M is for Motions, the key devices by which anything is initiated in either House of Parliament. They are to be distinguished from Questions, the form in which the Speaker puts proposals to the House for decision. These days the two will always be essentially the same words. But in earlier times the relationship between a motion and what was put to the House was rather more complicated.

In the modern versions of Parliament’s procedural manual, Erskine May, the moving of a motion is one of the two central building blocks of parliamentary proceedings, alongside the putting of a question: ‘every matter is determined in both Houses upon questions put from the Chair upon a motion made by a Member, and resolved in the affirmative or negative, as the case may be’ (15th edition, 1950, p. 376). For something to happen, someone has to move it first. Curiously, though, the earliest, nineteenth century, editions of Erskine May omit any mention of a motion from the equivalent sentence: ‘every matter is determined in both Houses, upon questions put by the speaker, and resolved in the affirmative or negative, as the case may be.’ (This is from the second, 1851, edition, p. 209). Of motions, May in 1851 merely said that ‘every member is entitled to propose a question, which is called “moving the House,” or, more commonly, “making a motion”.’ This may be because later clerks had developed their thinking about how procedure works from that of their nineteenth-century predecessors; but it may also reflect some lingering unclarity about the respective roles of the Speaker and individual Members in defining the precise way in which a question is formulated. Though it may sound pedantic, it’s a crucial point: even where there is broad agreement on the issue, exactly what words are used can profoundly alter the meaning of the final decision, as well as considerably affect the willingness of Members to vote for it – the person who frames the question is to a considerable extent determining the outcome.

In the later sixteenth century, when the sources first allow us to glimpse how Parliament came to its decisions (rather than merely see what the decisions were), the word ‘motion’ was routinely used to describe what a Member of either House did when standing up in the chamber and proposing something. The word was already by then applied to formal statements intended to provoke some action (the Oxford English Dictionary has fifteenth century examples of it in this sense). The word isn’t used in the most comprehensive extant description of proceedings in the Commons from the fifteenth century, the account of the 1485 session by the burgesses of Colchester. However, they do refer to ‘questions moved’, which seems to be a combination of the ideas of a motion and a question. More information is available after the Journals of the Lords and Commons begin in 1510 and 1547 respectively. The first use of the word ‘motion’ in the Commons Journal I’ve found is on 5 October 1553, when the speaker is proposed ‘at the motion and nomination’ of the comptroller of the royal household ; there is an earlier use of it in the Journal of the Lords, in 1549, but this is, in fact, the only use of the word in the first volume of the Lords journal – though this probably says more about the format of the Lords Journal than about its use of the idea of motions.

The later sixteenth century journals and other accounts of proceedings, at least in the Commons, have Members constantly making motions. But they also show that sometimes many individual Members moved motions in the course of what appears to be a single debate. The Journal’s common formulation ‘after sundry motions’ reflects this process (an example from 1571 here, covers the discussion that followed the discovery that an amendment had not had the requisite number of readings). In some debates it is possible to see how the House may begin with many different proposals from many quarters, often contradictory, often containing detail which it would be difficult to fit into a coherent single motion, and then how it becomes increasingly clear that one particular solution attracts significant support. At this point it might be the role of the Speaker to define the specific question: a later seventeenth century procedural manual explained that following a debate started off by a motion, ‘the Speaker, collecting the sense of the House upon the debate, is to reduce the same into a question, which he is to propound, to the end that the House in their debate afterwards may be kept to the matter of that question’. Amendments might be proposed to it (in the format that such and such words ‘stand part of the question’), but essentially it would become the text on which a vote would be taken. [Observations, Rules and Orders of the House of Commons, ed. W.R. McKay, p. 57]

One example appears in the anonymous journal for the 1592 session of Parliament, covering the debates on the grants of subsidies to the Crown. (Hartley, Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, iii, 105) There was initial broad agreement on a proposal from a royal spokesman, that three subsidies (i.e. taxes based on a proportion of goods) might be paid over four years. But then a number of members are recorded as making alternative proposals, or proposals which refine the original idea. Many of these are referred to as ‘motions’. Eventually Sir Robert Cecil proposes ‘that the sentence [another text uses the word ‘question’ here, and ‘sentence’ is clearly used in the sense of ‘determination’ or ‘decision’] what hath had so many parenthesis might now be brought to a period, and the bear’s whelp that had been so many times licked over might now be made somewhat. For that is always the most honourable conclusion which having received many contradictions is in the end concluded’. And so, wrote the diarist, ‘he desired this matter of subsidy might be committed to some special committees in the afternoon’. There ensued further discussion about the nature of the committee and its remit, which seems to have been formulated (or ‘propounded’) as a question by the Speaker: ‘the question being propounded, it was answered that it should be by a general committee’. (Hartley, Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, III, 105)

