PARLIAMENT (Anglo-Lat. parliamentum, Fr. parlement, from parler, to speak), the name given to the supreme legislature of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. (For the old French parlement, see Parlement; and for analogous foreign assemblies see the articles on their respective countries.) The word is found in English from the 13th century, first for a debate, then for a formal conference, and for the great councils of the Plantagenet kings; and the modern sense has come to be applied retrospectively. William the Conqueror is said in the Chronicle to have had "very deep speech with his Witan" ; this "deep speech" (in Latin colloquium, in French parlement) was the distinguishing feature of a meeting between king and, people, and thus gave its name to the national assembly itself. The Statute of Westminster (1275) first uses parlement of the great council in England.
The British Parliament consists of the King (or Queen regnant), the Lords spiritual and temporal, and the Commons; and it meets in two houses, the House of Lords (the Upper or Second chamber) and the House of Commons.
The Crown, pre-eminent in rank and dignity, is the legal source of parliamentary authority. The sovereign virtually appoints the lords spiritual, and all the peerages of the lords temporal have been created by the Crown. The king summons parliament to meet, and prescribes the time and place of its meeting, prorogues and dissolves it, and commands the issue of writs for the election of members of the House of Commons. By several statutes, beginning with the 4 Edward III. c. 14, the annual meeting of parliament had been ordained; but these statutes, continually disregarded, were virtually repealed in the reigns of Charles II. and William and Mary (16 Ch. II. 31; 6 & 7 Will. & Mary, 32). The present statute law merely exacts the meeting of parliament once in three years; but the annual voting of supplies has long since superseded obsolete statutes. When parliament is assembled it cannot proceed to business until the king has declared the causes of summons, in person or by commission; and though the veto of the Crown on legislation has long been obsolete, bills passed by the two houses only become law on receiving the royal assent.
The House of Lords is distinguished by peculiar dignities, privileges and jurisdictions. Peers individually enjoy the rank and precedence of their several dignities, and are hereditary councillors of the Crown. Collectively with the lords spiritual they form a permanent council of the Crown; and, when assembled in parliament, they form the highest court of judicature in the realm, and are (in constitutional theory at all events) a co-equal branch of the legislature, without whose consent no iaws can be made (see below, House of Lords Question). Their judicature is of various kinds, viz, for the trial of peers; for determining claims of peerage and offices of honor, under references from the Crown; for the trial of controverted elections of Scotch and Irish peers; for the final determination of appeals from courts in England, Scotland and Ireland; and lastly, for the trial of impeachments.
The House of Commons also has its own peculiar privileges and jurisdictions. Above all, it has the paramount right of originating the imposition of all taxes, and the granting of supplies for the service of the state. It has also enjoyed, from early times, the right of determining all matters concerning the election of its own members, and their right to sit and vote in parliament. This right, however, has been greatly abridged, as, in 1868, the trial of controverted elections was transferred to the courts of law; but its jurisdiction in matters of election, not otherwise provided for by statute, is still retained intact. As part of this jurisdiction the house directs the Speaker to issue warrants to the clerk of the Crown to make out new writs for the election of members to fill up such vacancies as occur during the sitting of parliament.
Privileges of ParliamentEdit
Both houses are in the enjoyment of certain privileges, designed to maintain their authority, independence and dignity. These privileges are founded mainly upon the law and custom of parliament, while some have been confirmed, and others abridged or abrogated by statute. The Lords rely entirely upon their inherent right, as having a place and voice in parliament : but, by a custom dating from the 6th Henry VIII., the Commons lay claim, by humble petition to the Crown at the commencement of every parliament, "to their ancient and undoubted rights and privileges." Each house has its separate rights and jurisdictions; but privileges properly so-called, being founded upon the law and custom of parliament, are common to both houses. Each house adjudges whether any breach of privilege has been committed, and punishes offenders by censure or commitment. This right of commitment is incontestably established, and it extends to the protection of officers of the house, lawfully and properly executing its orders, who are also empowered to call in the assistance of the civil power. The causes of such commitments cannot be inquired into by courts of law, nor can prisoners be admitted to bail. Breaches of privilege may be summarized as disobedience to any orders or rules of the house, indignities offered to its character or proceedings, assaults, insults, or libels upon members, or interference with officers of the house in discharge of their duty, or tampering with witnesses. Such offences are dealt with as ccntempts, according to the circumstances of the respective cases, of which numerous precedents are to be found in the journals of both houses. The Lords may imprison for a fixed period, and impose fines; the Commons can only imprison generally, the commitment being concluded by the prorogation, and have long discontinued the imposition of fines.
Freedom of speech has been one of the most cherished privileges of parliament from early times. Constantly asserted, and often violated, it was finally declared by the Bill of Rights "that the freedom of speech, and debates and proceedings in parliament, ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament." Such a privilege is essential to the independence of parliament, and to the protection of members in discharge of their duties. But, while it protects members from molestation elsewhere, it leaves them open to censure or other punishment by the house itself, whenever they abuse their privilege and transgress the rules of orderly debate.
Freedom from arrest is a privilege of the highest antiquity. It was formerly of extended scope, but has been reduced, by later legislation, within very narrow limits. Formerly not only the persons of members but their goods were protected, and their privilege extended to their servants. At present members are themselves free from arrest, but otherwise they are liable to all the processes of the courts. If arrested, they will be immediately discharged, upon motion in the court whence the process issued. Peers and peeresses are, by the privilege of peerage, free from arrest at all times. Members of the House of Commons are free only for forty days after prorogation and forty days before the next appointed meeting; but prorogations are so arranged as to ensure a continuance of the privilege. Formerly, even suits against members were stayed, but this offensive privilege has been abolished by statute. Exemption from attending as witnesses upon subpoena, once an acknowledged privilege, is no longer insisted upon; but immunity from service upon juries is at once an ancient privilege and a statutory right. The privilege of freedom from arrest is limited to civil causes, and has not been suffered to exempt members from the operation of the criminal law, nor even from commitments for contempt by other courts. But, whenever the freedom of a member is so interfered with, the courts are required immediately to inform the house of the causes of his commitment. Witnesses, suitors, counsel and agents in attendance upon parliament are protected from arrest and molestation, and from the consequences of statements made by them, or other proceedings in the conduct of their cases.
As both houses, in enforcing their privileges, are obliged to commit offenders or otherwise interfere with the liberty of the subject, the exercise of these privileges has naturally been called in question before the courts. Each house is the sole judge of its own privileges; but the courts are bound to administer the law, and, where law and privilege have seemed to be at variance, a conflict of jurisdiction has arisen between parliament and the courts. Many interesting controversies have arisen upon such occasions; but of late years privilege has been carefully restrained within the proper limits of the law, and the courts have amply recognized the authority of parliament.
It will be convenient here to sketch the general lines of procedure. On the day appointed by royal proclamation for the meeting of a new parliament both houses assemble in their respective chambers, when the Lords Commissioners for opening the parliament summon the Commons to the bar of the House of Lords, by the mouth of Black Rod, to hear the commission read. The lord chancellor states that, when the members of both houses shall be sworn, the king will declare the causes of his calling this parliament; and, it being necessary that a Speaker of the House of Commons shall be first chosen, the Commons are directed to proceed to the appointment of a Speaker, and to present him, on the following day, for His Majestys royal approbation. The Commons at once withdraw to their own house and proceed to the election of their Speaker. The next day the Speaker-elect proceeds, with the house, to the House of Lords, and, on receiving the royal approbation, lays claim, in the accustomed form, on behalf of the Commons, to their ancient and undoubted rights and privileges. The Speaker, now fully confirmed, returns to the House of Commons, and, after repeating his acknowedgments, reminds the house that the first thing to be done is to take and subscribe the oath required by law. Having first taken the oath himself, he is followed by other members, who come to the table to be sworn. The swearing of members in both houses proceeds from day to day, until the greater number have taken the oath, or affirmation, when the causes of summons are declared by His Majesty in person, or by commission, in "the King's speech". This speech being considered in both houses, an Address (q.v.) in answer is agreed to, which is presented to His Majesty by the whole house, or by "the lords with white staves" in one house and privy councillors in the other.
The debate on the Address being over, the real business of the session now commences: the committees of supply and ways and means are set up; bills are introduced; motions are made; committees are appointed; and both houses are, at once, in full activity. The Lord Chancellor presides over the deliberations of the Lords, and the Speaker over those of the Commons. A quorum of the House of Lords, including the chancellor, is three (thirty for divisions); that of the House of Commons, including the Speaker, is forty.
Every matter is determined, in both houses, upon questions put from the chair, and resolved in the affirmative or negative, or otherwise disposed of by the withdrawal of the motion, by amendments, by the adjournment of the house, by reading the orders of the day, or by the previous question. Notices are required to be given of original motions; and the different stages of bills, and other matters appointed for consideration by the house, stand as orders of the day. Questions of privilege are allowed precedence of all the business on any day; but this rule, being liable to grave abuses, is guarded by strict limitations. Debates arise when a question has been proposed from the chair; and at the close of the debate (for the closure in the House of Commons, see below, House of Commons, Internal Reforms) the question is put, with or without amendment, as the case may be, and is determined, when necessary, by a division. No question or bill, substantially the same as one upon which the judgment of the house has already been given, may be again proposed during the same session.
Members claim to be heard in debate by rising in their places. When more than one member rises at the same time, in the Lords the member who is to speak is called by the house, in the Commons by the Speaker. Every member, when called, is bound to speak to the question before the house; and calls to order are very frequent. A member may speak once only to any question, except to explain, or upon a point of order, or to reply when a member has himself submitted a motion to the house, or when an amendment has been moved which constitutes a new question. He may not refer to past debates, nor to debates in the other house; nor may he refer to any other member by name, or use offensive and disorderly language against the king, either House of Parliament, or other members. Members offending against any of the rules of debate are called to order by the Speaker, or the attention of the chair is directed to the breach of order by another member. Order is generally enforced by the authority of the chair; but in extreme cases, and especially when obstruction is being practised, the offending member is named by the Speaker, and suspended by an order of the house, or otherwise punished at the discretion of the house.
At the conclusion of a debate, unless the motion be withdrawn, or the question (on being put from the chair) be agreed to or negatived, the house proceeds to a division, which effects the twofold purpose of ascertaining the numbers supporting and opposing the question, and of recording the names of members voting on either side. On each side of the house is a division lobby; and in the Lords the contents and in the Commons the "ayes" are directed to go to the right, and the "not contents" or "noes" to the left. The former pass into the right lobby, at the back of the Speakers chair, and return to the house through the bar; the latter pass into the left lobby, at the bar, and return at the back of the chair. The opposing parties are thus kept entirely clear of one another. In each lobby there are two members acting as tellers, who count the members as they pass, and two division clerks who take down their names. After the division the four tellers advance to the table, and the numbers are reported by one of the tellers for the majority. In case of an equality of numbers, in the Lords the question is negatived in virtue of the ancient rule "semper praesumitur pro negante"; in the Commons the Speaker gives the casting vote.
Committees of the Whole HouseEdit
For the sake of convenience in the transaction of business there are several kinds of committees. Of these the most important is a committee of the whole house, which, as it consists of the entire body of members, can scarcely be accounted a committee. It is presided over by a chairman, who sits in the clerks chair at the table, the mace, which represents the authority of the house itself, being for the time placed under the table. In this committee are discussed the several provisions of bills, resolutions and other matters requiring the consideration of details. To facilitate discussion, members are allowed to speak any number of times to the same question; otherwise the proceedings are similar to those of the house itself. In the Lords the chair is taken by the chairman of committees; and in the Commons by the chairman of the committee of ways and means, or in his absence by any other member. The quorum of such a committee is the same as that of the house itself. It reports from time to time to the house, but has no power of adjournment.
