Those who hold national elected office typically consider it a high honor, difficult to achieve, and easy to lose. This has not always been the case. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that it is illegal to resign from the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
The inability of a Member of Parliament (MP) to quit has nothing to do with the mindless bureaucracy of government. Actually, that’s not entirely true; it has a whale of a lot to do with the mindless bureaucracy of government. That’s not where the rule started, however.
Parliament consists of two bodies: the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Serving in the House of Commons has historically been considered an obligation, rather than a political stepping stone or position of power. In the days when travel was treacherous and the position was unpaid, it was difficult finding people who were willing and able to serve. Many, in fact, were elected against their will.
In addition to the financial hardships, holding a seat in Parliament could be hazardous to one’s health. The Speaker of the House of Commons was charged with the responsibility of communicating with the monarch on behalf of Parliament. On more than one occasion, the sovereign expressed displeasure with the message by executing the messenger. To this day, a newly-elected Speaker is physically dragged to the Speaker’s chair by other MPs, reflecting the fact that it often took more than gentle coaxing to entice the Speaker to take his office.
Recognizing that there were few perks to encourage MPs to remain in office, Parliament took the approach of retaining members by making it illegal for anyone to resign. The rule was adopted on March 2, 1624, stating, “… that a man, after he is duly chosen, cannot relinquish.”
Despite the fact that this law remains on the books, MPs have found a creative, albeit cumbersome, way to leave the House of Commons if they really want to. Those who wish to be relieved of their responsibilities do so by applying to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for appointment to Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, or Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. They do this because the rules of Parliament prohibit holding either of these offices at the same time as serving in Parliament.
Both of the positions carry the responsibility of overseeing ancient administrative divisions that no longer exist. They are known as sinecures, meaning that they require no real responsibilities but give the holder status and benefit,
much like many of the elected positions in government. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Be sure to remove the last part of the previous sentence before publishing this article. That sounds a bit too cynical and politically jaundiced, even for this website). (SUBSEQUENT EDITOR’S NOTE: Are we sure the official Commonplace Fun Facts proofreader positions aren’t sinecures? Does anyone even READ these notes before pushing “PUBLISH”?)
Although the positions carry no salary, they still trigger the rule that mandates expulsion from Parliament for holding an “office of profit under the Crown.”
Upon being appointed to either position, that individual remains in that office until resigning or until another Member of Parliament wants out and gets appointed to the post.
Why, you may ask, does Parliament still require all of this hassle to leave a job that is now pretty easy to fill? For the answer to that question, we have to turn to a politician who served on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. President Ronald Reagan once observed, “A government [program, once established] is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”