Photograph by Alastair Grant, WPA Pool/Getty
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Queen Elizabeth II reads a speech in the House of Lords to formally start a parliamentary session, which usually begins in the spring and lasts a year.

Photograph by Alastair Grant, WPA Pool/Getty

The dramatic history of prorogation in British parliament

From Brexit to typhus, this tricky political tool has been used for centuries to shut down legislative sessions.

In British parliament, prorogation ends one legislative year—known as a session—so another can begin. Simple, right? Not exactly. Steeped in tradition and soaked with political potential, prorogation has a history that goes back centuries. And though it has seldom been used as a tricky tactic, closing a parliamentary session is a tempting tool for British politicians eager to shut the door on pending legislation they don’t like.

The most recent one to close parliament for political gain is Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson. He plans to prorogate the longest parliamentary session in over 400 years, forcing legislators into a five-week-long break that dramatically shortens the amount of time for debate on the UK’s impending exit from the European Union. The scheme prompted the pound to plummet, sparked a petition with over a million signatures, and is prompting a nation to think back to civics class.

The term itself was first used in the 15th century. Back then, British governments were usually summoned for brief periods, then dismissed at the monarch’s whim. Those early parliaments were designed to approve taxes and royal expenditures, and were given the monarchical boot when they were done.

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Unlike the formal opening ceremony of Parliament, as seen above, prorogation involves, among other things, slamming a door three times in the face of the monarch's messenger.

Over time, though, parliament gained more power, and monarchs started using prorogation to put them in check. For example, in 1559 Elizabeth I prorogued parliament to avoid public debate of a potential suitor, Francis, Duke of Alencon. Other monarchs used the tactic for good reason—in 1608, for example, James IV issued a prorogation in response to a typhus epidemic in London.

Charles I is perhaps the best-known example of a proroguing king. In 1629, he prorogued a hostile parliament that resented a previous tax the king had imposed without their permission. He didn’t reconvene the legislature for 11 years. In the meantime, the rogue ruler sidestepped taxation laws and whipped up hatred among his subjects, sentiments that fueled a civil war and his eventual execution for treason.

Modern prorogations aren’t usually as dramatic. These days, the monarch stays out of political affairs and only prorogues parliament at the request of her prime minister. She doesn’t even show up to do it: Starting in 1854, she’s sent a royal commission to do it for her.

It’s a theatrical, ritualized scene. First, the commission makes a stop in the House of Commons to let them know about the royal announcement. Per tradition, the commission member who bears the message has the door to the House of Commons slammed in his face three times to symbolize the legislative body’s political independence. Then, MPs march over to the House of Lords to participate in a ceremony that involves lots of bowing, a litany of all of the bills that have been passed that session, and a ceremonial speech, purportedly from the queen, that reviews the government’s accomplishments.

All that pomp and circumstance has a real impact on parliamentary businesses. After the ceremony, any unfinished business is essentially thrown out; bills that are still under debate have to be reintroduced during the next session. But the slate doesn’t stay clean for long. Days later, a new parliamentary session is generally begun, purportedly at the Queen’s request.

Prorogation doesn’t dissolve a parliament—they only end ahead of a general election. Usually, prorogations take place during spring, and the recess that follows can vary in length. Recent suspensions have been short and sweet, notes the BBC: “In 2016 Parliament was closed for four working days, while in 2014 it was closed for 13 days.”

There are only two other prorogation power plays in recent memory. In 1948, the Labour Party prime minister prorogued parliament in order to silence House of Lords opposition to a law that would have reduced their powers. In 1997, the Conservative Party prime minister prorogued parliament for over a week early to sidestep publication of a report that exposed financial wrongdoing by two Conservative MPs. Both prorogations were met with a scathing public and political response—and as Boris Johnson’s recent prorogation maneuver shows, wiping the parliamentary slate clean still has the power to shock.

Editor's Note: This article originally misstated the year that Elizabeth I prorogued parliament. It occurred in 1559.