With MPs set to sit in Parliament on a Saturday for the first time in almost 40 years, Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby, looks back at other occasions throughout history when MPs have worked the weekend in the House of Commons.
The most recent breathless media reports about Brexit have been about the announcement that Parliament may sit on Saturday 19 October at the request of the Prime Minister so that MPs can either vote on a deal with Brussels (if one emerges this week) or choose between a no deal and the extension of Article 50.
Parliamentary weekend working for MPs? The first for 40 years intoned most media outlets, referring to Parliament being recalled on Saturday 3 April 1982 to learn from Margaret Thatcher that Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands. Evan Davies even cued his ‘Brexit Saturday’ report on Monday’s PM programme as an ‘historic’ sitting. Well, yes and no.
Wars and weekend working
It is indeed true that the last Saturday sitting was some 40 years ago and before the ‘Falklands Saturday’, Parliament had been convened at the weekend on only three occasions since World War II. Two of these three were prompted by military conflict: Saturday 2 September 1939 to discuss the outbreak of World War II and Saturday 3 November 1956 to debate the Suez Crisis when France, Britain and Israel had conspired to invade Egypt in opposition to the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s, nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
A World War and a collusive Middle Eastern invasion feel fairly weighty moments of state justifying MPs’ labour on a weekend. The fourth occasion on Saturday 30 July 1949 was, in comparison, deliciously prosaic. MPs sat for an adjournment debate on that July Saturday because, as Hansard suggests, they had failed to get through all their business in the preceding working week. Either MPs had been procrastinating Monday through Friday or they were simply inundated with work.
But if we move beyond the confines of contemporary 20th century history, then it is a firm ‘no’ to the notion of this Saturday being ‘historic’. The sitting of Parliament on a Saturday is hardly ‘historic’ and not for the first time during the three years of our Brexit travails the age of the Stuart Kings of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries proves historically instructive.
Historians of Westminster’s legislative processes and procedures, of which Julian Hoppitt in particular has been to the fore, have shown that there was a notable increase in Parliamentary legislation from 1688. This legislative industry was in large part explained by Parliament’s triumph in the 1688 Glorious Revolution when the politicians of the day forced the Roman Catholic King James VII & II into exile and offered the throne to William of Orange and his wife Mary thereby establishing the constitutional doctrine of the ‘King or Queen in Parliament’ (hence why today for the State opening of Parliament the Queen travels to Westminster rather than receiving the denizens of Westminster at Buckingham Palace).
This development brought with it Parliamentary control over taxation and supply and from 1688 onwards there was generally much more work for parliamentarians to get through. Parliament routinely sat on Saturdays simply to discharge its responsibilities and it was only with the development of its Standing Orders to organise legislative business that Members were by 1702 completing their work between Monday and Friday – leaving time for weekend festivities at their country piles (industrious massaging of the constituency was largely unknown to the our 18th century politicians).
What is notable about this historical analogy is that in the later seventeenth century, as today, Parliament was seeking to define and refine its role. Then it was a fundamental question of nascent Parliamentary supremacy within the constitution; today the stakes are just as high as Parliament continues to seek control of the Brexit process. It takes hard work, long hours and Saturday sitting; but we’ve been here before.