Pomp out, tradition in?

With another state opening of Parliament taking place mere weeks after the last, Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the University of Derby’s College of Arts, Humanities and Education, asks whether this time around there was less ‘Pomp & Circumstance’, but also the return of tradition?

And so we’re back.  A week after the General Election which produced an 80-seat majority for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, MPs returned to Parliament for the State Opening. 

This was a comparatively downgraded affair: the Queen donned a hat and working suit (in turquoise: the Brexit Party’s colours, one pundit suggested) rather than the Imperial Crown and yards of ermine, and she turned up not in her Diamond Jubilee coach, but in a Bentley (admittedly a classic one). 

Nonetheless, the keen historians amongst you would have spotted that British constitutional tradition was very much to the fore.

The symbolic monarch

The straightforward fact that the Queen travels to Parliament for its opening, inviting members and peers to join her in the House of Lords, rather than requiring their presence in one of her many palaces, is of itself heavy with constitutional symbolism. 

The Queen’s journey and the venue encapsulate Britain’s longstanding and principal constitutional doctrine of ‘the King/Queen in Parliament’.  Traced to the Revolution of the 1688 when following the Christmas Eve flight into exile of the Catholic King, James VII & II the Convention (“temporary”) Parliament convened in the New Year to offer the throne to William of Orange and his wife Mary (James’ eldest daughter), this doctrine represents Britain’s mixed constitution. 

Then, in the late 17th century, it was a statement against domineering absolute monarchy; now in the 21st century, it is an organic representation of the balance between Crown, Executive and Parliament.  No need for a modern ahistorical US-style written statement of check and balances, constitutional traditionalists cry.

Manoeuvres and shakers

Another symbolic element of the proceedings came part way through the Queen’s speech when she announced that her Government would establish a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission whose agenda would include working towards a repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011. 

Now with the constitutional brouhaha prior to the Election over prorogation and the manoeuvrings to get the House to vote for a General Election ahead of the timescale set out in the Act, this measure was no great surprise. 

From the evidence presented at the Supreme Court case on the Prime Minister’s prorogation of parliament, we know that the Mr Johnson was of the view that the regulation of parliamentary sessions by the Fixed Term Act, including the parliamentary sitting in September, was a consequence  of his ‘girly swot’ predecessor but one, Mr Cameron, wanting to show that parliamentarians were working hard for their salaries (and, of course, as part of the compromise with the Liberal Democrats to form a Government in 2010). 

Ghosts of commissions past

Prior to the 2011 Act, the ability of the Prime Minister to call a General Election when he or she so wished was a cherished (by Prime Ministers) constitutional convention.  Interestingly, however, it was a tradition which only developed in the 19th century as in the 17th and 18th centuries the parliamentary terms were set down in the 1694 and 1715 Triennial and Septennial Acts.

But Mr Johnson takes his historical precedent where he can find it and it seems clear that he wishes to reclaim this power. That said, his chosen means to do so – a Commission – offers poor historical example.  He has only to go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s to encounter the most recent example of a Commission addressing constitutional affairs. 

The 16-strong Royal Commission on the Constitution, which was latterly known as the Kilbrandon Commission, failed to reach consensus.  Its final report in October 1973 contained several options variously supported by different members of the Commission while two members, Professor Alan Peacock and Lord Crowther-Hunt, refused to sign up to the report issuing instead their own Memorandum of Dissent.

Over the course of this Parliament, the Queen will still attend Parliament to open it but whether Mr Johnson regains as Prime Minster the power to call General Elections must remain for the moment at least a moot point.       

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