A Brief History of Parliament

On Thursday evening I was kindly invited on a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament by my local MP, Richard Harrington.  Before I write-up a post about the tour itself I thought this would give a great opportunity to write a little about Parliament itself.

Though there were bodies with some parliamentary like qualities in ancient India and the Middle-East, Athens is often talked of as the cradle of democracy where the Assembly or Ekklesia was the most important institution in public life but whilst citizens were encouraged to vote, to be a fully fledged citizen you had to be an adult male.  The Roman Republic also had assemblies and a Senate which debated issues and dispensed power of the vast majority of peoples who had no voting rights whatsoever.

When it comes to Parliament though, it is fair to say that England is no slouch and many around the world refer to the British Parliament as the Mother of Parliaments or the Cradle of Democracy.  Going right back to the 4th and 5th centuries there was the Witenagemot.  Though these were irregularly held and usually at the behest of the monarch, they gave the opportunity for noblemen and religious figures to discuss matters with the King.  Whilst in many places the monarch was always the supreme power the Witenagemot didn’t just debate and advise the King but also had the power to elect or veto a King and could even replace the monarch if he were deemed.  At this time there were several Witenagemot’s, each for one of the great Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Northumbria, Kent, Sussex, Wessex and Mercia but as the land was unified the tradition continued with the earliest recorded acts coming from the 6th century.

Foreign dignitaries appearing before an Anglo-Saxon King and the Witenagemot

Foreign dignitaries appearing before an Anglo-Saxon King and the Witenagemot

William The Conqueror brought over some French and Norman traditions but the idea of the Witenagemot basically remained and through events such as The Magna Carta the power of the people grew.  Parliament itself is an English take on the French word  ‘Parler’ or to speak.   The Model Parliament in 1295 is considered important as it set the tone for the parliaments to follow and it constituted elected rural landowners and townsmen and gained further promises and restraints on the power of the monarch.

Things really began to take shape in Tudor times and it was under King Henry VIII that the country changed from one where the monarch was by far the most powerful figure to one where the monarch had to share real power with Parliament, in fact the monarch would rule through parliament.  Both Parliament and the Monarch had to agree to change laws, taxes or even religions.  Much of this evolution on the effectiveness of Parliament which gave the country the ability to rule itself even without a monarch is down to the diligent efforts of Thomas Cromwell during the Reformation who probably had one of hardest jobs in history as the Chief Minister.  He was the man who dealt with the many complex technicalities involving the religious split between Rome and London as well as creating the procedures and processes that took a medieval Parliament into a modern effective force.  He was also a clever and devious politician who made many enemies on his climb to the very top of society before his untimely execution at the hands of the King!

Having a Parliament obviously gave the country an advantage over other nations as England was no longer at the whim of often rash and ill-thought out decisions by hot-headed monarchs like King Henry VIII and it gave the country stability.

Unlike other most other countries, the United Kingdom does not have a single Written Constitution which gives certain guarantees whether in theory or practice.  Instead our constitution is based on countless thousands of laws passed in the Houses of Parliament and in the courts of which until just a few years ago, the House of Lords was the most powerful in the land. While this may have some apparent weaknesses to those overseas as our rights are interpreted and guaranteed from many sometimes unknown documents rather than an easy to understand and crystal clear constitution or bill of rights, we seem to manage very well without it.  It also means that the country or government is not tied to any outdated political, religious or personal concept.  If something needs changing then a new law is debated in Parliament.

If society changes to a degree that something becomes out-dated then a new precedence can be set at a court by any individual and if they win their case then it will strongly influence future laws in that area until it too is eventually superseded maybe just months or maybe a millennia in the future.  Our lack of a basic bill of rights didn’t stop the various collected works becoming the inspiration for constitutions around the world and more recently for the United Nations and European Union.

Parliament is made up of two Houses, The House of Commons which is the Lower House and The House of Lords which is the Upper House.  For centuries the House of Lords was by far the most powerful body.  Since the Civil War and Oliver Cromwell however, the Commons has gradually caught up and now surpassed the Lords in importance and even of the Monarchy itself in most practical ways and many of the traditions of Parliament date from this important time when a brave group of Parliamentarians stood up the Crown.

The House of Commons is composed of 650 Members of Parliament that are directly elected by their constituents and they debate the issues of the day in a multi-party democratic system.  The House of Lords as the Upper House does not draft laws itself but instead refines laws before they come into effect.  The Lords can reject a law three times but if the Commons passes it for a fourth time then the Lords can no longer hold it up and it passes to the Queen to sign off.

The House of Lords is an unusual Upper Chamber composed for Lords (and Ladies) or Peers some of whom have inherited their titles and others who have gained them through nomination of the Prime Minister and other Commoners.  It also contains many senior figures of the Church of England, former members of parliaments, military figures, business leaders and even sports personalities and dedicated charity workers who have given their working lives to helping others. Opinion is split over whether to make the house democratically elected but many others believe this should not happen.  The reason for this is that having an elected house would make it like every other senior political chamber in the world.  Open to corruption but more likely encouraging the very same people who become politicians the world-over.  There is something to be said for having an Upper House full of the very best performing people of all sections of societies and with entirely different areas of expertise that are not easily swayed by vested interests, money or the worry of getting elected!

