A plague on your houses: the Commons, 1809. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
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Who’s the mummy? Parliament: the Biography by Chris Bryant

The belief that Westminster is “the mother of all parliaments” is one of the myths the Labour MP for Rhondda seeks to dispel.

Parliament: the Biography, Vol I 
Chris Bryant
Doubleday, 496pp, £25

How often do we hear politicians and commentators idly refer to Westminster as “the Mother of all Parliaments”? It says much about their disregard for history (recent offenders include Nick Clegg) that few realise the inappropriateness of this epithet. When the radical Liberal MP John Bright described England as the “Mother of Parliaments” in 1865 it was not to praise his country, but to rebuke it. In his annual address to his Birmingham constituents, he spoke of the irony that while fair representation was afforded to Englishmen in 35 different states elsewhere, it was only in England that they were denied this right. Not until the franchise was extended, he declared, could it “truly be said that England, the august mother of free nations, herself is free”.

The belief that Westminster is “the mother of all parliaments” is one of the myths that Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for the Rhondda, shadow work and pensions minister and scourge of News Corporation, seeks to dispel in the first volume of his biography of the institution. Westminster is not the oldest parliament in the world (that title belongs to the Icelandic Althing, established by Vikings on 23 June 930), was pre-dated by that of the Isle of Man (the Tynwald – 979) and was later than others to introduce universal male suffrage (1918) and extend the franchise to all women (1928).

Parliament (from the French parler – to speak), as Bryant writes, “had no single moment of conception”. The term was first used by royal clerks in 1236 but referred only to the king’s meetings with his magnates. Bryant takes the Oxford Parliament of 1258, when Simon de Montfort first summoned other commoners, as his starting point. It was here that Henry III was forced to agree to form a permanent council of 15 members – only three of whom he would nominate – which would meet three times a year to deal with “the common business of the realm and of the king”, to supervise ministerial appointments and to approve funds for war. When Henry reneged on these provisions, the (still unresolved) struggle between the sovereign and parliament for constitutional supremacy began.

Bryant’s volume runs from this period to the establishment of the Imperial Parliament following the union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. It is admirably comprehensive (the author wisely resisted the temptation to add to the glut of “short guides”) and written in the kind of lucid, elegant prose now rarely associated with our elected representatives.

One of its chief virtues is in reminding us of the almost comic degree to which the uncodified British constitution (which isn’t worth the paper it isn’t written on) has been shaped by chance. The Habeas Corpus Act 1679 was passed only when one of the tellers for the contents, Lord Grey, “jokingly counted a very fat peer for ten votes” and his unobservant opposite failed to notice. The convention that the Speaker does not vote was adopted when Robert Cecil declared after a contentious vote: “Mr Speaker hath no voice and though I am sorry to say it, I must needs confess, lost it is, and farewell to it.” The Place Bill of 1713, which would have separated the executive from the legislature (and spared us many substandard cabinet ministers), failed only because the third-reading vote in the Lords was tied.

Perhaps the most valuable chapter is on the struggle for free speech within and without parliament. This, Bryant writes, “like every other aspect of parliamentary history”, proceeded “in a dance of two steps forward, one step back”. By the end of the 16th century, thanks to the efforts of pioneers such as Peter Wentworth and Anthony Cope, the Commons had won the right to determine when an MP had committed “licentious” speech, but it was not until the Bill of Rights (1688-89) that it was unambiguously resolved that “the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”.

The abolition in 1641 of the Star Chamber, under which nobody could publish any printed material without the explicit approval of the Privy Council, was followed two years later by the Licensing Order and then the “Gagging Acts” of 1795 and 1817. Bryant quotes Milton’s cry: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” – words that have been invoked lately in the debate over press regulation. Given Bryant’s loud advocacy of a statutory-based system, some undoubtedly will charge him with hypocrisy; but even if he regards the comparison as outlandish, it is one he would have been wiser to acknowledge than to ignore.

Despite reform, by the end of the period covered in this book, the Lords was still dominated “by the great landed families” and most MPs never faced a contested election. More than two centuries later, matters have improved little. The House of Lords is still wholly unelected by the popular vote and stuffed with party placemen; the injurious first-past-the-post voting system allows mediocre MPs to hold on to perpetually safe seats; and the Prime Minister is still prepared to veto a new property tax on the grounds that “our donors will never put up with it”. Thus, to study parliament’s past is to be reminded of its lamentable present. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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