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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.