Grand and Standing CommitteesEdit
In the House of Commons there were formerly four grand committees, viz, for religion, for grievances, for courts of justice, and for trade. They were founded upon the valuable principle of a distribution of labors among several bodies of members; but, having fallen into disuse, they were discontinued in 1832. The ancient committee of privileges, in which "all who come are to have voices," is still appointed at the commencement of every session, but is rarely called into action, as it has been found more convenient to appoint a select committee to inquire into any question of privilege as it arises. In 1882 a partial revival of grand committees was effected by the appointment of two standing committees for the consideration of bills relating to law and courts of justice and to trade; and grand committees have since been considerably extended.
In select committees both houses find the means of delegating inquiries, and the consideration of other matters, which could not be undertaken by the whole house. The reports of such committees have formed the groundwork of many important measures; and bills are often referred to them which receive a fuller examination than could be expected in a committee of the whole house. Power is given to such committees, when required, to send for persons, papers and records. In the Lords the power of examining witnesses upon oath has always been exercised, but it was not until 1871 that the same power was extended to the Commons, by statute.
Communications between the Two HousesEdit
In the course of the proceedings of parliament, frequent communications between the two houses become necessary. Of these the most usual and convenient form is that of a message. Formerly the Lords sent a message by two judges or two masters in chancery, and the Commons by a deputation of their own members; but since 1855 messages have been taken from one house to the other by one of the clerks at the table. A more formal communication is effected by a conference, in reference to amendments to bills or other matters; but this pioceeding has been in great measure superseded by the more simple form of a message. The two houses are also occasionally brought into communication by means of joint committees and of select committees communicating with each other.
Communications between the Crown and ParliamentEdit
Communications, in various forms, are also conducted between the Crown and both Houses of Parliament. Of these the most important are those in which the king, in person or by commission, is present in the House of Lords to open or prorogue parliament, or to give the royal assent to bills. His Majesty is then in direct communication with the three estates of the realm, assembled in the same chamber. The king also sends messages to both houses under the royal sign manual, when all the members are uncovered. Verbal messages are also sent, and the kings pleasure, or royal recommendation or consent to bills or other matters, signified through a minister of the Crown or a privy councillor. Messages under the sign manual are acknowledged by addresses, except where grants of money are proposed, in which case no address is presented by the Commons, who acknowledge them by making provision accordingly.
Both houses approach the Crown, sometimes by joint addresses, but usually by separate addresses from each house. Such addresses are presented to His Majesty, either by the whole house, or by the lords with white staves in one house and by privy councillors in the other. His Majesty answers, in person, addresses presented by the whole house; but, when presented otherwise, an answer is brought by one of the lords with white staves, or by one of the privy councillors, by whom the address has been presented. Resolutions of either house are also sometimes directed to be laid before His Majesty; and messages of congratulation or condolence are sent to other members of the royal family.
The Passing of Public BillsEdit
The passing of bills forms the most considerable part of the business of parliament; but a brief notice will suffice to explain the methods of procedure. These are substantially the same in both houses; but the privileges of the Commons, in regard to supply and taxation, require that all bills imposing a charge upon the people should originate in that house. On the other hand, the Lords claim that bills for restoration of honors or in blood, or relating to their own privileges and jurisdiction, should commence in their house. An act of grace, or general pardon, originates with the Crown, and is read once only in both houses. Bills are divided into public and private; but here the former only are referred to. In the Lords any peer is entitled to present a bill, but in the Commons a member is required to obtain the previous leave of the house to bring in the bill; and, in the case of bills relating to religion, trade, grants of public money, or charges upon the subject, a preliminary committee is necessary before such leave will be given. A bill, when presented, is read a first time, and ordered to be printed; and a day is appointed for the second reading. At this latter stage the principle of the bill is discussed; and, if disapproved of by an adverse vote, the bill is lost and cannot be renewed during the same session. If approved of, it is usually committed to a committee of the whole house, where every provision is open to debate and amendment. When the bill has been fully considered it is reported to the house, with or without amendments, and is ready to pass through its remaining stages. Sometimes, however, the bill is first referred to a select committee; or to a grand committee and not to committee of the whole house.
When a bill has been reported from a committee of the whole house, or from a standing committee, with amendments, the bill, as amended, is ordered to be considered on a future day, when further amendments may be made, or the bill may be recommitted. The next and last stage is the third reading, when the principle of the measure, and its amended provisions, are open to review. Even at this stage the bill may be lost; but if the third reading be agreed to, it is at once passed and sent to the other house. There it is open to the like discussions and amendments, and may be rejected. If returned without amendment, the bill merely awaits the royal assent; but if returned with amendments, such amendments must be agreed to, or otherwise adjusted by the two houses, before it can be submitted for the royal assent. The royal assent consummates the work of legislation, and converts the bill into an act of parliament.
Both houses are approached by the people by means of petitions, of which prodigious numbers are presented to the House of Commons every session. They are referred to the committee on public petitions, under whose directions they are classified, analysed, and the number of signatures counted; and, when necessary, the petitions are printed in extenso.
Another source of information is found in parliamentary papers. These are of various kinds. The greater part are obtained either by a direct order of the house itself, or b an address to the Crown for documents relating to matters in whic the prerogatives of the Crown are concerned. Other papers, relating to foreign and colonial affairs and other public matters, are piesented to both houses by command of His Majesty. Again, many papers are anntially presented in pursuance of acts of parliament.
The Granting of SuppliesEdit
The exclusive right of the Commons to grant supplies, and to originate all measures of taxation, imposes a very onerous service upon that house. This is mainly performed by two committees of the whole house-the committee of supply, and the committee of ways and means. The former deals with all the estimates for the public service presented to the house by command of His Majesty; and the latter votes out of the Consolidated Fund such sums as are necessary to meet the supplies already granted, and originates all taxes for the service of the year. It is here that the annual financial statement of the chancellor of the exchequer, commonly known as the Budget, is delivered. The resolutions of these committees are reported to the house, and, when agreed to, form the foundation of bills, to be passed by both houses, and submitted for the royal assent; and towards the close of the session an Appropriation Act is passed, applying all the grants for the service of the year.
The extensive jurisdiction of the Commons in matters of election, already referred to, formerly occupied a considerable share of their time, but its exercise has now been contracted within narrow limits. Whenever a vacancy occurs during the continuance of a parliament, a warrant for a new writ is issued by the Speaker, by order of the house during the session, and in pursuance of statutes during the recess. The causes of vacancies are the death of a member, his being called to the House of Peers, his acceptance of an office from the Crown, or his bankruptcy. When any doubt arises as to the issue of a writ, it is usual to appoint a committee to inquire into the circumstances of the case; and during the recess the Speaker may reserve doubtful cases for the determination of the house.
Controverted elections had been originally tried by select committees, afterwards by the committee of privileges and elections, and ultimately by the whole house, with scandalous partiality, but under the Grenville Act of 1770, and other later acts, by select committees, so constituted as to form a more judicial tribunal. The influence of party bias, however, too obviously prevailed until 1839, when Sir Robert Peel introduced an improved system of nomination, which distinctly raised the character of election committees; but a tribunal constituted of political partisans, however chosen, was still open to jealousy and suspicion, and at length, in 1868, the trial of election petitions was transferred to judges of the superior courts, to whose determination the house gives effect, by the issue of new writs or otherwise. The house, however, still retains and exercises its jurisdiction in all cases not relegated, by statute, to the judges.
Impeachments and Trial of PeersEdit
Other forms of parliamentary judicature still remain to be mentioned. Upon impeachments by the Commons, the Lords exercise the highest criminal judicature known to the law; but the occasions upon which it has been brought into action have been very rare in modern times. Another judicature is that of the trial of peers by the House of Lords. And, lastly, by a bill of attainder, the entire parliament may be called to sit in judgment upon offenders.
Private Bill LegislationEdit
One other important function of parliament remains to be noticed-that of private bill legislation. Here the duties of parliament are partly legislative and partly judicial. Public interests are promoted, and private rights secured. This whole jurisdiction has been regulated by special standing orders, and by elaborate arrangements for the nomination of capable and impartial committees. A prodigious legislative work has been accomplishedbut under conditions most costly to the promoters and opponents of private bills, and involving a serious addition to the onerous labors of members of parliament.
HISTORY OF THE BRITISH PARLIAMENTEdit
The Anglo-Saxon PolityEdit
The origin of parliament is to be traced to Anglo-Saxon times. The Angles, Saxons and other Teutonic races who conquered Britain brought to their new homes their own laws and customs, their settled framework of society, their kinship, their village communities, and a certain rude representation in local affairs. And we find in the Anglo-Saxon polity, as developed during their rule in England, all the constituent parts of parliament. In their own lands they had chiefs and leaders, but no kings. But conquest and territorial settlement were followed by the assumption of royal dignities; and the victorious chiefs were accepted by their followers as kings. They were quick to assume the traditional attributes of royalty. A direct descent from their god Woden, and hereditary right, at once clothed them with a halo of glory and with supreme power; and, when the pagan deity was deposed, the king received consecration from a Christian archbishop, and was invested with sacred attributes as the Lords anointed. But the Saxon monarch was a patriarchal king of limited authority, who acted in concert with his people; and, though his succession was hereditary, in his own family, his direct descendant was liable to be passed over in favor of a worthier heir. Such a ruler was a fitting precursor of a line of constitutional kings, who in later times were to govern with the advice and consent of a free parliament.
Meanwhile any council approaching the constitution of a House of Lords was of slow growth. Anglo-Saxon saciety, indeed, was not without an aristocracy. The highest in rank were æthelings—generally, if not exclusively, sons and brothers of the king. The ealdorman, originally a high officer, having the executive government of a shire, and a seat in the king's witan, became hereditary in certain families, and eventually attained the dignity of an earl. But centuries were to pass before the English nobility was to assume its modern character and denominations. At the head of each village was an eorl, the chief of the freemen, or ceorls - their leader in war and patron in peace. The kings gesiths and thegns formed another privileged class. Admitted to offices in the kings household and councils, and enriched by grants of land, they gradually formed a feudal nobility.
The revival of the Christian Church, under the Anglo-Saxon rule, created another order of rulers and councillors, destined to take a leading part in the government of the state. The archbishops and bishops, having spiritual authority in their own dioceses, and exercising much local influence in temporal affairs, were also members of the national council, or witenagemót, and by their greater learning and capacity were not long in acquiring a leading part in the councils of the realm. Ecclesiastical councils were also held, comprising bishops, abbots, and clergy, in which we observe the origin of convocation. The abbots, thus associated with the bishops, also found a place with them in the witenagemót. By these several orders, summoned to advise the king in affairs of state, was formed a council of magnates - to be developed, in course of time, into an upper chamber, or House of Lords.
The rise of the Commons (see Representation) as a political power in the national councils, was of yet slower development: but in the Anglo-Saxon moots may be discerned the first germs of popular government in England. In the town-moot the assembled freemen and cultivators of the "folk-lands" regulated the civil affairs of their own township, tithing, village or parish. In the burgh-moot the inhabitants administered their municipal business, under the presidency of a reeve. The hundred-moot assumed a more representative character, comprising the reeve and a selected number of freemen from the several townships and burghs within the hundred. The shire-moot, or shire-gemót, was an assembly yet more important. An ealdorman was its president, and exercised a jurisdiction over a shire, or district comprising several hundreds. Attended by a reeve and four freemen from every hundred, it assumed a distinctly representative character. Its members, if not elected (in the modern sense) by the popular voice, were, in some fashion, deputed to act on behalf of those whose interests they had come to guard. The shire-moot was also the general folk-moot of the tribe, assembled in arms, to whom their leaders referred the decision of questions of peace and war.
