A plague on your houses: the Commons, 1809. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496