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18 March 2019

What is Erskine May?

Why John Bercow quoted a section from Erskine May today when he ruled out a third vote on the government’s Brexit deal.

By Eleni Courea

Commons speaker John Bercow quoted “Erskine May” today when he ruled out a third vote on the government’s Brexit deal unless it is substantially changed.

“What is Erskine May?”, you may ask. Is it a person or a document?

The answer is both. Erskine May is a shorthand way of referring to the Guide to Parliamentary Practice first published in 1844 by Thomas Erskine May, who was a constitutional theorist and Commons clerk.

The guide’s proper title is “A treatise on the law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament”, but it’s referred to as Erskine May or simply May. The latest edition of it was made available online for the first time this year, on parliament’s website.

The document is not a rigid set of rules—rather, it’s a description of how procedure in the Houses of Parliament has evolved and what conventions apply. It has grown from 496 pages in 1844 to over 1,000 pages today.

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In his statement today, Bercow read out a section from Erskine May which states: “A motion or amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during the same session… Whether the second motion is substantially the same as the first is finally a matter for the judgement of the Chair.”

This convention, which is quoted in Erskine May, actually dates back to 1604, well before the first edition was published.

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