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

Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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