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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder