HistoryThe Origins of Parliament
There was no historical continuity between the Anglo-Saxon witenagemot and the British Parliament. The first steps in the genesis of the modern parliament occurred in the 13th cent. The long, slow process of evolution began with the Curia Regis, the king's feudal council to which he summoned his tenants in chief, the great barons, and the great prelates. This was the kernel from which Parliament and, more specifically, the House of Lords developed. The Curia Regis, more commonly called the great council, had merely quasilegislative powers and was primarily a judicial and executive body. The development of the heritable right of certain barons (the peerage) to be summoned to the council, originally composed at the king's will, was not at all secure until the mid-14th cent., and even then was far from inviolable.
The House of Commons originated in the 13th cent. in the occasional convocation of representatives of other social classes of the state—knights and burgesses—usually to report the "consent" of the counties and towns to taxes imposed by the king. Its meetings were often held in conjunction with a meeting of the great council, for the early 13th cent. recognized no constitutional difference between the two bodies; the formalization of Parliament as a distinct organ of government took at least another century to complete.
During the Barons' War, Simon de Montfort summoned representatives of the counties, towns, and lesser clergy in an attempt to gain support from the middle classes. His famous Parliament of 1265 included two representative burgesses from each borough and four knights from each shire, admitted, at least theoretically, to full standing with the great council. Although Edward I's so-called Model Parliament of 1295 (which contained prelates, magnates, two knights from each county, two burgesses from each town, and representatives of the lower clergy) seemed to formalize a representative principle of composition, great irregularities of membership in fact continued well into the 14th cent.
Nor did the division of Parliament into two houses coalesce until the 14th cent. Before the middle of the century the clerical representatives withdrew to their own convocations, leaving only two estates in Parliament (in contrast to the French States-General). The knights of the shires, who, as a minor landholding aristocracy, might have associated themselves with the great barons in the House of Lords, nevertheless felt their true interest to lie with the burgesses, and with the burgesses developed that corporate sense that marked the House of Commons by the end of the century.
The constitutional position of Parliament was at first undifferentiated from that of the great council. Large assemblies were called only occasionally, to support the king's requests for revenue and other important matters of policy, but not to legislate or "consent to taxation" in the modern sense.
In the 14th cent., Parliament began to gain greater control over grants of revenue to the king. From Parliament's judicial authority (derived, through the Lords, from the judicial powers of the great council) to consider petitions for the redress of grievances and to submit such petitions to the king, developed the practice of withholding financial supplies until the king accepted and acted on the petitions. Statute legislation arose as the petition form was gradually replaced by the drafting of bills sent to the king and ultimately enacted by Commons, Lords, and king together. Impeachment of the king's ministers, another means for securing control over administrative policy, also derived from Parliament's judicial authority and was first used late in the 14th cent.
In the 15th cent., through these devices, Parliament wielded wide administrative and legislative powers. In addition a strong self-consciousness on the part of its members led to claims of parliamentary "privilege," notably freedom from arrest and freedom of debate. With the growth of a stronger monarchy under the Yorkists and especially under the Tudors, Parliament became essentially an instrument of the monarch's will.
The House of Lords with its lord chancellor (now the lord speaker) and the House of Commons with its speaker appeared in their modern form in the 16th cent. The English Reformation greatly increased the powers of Parliament because it was through the nominal agency of Parliament that the Church of England was established. Yet throughout the Tudor period Parliament's legislative supremacy was challenged by the crown's legislative authority through the privy council, a descendant of part of the old feudal council.
With the accession (1603) of the Stuart kings, inept in their dealings with Parliament after the wily Tudors, Parliament was able to exercise its claims, drawing on precedents established but not exploited over the preceding 200 years. In the course of the English civil war, Parliament voiced demands not only for collateral power but for actual sovereignty. Although parliamentary authority was reduced to a mere travesty under Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate, the Restoration brought Parliament back into power—secure in its claims to legislative supremacy, to full authority over taxation and expenditures, and to a voice in public policy through partial control (by impeachment) over the king's choice of ministers. Charles II set about learning to manage Parliament, rather than opposing or circumventing it. James II's refusal to do so led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which permanently affirmed parliamentary sovereignty and forced William III to accept great limitations on the powers of the crown. During the reign of Queen Anne even the royal veto on legislation disappeared.
