Why Did The Queen Speak To Parliament?

A new parliament started yesterday, so I thought I’d talk about parliamentary beginnings, endings, and the history of how this complicated system came about.

Yesterday was the Queen’s Speech, which takes place every year in the spring. It’s usually a day of great pageantry and ceremony, though because of the coronavirus, today’s speech is going to be quite pared down.

Yeomen search the palace in 2019 (copyright House of Lords)

Though it’s the queen who’s speaking, she had no role in drafting it. The Queen’s Speech is written by the government and its a chance for them to lay out their goals for the next parliamentary session (we’ll get to that in a moment.) Yesterday’s speech contained a wide range of suggested bills covering everything from voting to social media regulation.

Following the speech, parliament will debate its contents for a few days before voting on it.

Before the speech from the throne, as it’s called, a ceremony plays out: the yeomanry search parliament for gunpowder or explosives, in a homage to the gunpowder plot of 1605, and a member of parliament is taken “hostage” until the monarch leaves parliament, a throwback to the times when a monarch entering parliament might have been in danger, again during the 1600s. With this, the state opening of parliament is complete and parliament returns.

Prorogation, Dissolution and Sessions

Yes, parliament was gone. In fact, the UK has had no active parliament since 29th April, so this prorogation (the period between parliamentary sessions when parliament is not sitting, but is not dissolved) has lasted 12 days – the average length is 18.

We’re used to parliament going on recess for a couple of weeks, so we don’t tend to notice the annual prorogation, and in modern times there’s very little difference between the two. When a parliamentary session ends, the Queen prorogues parliament on the advice of the privy council – which is made up of senior politicians from all parties – a speech is delivered on behalf of the government covering what they’ve done in that session, and the parliamentary session ends.

This is different to dissolving parliament because when a parliament is dissolved, it no longer exists. All current MPs are dismissed and every seat across the UK becomes vacant. In the modern day, a general election of a new parliament must take place 25 days after a dissolution. This means that technically parliament exists nearly all the time. But it didn’t used to be this way, and now I’m going to explain the history of this and how it got so complicated. To summarise:

  • Parliament. A collection of elected MPs and lords responsible for creating and passing bills of law.
  • Parliamentary session. The period in which parliament is actively sitting and doing its job, usually a year.
  • Recess. When a parliamentary session is not conducting any business, but isn’t prorogued or dissolved – the session is still active.
  • Prorogation. When a parliamentary session ends, so parliament is no longer active, but it still has the same members. Shortly followed by the beginning of a new session.
  • Dissolution. When a parliament comes to an end and all members are dismissed. This is followed by the election of a new parliament.

Why is it like this?

In modern Britain, Parliament is sovereign – it’s the supreme power of the land, and as such, it sits almost constantly, and when it’s gone, there are strict rules in place to ensure a new parliament is called quickly.

In the past, though, it worked much differently. In medieval times, much of the day to day business of government was managed by officials not necessarily connected to parliament. Parliament’s main role in those times was as a counsel for the monarch and a chance for the monarch to discuss matters with the realm at large, though they did have some legislative powers, especially governing the raising of taxes, which sometimes left monarchs dependent on parliamentary support.

Medieval parliaments weren’t always in London: they were wherever the monarch wanted them to be. They lasted anything from a couple weeks to a few months, and summons were handed out far in advance – sometimes at the end of the previous parliament. Members would travel to the parliament, conduct business, and return home, and that was a parliamentary session. Sometimes there was one every year, but most of the time a monarch could go years without summoning a session of parliament.

So parliaments were temporary meetings of the legislature for a few weeks to a few months every couple of years, meeting solely at the monarch’s will. As time went on and democracy expanded, along with the role of elected “commons” rather than hereditary lords, the legislature has continued to work inside this same system. So even now, technically parliaments are temporary meetings that are eventually dissolved or prorogued and are no longer active – but sessions now run almost constantly, and the ends of parliaments are always marked by laying out rules for the beginning of a new one.

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