This sort of rather free discussion process seems entirely appropriate for an assembly in which only a few people do much talking, and in which there is not an expectation of clear leadership (or a belief that a straightforward proposal might arouse opposition). It seems to reflect our own experience of the practice in many meetings where the Chairman’s role is to seek consensus around a sensible and workable decision. It is easy to see, though, how confused and directionless such debates might become. It also seems to be at odds with the practice which was regarded as proper in 1604: when Sir Edward Hoby then proposed that the House should send a message to the king commiserating with him for his having hurt his foot, another Member interposed to remind the House that it had not yet responded to the king’s message concerning a grant of subsidy. A third rebuked him, saying ‘that there was no Precedent for that Speech to be used, before another Motion made, had his Answer and End’. This third Member is describing the procedure as modern editions of May would do: only one motion can be dealt with at a time. (It should be said, there are such things as subsidiary motions, such as amendments, which can interrupt proceedings on a motion, but that need not bother us here.)

The 1604 example perhaps shows that procedure has developed from the late Elizabethan period – that the practice has become more rigid. But it’s also possible that the difference relates to the practice of seconding a motion. The late seventeenth century procedural manual states that ‘when a motion has been made, the same may not be put to the question until it be debated or at least have been seconded and prosecuted by one or more persons standing up in their places’. In other words, the Speaker will only feel obliged to convert a motion into a formal question for the House to debate if it has been seconded. The requirement for a motion to be seconded is now obsolete: almost its last vestiges were abolished in 1960 (‘except for ceremonial occasions’) on the recommendation of a procedure committee [Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, HC (1958-9), 92-I, para. 28; Hansard, 8 Feb. 1960]. However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century it no doubt provided a valuable indication of whether a motion was likely to obtain significant support in the House. In the eighteenth century it also provided a valuable way for the opponents of a motion to prevent it from being put before the House. If one of them could manage to gain the floor and speak, proposing an alternative motion, before a supporter had succeeded in seconding it, the course of the debate was deftly diverted. To achieve this might require the active co-operation of the Speaker, who would decide who should have the floor: Sir Robert Walpole  used his close relationship with the allegedly independent and unbiased Speaker Arthur Onslow to pull off the trick on more than one occasion.

By then the role of the Speaker in actually framing the question that was eventually put to the House had largely disappeared: some referred to Onslow as having been responsible for abandoning it. Although Members would occasionally refer to the practice at the beginning of the eighteenth century, by its end, the clerk, John Hatsell, referred to it as having been ‘long discontinued’. Speakers were careful both to ensure that there was an actual question before the House (sometimes difficult to achieve, because at the time a motion would be formally moved at the end of a Member’s speech, rather than at the beginning, as now), and to insist that the Member making a motion should provide them with the text in writing (although this was supposed to happen from as early as 1571).

The idea that the House needed to have an actual proposal right at the beginning of a debate, rather than emerging some way in the middle of it, probably made debate in the Commons less spontaneous and more formal: the breaking out of a ‘conversation’ between Members was regarded as a procedural mess, which the Speaker would strenuously try to avert. It may have meant that motions would tend to become more complex and carefully crafted: they would have to be prepared before the debate with a clear idea of what they were expected to achieve, rather than being (effectively) developed as a result of the debate itself. As motions become more formal, the assumption that notice ought to be provided of them grew too. But ‘Notice’ can conveniently become the blog for letter ‘N’.


Further Reading:

P.D.G. Thomas, The House of Commons in the Eighteenth Century (1971)

W.R. McKay, Observations, Rules and Orders of the House of Commons (1989)

2 thoughts on “Motions”

  1. What you describe here is not dissimilar to how Jersey’s States Assembly deals with the arrangement of public business at the end of each meeting, when the order of business for the next sitting is determined. It can be pretty confusing with lots of different propositions – to move items around, defer things, alter sitting times – and the presiding officer plays a role by determining which questions to put for decision and the order in which it’s done

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