Brexit: Lexical Gifts & History’s Triumph of Perception

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that Parliament is to be prorogued, Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby, discusses what this means in relation to Brexit.

If Brexit has been a ‘gift’ that has kept on giving to politicians, pundits, experts, bien pensants and radicals for three years now, as a process it has also contributed enormously to our lexical comprehension. ‘Codpieces’, ‘forthwith’, ‘Erskine May’, prerogative powers’, ‘outlaws’ have all featured in the tussle between the Government, Parliament and the People to interpret and implement the Referendum result of June 2016. Now, as the summer of 2019 draws to a close, another deliciously obscure lexical gift has been offered up: prorogation.

With a Latin etymology emphasising prolonging and deferral, in the Westminster context it means the suspension of Parliament. Such a step had been heavily trailed by many candidates during the July Conservative leadership campaign and, on 28 August, the winner of that contest, committed Brexiteer and the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, confirmed that he had indeed advised the Queen to prorogue (suspend) Parliament during the fortnight following the MPs return on 2 September.  The prorogation would formally draw to a close the first session of the 2017 Parliament, thereby allowing a Queen’s Speech on 14 October to open the second session of the Parliament.  The Prime Minister’s move obviously significantly spiked the time available for Parliament to debate Brexit and, perhaps in particular, may impede MPs’ attempts to prevent Britain leaving the EU without a deal.   

Reaction to the announcement

Immediately upon the announcement there were cries of foul play and opposition from across the political spectrum. “Constitutional outrage” claimed Speaker Bercow; “a smash and grab on our democracy”, intoned the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn; “unconstitutional” deemed the Prime Minister’s fellow Tory, Dominic Grieve; “a dangerous and unacceptable course of action” cried the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson; and the action of “a tin pot dictator” spoke First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. In contrast, the Government argued that the deed was constitutionally proper: the break between sessions of any Parliament is governed by a prorogation and, moreover, this session of Parliament at 340 days plus duration has been the longest for four centuries.  As is, and has been so often the case in this febrile Brexit environment, legislative process, legal form and procedural precedent might be thought largely irrelevant as they run up against political and popular perception.   

The role of perception

Historically, perception does not favour the Government.  A pertinent example is that of the Stuart monarchs of the seventeenth century, who displayed a penchant for prorogation in order to affect their will or quieten the troublesome and dissenting voices of a Parliament.  Prior to dissolving Parliament fully as a prelude to his 11 years of personal rule from 1629 to 1640, Charles I, initially prorogued Parliament in 1628 after having secured a grant of additional taxes and to avoid conceding any further ground to Parliament’s Petition of Right which sought to limit monarchical power in the levying of taxes. Charles’ eldest son, Charles II, prorogued the longstanding (18 years) ‘Cavalier’ Parliament twice, once in 1674 and again in 1675, in order to supress the ‘Country’ Opposition’s parliamentary attempts to fetter the powers of Charles’ brother, James, Duke of York who was excepted to succeed to the throne and who in 1673 had publicly declared himself a Roman Catholic. When James did become King in 1685, notwithstanding the election of a Parliament which the chronicler Bishop Gilbert Burnet deemed to hold ‘not above 40 members but which he himself wished for’, he prorogued it in November of that year, and successively until its dissolution in 1687 when it refused to support his policy of toleration towards Roman Catholics and his wish to exempt them from the restrictions of the Test Act passed during his brother’s reign. 

Of the three seventeenth century Stuart kings, only Charles II died in his bed; but even then the expectations of his reign, famously encapsulated by the Restoration diarist, John Evelyn’s  entry of 29 May 1660 on Charles’ return from exile, that ‘I stood in the Strand and beheld it and blessed God’ fell by any yardstick way short of the mark. Charles I, of course, lost the Civil Wars to the Parliamentarian cause and then his head on the scaffold on 30 January 1649.  His youngest son, James VII & II, also lost out in the constitutional struggle with Parliament when a number of its members invited James’ son-in-law, William of Orange, to come to Britain to ‘negotiate’ a reversal of James’s policies and promotion of Roman Catholicism, which resulted in James fleeing to France in exile on Christmas Eve 1688, a country he remained in until his death in 1701.

Not for the first time, history thus offers the Prime Minister a cautionary tale: prorogation is constitutionally proper and within the Government’s competence but ultimately that might be beside the point.

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