Superior to these local institutions was the witenagemót, or assembly of wise men, with whom the king took counsel in legislation and the government of the state. This national council was the true beginning of the parliament of England. Such a council was originally held in each of the kingdoms commonly known as the Heptarchy; and after their union in a single realm, under King Edgar, the witenagemót became the deliberative and legislative assembly, or parliament, of the extended estate. The witenagemót made laws, imposed taxes, concluded treaties, advised the king as to the disposal of public lands and the appointment and removal of officers of state, and even assumed to elect and depose the king himself. The king had now attained to greater power, and more royal dignities and prerogatives. He was unquestionably the chief power in the witenagemót; but the laws were already promulgated, as ii later times, as having been agreed to with the advice and consent of the witan. The witan also exercised jurisdiction as a supreme court. These ancient customs present further examples of the continuity of English constitutional forms.
The constitution of the witenagemót, however, was necessarily less popular than that of the local moots in the hundred or the shire. The king himself was generally present; and at his summons came prelates, abbots, ealdormen, the kings gesiths and thegns, officers of state and of the royal household, and leading tenants in chief of lands held from the crown. Crowds sometimes attended the meetings of the witan, and shouted their acclamations of approval or dissent; and, so far, the popular voice was associated with its deliberations; but it was at a distance from all but the inhabitants of the place in which it was assembled, and until a system of representation (q.v.) had slowly grown up there could be no further admission of the people to its deliberations. In the town-moot the whole body of freemen and cultivators of the folk-lands met freely under a spreading oak, or on the village green; in the hundred-moot, or shiregemót, deputies from neighboring communities could readily find a place; but all was changed in the wider council of a kingdom. When there were many kingdoms, distance obstructed any general gathering of the Commons; and in the wider area of England such a gathering became impossible. Centuries were yet to pass before this obstacle was to be overcome by representation; but, in the meantime, the local institutions of the Anglo-Saxons were not without their influence upon the central council. The self-government of a free people informed the bishops, ealdormen, ceorls and thegns who dwelt among them of their interests and needs, their sufferings and their wrongs; and, while the popular forces were increasing with an advancing society, they grew more powerful in the councils of their rulers.
Another circumstance must not be overlooked in estimating the political influence of the people in Anglo-Saxon times. For five centuries the country was convulsed with incessant wars wars with the Britons, whom the invaders were driving from their homes, wars between the several kingdoms, wars with the Welsh, wars with the Picts, wars with the Danes. How could the people continue to assert their civil rights amid the clash of arms and a frequent change of masters? The warrior-kings and their armed followers were rulers in the land which they had conquered. At the same time the unsettled condition of the country repressed the social advancement of its people. Agriculture could not prosper when the farm of the husbandman top often became a battlefield. Trade could not be extended without security to property and industry. Under such conditions the great body of the people continued as peasants, handicraftsmen and slaves. The time had not yet come when they could make their voice heard in the councils of the state.
The Norman ConquestEdit
The Anglo-Saxon polity was suddenly overthrown by the Norman Conquest. A stern foreign king had seized the crown, and was prepared to rule his conquered realm by the sword. He brought with him the absolutist principles of continental rulers, and the advanced feudal system of France and Normandy. Feudalism had been slowly gaining ground under the Saxon kings, and now it was firmly established as a military organization. William the Conqueror at once rewarded his warlike barons and followers with enormous grants of land. The Saxon landowners and peasants were despoiled, and the invaders settled in their homesteads. The king claimed the broad lands of England as his own, by right of conquest; and when he allowed his warriors to share the spoil he attached the strict condition of military service in return for every grant of land. An effective army of occupation of all ranks was thus quartered upon every province throughout the realm. England was held by the sword; a foreign king, foreign nobles, and a foreign soldiery were in possession of the soil, and swore fealty to their master, from whom they held it. Saxon bishops were deposed, and foreign prelates appointed to rule over the English Church. Instead of calling a national witenagemót, the king took counsel with the officers of his state and household, the bishops, abbots, earls, barons and knights by whom he was pleased to surround himself. Some of the forms of a national council were indeed maintained, and its counsel and consent were proclaimed in the making of laws; but, in truth, the king was absolute.
Such a revolution seemed fatal to the liberties and ancient customs of Saxon England. What power could withstand the harsh conqueror? But the indestructible elements of English society prevailed over the sword. The king grasped, in his own hands, the higher administration and judicature of the realm; but he continued the old local courts of the hundred and the shire, which had been the basis of Saxon freedom. The Norman polity was otherwise destined to favor the liberties of the people, through agencies which had been designed to crush them. The powerful nobles, whom William and his successors exalted, became formidable rivals of the Crown itself; while ambitious barons were in their turn held in check by a jealous and exacting church. The ruling powers, if combined, would have reduced the people to slavery; but their divisions proved a continual source of weakness. In the meantime the strong rule of the Normans, bitter as it was to Englishmen, repressed intestine wars and the disorders of a divided realm. Civil justice was fairly administered. When the spoils of the conquerors had been secured, the rights of property were protected, industry and trade were left free, and the occupation of the soil by foreigners drove numbers of landowners and freemen into the towns, where they prospered as merchants, traders and artificers, and collected thriving populations of townsmen. Meanwhile, foreign rulers having brought England into closer relations with the Continent, its commerce was extended to distant lands, ports and shipping were encouraged, and English traders were at once enriched and enlightened. Hence new classes of society were growing, who were eventually to become the Commons of England.
The Crown, the Barons, the Church and the PeopleEdit
While these social changes were steadily advancing, the barons were already preparing the way for the assertion of popular rights. Ambitious, turbulent and grasping, they were constantly at issue with the Crown. Enjoying vast estates and great commands, and sharing with the prelates the government of the state, as members of the kings council, they were ever ready to raise the standard of revolt. The king could always count upon barons faithful to his cause, but he also appealed for aid to the Church and the people. The baronage was thus broken by insurrections, and decimated by civil wars, while the value of popular alliances was revealed. The power of the people was ever increasing, while their oppressors were being struck down. The population of the country was still Saxon; they had been subdued, but had not been driven forth from the land, like the Britons in former invasions. The English language was still the common speech of the people; and Norman blood was being mingled with the broader stream of Saxon life. A continuous nationality was thus preserved, and was outgrowing the foreign element.
The Crown was weakened by disputed successions and foreign wars, and the baronage by the blood-stained fields of civil warfare; while both in turn looked to the people in their troubles. Meanwhile the Church was struggling, alike against the Crown and the barons, in defence of its ecclesiastical privileges and temporal possessions. Its clergy were brought by their spiritual ministrations into close relations with the people, and their culture contributed to the intellectual growth of English society. When William Rufus was threatened by his armed barons he took counsel with Archbishop Lanfranc, and promised good laws and justice to the people. His promises were broken; but, like later charters, as lightly set aside, they were a recognition of the political rights of the people. By the charter of Henry I. restoring to the people the laws of Edward the Confessor, the continuity of English institutions was acknowledged; and this concession was also proclaimed through Archbishop Anselm, the church and the people being again associated with the Crown against the barons. And throughout his reign the clergy and the English people were cordially united in support of the Crown. In the anarchic reign of Stephen - also distinguished by its futile charters - the clergy were driven into opposition to the king, while his oppressions alienated the people. Henry II. commenced his reign with another charter, which may be taken as a profession of good intentions on the part of the new king. So strong-willed a king, who could cripple his too powerful nobles, and forge shackles for the Church, was not predisposed to extend the liberties of his people; but they supported him loyally in his critical struggles; and his vigorous reforms in the administrative, judicial and financial organization of his realm promoted the prosperity and political influence of the Commons. At the same time the barons created in this and the two previous reigns, being no longer exclusively Norman in blood and connection, associated themselves more readily with the interests and sympathies of the people. Under Richard I. the principle of representation was somewhat advanced, but it was confined to the assessment and collection of taxes in the different shires.
Magna Carta (q.v.)Edit
It was under King John that the greatest progress was made in national liberties: The loss of Normandy served to draw the baronage closer to the English people; and the king soon united all the forces of the realm against him. He outraged the Church, the barons and the people. He could no longer play one class against another; and they combined to extort the Great Charter of their liberties at Runnymede (1215). It was there ordained that no scutage or aid, except the three regular feudal aids, should be imposed, save by the common council of the realm. To this council the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and greater barons were to be summoned personally by the kings letters, and tenants in chief by a general writ through the sheriff. The summons was required to appoint a certain place, to give 40 days notice at least, and to state the cause of meeting. At length we seem to reach some approach to modern usage.
Growth of the CommonsEdit
The improved administration of successive kings had tended to enlarge the powers of the Crown. But one hundred and fifty years had now passed since the Conquest, and great advances had been made in the condition of the people, and more particularly in the population, wealth and self-government of towns. Many had obtained royal charters, elected their own magistrates, and enjoyed various commercial privileges. They were already a power in the state, which was soon to be more distinctly recognized.
The charter of King John was again promulgated under Henry III., for the sake of a subsidy and henceforth the Commons learned to insist upon the redress of grievances in return for a grant of money. This reign was memorable in the history of parliament. Again the king was in conflict with his barons, who rebelled against his gross misgovernment of the realm. Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, was a patriot in advance of his age and fought for the English people as well as for his own order. The barons, indeed, were doubtful allies of the popular cause, and leaned to the king rather than to Simon. But the towns, the clergy, the universities and large bodies of the commonalty rallied round him, and he overthrew the king and his followers at Lewes. He was now master of the realm, and proclaimed a new constitution. Kings had made promises, and granted illusory charters; but the rebel earl called an English parliament (1265) into being. Churchmen were on his side, and a few barons; but his main reliance was upon the Commons. He summoned to a national council, or parliament, bishops, abbots, earls and barons, together with two knights from every shire and two burgesses from every borough. Knights had indeed been summoned to former councils; but never until now had delegates from the towns been invited to sit with bishops, barons and knights of the shire. In the reign of Edward I. parliament assumed substantially its present form of king, lords and commons. The irregular and unauthorized scheme of Simon de Montfort was fully adopted; and in 1295 the king summoned to a parliament two knights from every shire chosen by the freeholders at the shire court, and two burgesses from every city, borough and leading town. The rebel earl had enlarged the basis of the national council; and, to secure popular support, the politic king accepted it as a convenient instrument of taxation. The knights and freeholders had increased in numbers and wealth; and the towns, continually advancing in population, trade and commerce, had become valuable contributors to the revenue of the state. The grant of subsidies to the Crown, by the assembled baronage and representatives of the shires and towns, was a legal and comprehensive impost upon the entire realm.
Secession of the ClergyEdit
It formed part of Edwards policy to embrace the clergy in his scheme for the representation of all orders and classes of his subjects. They were summoned to attend the parliament of 1295 and succeeding parliaments of his reign, and their form of summons has been continued until the present time; but the clergy resolutely held aloof from the national council, and insisted upon voting their subsidies in their own convocations of Canterbury and York. The bishops retained their high place among the earls and barons, but the clergy sacrificed to ecclesiastical jealousies the privilege of sharing in the political councils of the state. As yet, indeed, this privilege seemed little more than the voting of subsidies, but it was soon to embrace the redress of grievances and the framing of laws for the general welfare of the realm. This great power they forfeited; and who shall say how it might have been wielded, in the interests of the Church, and in the legislation of their country? They could not have withstood the Reformation; they would have been forced to yield to the power of the Crown and the heated resolution of the laity; but they might have saved a large share of the endowments of the Church, and perhaps have modified the doctrines and formularies of the reformed establishment.
