The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the prorogation of parliament – granted on the advice of the Privy Council – was an extraordinary moment. The Court ruled that, because the reasons given for the prorogation were not the real ones, the Order in Council (legislation made in the name of the Queen that informed the Commons they were prorogued) was null and void. In other words, it conferred no more authority than a blank sheet of paper would have done.
In effect, by saying it did not believe Boris Johnson’s stated reasons for asking for a prorogation [he claimed the prorogation was necessary to bring forward “new and important bills” ahead of a Queen’s Speech, though opponents believed it would stop MPs being able to play their full democratic part in the Brexit process], the court was suggesting that the prime minister had knowingly stated false reasons to the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen is constitutionally bound to accept the advice of her prime minister, but that is based on the assumption that the advice is honest and that the prime minister carries the confidence of parliament.
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The court’s decision that the advice was less than honest means the queen was manoeuvred into issuing a wrongful order – and has therefore been placed in a very embarrassing constitutional position.
But this is not the first time the monarch has had a run-in with parliament over cases of constitutional propriety…
Queen Elizabeth I’s ‘Golden Speech’, 1601
Until Henry VIII chose to make it the principal vehicle for his break with Rome, parliament had been an occasional event. Thereafter, parliament was intimately linked to religious policy as well as its familiar role of regulating trade and raising taxation, and Elizabeth I was keen to ensure it did not stray beyond these boundaries. She refused, for example, to let it discuss foreign policy or the succession – and parliament itself turned against brothers and MPs Peter and Paul Wentworth, critics of the queen who tried to argue that membership of the Commons conferred a right of free speech.
However, relations between Elizabeth I and the Commons came under strain over the issue of lucrative trading monopolies, which had been granted by the queen to particular favourites and were causing prices to rise. With the Commons in an increasingly ugly mood and Elizabeth’s debts mounting, thanks to the war in Ulster, the queen agreed to withdraw the monopolies and accepted a parliamentary deputation. She treated them to a masterly speech, thanking them for their love for her and assuring them of hers for them. They were completely won over and it became known as her ‘Golden Speech’. It was the last time she ever addressed her parliament.
Bate’s Case, 1606
Bate’s Case was a landmark legal ruling during the reign of King James VI and I. It involved a case brought before the Court of Exchequer, which decided that the king did indeed have the right to impose taxes on imports without the consent of parliament.
James I had been chronically short of money and had imposed an extra import duty, known as an imposition, on imported currants [fruit] over and above the normal customs duties sanctioned by parliament. Since the imposition was 5s 6d per hundredweight, as opposed to the usual 1s 6d, this was a very unpopular move and a merchant named John Bate was arrested for refusing to pay what he claimed was an illegal tax.
The barons of the Exchequer concluded unanimously that, since the ports of the kingdom belonged to the king, he could regulate trade as he liked, regardless of the wishes of parliament. Not surprisingly, the Crown immediatelyplaced impositions on other goods, until in 1610 the Crown claimed the right to impose a ‘general imposition’ on all imports. Parliament vigorously opposed this and the controversy over the competing rights of crown and parliament in taxation dogged the last years of James I’s reign – and the whole of that of his successor, Charles I.
The Petition of Right, 1628
Within a few years of coming to the throne, King Charles I was in conflict with parliament over the bounds, if any, within which the king was allowed by law to operate. His need for money had led him, in 1627, to impose a forced loan on the propertied classes without parliamentary approval. It was widely resisted, with numerous people imprisoned for non-payment. When five knights, who had all been imprisoned for refusing to pay it, applied for a writ of habeas corpus [which would allow them to be presented before the court], their case was rejected on the grounds that the king had acted within his rights.
The following year, Charles upped the stakes by imposing further forced loans, billeting troops in private houses and imprisoning without trial, or even charge, all those who objected. Parliament’s angry response was the Petition of Right, a statement drawn up by Sir Edward Coke to the effect that the king is not above the law and must obey it.
