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History Of British Parliament

The history of Parliament is confusing in proportion to the vast amount written about it. Many confident assertions have been made as to when Parliament originated and how it developed, but for every assertion there is a counter claim for continuing confusion. The influential nineteenth century historian Bishop Stubbs for example saw the beginnings of Parliament clearly placed during the reign of Edward I. Stubbs dated the creation of Parliament quite precisely to 1295. Modern research, quoted by Michael Prestwich in Edward I, shows that this was simply not so. Parliament in Edward's reign was a vague concept, lacking clear composition or function. It is very hard to describe a development of early Parliament, impossible to make a coherent story out of the many meetings of different shapes and sizes, some called councils, some called parliaments. It is hard to give a sense of history going forward, when most of the time barons making up these councils/parliaments were using reform as an attempt to protect their old privileges.



Hatfield Palace - Elizabeth I's first council was held here in November 1558

J.E. Neale and Wallace Notestein are perhaps the best known modern historians with explanations for why and how Parliament developed. The turning point for Neale came in the 1530s Reformation Parliament during Henry VIII's reign. Henry's decision to carry out the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the break with Rome by using parliamentary statutes is supposed to have whetted MPs appetite for wider power and influence. Neale then went on to describe procedural innovations in the reign of Elizabeth I - the introduction of rules to allow orderly debates, the practice of sending bills to committees for example. Neale saw Parliament's adolescent period completed by 1597, just as the Stuart period began with the rule of James I. Then Notestein continued the story into the seventeenth century, with further procedural developments which seemed to suggest a plan to throw off royal power. This story of development could, however, be something of an illusion. As Barry Coward points out, late fourteenth and fifteenth century parliaments were called more frequently, and sat for longer periods than two centuries later in Stuart England when parliament was supposed to be consolidating inevitable power. It is also the case that procedural developments are not necessarily indicators of parliamentary power. "MPs were not protected by privileges of free speech or freedom from arrest. After many of the parliaments of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I the Crown had no compunction in arresting and imprisoning those MPs with whom it was displeased" (The Stuart Age P102). People often look for causes in history, but the truth is that history is an unbroken chain where every cause is also an effect. Perhaps that is why religiously inclined historians like Bishop Stubbs were so keen to search for causes and developments and patterns of growth. This gave a reassuring picture of history as being understood in terms of cause and effect, as a journey that is going somewhere, with a beginning and end. A better analogy for history might be a soap opera, an endless story with no beginnings or ends, no causes that can be separated from effects.


So, while admitting to the huge amount that cannot be said about parliamentary history, it might be said that during the reign of Charles I, on the eve of the Civil War, Parliament split into two opposing factions. Parliament had been united in pressing Charles I to accept its authority. But once Parliament started demanding control of the armed forces, the Church, and the king's ministers, there were many MPs who thought things had gone too far. A king's party began to form, and this was the first major split of Parliament into two parties. The rebellious MPs who were pushing for unprecedented powers over the king became, late in the reign of Charles II, the Whigs. After the advent of rudimentary party politics, the next major milestone in the history of Parliament came in 1721 during the rule of George I (1714 - 1727), when Sir Robert Walpole became in effect, if not name, Britain's first prime minister. He was the first leader to occupy the residence at 10 Downing Street, which is only a five minute walk from Parliament.


Walmer Castle

Parliament at this time was well known for corruption. Bribery of MPs was common, with the necessary money coming out of the Secret Service fund. Two hundred "place men" were kept in the Commons by the government. This was done through the creation of "rotten boroughs", non-existent constituencies being represented by carefully selected MPs. Dunwich in Suffolk returned an MP despite the fact that Dunwich had been washed out to sea by coastal erosion. Old Sarum, the former location of Salisbury returned an MP even though Old Sarum had been abandoned and didn't have a single inhabitant. At the time, before the potential for control through party discipline, these tricks represented the only way the notoriously chaotic body of Parliament could be controlled. But for Parliament to evolve towards its present form things had to change, and this began to happen in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. William Pitt The Younger, prime minister 1783 - 1801, and 1804 - 1806, showed the pattern of change in his career progression. He was elected to Parliament in a normal pre-reform manner, securing the patronage of powerful aristocrat James Lowther, who controlled voting rights in a constituency in Westmoreland. As Pitt's career developed, however, he became known for opposition to the kind of practices that won him his seat in the first place.




Apsley House - London home of the Duke of Wellington

Lord Liverpool's Tory government 1812 - 1827 saw a struggle between traditionalists and reformers. The usual, admittedly simplified view, is that between 1815 and 1821 a reactionary course was taken, led by Sidmouth and Castlereagh, while from 1822 ministers such as William Huskisson, Frederick Robinson, George Canning and Robert Peel began to introduce reforms to the way Parliament was run. In 1828 the Duke of Wellington took over, and made one last stand for the old way of doing things in Parliament. Many parts of the country saw rioting as a result, and for a while it seemed as though full scale revolution might occur. The Whig Party took advantage of this disarray and formed a government under Earl Grey in 1830.

Grey's government introduced the famous Reform Act of 1832, ending many old parliamentary practices. Grey and his colleagues should not be thought of as progressive idealists. The main aim of instituting reform was to head off revolution. Grey said of his reforms: "There is no one more decided against annual parliaments, universal suffrage and the ballot than I am. My object is not to favour, but to put an end to such hopes and projects." Grey was reforming "to preserve not to overthrow" (see George Woodbridge's article in The Prime Ministers ). However, the reforming pattern that would eventually lead to Parliament as it is now known, was set in motion, and in commemoration of the historic turning point of Grey's government, a monument to him can be seen in Grey Street, Newcastle. The Reform Club in London's Pall Mall was founded in 1836. Membership of the club was restricted to those who supported the Reform Act.