Much the same can be said for having a benevolent monarch as almost every President or Prime Minister is eventually involved in scandal or disliked by their country either from being to a certain degree inept or corrupt or just from the pressures of making genuinely difficult decisions that eventually alienate at first the public and eventually their own supporters.  The Queen in particular and indeed the House of Lords to a large degree are above the political scandals that today cause splits and wasted energy in some other governments, including occasionally in our own Lower House.  Of course the downside is that if we have an inept monarch then we are rather stuck with them, thankfully that hasn’t happened for a long time.

One of the reasons The House of Commons gained prominence was the slow but sure gain of political suffrage from just the King to landowners to men of a certain age and class to all men and very quickly after that, all women too. This all came about due to the hard work and much suffering of ordinary people inside and outside of Parliament as well as farsighted and usually liberal-minded Parliamentarians inside Westminster.

Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament

The present day parliament building was built after a fire burnt down much of the old Palace in the 1830’s. However Westminster Hall and a few other areas still remain from the 1390s and the sense of history is everywhere giving Parliament an unusual mix of a museum, parliament and modern 21st century business.   The Houses of Lords and Parliament still sit in the original oppositional way that they did before the fire which gives British politics an unusually fiery reputation as.  Though oration is obviously important everywhere, there can be few other parliaments where it is so valued and such a necessity.  A famous relatively recent example of the differing nature of British politics to many other places is when maverick MP George Galloway appeared before a U.S. Senate committee that was blown away by his combative nature, lack of deference and verbal dexterity and while his political views aren’t that widely agreed with, his ability to talk a good line is not in dispute. Despite the idea of British politeness, the idea that we are deferential to our betters disappeared by WW2.  The general public often have little time for politics or their elected representatives and life for politicians is tough for both government opposition in the Commons both from the public and their political opponents.

This is all no doubt why there are so many strange rules and procedures in Parliament that have been in place from the time when members would bring their swords with them and politics was a very life or death business.    While Prime Ministers Question time is often the pinnacle of life at Parliament and particularly rambunctious, other debates are often much more civilised and Members of Parliament spend lots of time working quietly away in committee rooms dealing with important issues of the day.  It is not just governmental ministers who have great authority.  All-Party committees such as last years investigation into  tax avoidance policies by companies such as Amazon, Google and Starbucks was headed by an opposition Labour MP that for a time made her something of a national hero and has seen Starbucks UK income fall off a cliff and yet bizarrely suddenly make their first official taxable profits for 17 years!

That being said two of the most visited statues in Parliament are that of former Conservative Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and Liberal David Lloyd-George who is best remembered for laying the groundwork for much of the modern welfare state such as old age pensions and education improvements for the poor.  They were also the Prime Ministers in the two world wars and shared the gift of oratory and it is the tradition of many MPs to rub their shoes before going in the chamber for good luck.

Members Lobby

Two great 20th Century politicians Churchill and Lloyd-George at the entrance to The House of Commons. parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

When Parliament was badly bombed in WW2, Churchill was adamant that the chambers be rebuilt in the traditional format rather than the less adversarial rounded seating styles elsewhere.  This all goes back to how the first Parliamentarians met in a former chapel in the Palace of Westminster with benches at each side under the windows and The Speakers chair in the middle.  The Speaker remains the most important person in the chamber and even the Prime Minister must defer to him whilst The Mace is the symbol of the third element of Parliament, the Monarchy.

There is still very much a religious angle in Parliament as well as the Christian Bishops in the House of Lords most likely soon to be joined by leaders of other faiths (as well as Lords who happen to be of other faiths already) and morning prayers are said at the start of each day in the House of Commons.  The hallways are also full of Biblical paintings and scriptures as well as the various saints of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and above the door is a large painting of Moses receiving the laws of God in the form of the 10 Commandments.

Next week I will write and show some of the places that I got to visit on my tour of Parliament.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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8 Responses to A Brief History of Parliament

  1. Malla Duncan says:

    I visited the Houses in September last year, Stephen. It was magical. Was awestruck by the throne in the House of Lords. And was very impressed by the comfortable seating. Everything was so beautifully maintained. Thought it wonderful the way the traditions have been kept up – so much of that actually adds to stability. Looking forward to your next posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like the House of Lords. It’s incredible how they mix such opulence with history and politics but also with the openness that people can actually visit inside so easily and meet the people they elect. I’m not sure it’s quite so open in many other places.

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  2. Never been inside, but I watched that recent documentary on television about it. It’s such a fascinating place. Incredibly beautiful, indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating, I wish my history teacher at school had been half as interesting as you….

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would have liked to be a history teacher but the children in my school were so badly behaved it put me off forever and I’m sure it has only got worse. Also my school wouldn’t let me study history for GCSE’s, they made me take Chemistry which I enjoyed but was never any good at.

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      • Did you go to an all boys school, by any chance? I went to a girls’ school and had the opposite – we ere discouraged from sciences (which I wanted to do) and told that “suitable subjects for young ladies” were languages and the arts. …. which I did enjoy too, but I WANTED to be a doctor. Tut tut.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No, mine was a mixed school. I think officially though everyone could choose what they could do, maybe unofficially they encouraged boys and girls to do their traditional subjects. I do think in my case that just because I was reasonably clever that history was seen a waste 😦

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