Q& A and quiz
O Adamberry, by email
A First off, let’s just stick to the UK… A ‘parliament’ is the period between one general election and the next. Each parliament is divided into sessions which in the past generally started and ended in the autumn, and which begin with the state opening of parliament and the monarch’s speech. An actual meeting in the House of Commons or Lords is called a ‘sitting’.
The longest parliament in UK history ran from 1935 to 1945 because no general election was called until the last months of the Second World War, but during this time annual sessions ran as normal. The longest sitting on record ran for 41½ hours in 1881 and was for a debate on Ireland.
Technically, the longest session in England (as opposed to the UK) was the ‘Long Parliament’, which ran from 1640 until 1653, but this is open to argument as it went through separate phases and the monarch wasn’t involved after its start.
The workload of the Lords and Commons in the later 17th and 18th centuries was not usually onerous, but it has been getting heavier in the years since. The Commons sat for 226 days in 1893–94 (Irish home rule was on the agenda), well ahead of the previous record-holder (1838, 176 sittings).
There were spillover sessions in the early 20th century with the death of Queen Victoria, the 1902 Education Act and the ‘People’s Budget’ crisis, and again in 1912–13, while the 1939 session sat for 200 days.
Postwar parliaments have been busier, with new governments usually wanting to get contentious business out of the way early on. The 1945– 46 session of the Commons was 212 days; the 1966– 67 session ran for 246 days; and Margaret Thatcher’s first session as prime minister in 1979– 80 ran for 244 days.
The longest session was very recently, when David Cameron’s coalition government introduced fixed terms. The first session of his premiership sat on 295 days between 2010 and 2012. The current one may be longer; following the 2017 general election it was announced that the session would last through until 2019 because of the workload involved in leaving the European Union.