Reluctance of the Commons to AttendEdit
Meanwhile the Commons, unconscious of their future power, took their humble place in the great council of the realm. The knights of the shire, as lesser barons, or landowners of good social standing, could sit beside the magnates of the land without constraint; but modest traders from the towns were overawed by the power and dignity of their new associates. They knew that they were summoned for no other purpose than the taxing of themselves and their fellow townsmen; their attendance was irksome; it interrupted their own business; and their journeys exposed them to many hardships and dangers. It is not surprising that they should have shrunk from the exercise of so doubtful a privilege. Considerable numbers absented themselves from a thankless service; and their constituents, far from exacting the attendance of their members, as in modern times, begrudged the sorry stipend of 2S. a day, paid to their representatives while on duty, and strove to evade the burden imposed upon them by the Crown. Some even purchased charters, withdrawing franchises which they had not yet learned to value. Nor, in truth, did the representation of towns at this period afford much protection to the rights and interests of the people. Towns were enfranchised at the will or caprice of the Crown and the sheriffs; they could be excluded at pleasure; and the least show of independence would be followed by the omission of another writ of summons. But the principle of representation (q.v.), once established, was to be developed with the expansion of society; and the despised burgesses of Edward I., not having seceded, like the clergy, were destined to become a potential class in the parliaments of England.
Sitting of Parliament at WestminsterEdit
Another constitutional change during this reign was the summoning of parliament to Westminster instead of to various towns in different parts of the country. This custom invested parliament with the character of a settled institution, and constituted it a high court for the hearing of petitions and the redress of grievances. The growth of its judicature, as a court of appeal, was also favored by the fixity of its place of meeting.
Authority of Parliament recognized by LawEdit
Great was the power of the Crown, and the king himself was bold and statesmanlike; but the union of classes against him proved too strong for prerogative. In 1297, having outraged the Church, the barons, and the Commons, by illegal exactions, he was forced to confirm the Great Charter and the Charter of Forests, with further securities against the taxation of the people without their consent and, in return, obtained timely subsidies from the parliament. Henceforth the financial necessities of a succession of kings ensured the frequent assembling of parliaments. Nor were they long contented with the humble function of voting subsidies, but boldly insisted on the redress of grievances and further securities for national liberties. In 1322 it was declared by statute 15 Edw. II. that "the matters to be established for the estate of the king and of his heirs, and for the estate of the realm and of the people, should be treated, accorded, and established in parliament, by the king, and by the assent of the prelates, earls and barons, and the commonalty of the realm, according as had been before accustomed." The constitutional powers of parliament as a legislature were here amply recognized - not by royal charter, or by the occasional exercise of prerogative, but by an authoritative statute. And these powers were soon to be exercised in a striking form. Already parliament had established the principle that the redress of grievances should have precedence of the grant of subsidies; it had maintained the right of approving councillors of the Crown, and punishing them for the abuse of their powers; and in 1327 the king himself was finally deposed, and the succession of his son, Edward III., declared by parliament.
Union of Knights of the Shire and BurgessesEdit
At this period the constitution of parliament was also settling down to its later and permanent shape. Hitherto the different orders or estates had deliberated separately, and agreed upon their several grants to the Crown. The knights of the shire were naturally drawn, by social ties and class interests, into alliance with the barons; but at length they joined the citizens and burgesses, and in the first parliament of Edward III. they are found sitting together as "the Commons."
This may be taken as the turning point in the political history of England. If all the landowners of the country had become united as an order of nobles, they might have proved too strong for the development of national liberties, while the union of the country gentlemen with the burgesses formed an estate of the realm which was destined to prevail over all other powers. The withdrawal of the clergy, who would probably have been led by the bishops to take part with themselves and the barons, further strengthened the united Commons.
Increasing Influence of ParliamentEdit
The reign of Edward III. witnessed further advances in the authority of parliament, and changes in its constitution. The king, being in continual need of subsidies, was forced to summon parliament every year, and in order to encourage its liberality he frequently sought its advice upon the most important issues of peace or war, and readily entertained the petitions of the Commons praying for the redress of grievances. During this reign also, the advice and consent of the Commons, as well as of the Lords spiritual and temporal, was regularly recorded in the enacting part of every statute.
Separation of the Two HousesEdit
But a more important event is to be assigned to this reign, - the formal separation of parliament into the two houses of Lords and Commons. There is no evidence - nor is it probable - that the different estates ever voted together as a single assembly. It appears from the rolls of parliament that in the early part of this reign, the causes of summons having been declared to the assembled estates, the three estates deliberated separately, but afterwards delivered a collective answer to the king. While their deliberations were short they could be conducted apart, in the same chamber; but, in course of time, it was found convenient for the Commons to have a chamber of their own, and they adjourned their sittings to the chapter-house of the abbot of Westminster, where they continued to be held after the more formal and permanent separation had taken place. The date of this event is generally assigned to the 17th Edward III.
The Commons as PetitionersEdit
Parliament had now assumed its present outward form. But it was far from enjoying the authority which it acquired in later times. The Crown was still paramount; the small body of earls and barons - not exceeding 40 - were connected with the royal family, or in the service of the king, or under his influence; the prelates, once distinguished by their independence, were now seekers of royal favor; and the Commons, though often able to extort concessions in return for their contributions to the royal exchequer, as yet held an inferior position among the estates of the realm. Instead of enjoying an equal share in the framing of laws, they appeared before the king in the humble guise of petitioners. Their petitions, together with the kings answers, were recorded in the rolls of parliament; but it was not until the parliament had been discharged from attendance that statutes were framed by the judges and entered on the statute rolls. Under such conditions legislation was, in truth, the prerogative of the Crown rather than of parliament. Enactments were often found in the statutes at variance with the petitions and royal answers, and neither prayed for by the Commons nor assented to by the Lords. In vain the Commons protested against so grave an abuse of royal authority; but the same practice was continued during this and succeeding reigns. Henry V., in the second year of his reign, promised that nothing should be enacted to the petitions of the Commons, contrary to their asking, whereby they should be bound without their assent; but, so long as the old method of framing laws was adhered to, there could be no security against abuse; and it was not until the reign of Henry VI. that the introduction of the more regular system of legislating by bill and statute ensured the thorough agreement of all the estates in the several provisions of every statute.
Increasing Boldness of the CommonsEdit
The Commons, however, notwithstanding these and other discouragements, were constantly growing bolder in the assertion of their rights. They now ventured to brave the displeasure of the king, without seeking to shelter themselves behind powerful barons, upon whose forwardness in the national cause they could not reckon. Notably in 1376 their stout Speaker, Peter de Ia Mare, inveighed, in their name, against the gross mismanagement of the war, impeached ministers of the realm, complained of the heavy burdens under which the people suffered, and even demanded that a true account.should be rendered of the public expenditure. The brave Speaker was cast into prison, and a new parliament was summoned which speedily reversed the resolutions of the last. But the death of the king changed the aspect of affairs. Another parliament was called, when it was found that the spirit of the Commons was not subdued. Peter de la Mare was released from prison, and again elected to the chair. The demands of the former parliament were reiterated with greater boldness and persistence, the evil councillors of the late reign were driven out, and it was conceded that the principal officers of state should be appointed and removed, during the minority of Richard II., upon the advice of the lords. The Commons also insisted upon the annual assembling of parliament under the stringent provisions of a binding law. They claimed the right, not only of voting subsidies, but of appropriating them, and of examining public accounts. They inquired into public abuses, and impeached ministers of the Crown. Even the king himself was deposed by the parliament. Thus during this reign all the great powers of parliament were asserted and exercised. The foreign wars of Henry IV. and Henry V., by continuing the financial necessities of the Crown, maintained for a while the powers which parliament had acquired by the struggles of centuries.
Relapse of Parliamentary InfluenceEdit
But a period of civil wars and disputed successions was now at hand, which checked the further development of parliamentary liberties. The effective power of a political institution is determined, not by assertions of authority, nor even by its legal recognition, but by the external forces by which it is supported, controlled or overborne. With the close of the Wars of the Roses the life of parliament seems to have well-nigh expired.
To this constitutional relapse various causes contributed at the same period. The Crown had recovered its absolute supremacy. The powerful baronage had been decimated on the battlefield and the scaffold; and vast estates had been confiscated to the Crown. Kings had no longer any dread of their prowess as defenders of their own order or party, or as leaders of the people. The royal treasury had been enriched by their ruin; while the close of a long succession of wars with France and Scotland relieved it of that continual drain which had reduced the Crown to an unwelcome dependence upon parliament. Not only were the fortunes of the baronage laid low, but feudalism was also dying out in England as on the continent. It was no longer a force which could control the Crown; and it was being further weakened by changes in the art of war. The mailed horseman, the battle-axe and cross-bow of the burgher and yeoman, could not cope with the cannon and arquebus of the royal army.
In earlier times the Church had often stood forth against the domination of kings, but now it was in passive submission to the Throne. The prelates were attracted to the court, and sought the highest offices of state; the inferior clergy had long been losing their influence over the laity by their ignorance and want of moral elevation at a period of increasing enlightenment; while the Church at large was weakened by schisms and a wider freedom of thought. Hence the Church, like the baronage had ceased to be a check upon the Crown.
Meanwhile what had become of the ever-growing power of the Commons? It is true they had lost their stalwart leaders, the armed barons and outspoken prelates, but they had themselves advanced in numbers, riches and enlightenment; they had overspread the land as knights and freeholders, or dwelt in populous towns enriched by merchandise. Why could they not find leaders of their own? Because they had lost the liberal franchises of an early age. All freeholders, or suitors present at the county court, were formerly entitled to vote for a knight of the shire; but in the eighth year of Henry VI. (1430) an act was passed (c. 37) by which this right was confined to 40S. freeholders, resident in the county. Large numbers of electors were thus disfranchised. In the view of parliament they were of no value, and complaints had been made that they were under the influence of the nobles and greater landowners; but a popular element had been withdrawn from the county representation, and the restricted franchise cannot have impaired the influence of the nobles.
As for the cities and boroughs, they had virtually renounced their electoral privileges. As we have seen, they had never valued them very highly; and now by royal charters, or by the usurpation of small self-elected bodies of burgesses, the choice of members had fallen into the hands of town councils and neighboring landowners. The anomalous system of close and nomination boroughs, which had arisen thus early in English history, was suffered to continue without a check for four centuries, as a notorious blot upon a free constitution.
All these changes exalted the prerogatives of the Crown. Amid the clash of arms and the strife of hostile parties the voice of parliament had been stifled; and, when peace was restored, a powerful king could dispense with an assembly which might prove troublesome, and from whom he rarely needed help. Hence for a period of two hundred years, from the reign of Henry VI. to that of Elizabeth, the free parliaments of England were in abeyance. The institution retained its form and constituent parts; its rights and privileges were theoretically recognized, but its freedom and national character were little more than shadows.
The Three Estates of the RealmEdit
This check in the fortunes of parliament affords a fitting occasion. for examining the composition of each of the three estates of the realm.
Lords Spiritual and TemporalEdit
The archbishops and bishops had held an eminent position in the councils of Saxon and Norman kings, and many priors and abbots were from time to time associated with them as lords spiritual, until the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII. They generally outnumbered their brethren, the temporal peers, who sat with them in the same assembly.
