Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

How hand of history shapes the hustings

As Parliament is prorogued today, David Shiels argues how these long-standing rites are confirmation that the institution is greater than any of the personalities

The decision to hold an election on May 6 was Gordon Brown's, not the Queen's. A monarch has not refused a request for dissolution since 1924.

That was when there was a hung parliament and Baldwin's government lost a vote of confidence - the King called on Ramsay MacDonald to form a government instead. Constitutional experts believe that the only circumstances in which the Queen could rightly refuse a request would be if the Prime Minister asked her for a second election in the event of a hung parliament.

Dissolution of Parliament is an act of Crown prerogative, just like the power to declare war and many other decisions besides, but the Queen almost always acts on the Advice - with a capital A - of the Prime Minister of the day.

Some people believe that the Crown prerogative places too many powers in the hands of the Prime Minister. Indeed when Gordon Brown came into office he promised to put these powers under review, but he found, like all prime ministers, that the prerogative was rather useful.

The fact that some decisions are made by the Prime Minister in the name of the Queen also means that he has a responsibility not to discredit the Queen's name. His weekly audiences with the Queen are a reminder that even he has to show humility before his Monarch.

After the election - on May 7 if there is a clear result - Gordon Brown will go to Buckingham Palace again, possibly to resign. If the Tories win, David Cameron will then be summoned to the Palace to 'kiss hands' upon his appointment (and although the meetings between prime minister and monarch are always secret, it is thought that no kissing actually takes place). The transition of power is swift, simple, and dignified; a reminder that the prime minister holds the office but for a moment in British history.

Today, Parliament will be prorogued. Prorogation takes place at the end of each annual session of Parliament and it refers to the temporary suspension of parliamentary proceedings. This will be an occasion of some limited pomp and ceremony. The Queen will not attend Parliament in person, but the Commons will be summoned to the House of Lords and - after much bowing and doffing of hats - the Lords will read out her message telling them that Parliament has been prorogued.

On their return to the Commons, Speaker Bercow - sitting at the Clerk's table rather than his usual Chair - will repeat the prorogation statement. MPs will file out of the chamber, shaking hands with the Speaker. For some of them, like Ian Paisley and Eddie McGrady, it will be their last time in the Chamber itself.

The prorogation provides a ceremonial end to the life of this Parliament. On Monday, the Queen will sign a proclamation announcing the dissolution. As soon as the Great Seal is on the document, and without any further ado, Parliament will cease to exist.

From this time the General Election campaign will really get going. MPs will no longer be MPs: those who are seeking election again will simply become 'candidates', with the same status as their opponents. These are just some of the special election rules which are enforced to prevent MPs using their 'incumbency' to political advantage over their opponents.

In spite of the fact that Parliament will no longer exist, the Government of the country must be carried on. The Prime Minister will remain in office, as will all other ministers, until that visit to the Palace on May 7 when his tenure will be renewed or come to an end. Nevertheless the Government will not be allowed to make any major decisions until the electorate has spoken.

There is, of course, the possibility that the electorate will not speak clearly. Should the election produce a hung Parliament, it will not be for the Queen but for the politicians, or the party leaders, to decide who will become Prime Minister. Only after the parties make their intentions clear will she summon someone to the Palace - but the ceremony will be exactly the same as it would be otherwise and the new Prime Minister will still make a speech on the steps of Number 10 accepting her invitation to form a Government.

Some people say that these little ceremonies are meaningless and outdated. But it would be a shame if the modernisers got their way. The ceremonies and traditions do indeed belong to another time, but for that very reason it is vital that we hold on to them as a reminder of our history. They are a sign of continuity, a sign that theinstitution is bigger than the personalities involved. Now that this discredited Parliament is coming to an end, we must hope that the next group of MPs will be able to restore our faith in that great institution.

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