The UK Parliament is in a state of flux, reflecting radical changes in British society and its political life, as well as rising demands to be more effective and accountable to public opinion. The rules and procedures by which Parliament operates, and political conflicts and pressures are resolved, are a vital element in the study and understanding of UK constitutional law. This article analyses the nature, scope and effects of parliamentary practice and procedure at Westminster, and how they are utilised by government ministers, the opposition and backbench members, for their respective political ends. It considers the impact of recent procedural changes and likely future developments.
How the internal workings of the United Kingdom Parliament operate in practice, and how grand theories of constitutionalism — rule of law, sovereignty and democracy — relate to the practical realities of everyday Westminster politics, remains an obscure yet increasingly important element in the country’s constitutional law. Parliamentary procedure is of a diverse and multitudinous nature, and almost all its labyrinth of rules are enforceable by each House itself, not the courts. In times of rising political tensions, as undoubtedly exist in the UK at present — with negotiations on departure from the European Union (EU) underway, and the instability of a minority party in government struggling to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons — the constitutional process and resolution of challenges facing the country and its political class will be settled through the use, and possible misuse, of parliamentary procedure.
Furthermore, because the UK lacks a written constitution, parliamentary procedure assumes a higher legal and political significance compared to most countries. For it means there is no body of entrenched basic laws governing and controlling the affairs of the executive and government of the country. The courts are subordinate to Parliament and may only interpret parliamentary enactments1 and statutory powers of the executive, not overrule them on any constitutional grounds.2 Neither may the judiciary adjudicate on or inquire into the internal workings of Parliament, this being a cardinal principle of the seventeenth century constitutional settlement enshrined in art.9 of the Bill of Rights 1689.3 Instead the common law doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty provides that Parliament is the supreme and dominant legal and political authority on all matters in the state.4 The consequence of this is that it is within Parliament itself, and its working procedures that the primary constitutional architecture exists for controlling and limiting the power and activities of central government and the political executive as well as itself.
This article provides an analysis of the species of rules and procedures that regulates and facilitates the internal workings of the Westminster Parliament. It focuses especially on the House of Commons, being the democratic component of Parliament on whose continuing confidence the life of the government depends, with the House of Lords today being an essentially revising assembly and the monarchy performing a purely ceremonial role.5 It considers the legal nature and political importance of Westminster parliamentary procedures and the constitutional fundamentals that have served to shape them. Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, hardly ever acts as a cohesive entity in itself and is best understood as a clearing house of political pressures and competing interests. For this reason, the analysis proceeds from the perspective of the three political players at Westminster — the government, the opposition and backbenchers.6 It discusses the most politically potent procedures available to each of these three groups for the performance of their constitutional functions and evaluates how each manipulates and uses the procedures of Parliament to their own political advantage and to what effect. The extent to which recent procedural changes have strengthened the overall performance of Parliament is considered, and an assessment given of current problems and challenges facing Westminster that are likely to drive future further reform.