Despite a general division into Whig and Tory parties toward the end of the 17th cent., political groupings in Parliament were more inclined to form about a particular personality or issue. Although members had considerable freedom to make temporary political alliances without regard to their constituencies, control over members was exercised by the ministry and the crown through patronage, which rested on the purchase of parliamentary seats and tight control over a narrow electorate. As members were paid no salaries, private wealth and liberal patronage were prerequisites to a seat in Commons; as a result, Parliament represented only the propertied upper classes, and private legislation took precedence over public acts throughout the 18th cent.
The parliamentary skills of Sir Robert Walpole, in many respects the first prime minister, both signified and contributed to the growing importance of Commons. The crown retained the theoretical power to appoint a ministry of its choice, but the resignation (1782) of George III's minister Lord North established, once and for all, a tendency that had developed gradually since the Glorious Revolution—that the prime minister could not function without the support and confidence of the House of Commons.
The complexion of Parliament changed rapidly after 1800. The union (1800) of Ireland and England dissolved the Irish Parliament and added to the British Parliament 100 Irish members, who functioned as an important political bloc throughout the 19th cent. With the appearance of powerful new classes created by the Industrial Revolution and with the currency of democratic doctrines grew demands for extension of suffrage, reform of flagrant abuses of patronage, and reorganization of the entire representative basis of Commons. The first step was achieved by the great Reform Bill of 1832 (see Reform Acts), followed by the Reform Bills of 1867 and 1884 and the eventual establishment of universal suffrage by the Representation of the People Acts in 1948. Parliamentary committees, appointed to investigate social conditions and recommend legislation, played an enlarged role.
The tendency toward consolidation of parties was accelerated as public opinion became a factor in elections free from patronage. Although the Liberals and the Conservatives were known to stand for certain general policies, it was not until near the end of the 19th cent. that William E. Gladstone began the practice of making national campaign tours to pledge the party to a program for the coming Parliament. With the development of the party caucus, at about the same time, freedom of action by individual members was reduced.
By the late 19th cent. members of working-class origin (later organized into the Labour party) were being elected to the House of Commons. Concomitantly, the class represented in the House of Lords began to lose power in British society, and through long conflict with the Commons, particularly on matters of social legislation, the House of Lords itself was weakened. Commons was at first able to intimidate Lords by threatening the creation of enough new peers to override any opposition by the upper house. The contest over the financial bill of 1909 finally led Commons to a more drastic solution. The Parliament Act of 1911 stripped the House of Lords of its veto power on money bills, and on other bills provided that a measure should become law if passed by Commons in two separate sessions, even if vetoed by Lords, if two years had elapsed between sessions. The Parliament Act of 1949 reduced the period to one year. The 1911 act also provided for the payment of salaries to members, thus opening participation to representatives of all classes.
Party discipline became increasingly strong as the 20th cent. progressed, to the extent that a member may be ejected from the parliamentary party if he or she does not vote the party line on specified issues. The result has been to eliminate choice for most MPs on most issues. Long periods of loyal party service in Commons have become nearly required for achieving ministerial status. The rise of socialism in Great Britain after World War II did not greatly affect parliamentary structure, although increased delegation of important functions to the civil service reduced Parliament's immediate control of many governmental activities.
Toward the end of the century Parliament implemented some fundamental changes by moving to redefine the role of the House of Lords and by accepting Scotland's desire to create its own parliament for the governing of domestic affairs; a Welsh assembly was also established. The removal of many hereditary peers from the House of Lords strengthened the remaining members' belief that they had a legitimate constitutional right to challenge those laws passed by the Commons that they regarded as bad law.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.