Broadlands - home of Palmerston

Government, even after the reforms of 1832 remained much less involved with life than it is today. The policy of the time was laissez faire, in economic and social matters. Britain was unique in this policy of non-intervention, and this policy was taken to extremes. 1858 saw the abolition of the General Board of Health, a government body set up to try and improve sanitation and public health generally. The Times newspaper was partly responsible, having led a campaign which found it preferable "to take its chance of cholera" than be "bullied into health". This kind of attitude only changed slowly, but its beginnings can be seen during the ministries of Lord Liverpool in the 1830s, and Robert Peel in the 1840s, when efforts to cap factory working hours became a contentious issue. Then came the ministries of Viscount Palmerston, prime minister 1855 - 1858, and 1859 - 1865. Palmerston appealed to ordinary people. His appeal did not so much lie in what he did for ordinary people, but rather in his talent for stirring up nationalist feeling. He had the kind of populist instincts now found in the editors of tabloid newspapers, and a foreign policy to match. Nevertheless he did begin to expand the influence of government towards legislation to ease the workings of laissez faire business practice. Palmerston considered that laissez- faire in the economy could only be fully effective if it was accompanied by a measure of social reform. He was convinced by the reports of Chadwick and Shaftsbury on sanitary conditions and mines that poor health resulting from unregulated working conditions reduced efficiency and wasted human potential.


When Palmerston died in 1865 the age of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli began. These two men, leading the Whig and Tory parties respectively, both represented governments that administered continuing reforms. Historians have argued over who was the greater reformer, whether Disraeli was the champion of change in the Reform Act of 1867, or whether Gladstone in opposition forced Disraeli's actions upon him. Gladstone was certainly the more idealistic, but his lack of realism often meant he was not in a position to change anything. Development occurred, not so much in the regulation of society, but in the widening of voting rights. This development was the result of necessity rather than idealism. Governments followed votes. Governments would increase the range of people who could vote, and then hope that the people enjoying their vote for the first time would vote for the administration which had given it to them. The biographer of Disraeli, R. Blake, has written: "It was like a moonlight steeple chase. In negotiating their fences few of them saw where they were going, nor much cared so long as they got there first. " (Disraeli - Ch21) In this way slowly increasing numbers of people were brought into the voting system.


Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich - a favourite meeting place for William Gladstone and his colleagues

Although moves to widen democracy made steady headway between 1868 and 1880 under Gladstone and Disraeli, the modern conception of government regulating society was still not fully developed. Gladstone had promoted reform, but he had insisted that the individual was ultimately responsible for their own well-being. Disraeli seemed more open to the idea of a wider role for government. He said: "The first consideration of a minister should be people's health... pure air, pure water, the inspection of unhealthy habitations, the adulteration of food, these and many kindred matters may be legitimately dealt with by the legislature." Public works were already complete in London to deal with sewerage. This kind of wider social role of government would be taken up by future leaders.


As for wider social representation, Scottish trade unionist Alexander Macdonald entered Parliament in 1874. Ironically Alexander Macdonald and other early working class MPs are now often forgotten, since they were willing to make deals with the dominant Liberal Party to support their position. Also forgotten is Parliament's first socialist MP, old Harovian and international adventurer, Don Roberto Bontine Cunninghame Grahame. This man does not easily fit with later Labour mythology, which tends to pick out the uncompromising figure of Scottish miner, union representative and journalist Keir Hardie as the "founder" of the Labour Party. Ironically Hardie did not enter Parliament until 1892, eighteen years after Alexander Macdonald, but Hardie had the right uncompromising working class image to keep later writers happy. Hardie the illegitimate son of a Lanarkshire farm servant, began work at age eight in a Glasgow shipyard, and became a miner a few years later. He remained a collier until he was twenty three, and then entered politics through trade unionism. The messy business of actually creating the Labour Party fell to people like James Ramsay Macdonald, who was willing to do shady deals with other parties in smoky backrooms. Keir Hardie got on with the speeches to massive crowds, and was more like the pop star of the left wing, gaining publicity and attention for his causes. The political reality, however, was one of compromise. A sense of individualism remained, and this had to be incorporated into the new more collectivist social vision. In 1910 the Liberal Party chancellor David Lloyd George argued that his party "has not abandoned the traditional ambition of the Liberal Party to establish freedom... but side by side with this effort it promotes measures for ameliorating the conditions of life for the multitude" (Better Times by David Lloyd George). Lloyd George saw it as a fundamental task of government to respect the individual while also redistributing wealth by taxation to improve social conditions. The modern pattern of parliamentary government was now clear. Governments would be elected by almost all the adult population of a country, and would legislate society and redistribute wealth to provide social services and welfare. The balance of intervention against individualism would ebb and flow, but the basic pattern would remain.


Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst outside the Houses of Parliament

The final, and shamefully overdue widening of social representation involved women's suffrage. Women such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel struggled over many years to win the vote for women against entrenched attitudes. Some activists, Annie Kenny for example were imprisoned. In Australia women were given the vote in 1902, but in 1908 Emmeline Pankhurst found herself in a British jail for trying to achieve the same goal. It wasn't until 1928, with the "Flappers Bill," that women gained the same voting rights as men. The first woman MP to sit in the House of Commons was the American Nancy Astor, who took her seat on 1st December 1919. Her grand country house at Hever Castle is open to the public and has mementoes of her time there.






©2006 InfoBritain (updated 12/09)