Britain is in turmoil after the announcement by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he would be suspending parliament for five weeks. Critics accuse ‘boorish Boris’ of using this tactic to enable a no-deal Brexit on Hallowe’en. Johnson enacted a long-standing procedure known as ‘prorogation’. His detractors may well regard the PM as a pro-rogue for doing this, though in itself, prorogation is not without precedent in early modern British history. Let us consider such historical instances of prorogation to see how Johnson’s move measures up.
Parliament originated as a consultative body to the sovereign. Charles B. Davison, who commented on the history of prorogation in light of Canadian PM Stephen Harper’s controversial use of this power in 2008, explains that prorogation derived from the fact that parliament was thought to exist only at the sovereign’s summons. The monarch had the power to dissolve parliament (which is still the case in Westminster systems, though it is effectively exercised by the Prime Minister), thereby leading to an election; or to suspend parliament, until the sovereign decided to reconvene the legislative assembly. Any bills before parliament would die at prorogation. This can be a thrilling time, as the sovereign keeps parliament in suspense.
Prorogation was often used by the Tudor monarchs in the late 15th to end of the 16th centuries, to reinforce the near-absolutist power of rulers like Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I (a detail of her opening of parliament is pictured above). The new Tudor dynasty in the reign of Henry VII was, according to David Hume’s History of England, a new epoch in the constitution. Henry’s reign, and that of his successors, ended feudal rivalries in England and led to more centralised authority. Consequently, Henry VII considered parliament to be little more than a ‘rubber stamp’: he would summon parliament to approve his legislation, and then prorogue it until he needed to reconvene the assembly. This might be described as Tudor ‘two-door’ governance: summoning parliament (entry), and proroguing it (exit). His granddaughter Elizabeth I often used the power of prorogation. For example, she prorogued parliament 26 times in 11 years; and in 1581, suspended parliament for two years before dissolving it. The members of parliament surely felt Eliza-beaten down by the iron hand of the queen.
The power of prorogation became a heated issue in the following century. In 1603, Elizabeth was succeeded by her Scottish cousin James Stuart, who quickly became unpopular. James I and his Stuart successors sought to govern autocratically–including exercising the power of prorogation–in an era when parliament was increasingly restive. King James was subject to the pointed criticism of Sir Edward Coke, who defended common law and the rights of parliament against the Crown. James I thought Sir Edward a Coke-head, while Coke regarded the king as a Jacobean jackass.
James’s son Charles was just as contemptuous of parliament as his father, and fatally, far less competent. Only three years into his accession (i.e., 1628), King Charles I prorogued parliament before dissolving it, ruling without parliament for 11 years (known by his enemies as the ‘Eleven Years Tyranny’). But Chuck was out of luck, and eventually his Royalist supporters were opposed by the armed resistance of parliamentary forces. Britain descended into civil war by 1642. Parliament not only chucked out the king, but had him beheaded in 1649. Meanwhile, since 1640, MPs assumed the power to summon themselves, thus creating what they called the Long Parliament (though for Royalists, it was more like the Wrong Parliament).
Parliament was overthrown by Oliver Cromwell, but even after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, prorogation proved controversial. Parliament was still resistant to Stuart absolutism and the pro-Catholic sympathies of King Charles II. In 1679, the Commons selected its own speaker, but Charles prorogued parliament in order to reject their choice. After negotiations, the prorogation ended after two days as a new speaker was named.
Charles and his successor James II (his Catholic brother) used prorogation to advance the power of the Crown and favour Catholicism. This finally led to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 against James II, in which the Protestant succession and rights of parliament were guaranteed. Even though the political theorist John Locke defended the Glorious Revolution, he argued in his Second Treatise of Government for the necessity of the executive’s prerogative power, including prorogation: the rule of law embodied in the legislative body should in certain cases be overridden for the good of the people, as Clement Fatovic has put it in his 2004 article on Locke’s theory of prerogative. Hence, this philosopher, often lauded as a father of English liberalism (while also advocating slavery, but that’s another story), was not Locked into full-blown constitutionalism.
In sum, the use of prorogation has had a long history, though as part of executive prerogative to be exercised only out of necessity. In this light, the current use of prorogation in the UK may be nothing more than a tactic for Boris Johnson to enact his will, appropriately enough, in the hair-raising context of Brexit.
Director, Early Modern Anti-rogation Studies Program