The lords temporal comprised several dignities. Of these the baron, though now the lowest in rank, was the most ancient. The title was familiar in Saxon times, but it was not until after the Norman Conquest, that it was invested with a distinct feudal dignity. Next in antiquity was the earl, whose official title was known to Danes and Saxons, and who after the Conquest obtained a dignity equivalent to that of count in foreign states. The highest dignity, that of duke, was not created until Edward III. conferred it upon his son, Edward the Black Prince. The rank of marquess was first created by Richard II., with precedence after a duke. It was in the reign of Henry VI. that the rank of viscount was created, to be placed between the earl and the baron. Thus the peerage consisted of the five dignities of duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron. During the 15th century the number of temporal peers summoned to parliament rarely exceeded fifty, and no more than twenty-nine received writs of summons to the first parliament of Henry VII. There were only fifty-nine at the death of Queen Elizabeth. At the accession of William III. this number had been iiicreased to about one hundred and fifty.
The several orders of the peerage are alike distinguished by the hereditary character of their dignities. Some life peerages, indeed, were created between the reigns of Richard II. and Henry VI., and several ladies had received life peerages between the reigns of Charles II. and George II. The highest authorities had also held that the creation of life peerages was within the prerogative of the Crown. But four hundred years had elapsed since the creation of a life peer, entitled to sit in parliament, when Queen Victoria was advised to create Sir James Parke, an eminent judge, a baron for life, under the title of Lord Wensleydale. The object of this deviation from the accustomed practice was to strengthen the judicature of the House of Lords, without unduly enlarging the numbers of the peerage. But the Lords at once took exception to this act of the Crown, and, holding that a prerogative so long disused could not be revived, in derogation of the hereditary character of the peerage, resolved that Lord Wensleydale was not entitled by his letters patent and writ of summons to sit and vote in parliament. His lordship accordingly received a new patent, and took his seat as an hereditary peer. But the necessity of some such expedient for improving the appellate jurisdiction of the House of Lords could not be contested; and in 1876 three lords of appeal in ordinary were constituted by statute, enjoying the rank of baron for life, and the right of sitting and voting in the House of Lords so long as they continue in office.
The Commons formed a more numerous body. In the reign of Edward I. there were about 275 members, in that of Edward III. 250, and in that of Henry VI. 300. In the reign of Henry VIII. parliament added 27 members for Wales and four for the county and city of Chester, and in the reign of Charles II. 4 for the county and city of Durham. Between the reigns of Henry VIII. and Charles II. 130 members were also added by royal charter.
Parliament under Henry VIIIEdit
To resume the history of parliament at a later period, let us glance at the reign of Henry VIII. Never had the power of the Crown been greater than when this king succeeded to the throne, and never had a more imperious will been displayed by any king of England. Parliament was at his feet to do his bidding, and the Reformation enormously increased his power. He had become a pope to the bishops; the old nobles who had resisted his will had perished in the field or on the scaffold; the new nobles were his creatures; and he had the vast wealth of the Church in his hands as largesses to his adherents. Such was the dependence of parliament upon the Crown and its advisers during the Reformation period that in less than thirty years four vital changes were decreed in the national faith. Each of the successive reigns inaugurated a new religion.
Queen Elizabeth and her ParliamentsEdit
With the reign of Elizabeth commenced a new era in the life of parliament. She had received the royal prerogatives unimpaired, and her hand was strong enough to wield them. But in the long interval since Edward IV. the entire framework of English society had been changed; it was a new England that the queen was called upon to govern. The coarse barons of feudal times had been succeeded by English country gentlemen, beyond the influence of the court, and identified with all the interests and sympathies of their country neighbors. From this class were chosen nearly all the knights of the shire, and a considerable proportion of the members for cities and boroughs. They were generally distinguished by a manly independence, and were prepared to uphold the rights and privileges of parliament and the interests of their constituents. A change no less remarkable had occurred in other classes of society. The country was peopled with yeomen and farmers, far superior to the cultivators of the soil in feudal times; and the towns and seaports had grown into important centres of commerce and manufactures. Advances not less striking had been made in the enlightenment and culture of society. But, above all, recent religious revolutions had awakened a spirit of thought and inquiry by no means confined to questions of faith. The Puritans, hostile to the Church, and jealous of every semblance of Catholic revival, were embittered against the state, which was identified, in their eyes, with many ecclesiastical enormities; and stubborn temper was destined to become a strong motive force in restoring the authority of parliament.
The parliaments of Elizabeth, though rarely summoned, displayed an unaccustomed spirit. They discussed the succession to the Crown, the marriage of the queen, and ecclesiastical abuses; they upheld the privileges of the Commons and their right to advise the Crown upon all matters of state; and they condemned the grant of monopolies. The bold words of the Wentworths and Yelvertons were such as had not been heard before in parliament. The conflicts between Elizabeth and the Commons marked the revival of the independence of parliament, and foreshadowed graver troubles at no distant period.
Conflicts of James I. with the CommonsEdit
James I., with short-sighted pedantry, provoked a succession of conflicts with the Commons, in which abuses of prerogative were stoutly resisted and the rights and privileges of parliament resolutely asserted. The "remonstrance" of 1610 and the "protestation" of 1621 would have taught a politic ruler that the Commons could no longer be trifled with; but those lessons were lost upon James and upon his ill-fated son.
Charles I. and the CommonwealthEdit
The momentous struggles between Charles I. and his parliaments cannot be followed in this place. The earlier parliaments of this reign fairly represented the earnest and temperate judgment of the country. They were determined to obtain the redress of grievances and to restrain undue prerogatives; but there was no taint of disloyalty to the Crown; there were no dreams of revolution. But the contest at length became embittered, until there was no issue but the arbitrament of the sword. The period of the Great Rebellion and the Commonwealth proved the supreme power of the Commons, when supported by popular forces. Everything gave way before them. They raised victorious armies in the field, they overthrew the Church and the House of Lords, and they brought the king himself to the scaffold. It also displayed the impotence of a parliament which has lost the confidence of the country, or is overborne by mobs, by an army, or by the strong will of a dictator.
Political Agitation of this PeriodEdit
It is to this time of fierce political passions that we trace the origin of political agitation as an organized method of influencing the deliberations of parliament. The whole country was then aroused by passionate exhortations from the pulpit and in the press. No less than thirty thousand political tracts and newspapers during this period have been preserved. Petitions to parliament were multiplied in order to strengthen the hands of the popular leaders. Clamorous meetings were held to stimulate or overawe parliament. Such methods, restrained after the Restoration, have been revived in later times, and now form part of the acknowledged system of parliamentary government.
Parliament after the RestorationEdit
On the restoration of Charles II. parliament was at once restored to its old constitution, and its sittings were revived as if they had suffered no interruption. No outward change had been effected by the late revolution; but that a stronger spirit of resistance to abuses of prerogative had been aroused was soon to be disclosed in the deposition of James II. and "the glorious revolution" of 1688. At this time the full rights of parliament were explicitly declared, and securities taken for the maintenance of public liberties. The theory of a constitutional monarchy and a free parliament was established; but after two revolutions it is curious to observe the indirect methods by which the Commons were henceforth kept in subjection to the Crown and the territorial aristocracy. The representation had long become an illusion. The knights of the shire were the nominees of nobles and great landowners; the borough members were returned by the Crown, by noble patrons or close corporations; even the representation of cities, with greater pretensions to independence, was controlled by bribery. Nor were rulers content with their control of the representation, but, after the Restoration, the infamous system of bribing the members themselves became a recognized instrument of administration. The country gentlemen were not less attached to the principles of rational liberty than their fathers, and would have resisted further encroachments of prerogatives; but they were satisfied with the Revolution. settlement and the remedial laws of William III., and no new issue had yet arisen to awaken opposition. Accordingly, they ranged themselves with one or other of the political parties into which parliament was now beginning to be divided, and bore their part in the more measured strifes of the 18th century. From the Revolution till the reign of George III. the effective power of the state was wielded by the Crown, the Church and the territorial aristocracy; but the influence of public opinion since the stirring events of the 17th century had greatly increased. Both parties were constrained to defer to it; and, notwithstanding the flagrant defects in the representation, parliament generally kept itself in accord with the general sentiments of the country.
Union of ScotlandEdit
On the union of Scotland in 1707 important changes were made in the constitution of parliament. The House of Lords was reinforced by the addition of sixteen peers, representing the peerage of Scotland, and elected every parliament; and the Scottish peers, as a, body, were admitted to all the privileges of peerage, except the right of sitting in parliament or upon the trial of peers. No prerogative, however, was given to the Crown to create new peerages after the union; and, while they are distinguished by their antiquity, their number is consequently decreasing. To the House of Commons were assigned forty-five members, representing the shires and burghs of Scotland.
Parliament under George IIIEdit
With the reign of George III. there opened a new period in the history of parliament. Agitation in its various forms, an active and aggressive press, public meetings and, political associations, the free use of the right of petition, and a turbulent spirit among the people seriously changed the relations of parliament to the country. And the publication of debates, which was fully established in 1711, at once increased the direct responsibility of parliament to the people, and ultimately brought about other results, to which we shall presently advert.
Union of IrelandEdit
In this reign another important change was effected in the constitution of parliament. Upon the union with Ireland, in. 1801, four Irish bishops were added to the lords spiritual, who sat by rotation of sessions, and represented the episcopal body of the Church of Ireland. But those bishops were deprived of their seats in parliament in 1869, on the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Twenty-eight representative peers, elected for life by the peerage of Ireland, were admitted to the House of Lords. All the Irish peers were also entitled to the privilege of peerage. In two particulars the Irish peerage was treated in a different manner from the peerage of Scotland. The Crown was empowered to create a new Irish peerage whenever three Irish peerages in existence at the time of the, Union have become extinct, or when the number of Irish peers, exclusive of those holding peerages of the United Kingdom, has been reduced to one hundred. And, further, Irish peers were permitted to sit in the House of Commons for any place in Great Britain, forfeiting, however, the privilege of peerage while sitting in the lower house.
At the same time one hundred representatives of Ireland were added to the House of Commons. This addition raised the number of members to six hundred and fifty-eight. Parliament now became the parliament of the United Kingdom.
Schemes for Improving the RepresentationEdit
By the union of Scotland and Ireland the electoral abuses of those countries were combined with those of England. Notwithstanding a defective representation, however, parliament generally sustained its position as fairly embodying the political sentiments of its time. Public opinion had been awakened, and could not safely be ignored by any party in the state. Under a narrow and corrupt electoral system the ablest men in the country found an entrance into the House of Commons; and their rivalry and ambition ensured the acceptance of popular principles and the passing of many remedial measures. As society expanded, and new classes were called into existence, the pressure of public opinion upon the legislature was assuming a more decisive character. The grave defects of the representation were notorious, and some minor electoral abuses had been from time to time corrected. But the fundamental evils - nomination boroughs, limited rights of election, the sale of seats in parliament, the prevalence of bribery, and the enormous expense of elections - though constantly exposed, long held their ground against all assailants. So far back as 1770 Lord Chatham had denounced these flagrant abuses. "Before the end of this century", he said, "either the parliament will reform itself from within, or be reformed with a vengeance from without." In 1782, and again in 1783 and 1785, his distinguished son, William Pitt, condemned the abuses of the representation, and proposed schemes of parliamentary reform. In 1793 Mr Grey (afterwards Earl Grey) submitted a motion on the same subject; but the excesses of the French Revolution, political troubles at home, and exhausting wars abroad discouraged the supporters of reform for many years. Under more favorable conditions the question assumed greater proportions. Lord John Russell especially distinguished himself in 1820, and in several succeeding years, by the able exposure of abuses and by temperate schemes of reform. His efforts were assisted by the scandalous disclosures of bribery at Grampound, Penryn and East Retford. All moderate proposals were rejected; but the concurrence of a dissolution, on the death of George IV., with the French Revolution in 1830, and an ill-timed declaration of the duke of Wellington that the representation was perfect and could not be improved, suddenly precipitated the memorable crisis of parliamentary reform. It now fell to the lot of Earl Grey, as premier, to be the leader in a cause which be had espoused in his early youth.
