressive wisdom’ of successive generations, and the adaptation of that wisdom to meet the varying needs of each age. Traditions are preserved; but they are also changed; Parliament does not for long allow itself to be cramped by the past.

Finally, I would like to suggest that it may be useful and even illuminating to adopt a different time-scale when considering the history of Parliament. Instead of thinking of Parliament simply as a traditional and ‘ancient’ institution, deeper insight into its history might suggest that it is youthful, indeed only recently come of age, for the all-important principle of representation, implicit in Parliament's history since 1190, was only fully worked out as recently as 1948. And the work of Parliament is not over, for there are few commentators and observers inside or outside Westminster today who do not see tasks for Parliament in the future in every way as significant as its past achievement. 700 years has been a long time in the history of Parliament; but it is perhaps only a prelude to a still longer and greater future.


© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared: 16 March 1999