Last month I listened to oral arguments of two cases being appealed before the U.K.’s Supreme Court. The cases, one an appeal from England and Wales and the other an appeal from Scotland,dealt with the U.K. prime minister’s August 2019 decision regarding the prorogation of Parliament.
I noticed that the lawyers presenting the cases referred on several occasions to a gentleman named Erskine May. Erskine May appeared to be extremely knowledgeable on parliamentary procedure – a walking encyclopedia one might say. I wondered if perhaps he was an aide to the Speaker of the House of Commons. However, upon inquiry, I discovered that the Erskine May being referenced is in fact a book about parliamentary procedure: Erskine May’s Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament.
I decided to do some research on the eponymous Erskine May. To my delight, he began his career in 1831 as an assistant librarian in the House of Commons. While still in this position, he published the first edition of his treatise on parliamentary procedures in 1844. He continued to work in the House of Commons, and from 1871 to 1886, he was the Clerk of the House of Commons. He died in May 1886, shortly after his retirement and being made Baron Farnborough.
It is important to note that Erskine May’s 1844 treatise on parliamentary procedure was not the first. One of his predecessors as Clerk of the House of Commons, John Hatsell, authored a work in 1781 titled Precedents of the proceedings in the House of Commons, with observations. However, throughout his career as a civil servant in Parliament, May continued to produce new editions of his work on a regular basis and even after his death his name has continued to be associated with this definitive work on parliamentary procedure in the U.K.