The Reform Acts of 1832.Edit
The result of the memorable struggle which ensued may be briefly told. By the Reform Acts of 1832 the representation of the United Kingdom was reconstructed. In England, fifty-six nomination boroughs returning one hundred and eleven members were disfranchised; thirty boroughs were each deprived of one member, and Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, which had returned four members, were now reduced to two. Means were thus found for the enfranchisement of populous places. Twenty-two large towns, including metropolitan districts, became entitled to return two members, and twenty less considerable towns acquired the right of returning one member each. The number of county members was increased from ninety-four to one hundred and fifty-nine, the larger counties being divided for the purposes of representation.
The elective franchise was also placed upon a new basis. In the boroughs a £10 household suffrage was substituted for the narrow and unequal franchises which had sprung upthe rights of freemen, in corporate towns, being alone respected. In the counties, copyholders and leaseholders for terms of years, and tenants at will paying a rent of £50 a year, were added to the 40s. freeholders.
By the Scottish Reform Act the number of members representing Scotland was increased from forty-five, as arranged at the union, to fifty-three, of whom thirty were assigned to counties and twenty-three to cities and burghs. In counties the franchise was conferred upon owners of property of £10 a year, and certain classes of leaseholders; in burghs, upon £10 householders, as in England.
By the Irish Reform Act, no boroughs, however small, were disfranchised; but the franchise was given to £10 householders, and county constituencies were enlarged. These franchises, however, were extended in. 1850, when an £8 household suffrage was given to the boroughs, and additions were made to the county franchises. The hundred members assigned to that country at the union were increased to one hundred and five. Notwithstanding these various changes, however, the total number of the House of Commons was still maintained at six hundred and fifty-eight.
The legislature was now brought into closer relations with the people, and became more sensitive to the pressure of popular forces. The immediate effects of this new spirit were perceptible in the increased legislative activity of the reformed parliament, its vigorous grappling with old abuses, and its preference of the public welfare to the narrower interests of classes. But, signal as was the regeneration of parliament, several electoral evils still needed correction. Strenuous efforts were made, with indifferent success, to overcome bribery and corruption, and proposals were often ineffectually made to restrain the undue influence of landlords and employers of labor by the ballot; improvements were made in the registration and polling of electors, and the property qualification of members was abolished. Complaints were also urged that the middle classes had been admitted to power, while the working classes were excluded from the late scheme of enfranchisement. It was not till 1867 however that any substantial advance was made.
Increased Power of the CommonsEdit
Prior to the reign of Charles I. the condition of society had been such as naturally to subordinate the Commons to the Crown and the Lords. After the Revolution of 1688 society had so far advanced that, under a free representation, the Commons might have striven with both upon equal terms. But, as by far the greater part of the representation was in the hands of the king and the territorial nobles, the large constitutional powers of the Commons were held safely in. check. After 1832, when the representation became a reality, a corresponding authority was asserted by the Commons. For several years, indeed, by reason of the weakness of the Liberal party, the Lords were able successfully to resist the Commons upon many important occasions; but it was soon acknowledged that they must yield whenever a decisive majority of the Commons, supported by public opinion, insisted upon the passing of any measure, however repugnant to the sentiments of the upper house. And it became a political axiom that the Commons alone determined the fate of ministries.
Later Measures of ReformEdit
In 1852, and again in 1854, Lord John Russell introduced measures of parliamentary reform; but constitutional changes were discouraged by the Crimean War. In 1859 Lord Derby's Conservative government proposed another scheme of reform, which was defeated; and in 1860 Lord John Russell brought in. another bill, which was not proceeded with; and the question of reform continued in abeyance until after the death of Lord Palmerston. Earl Russell, who succeeded him as premier, was prompt to redeem former pledges, and hastened to submit to a new parliament, in 1866, another scheme of reform. This measure, and the ministry by whom it was promoted, were overthrown by a combination of the Conservative opposition and the memorable cave of members of the Liberal party. But the popular sentiment in favor of reform, which had for some years been inert, was suddenly aroused by the defeat of a Liberal ministry and the triumph of the party opposed to reform. Lord Derby and his colleagues were now constrained to undertake the settlement of this embarrassing question; and by a strange concurrence of political events and party tactics a scheme far more democratic than that of the Liberal government was accepted by the same parliament, under the auspices of a Conservative ministry.
The Reform Acts of 1867-1868Edit
By the English Reform Act of 1867 four corrupt boroughs were disfranchised, and thirty-eight boroughs returning two members were henceforth to return one only. A third member was given to Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds; a second member to Merthyr Tydfil and Salford; the Tower Hamlets were divided into two boroughs, each returning two members; and ten new boroughs were created, returning one member each, with the exception of Chelsea, to which two were assigned. By these changes twenty-six seats were taken from boroughs, while a member was given to the university of London. But before this act came into operation seven other English boroughs were disfranchised by the Scottish Reform Act of 1868, these seats being given to Scotland. Thirteen new divisions of counties were erected, to which twenty-five members were assigned. In counties the franchise of copyholders and leaseholders was reduced from £10 to £5, and the occupation franchise from £50 to £12. In boroughs the franchise was extended to all occupiers of dwelling-houses rated to the poor-rates, and to lodgers occupying lodgings of the annual value of £10 unfurnished.
By the Scottish Reform Act of 1868, the number of members representing Scotland was increased from fifty-three to sixty three new members being given to the shires, two to the universities, and two to cities and burghs. The county franchise was extended to owners of lands and heritages of £5 yearly value, and to occupiers of the rateable value of £14; and the burgh franchise to all occupiers of dwelling-houses paying rates, and to tenants of lodgings of £10 annual value unfurnished.
By the Irish Reform Act of 1868 no change was made in the number of members nor in the distribution of seats; but the boroughs of Sligo and Cashel, already disfranchised, were still left without representation. The county franchise was left unchanged; but the borough franchise was extended to occupiers of houses rated at £4, and of lodgings of the annual value of £10 unfurnished.
That these changes in the representation - especially the household suffrage in boroughs - were a notable advance upon the reforms of 1832, in the direction of democracy, cannot be questioned. The enlarged constituencies speedily overthrew the ministry to whom these measures were due; and the new parliament further extended the recent scheme of reform by granting to electors the protection of the ballot (q.v.), for which advanced reformers had contended since 1832. Nor was the existing representation long suffered to continue without question. First, it was proposed, in I872, to extend the household franchise to counties, and this proposal found favor in the country and in the House of Commons; but, the Conservative party having been restored to power in 1874, no measure of that character could be promoted with any prospect of success. At the dissolution of 188o a more general revision of the representation was advocated by leading members of the Liberal party, who were soon restored to power.
Acts of 1884-1885.Edit
The Reform Act of 1884 was ultimately carried with the goodwill of both of the great political parties. The Conservatives resisted Mr Gladstones attempt to carry a great extension of the franchise before he had disclosed his scheme of redistribution, and the bill was thrown out by the House of Lords in August 1884. But after a conference of Mr Gladstone with Lord Salisbury, to whom the whole scheme was confided, an agreement was reached, and the bill was passed in the autumn session. In the following session (1885) the Redistribution Act was passed.
A uniform household and lodger franchise was established in counties and boroughs. If a dwelling was held as part payment for service, the occupier was not deprived of his vote because his home was the property of his master. The obligation was thrown on the overseers of ascertaining whether any other man besides the owner was entitled to be registered as an inhabitant occupier, and the owner was bound to supply the overseers with information. The Registration Acts were otherwise widely amended. Polling-places were multiplied, so that little time need be lost in recording a vote. These and other beneficial changes went a long way towards giving a vote to every one who had a decent home. By the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 all boroughs with less than 15,000 inhabitants ceased to return a member. These small towns were merged into their counties, and the counties were subdivided into a great number of single-member constituencies, so that the inhabitants of the disfranchised boroughs voted for the member for the division of the county in which they were situated. Boroughs with less than 50,000 inhabitants returning two members were in future to return only one, and towns of over 100,000 were divided into separate constituencies, and received additional members in proportion to their population. The members for the City of London were reduced to two, but Greater London, including Croydon, returned sixty. Divided Liverpool returned nine, Glasgow seven., Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast each four, and so on. Six additional seats were given to England and twelve to Scotland, so that, allowing for a diminution by disfranchisement for corruption, the numbers of the House of Commons were raised to 670 members.
Results of Reform since 1832Edit
From a constitutional standpoint it is important to recognize the results of the successive Reform Acts on the working of parliament as regards the position of the executive on the one hand and the electorate on the other. Before 1832 the functions of ministers were mainly administrative, and parliament was able to deal much as it pleased with their rare legislative proposals without thereby depriving them of office. Moreover, since before that date ministers were, generally speaking, in fact as well as in theory appointed by the king, while the general confidence of the majority in the House of Commons followed the confidence not so much of the electorate as of the Crown, that house was able on occasions to exercise an effective control over foreign policy. Pitt, after 1784, was defeated several times on foreign and domestic issues, yet his resignation was neither expected nor desired. In 1788, when the regency of the prince of Wales appeared probable, and again in 1812, it was generally assumed that it would be in-his power to dismiss his fathers ministers and to maintain the Whigs in office without dissolving parliament. This system, while it gave to ministers security of tenure, left much effective freedom of action to the House of Commons. But the Reform Act of 1832 introduced a new order of things. In 1835 the result of a general election was for the first time the direct cause of a change of ministry, and in 1841 a House of Commons was elected for the express purpose of bringing a particular statesman into power. The electorate voted for Sir Robert Peel, and it would have been as impossible for the house then elected to deny him their support as it would be for the college of electors in the United States to exercise their private judgment in the selection of a president. As time went on, and the party system became more closely organized in the enlarged electorate, the voting power throughout the country came to exercise an increasing influence. The premier was now a party leader who derived his power in reality neither from the Crown nor from parliament, but from the electorate, and to the electorate he could appeal if deserted by his parliamentary majority. Unless it was prepared to drive him from the office in which it was elected to support him, that majority would not venture to defeat, or even seriously to modify, his legislative proposals, or to pass any censure on his foreign policy, for all such action would now be held to be equivalent to a Vote of no confidence. From the passing of the Reform Act of 1867 down to 1900 (with a single exception due to the lowering of the franchise and the redistribution of seats) the electorate voted alternately for the rival party leaders, and it was the function of the houses elected for that purpose to pass the measures and to endorse the general policy with which those leaders were respectively identified. The cabinet (q.v.), composed of colleagues selected by the prime minister, had practically, though indirectly, become an executive committee acting on behalf of the electorate, that is to say, the majority which returned their party to office; and the House of Commons practically ceased to exercise control over ministers except in so far as a revolt in the party forming the majority could influence the prime minister, or force him to resign or dissolve. Meanwhile, the virtual identification of the electorate with the nation by the successive extensions of the franchise added immensely to its power, the chief limitation being supplied by the Septennial Act. The House of Lords, whatever its nominal rights, came henceforth in practice to exercise restriction rather on the House of Commons than on the will of the electorate, for the acquiescence of the upper house in the decision of the electors, when appealed to on a specific point of issue between the two houses, was gradually accepted by its leaders as a constitutional convention.
The history of parliament, as an institution, centres in this later period round two points, (A) the friction between Lords and Commons, resulting in proposals for the remodelling of the upper house, and (B) the changes in procedure within the House of Commons, necessitated by new conditions of work and the desire to make it a more business-like assembly. These two movements will be discussed separately.
