Over the last three years, Spread the Word has intermittently taken an interest in the linguistic ramifications of the process currently embroiling UK politics, to the exclusion of almost all other business: Brexit.
This month, the Brexit-related word on everyone’s lips is prorogue. Unlike most other Brexit-related terminology, prorogue is not a new word. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first use in 1419, but with a different meaning – ‘to extend in time’ – which is pretty much the opposite of its second meaning, ‘to put off for a time; to defer or postpone’, first recorded in 1453. This is the general meaning that is in use today, but its use is much more specific and restricted: to end a session of parliament, but without dissolving it and calling new elections.
I actually first came across the term prorogue over 30 years ago, while researching my A level history project on the divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII was a man who liked to get his own way and, as a sixteenth-century monarch, he was immensely powerful and did not scruple to use Parliament for his own personal and political ends.
In the seventeenth century, Charles I had a less productive relationship with Parliament, frequently disagreeing with it, until in 1629 he prorogued it and simply ruled without Parliament for eleven years. In 1640 he summoned Parliament again because he needed its consent to raise taxes for a war with Scotland. However, the Long Parliament refused to do his bidding, leading to the outbreak of the English Civil War, a period of great turmoil and bloodshed for the whole country, which ended most unhappily for Charles when he was convicted of treason and executed in 1649.
That’s all history now, of course, and prorogue might seem like a term that only belongs in the history books, but it is actually more common as an action than you might think. It is still only the queen or king who can prorogue parliament but in modern times she or he always does so at the request of the prime minister. The present Queen has prorogued parliament nearly every year throughout her 67-year reign. It is the normal way to end a session of parliament before beginning a new one with the Queen’s speech outlining a new legislative programme. The prorogation lasts only a few days and is so normal that we don’t even talk about it.
This time it is different. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, asked that parliament be prorogued for five weeks between 9 September and 14 October, in order (he said) to prepare a new Queen’s speech. His critics complained that this would leave too little time for MPs to debate Brexit or scrutinize and amend the government’s Brexit policy before the current exit deadline of 31 October. The prorogation became the subject of a legal challenge in both England and Scotland. The English court ruled that it was lawful; the Scottish court ruled that it was not. It was then up to the Supreme Court of the UK to decide. On 24 September, the eleven judges of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. The Speaker of the House of Commons immediately summoned MPs back to Parliament.
Whatever happens next, it seems that the UK’s constitution is being tested. The principles and procedures by which the UK is governed have developed over many centuries. They are not written down in a single document that can be referred to in a dispute. Is it finally time for the UK to adopt a written constitution – like almost every other country in the world?
Diana Lea is a Managing Editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.