Tuesday, 13 April 2010

From a bygone age: The State Dissolution of Parliament

Yesterday the British Parliament was formally dissolved, a week after Gordon Brown asked Queen Elizabeth II to do so. While the State Opening of Parliament on 25 May will take place with all the usual pomp and circumstance, the dissolution was a rather low-key affair.
Norway is another of the countries in which the State Opening of Parliament takes place with much ceremony (the ceremonial has hardly changed since independence 196 years ago). And until twenty years ago this country also had a State Dissolution of Parliament with much of the same ceremonial.
The King and his entourage would be received by a deputation at the Parliament Building’s royal entrance (which until 1929 was only used by the King) and escorted to the Parliament Chamber. Before 1905 the King would sit on his throne on a dais, flanked by those royal princes who might be present, whereas the Queen and other ladies of the royal family would sit in the Diplomatic Box. After 1905 the tradition has been that the Queen also sits on the dais.
Before declaring Parliament dissolved, the King would make a speech from the throne. In the 19th century, when the King was still a political figure, the speech could sometimes be critical of Parliament’s conduct, while at other times the King would express his content with the way issues had been dealt with. The Speaker of Parliament would thereafter make a short speech and the ceremony would conclude with the MPs joining the Speaker in a “God preserve the King and the mother country!” (until 1905 “the King, the mother country and the fraternal country”, the latter being to Sweden, which was then in a union of crowns with Norway).
In those days the King could also use the dissolution of Parliament as a power instrument, such as Carl XIV Johan did in 1836 (an action which led to the impeachment of Prime Minister Severin Løvenskiold). If Parliament had much unfinished business left, this would normally necessitate an extraordinary Parliament being called, consisting of the same MPs.
When the King ceased being a political figure, his speech at the dissolution was limited to formalities. The last time this ceremony took place was on 21 June 1989, when King Olav V was joined by Crown Prince Harald. The King’s speech read in its entirety:
“Mr Speaker! Representatives of the people! As Parliament has announced that it has reached the end of its negotiations, I hereby declare, in keeping with § 80 of the Constitution, the negotiations of the 133rd ordinary Parliament for concluded”.
The Speaker, Jo Benkow, thereafter made a speech, detailing the number of issues dealt with by the Parliament followed by some generalities such as some decisions having been reached unanimously, others with strongly diverging opinions.
The ceremony was thus empty of content and often quite unpractical, as Parliament’s workload at the end of the session is often immense, with parliamentary meetings going on until the early hours. Sometimes they would hardly have finished their business before the King arrived and there would thus be very little time for the quite complicated process of taking down the Speaker’s podium and setting up the throne and its canopy.
On 29 May 1990 Parliament amended the Constitution so that Parliament is no longer dissolved. In the days Parliament was formally dissolved in June, Norway would be without a national assembly until the new Parliament met in October, which would necessitate calling an extraordinary Parliament if a national crisis occurred in the summer. The amendment of 1990 means that, although there are no sittings in July, August and September, the parliamentary session lasts until the end of September, so that the country is formally never without a Parliament. Thus the Norwegian Parliament is no longer dissolved at all, and therefore the ceremony of the State Dissolution of Parliament also disappeared quietly into history.

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