A. House of Lords QuestionEdit
In the altered position of the House of Lords, the occasional checks given by it to the House of Commons were bound to cause friction with the representatives of the people. In the nature of things this was a matter of importance only when the Liberal party was in power and measures were proposed by the Liberal leaders which involved such extreme changes that the preponderantly Conservative upper house could amend or reject them with some confidence in its action being supported by the electorate. The frequent differences between the two houses during the parliament of 1880-1885, culminating in the postponement by the upper house of the Reform Bill, caused the status of that house to be much, discussed during the general election of 1885, and proposals for its "mending or ending" to be freely canvassed on Radical platforms. On the 5th of March 1886 Mr Labouchere moved a resolution in the House of Commons condemning the hereditary principle. This was resisted by Mr Gladstone, then prime minister, on the ground that he had never supported an abstract resolution unless he was prepared to follow it up by action, and that the time for this had not arrived. On a division the motion was negatived by 202 votes against 166. The question of the constitution of the House of Lords was much agitated in 1888. The Conservatives were again in power, but many of them thought that it would be prudent to forestall by a moderate reform the more drastic remedies now openly advocated by their opponents. On the other hand, Radicals were disposed to resist all changes involving the maintenance of the hereditary principle, lest they should thereby strengthen the House of Lords. On the 9th of March Mr Labouchere again moved his resolution in the House of Commons. Mr W. H. Smith, the leader of the house, in resisting the motion, admitted that some changes were desirable, and agreed with a previous speaker that it was by the Conservatives that such changes ought to be effected. On the i9th of March in the same year Lord Rosebery, in the House of Lords, moved for a select committee to inquire into the subject. He took the opportunity to explain his own plan of reform. While he did not wish to abolish the hereditary principle, he desired that no peer, outside the Royal family, should be a member of the house by right of birth alone. To the representatives of the peers he proposed to add other men who had achieved distinction in a public career. He attached a high importance to the existence of a second chamber. His motion was negatived by 97 votes against 50. On the 26th of April Lord Dunraven withdrew a bill for the reform of the House of Lords on the promise of the government to deal with the matter, and on the 18th of June Lord Salisbury fulfilled this pledge. He introduced a bill on that day to provide for the creation of a limited number of life peers and for the exclusion of unworthy members from the house. Under this measure a maximum of five life-peerages in any one year might be created, but the total number was never to exceed fifty. In respect of three Out of these five life-peers the choice of the Crown was restricted to judges, generals, admirals, ambassadors, privy councillors and exgovernors of colonies. The two additional life-peers were to be appointed in regard to some special qualification to be stated in the message to the house announcing the intention of the Crown to make the appointment. Power was also to be given to the house to expel members for the period of the current parliament by an address to the Crown praying that their writs of summons might be cancelled. The bill was read a second time on the 10th of July, but it met with a cold reception and was dropped. The only outcome of all that was written and said in this year was that in 1889, after the report of a select committee set up in 1888, the Lords made a few changes in their standing orders, among which the order establishing a quorum of thirty in divisions and those for the constitution of standing committees were the most important.
The parliament which met at Westminster in August 1892 was more democratic in its tendencies than any of its predecessors. At the beginning of the session of 1893, in the course of which the Home Rule Bill was passed by the House of Commons, government bills were introduced for quinquennial parliaments, for the amendment of registration, and for the limitation of each elector to a single vote. The introduction of these bills served merely as a declaration of government policy, and they were not further pressed. On the 24th of March a resolution in favor of payment of members was carried by 276 votes against 229, and again in 1895 by 176 to 158. But the rejection of the Home Rule Bill by the House of Lords, with the apparent acquiescence of the country, combined with the retirement of Mr Gladstone to weaken the influence of this House of Commons, and small importance was attached to its abstract resolutions. In the ensuing session of 1894 an amendment to the Address condemning the hereditary principle was moved by Mr Labouchere, and carried by 147 to 145. The government, however, holding that this was not the way in which a great question should be raised, withdrew the Address, and carried another without the insertion. In his last public utterance Mr Gladstone directed the attention of his party to the reform of the House of Lords, and Lord Rosebery endeavoured to concentrate on such a policy the energies of his supporters at the general election. But the result of the dissolution of 1895, showing, as it did, that on the chief political issue of the day the electorate had agreed with the House of Lords and had disagreed with the House of Commons, greatly strengthened the upper house, and after that date the subject was but little discussed until the Liberal party again came into power ten years later. The House of Lords claimed the right to resist changes made by the House of Commons until the will of the people had been definitely declared, and its defenders contended that its ultimate dependence on the electorate, now generally acknowledged, rendered the freedom from ministerial control secured to it by its constitution a national safeguard.
In 1907, under the Radical government of Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman (q.v.), the conflict between the Commons and the Lords again became more acute. And the prime minister in May obtained a large majority in the lower house for a resolution, on which a bill was to be founded, involving a complicated method of overriding the will of the Lords when the Commons had three times passed a bill. But no further immediate step was taken. In 1908 a strong committee of the House of Lords with Lord Rosebery as chairman, which had been appointed in consequence of the introduction by Lord Newton of a bill for reforming the constitution of the upper house, presented an interesting report in favor of largely restricting the hereditary element and adopting a method of selection.
So the question stood when in 1909 matters came to a head through the introduction of Mr Lloyd Georges budget. It had always been accepted as the constitutional right of the House of Lords to reject a financial measure sent up by the Commons but not to amend it, but the rejection of the budget (which was, in point of form, referred to the judgment of the electorate) now precipitated a struggle with the Liberal party, who had persistently denied any right on the part of the upper house to force a dissolution. The Liberal leaders contended that, even if constitutional; the claim of the House of Lords to reject a budget was practically obsolete, and having been revived must now be formally abolished; and they went to the country for a mandate to carry their view into law. The elections of January 1910 gave an unsatisfactory answer, since the two principal parties, the Liberals and the Unionists, returned practically equal; but the Liberal government had also on their side the Irish Nationalist and the Labor parties, which gave them a majority in the House of Commons if they could concentrate the combined forces on the House of Lords question. This Mr Asquith contrived to do; and having introduced and carried through the House of Commons a series of resolutions defining his proposals, he had also tabled a bill which was to he sent up to the House of Lords, when the death of the king suddenly interrupted the course of the constitutional conflict, and gave a breathing-space for both sides to consider the possibility of coming to terms. In June Mr Asquith took the initiative in inviting the leaders of the Opposition to a conference with closed doors, and a series of meetings between four representatives of each side wtre begun. The government were represented by Mr Asquith, Mr Lloyd George, Mr Birrell and Lord Crewe. The Unionists were represented by Mr Balfour, Lord Lansdowne, Mr Austin Chamberlain and Lord Cawdor.
The situation on the Radical side at this juncture may be best understood by setting out the resolutions passed in the House of Commons, and the text - of the parliament bill of which Mr Asquith had given notice:
1. That it is expedient that the House of Lords be disabled by law from rejecting or amending a money bill, but that any such limitation by law shall not be taken to diminish or qualify the existing rights and privileges of the House of Commons.
For the purpose of this resolution, a bill shall be considered a money bill if in the opinion of the Speaker it contains only provisions dealing with all or any of the following subjects - namely, the imposition, repeal, remission, alteration or regulation of taxation; charges on the Consolidated Fund or the provision of money by parliament; supply; the appropriation, control or regulation of public money; the raising or guarantee of any loan or the repayment thereof; or matters incidental to those subjects or any of them.
2. That it is expedient that the powers of the House of Lords, Is respects bills other than money hills, be restricted by law, so that any such bill which has passed the House of Commons in three successive sessions and, having been sent up to the House of Lords at least one month before the end of the session, has been rejected by that house in each of those sessions, shall become Law without the consent of the House of Lords, on the royal assent being declared: provided that at least two years shall have elapsed between the date of the first introduction of the bill in the House of Commons and the date on which it passes the House of Commons or the third time.
For the purpose of this resolution a bill shall be treated as rejected by the House of Lords if it has not been passed by the House of Lords either without amendment or with such amendments only as may be agreed upon by both houses.
3. That it is expedient to limit the duration of parliament to five years.
The Parliament BillEdit
Whereas it is expedient that provision should be made for regulating the relations between the two Houses of Parliament: And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a second chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation: And whereas provision will require hereafter to be made by parliament in a measure effecting such substitution for limiting and defining the powers of the new second-chamber, but it is expedient to make such provision as in this act appears for restricting the existing powers of the House of Lords: Be it therefore enacted by the kings most excellent majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords spiritual and temporal, and Commons, in this present parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:
1. (1) If a money bill, having been passed by the House of Commons, and sent up to the House of Lords at least one month before the end of the session, is not passed by the House of Lords without amendment within one month after it is so sent up to that house, the bill shall, unless the House of Commons direct to the contrary, be presented to His Majesty and become an act of parliament on the royal assent being signified, notwithstanding that the House of Lords have not consented to the bill.
(2) A money bill means a bill which in the opinion of the Speaker of the House of Commons contains only provisions dealing with all or any of the following subjects - namely, the imposition, repeal, remission, alteration or regulation of taxation; charges on the consolidated fund or the provision of money by parliament; supply; the appropriation, control or regulation of public money; the raising or guarantee of any loan or the repayment thereof; or matters incidental to those subjects or any of them.
(3) When a bill to which the House of Lords has not consented is presented to His Majesty for assent as a money bill, the bill shall be accompanied by a certificate of the Speaker of the House of Commons that it is a money bill.
(4) No amendment shall be allowed to a money bill which, in the opinion of the Speaker of the House of Commons, is such as to prevent the bill retaining the character of a money bill.
2. (I) If any bill other than a money bill is passed by the House of Commons in three successive sessions (whether of the same parliament or not), and, having been sent up to the House of Lords at least one month before the end of the session, is rejected by the House of Lords in each of those sessions, that bill shall, on its rejection for the third time by the House of Lords, unless the House of Commons direct to the contrary, be presented to His Majesty and become an act of parliament on the royal assent being signified thereto, notwithstanding that the House of Lords has not consented to the bill: provided that this provision shall not take effect unless two years have elapsed between the date of the first introduction, of the bill in the House of Commons and the date on which it passes the House of Commons for the third time.
(2) A bill shall be deemed to be rejected by the House of Lords if it is not passed by the House of Lords either without amendment or with such amendments only as may be agreed to by both houses.
(3) A bill shall be deemed to be the same bill as a former bill sent up to the House of Lords in the preceding session if, when it is sent up to the House of Lords, it is identical with the former bill or contains only such alterations as are certified by the Speaker of the House of Commons to be necessary owing to the time which has elapsed since the date of the former bill, or to represent amendments which have been made by the House of Lords in the former bill in the preceding session.
Provided that the House of Commons may, if they think fit, on the passage of such a bill through the house in the second or third session, suggest any further amendments without inserting the amendments in the bill, and any such suggested amendments shall be considered by the House of Lords, and if agreed to by that house, shall be treated as amendments made by the House of Lords and agreed to by the House of Commons; but the exercise of this power by the House of Commons shall not affect the operation of this section in the event of the bill being rejected by the House of Lords.
3. Any certificate of the Speaker of the House of Commons given under this act shall be conclusive for all purposes, and shall not be questioned in any court of law.
4. Nothing in this act shall diminish or qualify the existing rights and privileges of the House of Commons.
5. Five years shall be substituted for seven years as the time fixed for the maximum duration of parliament under the Septennial Act 1715.
Lord Rosebery's ResolutionsEdit
Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, Lord Rosebery had carried three resolutions declaring certain principles for the reform of the second chamber, which were assented to by the Unionist leaders; the policy opposed to that of the government thus became that of willingness for reform of the constitution of the Upper Chamber, but not for abolition of its powers.
