K is for ‘Kangaroo closure’, a procedure invented in 1909 in the context of a bitter parliamentary battle over the Liberal government’s budget proposals. It then attracted execration; these days, known as the selection of amendments, its association with efforts to limit the opportunities for debate has been largely forgotten.
Lord Robert Cecil, the conservative MP (though then out of Parliament), and son of the former prime minister, the marquess of Salisbury, began a 1911 article by lamenting the difficulty of explaining some of the minutiae of parliamentary life:
The procedure of the House of Commons will, I suppose, always be an impenetrable mystery to the man in the street. To him the commonest parliamentary formula is meaningless gibberish. The oft-repeated statement by the Speaker that the question that he has to put is that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the question fills the ordinary occupant of the Strangers’ Gallery with blank amazement; nor can he conceive why a motion to report progress should in fact put an end to all progress in the Bill under discussion. Such things must, he feels, be accepted as facts incapable of explanation, part of the esoteric ritual of legislation into which it is safer not to pry. [The Saturday Review, 6 May 1911, p. 545]
Such things, though, Cecil went on, required attention: no-one could doubt, he claimed, that the privileges of Parliament might be ‘whittled away more easily and not less effectually by rules of procedure than by armed force’.
Cecil’s target was the so-called ‘Kangaroo closure’, a procedure introduced to great excitement in 1909 as a ‘revolutionary’ measure, but which has since then been assimilated and domesticated into a routine known these days as the selection of amendments by the chair, either in committee or in the House itself. Its introduction came in the context of the response to the sort of arms race that was in process between the government and its parliamentary opponents (and not just in Britain) since the 1870s. ‘Obstruction’, often linked to House of Commons battles over legislation relating to Ireland, had forced successive governments to seek reforms of the procedure of the House to overcome opposition that went well beyond the more gentlemanly conventions of parliamentary warfare. A growing crisis over Irish legislation resulted in the introduction of a procedure for removing the obstructionists in 1880 so draconian in effect and cumbersome in practice that governments were reluctant to use it; to Speaker Brand’s dramatic action on 1 February 1881 in ending, on his own authority, a debate that had already gone on for forty-one hours; and to the introduction shortly after of a series of reforms that had the effect of limiting discussion, including the closure – giving the Speaker the formal power to bring an end to a particular debate. Condemned as a French invention, likely to lead to the end of parliamentary freedom, the closure was vigorously contested, but nevertheless strengthened in a further series of reforms in 1887.
The immediate reason for the introduction of the more specific ‘kangaroo’ closure was the confrontation in 1909 between Asquith’s newish Liberal government and the Conservative opposition over chancellor of the exchequer David Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’, and the Finance Bill which enacted its proposals. The budget included a series of measures (in particular dramatic increases in estates duty and land tax) in order to pay for the new old age pension scheme, as well as growing defence expenditure. Its detractors called the result ‘inquisitorial, tyrannical and Socialistic’, ‘the beginning of the end of all rights of property’, ‘a monument of reckless and improvident finance’. The opposition prepared to use every means available – despite their numerical weakness – to fight it. The Finance Bill had its second reading over four days from Monday 7 June; on the 21st its committee stage began, carried out, as was then usual, in committee of the whole House. After four and a half weeks the committee had got through only about a tenth of the bill, after a series of sittings that, after the first, never finished before midnight, and usually between 2 and 4 a.m. – once at 9 a.m. – with the opposition mounting a constant barrage of procedural objections and manoeuvres to wear out the government side.
In order to break the deadlock, the government decided it would have to take action, though it seems to have been reluctant to adopt another weapon in the procedural armoury that had been introduced in the 1880s – the ‘closure by compartments’, or the ‘guillotine’, specifying dates for the completion of various parts of the bill. The reluctance to use the guillotine puzzled several members at the time. It may have been motivated by a concern to avoid giving the House of Lords an excuse to break the ancient taboo against the upper House amending a bill involving the grant of money – held to be a role only for the Commons.
Instead, the prime minister, Asquith, introduced on 28 July two proposals in order to expedite the bill, one of which was this refinement of the closure. Asquith’s proposal was to allow for a motion to be made (with the consent of the Speaker, or whoever else was in the Chair at the time) either in the House or in Committee to allow the Chair to select the amendments to be proposed in respect of a certain motion, or a specific part of a bill. In normal circumstances, the House or the Committee would simply have to deal with all of the amendments that had been submitted by individual Members, in turn – which could be a very large number. The new power would enable the Chair to decide which of them were ‘in order’ – largely, but not exclusively, meaning relevant to that motion or to that particular part of the bill – and which were of sufficient significance for debate, excluding all of those that were, he judged, of minor importance. Asquith claimed that this was simply an extension of existing practice under the closure rule, where Chairmen had sometimes decided not to agree to a closure on a particular clause in a bill as long as the opposition agreed to limit their efforts on that clause to the one or two most significant amendments. The leader of the opposition, Arthur Balfour (responsible himself for quite a few proposals cutting the time available for debate) responded that the government was seeking to turn a very rare occurrence, only used a handful of times since 1887, into normal procedure. ‘If this passes’, he argued, ‘we shall from this date have a quite new procedure regularly adopted whenever a highly controversial or difficult bill is before the House of Commons’. The previous procedure, he argued, had been one in which the outcome was negotiated: the new one, he alleged, was ‘martial law’, and would drag the Chair into constant political controversy. Perhaps most virulent in opposition was the political maverick Lord Robert Cecil, who called it a ‘revolutionary change in our procedure’, which would destroy the power of the opposition either to wear down the government or to persuade its backbenchers of their view.
The government got their way, and the new Standing Order was made. Even so, the Commons Proceedings on the Finance Bill ground right through the summer and on into November, the Committee having taken a total of seventy sitting days. Still to come was the fight with the Lords – a battle that would result in two elections in 1910 and the introduction of the Parliament Bill in 1911, a bill that would itself be subjected to the new closure procedure, eliciting Lord Robert Cecil’s further protests, as well as a guillotine. The selection of amendments would eventually become routinely accepted, no doubt because, given the amount of amendments presented to most bills, very many of them offered by the government itself, progress otherwise would be completely impossible. It’s no longer regarded as having much to do with closure at all, and indeed, it was probably only ever closure by association, rather than in actuality. It now forms Standing Order No. 32.
Why Kangaroo closure? The name was current by the end of 1910, when Austen Chamberlain used it in the Commons (on 21 November). The conventional, and no doubt accurate, assumption, is that it acquired the nickname because it means that certain amendments are not debated, and therefore leapt over – ‘as a kangaroo clears a row of hurdles’, as W.T. Stead put it in 1911 when it was being used on the Liberal government’s subsequent Parliament Bill. [The Review of Reviews , no. 257, May 1911, p. 428]. But other words come more readily to mind (leapfrog, for example), and the phrase seems to indicate some antipodean context. Not a parliamentary one, for no such form of closure had been introduced into the Australian Parliament, which had only brought in a basic closure rule in 1905. Perhaps some allusion was originally intended to the so-called ‘Kangaroo tours’ to Britain of the Australian National Rugby team, the first of which took place in the winter of 1908-9, and the second in 1911-12. All suggestions welcome.
The parliamentary battle over the 1909 Finance Bill and the 1911 Parliament Bill is most fully dealt with in Roy Jenkins’s Mr Balfour’s Poodle (1954)