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Historical evolution of British Parliament - overview and thoughts

Posted June 9th, 2015 at 04:59 AM by Solidaire

I've been reading lately about the unique course of parliamentarism in Britain, which oversaw the transition from an absolute monarchy to a representative, parliamentary one over a period of 800 years. The subject is huge, of course, being inseparably intertwined with almost all important historical events of Britain, but it is also a fascinating journey through tumultuous history and very interesting socio-political processes. Also, it offers an invaluable insight to all those wishing to take a deeper look and try to understand the socio-political peculiarities and character of the British and how these were shaped by its history.

What is characteristic in British politics and history, from the Norman invasion and onward, is that there have been no major breaking points (with the possible exception of a 10 years parenthesis during the English Civil War), no cataclysmic revolutions like the French or Russian ones, no foreign occupations or unconditional surrenders to enforce a whole new socio-political reality, like, for example, in 20th century Germany. Rather, Britain's political history evolved slowly over a period of many centuries and in response to the needs and challenges of each era, gradually adapting to them. This continuity is evident in the archaic ceremonies and countless traditions that accompany the functioning of modern-day British parliament, as well as in the presence of unique characteristics in it, like the House of Lords.

Telling is also the fact that Britain does not have a compact, written Constitution, in contrast to most modern democracies, but it relies on a fluid legacy of previous political and legal Acts that shaped its political history. England, and then the UK, have been governed on the go, not by an all encompassing, all determining and binding Constitution like the American one, but in an ever in motion political process that produced rather gradual changes.

The lack of Constitution is also indicative of the absolute power of the Parliament: neither King, nor Constitution limits its domination, and no law passed by Parliament can be unconstitutional, and therefore, illegal.
From the Curia Regis of the Norman Kings, to Magna Carta (1215) which saw the first transition of power from the King to his barons, to the emergence of Parliament as an assembly of the nobility and clergy, gradually to include the land-owners and merchants (House of Commons), the Parliament of England had been struggling for almost 500 years to wrench more and more power from the monarch. The apogee of this struggle came with the English Civil War (1642-1651), the beheading of a King (Charles I), the sole governance by the House of Commons without House of Lords or King, in an early Republic, and then the dictatorial rule of Oliver Cromwell. The restoration of monarchy after his death (1660) ended this short period of political experiments, yet the English Parliament could never again be ignored or surpassed in power by the monarch. This was legally solidified after the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the Bill of Rights (1689), which sealed this 500 years old struggle decisively in favour of Parliamentary supremacy. From this point onward, England was ruled by its Parliament, not by its monarch. The British parliament that emerged from the English one, has possibly been the most powerful parliament in the world, in the sense that it reigns supreme, unhindered by a higher authority or a binding Constitution. And although technically the Monarch still possesses the right to veto a legislation, this has not happened for three centuries now. Up until lately, its House of Lords had also been the supreme judicial authority of the United Kingdom.

The question arises, however, whom did this Parliament actually represent throughout its long history? Who benefited from the gradual trickle down of monarchical, initially absolute power? In essence, who ruled and how democracy is associated with all of these developments? Who elected whom, and how?

At first, it was just an assembly of feudal Lords and Bishops, with the main purpose of approving new taxes asked by the King. The term "parliament" derives from the French "parlement" or Latin "parliamentum", meaning, in essence, "discussion" - since at this time French was the language spoken in the English courts under the post-Norman, House of Anjou. But at 1265, something important happened: Simon de Montfort, a French nobleman that became Earl of Leicester and defeated the King's forces in the second Baron's war effectively becoming de facto ruler of England, called for a different parliament. Along with the Lords of the realm, he summoned two representatives from each county ("Knights of the Shire") and two representatives from selected urban centres ("Burgesses"). The latter was unprecedented, but became the norm afterwards, paving the way for the creation of the House of Commons, the dominant force of present parliaments. Already, power is beginning to trickle down to people other than Lords or high clergymen. In the following centuries, the landed gentry, the lesser nobility that could own land, and the wealthy merchants that were emerging in urban centres, were claiming their own shares from the power dispersion, though for a very long time, it were the Lords and their House that held the upper hand. But a broadened upper class did enter politics, competing through the centuries with royalty and the handful of the most powerful nobility and clergy. And in 1911 and with the parliament Act of that year, it decisively wrenched power from the House of Lords, taking its veto power away, and sealing a process that had started long before that. The House of Commons had formally established its supremacy at last, and with that, the supremacy of the democratic process of representation.

For a very long time, and up until the 19th century reforms, politics was a privilege of the elite and of the upper class. Even with the extended participation in parliament and the emergence of the House of Commons, representative democracy was still very far away. Few people could vote for parliament or hope to be candidates. The secret ballot voting was not introduced until the Ballot Act of 1872. Corruption in elections was usual, as were a number of other factors that we would consider unacceptable by today's standards. From 1430 and onward, it was established that only the forty shillings freeholders could vote, that is the people who owned property worth 40 shillings or more. This was a considerate sum for the time, and few fulfilled the criterion. Over time, inflation did the job of broadening the electorate, as the required sum remained unchanged for centuries, but actually decreased through inflation. However, even by the 18th century, the electorate was as small as 1-2% of the population, all men of course. It was during the 19th century that domestic pressure for a more democratic representation and international influences persuaded the British Parliament to extend the right to vote to more and more citizens with three Reform Acts (1832, 1867, 1884). The one of 1867 in particular, offered the right to vote, for the first time, to part of the working class, extending the franchise to all male 'heads of households'. Universal suffrage was extended to all male population, at last, not as a result of some bloody revolution, but as an outcome of bloody trench warfare. In the aftermath of WWI, the old class distinctions to voting were left shot to pieces by a conflict that changed much in its passing. "If they are fit to fight they are fit to voteĒ became a just cause for granting universal suffrage.
The Representation of the People Act of 1918 was introduced in parliament by the following speech:

"War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened menís eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise."

The Act offered the right to vote to part of the female population, also, for the very first time. 10 years later, in 1928, all women above the age of 21 would be granted that right.

For centuries, property and titles were the prerequisite to be allowed into the political process. The monarch shared power with a privileged elite, which from the late 17th century ruled supreme through parliament. The 19th century saw more and more people being included in the system, and for the first time, part of the working class. And in the early 20th century, the UK became a representative democracy.


For more detailed reading, some links:

The evolution of Parliament - UK Parliament

BBC - History - British History in depth: The Birth of Parliament

The early History of the Ballot in England
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