The coming British prorogation

The British parliament is expected to be prorogued this Tuesday at around 1.30pm. Prorogation, as it is called, is where the Sovereign or her representatives come to the House of Lords to announce that she’s decided to shut down parliament now that it’s job (as outlined in the Queen’s speech) is done and usually give Royal Assent to any bills that have been passed and may be left lying around at the end of the session.

It begins in the gilded upper chamber, where the Leader of the House of Lords announces that it’s not convenient for Her Majesty to come before parliament personally, but she has ’caused a commission’ to be created under the Great Seal to prorogue parliament.

Immediately after that announcement, the Leader of the House, the Leader of the Opposition, the Lord Speaker, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats and the Convener of the Crossbenchers leave the House to go to the Robing Room where they get changed into their parliamentary robes – the really famous ones that everyone thinks of when someone mentions the House of Lords – and their bicorns (for the men) and tricorns (for the women).

They return into the House again and sit on a bench provided behind the Woolsack where the Lord Speaker presides but in front of the Throne where the Queen normally sits. A parliamentary official provides the Senior Commissioner, the Leader of the House, with the Queen’s proclamation. Rather conveniently, that is the precise moment that Black Rod walks in to the chamber, bowing three times* on his way up to stand before the Royal Commission.

The Senior Commissioner now instructs Black Rod to go and fetch the (usually pretty empty) House of Commons. As he arrives, they slam the door in his face and he has to go through the traditional knock-three-times-with-the-black-rod that has become so associated with the State Opening of Parliament, but used to be much more common especially when Royal Assent used to require a parliamentary ceremony every time**.

So Black Rod says words to the effect that the Queen would quite like you to come over to the House of Lords to hear that I’m letting you go home early, aren’t you the lucky ones, etc. And the faithful Commons wanders over, being ever so slightly rowdy. The Mace is brought ahead at the front of the column of MPs, while the Speaker follows behind chatting to Black Rod and the clerks and the rest of the MPs form a gaggle behind them.

Once they arrive at the Lords, they all come in and fill up the area behind the bar of the House (the wooden separator behind the seats). They bow their heads once, and in response the male Commissioners doff their bicorn hats while the female Commissioners bow their tricorn-adorned heads, all in imperfect unison. The doorman, or Serjeant-at-Arms, usually gives any money bills that are about to receive Royal Assent to the clerk of the House of Lords – presumably just in case those pesky Lords try to mess with those money bills without the permission of the Commons!

The Senior Commissioner says words to the effect that “the Queen couldn’t be bothered to come, but hey! You’ve still got the B-team.” At this point the Reading Clerk gets up and goes to the Opposition’s despatch box to read the Queen’s Proclamation. This is a wonderful piece, and is worth reproducing at length:

Forasmuch as in Our said Parliament divers Acts have been agreed upon by you, Our loving subjects the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons, the short Titles of which are set forth in the Schedule hereto, but the said Acts are not of force and effect in the Law without our Royal Assent and
Forasmuch as We cannot at this time be present in the Higher House of Our said Parliament, being the accustomed place for giving Our Royal Assent to such Acts as have been agreed upon by you Our said subjects the Lords and Commons We have therefore caused these Our Letters Patent to be made and have signed them and by them do give Our Royal Assent to the said Acts willing that the said Acts shall be of the same strength force and effect as if We had been personally present in the said Higher House and had publicly and in the presence of you all assented to the same
Commanding also … [It goes on for quite a bit more]”

Basically, it’s a big “Hey, One still matters” from HMTQ and is a wonderful piece of constitutional flummery which I would dearly miss if it were to ever go.

But anyway, after much name-checking (with more bowing and doffing of hats to one another) he then goes on to read more, saying essentially “thanks folks, your job is now done, but I want you back at your desk next week!” and the Commissioners are told that they can prorogue parliament until some stated day.

It’s worth hearing, especially since the reading clerk, Rhodri Walters, has a good knack of sounding like he’s genuinely interested and reading it for the first time – he does the same for introductions, which for what seemed like a year after the last election, could sometimes amount to three a sitting.

Next, the Senior Commissioner goes on to essentially say “Here’s some Acts the Queen has graciously agreed to let pass,” and the Under-clerk of the Parliaments on the Opposition side then reads out the short titles of the Acts to the Commissioners, while the Clerk of the Parliaments on the Government side then turns round to the Commons and says either “La Reyne le veult,” (the Queen wills it) for normal bills, “La Reyne remercie ses bons sujets, accepte leur benevolence et ainsi le veult,” (the Queen thanks her good subjects, accepts their benevolence and so wills it) if it’s a money bill, “Soit fait comme il est désiré” (it will be done as it is desired) for private bills, or “La Reyne s’avisera,”*** in the somewhat unlikely event the Queen will refuse Royal Assent. The Clerk of the Parliaments, poor man, has to turn back and forth (and bow) until all the acts are read out.

Next, the Senior Commissioner must read out the Queen’s prorogation speech. It’s not one of her more thrilling works, but none of her parliamentary speeches are allowed to be interesting. Essentially she says what her government has done in the session. It’s almost a mirror image of the Queen’s speech at the State Opening with some added extras although I suppose you can tell when they’ve failed to do something.

The Commissioners then officially prorogue Parliament in HMTQ’s name and the Commons awkwardly shuffles out to more bowing and hat-doffing. The Senior Commissioner walks out of the chamber while the Lord Speaker, usually second ranking Commissioner, then adjourns the House in her London Bus red robes and walks out following the Mace-carrier as peers bow to the Mace.

Guess what? After that, the Speaker gets to read out all the acts that have been given Royal Assent and go through the prorogation stuff again in the House of Commons, just so that they know! Lucky guy.

From 1.30pm to 2.15pm, BBC Parliament will be broadcasting the prorogation live (usually with commentary). For international viewers, it will be available on the ParliamentLive player.

UPDATE: 23.33pm 1.05.12: Well, that’s all folks! The longest session of the British parliament since 1688 has now ended. The BBC version is available here! We shall resume on the 9th day of May in the City of Westminster for HMTQ’s appearance at the State Opening of Parliament for the Queen’s Speech.

*Once at the bar of the House (the wooden separator just behind the crossbenches), once at the start of the Clerks’ table and once at the end of the table. There’s definitely something about the House of Lords and bowing three times. Before they changed it in 1998, the fifteen minute long (!) introduction ceremonies involved peers sitting, putting a hat on, standing and taking the hat off and bowing to the Lord Chancellor. The entire process was repeated three times.
**MPs got so irritated by the stop-start nature of their proceedings due to Royal Assent, the Wilson government reformed it in the Royal Assent Act 1967. Finally, the Queen could do it by proclamation and the Lord Chancellor (later Lord Speaker) would announce it in the Lords and the Speaker in the Commons.
***And yes, it’s telling about British history and traditional politeness that the Queen says no by saying “I’ll think about it”
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