One of the side effects of Brexit has been to create a mass audience for the live stream of the House of Commons on parliament’s website. Which means more people than ever are now familiar with the formerly secret language of the place.
Thus anyone who wants to appear knowledgeable about current affairs has learnt how to roll ‘prorogue’ off the tongue, and the long reach of Norman French extends a little further after 953 years. It’s Old French, proroger, from Latin, prorogare, ‘prolong, extend’. Or, in the plainer language used by David Cameron, a bit of ‘sharp practice’ that landed Boris Johnson in the Supreme Court after he in turn became Prime Minister. There we were treated to the irony of ‘take back control’ leading to the Old French ‘justiciable’, as the court had to decide whether it had the right to rule on the prime minister’s parliamentary manoeuvre.
The prorogation itself involved a ceremony with a lot of doffing of hats and the Clerk of the Parliament signifying the royal assent to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill by saying, ‘La Reyne le veult,’ – Norman French for ‘The Queen wishes it.’
Some of parliament’s procedures are hard to understand even when in English. The struggle over Brexit means that much of the nation is now able to recite with the Speaker, ‘as many of that opinion say Aye, to the contrary No’ and so on, and to shout ‘lock the doors’ at the appropriate moment – eight minutes after the division bell, which means any MP who hasn’t made it to the lobby is too late to vote.
Parliament is, however, a good example of how any professional habitat creates its own insider jargon. House of Commons procedures have been modernized since TV coverage started in 1989. Prime Minister’s Questions no longer feature the prime minister repeating: ‘I refer the honourable member to the answer I gave some moments ago.’ But for each update, an ancient practice is revived.
In this parliament, the Opposition has rediscovered the device of presenting ‘An Humble Address’ to Her Majesty as a way of forcing the government to publish documents. Even new parts of the constitution are turned into a secret language. Special advisers – political appointees employed as temporary civil servants – have been shortened to spads, a word which, for another specialist group, stands for ‘signals passed at danger’. Which may or may not be curiously fitting.