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Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein politician, has decided to step down as MP for Mid-Ulster despite never actually taking his seat in Westminster. There is just one problem: members of Britain’s House of Commons are not allowed to resign their seats.
The prohibition against voluntary resignation is based on a resolution that the Commons passed in 1624. Back then, parliamentary service was often seen as more of a burden than an honor. MPs did not receive a salary, and traveling to Westminster was no easy task. And since Parliament was still more of an event than an institution, MPs would rarely be expected to sit for more than a few weeks anyway.
Several decades later in 1680, the Commons passed a resolution forbidding MPs from accepting offices or ‘places of profit’ under the Crown. Anyone who contravened the resolution forfeited his seat. At the time, MPs feared that having colleagues on the Crown’s payroll would undermine Parliament’s independence.
Similarly, because government ministers were technically servants of the Crown, they had to resign from the Commons and seek re-election upon taking ministerial office. The practice of forcing ministers to seek re-election was not done away with until 1926.
In the eighteenth century, Crown stewardships became a legal fiction that allowed MPs to resign from the Commons. Although there were originally a number of these minor offices, the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 whittled the list down to two: the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham and the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. However, these offices now exist only on paper, and their holders do not receive any sort of salary.
So now when an MP wishes to resign, he or she must write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Britain’s finance minister), who then signs a warrant appointing the person to one of the two stewardships. The ex-MP will hold their new ‘office’ until it is needed to allow someone else to resign. In some cases, the tenure can be quite brief: on December 17, 1985, fifteen MPs resigned at once!
Given that Martin McGuinness is a staunch republican, it is ironic that he is now technically one of the Queen’s servants. A spokesman for Sinn Fein was typically dismissive of his new appointment: “as Irish republicans we gave no time for antiquated and ridiculous titles of the British parliamentary system.”
Image Courtesy : UK Parliament