Our constitution, July 2012: Fixed term parliaments

“Fixed term, four year Parliaments: dissolution only if government cannot be formed or if Parliament votes for its own dissolution by a two-third majority.”

This is a part of the Constitution that would probably pass with least discussion. Fixed-term Parliaments are mandated in a devolved Scotland by the 1998 Act, and it is broadly agreed in constitutional democracies outside the UK that the power to dissolve Parliament and set the date for the next General Election is not something that should be under the control of the government of the day: it’s one of the powers of the Crown that accrues to the Prime Minister in the UK’s decidedly unwritten Constitution.

Margaret Thatcher used it in May 1983 to call a General Election two years early on the feelgood factor from the Falklands War: John Major used it to not call a General Election that he knew he wouldn’t win until literally the very last minute, April 1997 (and so did Gordon Brown in May 2010, despite Tony Blair’s having set the example of calling an election every four years). David Cameron will probably do the same, unless he starts a small war somewhere for electoral good value.

Looking back at the old Scottish Parliament, it was of course no more representative of the people then the old English Parliament: the Three Estates of the old Scottish Parliament (the lordis of counsall and sessioun) were the prelates (the bishops and abbots: the Catholics were removed in 1567, the Protestants removed in 1688); the lay tenants-in-chief or parliamentary peers (comprising three degrees of nobility: dukes, earls, and lairds – a laird or “lord of parliament” would have been the owner of a landed estate which was not part of a village or town or royal burgh); and the Burgh Commissioners elected by the royal burghs. From 1592 onwards there were also Shire Commissioners, selected by the lairds of the shire, and from 1603, royal office holders: I think the Universities also had parliamentary representation, but I don’t know how that worked. The three Representation of the People Acts in 1832 for England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, were the first steps towards making Parliament democratically representative.

The Parliament of Scotland was always unicameral and the collective term used for the members was traditionally the Thrie Estaitis even when there seem to have been four or five. (Mostly from A Short History of the Scottish Parliament.) The representatives from the Royal Burghs were the largest estate within the Parliament, and the 1707 Act of Union specified: “That the Rights and Privileges of the Royal Boroughs in Scotland as they now are Do Remain entire after the Union and notwithstanding thereof”.

The Parliament voted for its own dissolution and union with Westminster on 1st May 1707. It should be noted that Robert Burns famous poem about the parcel of rogues was written 84 years after the event, and if not for the financial success of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Burns would have been one of many Scots that had gone to get rich in English colonies.

Four hundred and thirty-four years ago, 15th July 1578, James VI’s Parliament (the “thrie estaitis”) passed Ane act anent changing of vacance to clarify exactly when they’d sit, allowing for the fact that harvest-time would be different in the Highlands and other “cold grounds”.

And understanding that the hervest oftymes continewis and induris quhill Halomes, and thairefter in sum heland and cauld grundis, quhairthrow the people and liegeis of the realme may not resort and repair to the sessioun quhill the hervest be endit, thairfoir it is statute and ordanit be our soverane lord and thrie estaitis of this present parliament that the saidis lordis of counsall and sessioun sall sit doun and begin for administratioun of justice to our soverane lordis liegeis in the accustumat use as thay did of befoir upoun the xx day of October for this present yeir only, and sall sit quhill the xx day of December inclusive and than ryis and have vacance quhill the sevint day of Januar exclusive, upoun the quhilk sevint day thay sall sit daylie quhill the Saterday befoir Fasterisewin, and than to leif of quhill the Thurisday thairefter, and therefter to sitt but ony vacance quhill PalmeSonday ewin inclusive, and than to ryis and haif vacance quhill the nixt Mononday efter Law Sonday inclusive; upoun the quhilk Mononday thay sall sit doun and sit daylie, except the Sondayis, quhill Witsonday ewin, and than to haif vacance quhill the Mononday efter the Trinitie Sonday inclusive, and than to sit doun and sit daylie but ony vacance, except the Sonday, quhill the last day of Julii inclusive; and fra thyne to haif vacance quhill the twelf day of November, quhilk is the morne efter Martimes Day, and sit yeirlie thairefter in maner foirsaid, exceptand as said is.

John Jamieson’s 1825 etymological dictionary of the Scottish language does not clarify Fasterisewin at all, and goes into detail about Law Sonday only to explain that he can’t be sure why it’s called that but it might also have been called Leif Sonday (loaf Sunday) or Low Sonday.

Fun though this is: Do you think we should examine fixed-term parliaments? Is four years the right length of time? Take the survey

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Index of all posts in the Scottish Constitution series
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Filed under Elections, Scottish Constitution, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics

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