Charles appeared to accept the petition, thus giving it the force of law – though by doing so “by his grace” rather than “of right” he left open the possibility that he could ignore it. He certainly continued to anger the Commons and the following year, when the Speaker tried to adjourn the house, the Speaker was held down in his chair by angry members so they could pass a series of motions condemning the king’s actions. The petition came to be seen, along with Magna Carta (to which it referred), as a founding document of English liberties.
Charles I and the five members, 1642
Charles I’s entry into the House of Commons in 1642 at the head of a body of troops to arrest the radical MP John Pym and four other members of parliament, is a famous set-piece event in the troubled history of crown and parliament.
Short of money to finance wars in Ireland and Scotland, Charles had been forced to recall parliament in 1640, but had found it in no mood to co-operate with him, so he had it dissolved after a couple of months. With no alternative source of funds, Charles had to call it again, and this time parliament passed an act forbidding the king from dissolving it without MPs’ consent.
As parliament, led by Pym, demanded more say over the conduct of government and impeached Charles’s minister, the Earl of Strafford, the king’s patience finally snapped. He went to the Commons to arrest the leading troublemakers but, finding they had been forewarned and disappeared, he asked the Speaker, William Lenthall, where they were. Lenthall replied that he had neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak save as the House might direct him. This was direct defiance by parliament to the king’s face and it led almost directly to the outbreak of civil war.
George III sacks the government, 1783
After Britain’s humiliating defeat in the War of American Independence, George III was forced, very reluctantly, to accept a government made up of his Whig critics, most notably Charles James Fox, in coalition with Lord North, who had been prime minister during the war and thus the target of many of the Whigs’ attacks. However, the king blamed North for having resigned when defeat looked certain, and North was open to the idea of a coalition, which was bound to annoy the king.
The incongruous nature of this ‘Fox-North’ coalition attracted much cynical comment, but it did command a large majority in the House of Commons. The king, however, was determined to get rid of it – and an opportunity arose when the ministry introduced a measure to regulate the affairs of the East India Company.
Although the substance of the proposal was sound, there was an outcry when it became clear that Fox intended to appoint a number of his friends and cronies to positions on the new Board of Control the bill would create. The whiff of corruption was enough to encourage the king to use the bill as a weapon against the government. When the bill progressed from the Commons to the Lords, the king let it be known that he would look with disfavour on anyone who voted for it, and the bill was promptly defeated. He sacked the ministers that same night.
The Whigs were aghast at what they saw as a royal coup d’etat and contemptuous when the only person willing to serve as prime minister was the 24-year-old William Pitt. However, thanks to the king’s support Pitt gradually built up his support in the Commons until March 1784, when he went to the country in an election and won a substantial majority. The king had intervened in parliament – and got away with it.
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William IV and the Whigs
William IV came to the throne in 1830 as the crisis over parliamentary reform was approaching its climax.
Although the electoral and constituency changes brought in by the Great Reform Act of 1832 might seem minor to modern eyes, at the time they appeared to constitute a veritable revolution and there was fierce opposition from more conservative quarters, particularly in the House of Lords. Once Earl Grey, the Whig leader, had secured a majority in the House of Commons he still had to overcome opposition to the Reform Bill in the Tory-dominated Upper House. The only way to do that, it seemed, was for the king to create 50 new Whig peerages, sufficient to get the bill past its opponents. Although the king was sympathetic to reform, he disliked having his prerogative taken advantage of, and although the mere threat of the creation of peers was enough to persuade the Lords to pass the bill, the king seized the opportunity in 1834 to sack the ministry without warning.
Unlike his father, George III, however, William IV did not get away with it: in the election that followed, the Whigscame back into office, though with a reduced majority. No monarch has tried to get rid of a government ever since.
Sean Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in the history of the British empire. He is also a professional playwright and a regular broadcaster on radio and television. You can follow him on Twitter @sf_lang