Though a speech from the monarch or the chancellor at the opening of the session had long been one of the main rituals of each session of parliament, the process of giving formal thanks for the speech is not recorded in the Commons journal before the Restoration in 1660. It became common in the 1660s for the Commons to acknowledge a particularly noteworthy statement in the speech, such as the king’s announcement on his marriage plans in 1661 (though this was initiated by the Lords), his statement on negotiations with the Dutch in 1664, or his management of the subsequent war in 1665 and 1666. The more aggressive court management practices that are noticeable from the late 1660s and early 1670s may have tried to push this tactic further, in order to test and demonstrate support in the House for a divisive political strategy. In February 1673 the government’s opponents resisted its attempt to use an address of thanks to commit the House to continue funding for war with the Dutch by moving a motion for candles, provoking a long debate well into the night by the light of the single candle at the clerk’s desk. In January 1674 the government was successful in getting the House to resolve ‘That the humble and hearty thanks of the this House be returned to HM, for those acts which he has done since the last prorogation, towards the suppressing and discountenancing of Popery, and for his gracious promises and assurances in his last speech.’ The existence of an address probably reflects the strength or otherwise of the court in the Commons. There was an address thanking the king for his speech in April 1675 (though only after a division); none in October 1675; and none in February 1677. ; and although there was one in January 1678, its main point was to request the king to follow an alternative line of foreign policy than the one on which he was currently engaged — clearly something of an embarrassment for ministers. In October 1678 there was no address of thanks, but one only for a fast in response to the public panic about the Popish Plot. The revival of the government’s ability to get its way in the House after the accession of James II in 1685 was signalled by its success in getting a straightforward vote of thanks that year.
The practice seems to have continued, and become more standard after the Revolution of 1688. In most years after October 1690 there would be a vote for an address of thanks for the speech, and a committee would be appointed to prepare the address itself, which would be approved and presented on a subsequent day. Certainly by the reign of Queen Anne, if not before, the process of returning thanks for the speech from the throne had become a regular part of proceedings. David Hayton has noticed, in his introductory survey to the 1690-1715 volumes of the History of Parliament, the growth in the number of members involved in the select committee appointed to draft the address. This may reflect a growth in the length of the debate, as later at least, it was customary to include in the committee everyone who had spoken in favour of the speech.
The political and procedural process as it stood by 1722 is described in notes by a young Samuel Sandys. On the Sunday before the Tuesday on which Parliament met to elect a Speaker, he wrote, there was a private meeting of the principal Whig politicians at Sir Robert Walpole’s house, which decided on who was to be proposed as Speaker, and who would move and second the address. Walpole would also read the king’s speech. It was followed by a second and much wider meeting the following day, at ‘the Cockpit’ (in fact William Kent’s Treasury building at the back of the Cabinet Office and Downing Street), to which those Members who regarded themselves as ministerial supporters were invited. There the speech was read again, and the persons who had been chosen to move and second the address were announced. At the meeting it was committed to these two – William Pulteney and George Doddington – to draft the ‘heads’, i.e. the main points, of the address. The choice is interesting: Pulteney was the man to whom Walpole had once been exceptionally close, but they had become estranged after 1718, and Pulteney would eventually be one of the great man’s principal antagonists: in 1722 Walpole was going through an attempt to bring him back within his circle again. Doddington, an able and ambitious member about seven years Pulteney’s junior, would be in 1724 appointed a lord of the treasury.
After the Speaker was duly elected in the House of Commons on the Tuesday, the King attended on Thursday to give his approbation to the House’s choice, and made his beginning-of-the-session speech. The House then settled down to taking the oaths and preliminary business. On the following Sunday there was another ‘private’ meeting at Walpole’s, at which Pulteney produced the ‘heads’, and there was a discussion of a particularly controversial aspect of the speech, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. On Monday, the Speaker formally repeated the King’s speech to the House, and Pulteney moved, and Doddington seconded, the address. The heads of the address given by Pulteney were criticised for failing to refer to a passage in the speech in which the King claimed that he would ‘make the laws the measure and rule of his government’ – presumably a point of some significance given the government’s plans to suspend Habeas Corpus. The opposition demanded that the address should reflect the king’s commitment, which the government accepted. A committee, headed by the mover and seconder, was sent off to draw up the address (presumably a draft was ready to go); the text was presented the following day, and agreed to without a division. It was normal then for a request to go to the monarch to find out when it was convenient for the address to be presented to him; and on an appointed day and time, members of the House would do the presenting.
There was some sensitivity about the identity of the mover and seconder: a feeling that the process should not be overtly dominated by the government meant that it was preferred that independent members were chosen for the task: but in the end, it was often either someone who held government office already, or someone who was closely identified with the court either as a constant backbench ally or an aspirant office-holder. The debate itself would roam widely over the government’s plans and policies, but would rarely before the war of American Independence result in a division: opposition members were poorly organised, and rarely turned up in sufficient strength to make a good showing so early in a session. There was a complication with the process of first agreeing the heads of the address, and then agreeing the address itself, since it was argued that once the heads were agreed, to vote against the address as a whole would be potentially to be to overturn that decision. But that did not preclude votes on amendments to the text of the address. It was from time to time claimed that if the Address contained a comprehensive endorsement of government policy (rather than a mere expression of thanks for the speech) the House had effectively lost its right to debate the government’s proposals and actions in detail. But this was a political and rhetorical point rather than a procedural one, and there is no evidence that anyone felt particularly constrained by the approval of the address.
By the later eighteenth century, a vote on at least an amendment to the address had become relatively common. There was a startling and adept coup achieved by Sir Francis Burdett in 1812, when he managed to step in with some heads of his own before the government-appointed mover of the address, Robert Jocelyn, got up to propose their very different version: the government, amid enormous embarrassment, had to insert its own heads for an address as an amendment. When governments had lost their majority at a general election, it was usual them to wait to resign until they were defeated in the debate on the address: the resignation of Lord Derby’s ministry, for example, came on 10 June 1859 following its defeat by 13 votes on an amendment to the address, leaving Lord Palmerston to become Prime Minister. Disraeli’s decision to resign in 1868 after his government’s defeat in a general election but before Parliament had actually met was widely seen as a very significant acknowledgement of constitutional change – that the House of Commons was ‘becoming less and less that assembly of wise men who met in earlier times to confer on affairs, and more and more the delegates of the people who sent them to Westminster’ – though it should be said that there were reversions to the older practice, among them in 1886 when Lord Salisbury’s government resigned on the passage of Jesse Collings’s amendment to the address, letting in Gladstone and setting the course for the Irish Home Rule Crisis.
Procedurally, the debate on the address remained pretty much the same for a century and a half. From 1852 the address was presented to the Queen not by any members who chose to accompany it, but by privy councillors only, presumably a decision reflecting the Queen’s own preference (it was around the same time that she ceased to open Parliament in person). But towards the end of the nineteenth century the debate on the address expanded to fill days and days of parliamentary time. Before the 1880s, the debate on the address had rarely taken up more than a day of the time of the House: out of 79 years before 1880 only on eight occasions had it taken more – just once, in the second session of 1841, it had taken up four days, in a debate which marked the end of Lord Melbourne’s government. In the first session of 1880 it took up 4 days again; in 1881 it was ten, in 1882, six; in 1883 it was eleven, and in 1887 it even took 16 days. In part the reason was – as with a number of other procedural problems of the late nineteenth century – the jubilant recklessness and procedural inventiveness of the Irish parliamentary party under Charles Stewart Parnell; but it was also the result of the progressive shutting down over the previous thirty or forty years of so many other opportunities for wide-ranging debate. Many more Members, beyond the Irish, took advantage of the chance to raise matters of concern to themselves and their constituents. The wide-ranging nature of the debate meant that a series of amendments could be moved on almost anything that Members wanted to talk about. In October 1884, for example, after the Speaker reported the Queen’s speech and the heads for the reply (which had by now become effectively the text of the address itself) had been moved, an amendment was moved concerning the Maamtrasna murders in Ireland, a notorious miscarriage of justice case. The debate on that amendment continued on the following day and after the weekend, when the question was put and negatived without a division. Debate continued on the main question on the following day, and the day after that, when a new amendment, on the freedom of political discussion, was moved and defeated on division. On the next day a further amendment was moved on the economic depression, and again negatived. After a second weekend, debate was resumed again, and another amendment proposed on the composition of juries in Ireland. After that was defeated on the following day, a final amendment was proposed concerning South Africa, and subsequently withdrawn. At last the House agreed to the main question and referred it to a committee to draw up the address. The address was reported the same day. But that wasn’t the end of it, for on the following day another Irish amendment was proposed to the motion to agree to the address before the address was finally accepted. It’s scarcely a surprise that the additional, and essentially pointless, stage of sending the heads to a committee for the drafting of the address itself was abolished as one of a series of procedural changes in 1888. It didn’t make a great deal of difference, though, for the debate on the address was still taking ten days or more in the early years of the twentieth century, before falling back to five to seven days for much of the rest of it. These days it usually takes four or five.
And why, finally, the fancy dress? ‘It is the custom’, the lobby journalist Michael McDonagh wrote in 1897,
for the proposer and seconder of the Address in each House to attend in their places in uniform or full dress. The uniforms of the Militia or Yeomanry are much affected on such occasions, but if the necessary commission in either of these branches of the service is not held by the proposer or seconder, court costume or levée dress is worn; and the rule which prohibits a member of either House to enter it wearing a sword is suspended for the occasion. There is, however, on record one instance of the Address having been seconded by a member who wore neither a civil nor military uniform. Mr Charles Fenwick, the labour member, when he seconded the motion for the Address at the opening of the first Session of the Liberal Parliament of 1893-95, wore ordinary attire.
Fenwick’s practice is now the normal one: I’m not sure when was the last time that uniform was worn by the mover or seconder of the Address – perhaps someone knows – though early editions of May say that levée dress was abandoned in 1939. Levee dress, impressively modelled by Alan Duncan at Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, is a version of formal court dress, so-called because it was worn at formal court occasions. And why was it customarily required for the mover and seconder, and when did it become so? It’s so far proved resistant to answer. Most likely is that they normally participated in some occasion following the debate on the speech at which such dress was required. That might have been the formal presentation of the address to the King or Queen – though that did not always take place on the same day as the debate. It might have been because the Speaker invited them to one of his own levées or dinners on that day, at which it was also customary to wear court dress – though Speaker Abbott, in the early years of the nineteenth century, seems to have held his dinner on the day before the Queen’s speech. So, as with the origin of many other parliamentary traditions, it remains, for now, a mystery.