- (1) That a strong and efficient Second Chamber is not merely an integral part of the British Constitution, but is necessary to the well-being of the State and to the balance of Parliament. (2) Such a Chamber can best be obtained by the reform and reconstitution of the House of Lords. (3) That a necessary preliminary to such reform and reconstitution is the acceptance of the principle that the possession of a peerage should no longer of itself give the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords.
During the summer and autumn the private meetings between the eight leaders were continued, until twenty had been held. But on the 10th of November Mr Asquith issued a brief statement that the conference on the constitutional question had come to an end, without arriving at an agreement. Within a few days he announced that another appeal would at once be made to the electorate. The Parliament Bill was hurriedly introduced into the House of Lords, with a statement by Lord Crewe that no amendments would be accepted. The dissolution was fixed for the 28th of November. Time was short for any declaration of policy by the Unionist peers, but it was given shape at once, first by the adoption of a further resolution moved by Lord Rosebery for the remodelling of the Upper House, and secondly by Lord Lansdowne's shelving the Parliament Bill by coupling the adjournment of the debate on it with the adoption of resolutions providing for the settlement of differences between a reconstituted Upper House and the House of Commons.
Lord Rosebery's additional resolution provided that in future the House of Lords shall consist of Lords of Parliament:
- (a) chosen by the whole body of hereditary peers from among themselves and by nomination by the Crown; (b) sitting by virtue of offices and of qualifications held by them; (c) chosen from outside.
The Lansdowne resolutions provided in effect that, when the House of Lords had been reconstituted and reduced in numbers in accordance with Lord Rosebery's plan,
- (1) any differences arising between the two houses with regard to a Bill other than a Money Bill, in two successive sessions, and within an interval of not less than one year, should be settled, if not adjustable otherwise, in a joint sitting composed of members of both houses, except in the case of a matter which is of great gravity and has not been adequately submitted to the judgment of the people, which should then be submitted for decision to the electors by Referendum ; (2) and as to Money Bills, the Lords were prepared to forgo their constitutional right of rejection or amendment, if effectual provision were made against tacking, the decision whether other than financial matters were dealt with in the Bill resting with a joint committee of both Houses, with the Speaker of the House of Commons as chairman, having a casting vote only.
The general election took place in December, and resulted practically in no change from the previous situation. Both sides won and lost seats, and the eventual numbers were:
Liberals 272, Labor 42, Irish Nationalists 84 (8 being independents following Mr William O'Brien), Unionists 272. Thus, including the doubtful votes of the 8 Independent Nationalists, Mr Asquith retained an apparent majority of 126 for the ministerial policy, resting as it did on the determination of the Irish Nationalists to pave the way for Home Rule by destroying the veto of the House of Lords.
B. House of Commons Internal ReformsEdit
We have already sketched the main lines of English parliamentary procedure, Until the forms of the House of Commons were openly utilized to delay the progress of government business by what became known as "obstruction" the changes made in the years following 1832 were comparatively insignificant. They consisted in (1) the discontinuance of superfluous forms, questions and amendments; (2) restrictions of debates upon questions of form; (3) improved arrangements for the distribution of business; (4) the delegation of some of the minor functions of the house to committees and officers of the house; and (5) increased publicity in the proceedings of the house. But with the entry of Mr Parnell and his Irish Nationalist followers into parliament (1875-1880) a new era began in the history of the House of Commons. Their tactics were to oppose all business of whatever kind, and at all hours.
It was not until February 1880 that the house so far overcame its reluctance to restrict liberty of discussion as to pass, in its earliest form, the rule dealing with "order in debate". It provided that whenever a member was named by the Speaker or chairman as "disregarding the authority of the chair, or abusing the rules of the house by persistently and wilfully obstructing the rules of the house," a motion might be made, to be decided without amendment or debate, for his suspension from the service of the house during the remainder of the sitting; and that if the same member should be suspended three times in one session, his suspension on the third occasion should continue for a week, and until a motion had been made upon which it should be decided, at one sitting, by the house, whether the suspension should then cease or not. The general election, which took place two months later, restored Mr Gladstone to power and to the leadership of the house. Mr Parnell returned to parliament with a more numerous following, and resumed his former tactics. In January 1881 the Protection of Persons and Property (Ireland) Bill was introduced. For twenty-two hours Parnell fought the motion giving precedence to the bill, and for four sittings its introduction. The fourth sitting lasted forty-one hours. Then Mr Speaker Brand intervened, and declined to call on any other member who might rise to address the house, because repeated dilatory motions had been supported by small minorities in opposition to the general sense of the house. He added: "A crisis has thus arisen which demands the prompt interposition of the chair and of the house. The usual rules have proved powerless to ensure orderly and effective debate. An important measure, recommended by Her Majesty nearly a month since, and declared to be urgent in the interests of the state by a decisive majority, is being arrested by the action of an inconsiderable minority, the members of which have resorted to those modes of obstruction which have been recognized by the house as a parliamentary offence. The dignity, the credit, and the authority of this house are seriously threatened, and it is necessary they should be vindicated. . . . Future measures for ensuring orderly debate I must leave to the judgment of the house. But the house must either assume more effectual control over its debates, or entrust greater powers to the chair." The Speaker then put the question, which was carried by an overwhelming majority. Then followed the decisive struggle. Mr Gladstone gave notice for the next day (Feb. 3) of an urgency rule, which ordered, "That if the house shall resolve by a majority of three to one that the state of public business is urgent, the whole power of the house to make rules shall be and remain with the Speaker until he shall declare that the state of public business is no longer urgent." On the next day a scene of great disorder ended in the suspension of the Nationalist members, at first singly, and afterwards in groups. The urgency rule was then passed without further difficulty, and the house proceeded to resolve, "That the state of public business is urgent." The Speaker laid upon the table rules of sufficient stringency, and while they remained in force progress in public business was possible. During this session the Speaker had to intervene on points of order 935 times, and the chairman of committees 939 times; so that, allowing only five minutes on each occasion, the wrangling between the chair and members occupied 150 hours.
The events of the session of 1881 and the direct appeal of the Speaker to the house proved the necessity of changes in the rules of procedure more drastic than had hitherto been proposed. Accordingly, in the first week of the session of 1882 Mr Gladstone laid his proposals on the table, and in moving the first resolution on 20th February, he reviewed, in an eloquent speech, the history of the standing orders. It was his opinion, on general grounds, that the house should settle its own procedure, but he showed that the numerous committees which, since 1832, had sat on the subject, had failed for the most part to carry their recommendations into effect from the lack of the requisite "propelling power", and he expressed his regret that the concentration of this power in the hands of the government had rendered it necessary that they should undertake a task not properly theirs. He noted two main features in the history of the case: (1) the constantly increasing labors of the house, and (2) its constantly decreasing power to despatch its duties; and while he declared that the fundamental change which has occurred is owing to the passing of the first great Reform Bill, he pointed out that the strain had not become intolerable till the development in recent years of obstructive tactics. He defined obstruction as the disposition either of the minority of the house, or of individuals, to resist the prevailing will of the house otherwise than by argument, and reached the conclusion that the only remedy for a state of things by which the dignity and efficiency of the house were alike compromised, was the adoption in a carefully guarded form of the process known on the Continent as the "clôture". He explained that in his early years the house was virtually possessed of a closing power, because it was possessed of a means of sufficiently making known its inclinations; and to those inclinations uniform deference was paid by members, but that since this moral sanction had ceased to be operative, it was necessary to substitute for it a written law. The power to close debate had been of necessity assumed by almost all the European and American assemblies, the conduct of whose members was shaped by no traditional considerations; and the entry into parliament of a body of men to whom the traditions of the house were as nothing made it necessary for the House of Commons to follow this example. He proposed, therefore, that when it appeared to the Speaker, or to the chairman of committees, during any debate to be the evident sense of the house, or of the committee, that the question be now put, he might so inform the house, and that thereupon on a motion being made, That the question be now put, the question under discussion should be forthwith put from the chair, and decided in the affirmative if supported by more than 200 members, or, when less than 40 members had voted against it, by more than 100 members. This resolution was vehemently contested by the opposition, who denounced it as an unprecedented interference with the liberty of debate, but was eventually carried in the autumn session of the same year, after a discussion extending over nineteen sittings.
On the 20th of November the standing order of the 28th of February 1880, providing for the suspension of members who persistently and wilfully obstructed the business of the house or disregarded the authority of the chair, was amended by the increase of the penalty to suspension on the first occasion for one week, on the second occasion for a fortnight, and on the third, or any subsequent occasion, for a month. The other rules, framed with a view to freeing the wheels of the parliamentary machine, and for the most part identical with the regulations adopted by Mr Speaker Brand under the urgency resolution of 1881, were carried in the course of the autumn session, and became standing orders on the 27th of November.
Mr Gladstones closure rule verified neither the hopes of its supporters nor the fears of its opponents. It was not put into operation until the 20th of February 1885, when the Speakers declaration of the evident sense of the house was ratified by a majority of 207 - a margin of but seven votes over the necessary quorum. It was clear that no Speaker was likely to run the risk of a rebuff by again assuming the initiative unless in the face of extreme urgency, and, in fact, the rule was enforced twice only during the five years of its existence.
In 1887 the Conservative government, before the introduction of a new Crimes Act for Ireland, gave efficiency to the rule by an important amendment. They proposed that any member during a debate might claim to move, "That the question be now put", and that with the consent of the chair this question should be put forthwith, and decided without amendment or debate. Thus the initiative was transferred from the Speaker to the house. Mr Gladstone objected strongly to this alteration, chiefly on the ground that it would throw an unfair burden of responsibility upon the Speaker, who would now have to decide on a question of opinion, whereas under the old rule he was only called upon to determine a question of evident fact. The alternative most generally advocated by the opposition was the automatic closure by a bare majority at the end of each sitting, an arrangement by which the chair would be relieved from an invidious responsibility; but it was pointed out that under such a system the length of debates would not vary with the importance of the questions debated. After fourteen sittings the closure rule was passed on the 18th of March and made a standing order.
In the next session, on the 28th of February 1888, the rule was yet further strengthened by the reduction of the majority necessary for its enforcement from 200 to 100, the closure rule remaining as follows:
That, after a question has been proposed, a member rising in his place may claim to move, "That the question be now put", and, unless it shall appear to the chair that such motion is an abuse of the rules of the house or an infringement of the rights of the minority, the question, "That the question be now put", shall be put forthwith, and decided without amendment or debate.
When the motion "That the question be now put has" been carried, and the question consequent thereon has been decided, any further motion may be made (the assent of the chair as aforesaid not having been withheld), which may be requisite to bring to a decision any question already proposed from the chair; and also if a clause be then under consideration, a motion may be made (the assent of the chair as aforesaid not having been withheld), "That the question 'That certain words of the clause defined in the motion stand part of the clause', or 'That the clause stand part of, or be added to, the bill', be now put". Such motions shall be put forthwith, and decided without amendment or debate.
That questions for the closure of debate shall be decided in the affirmative, if, when a division be taken, it appears by the numbers declared from the chair that not less than one hundred members voted in the majority in support of the motion.
The closure, originally brought into being to defeat the tactics of obstruction in special emergencies, thus became a part of parliamentary routine. And, the principle being once accepted, its operation was soon extended.
The practice of retarding the progress of government measures by amendments moved to every line, adopted by both the great political parties when in opposition, led to the use of what became known as the "guillotine", for forcing through parliament important bills, most of the clauses in which were thus undiscussed. The "guillotine," means that the house decides how much time shall be devoted to certain stages of a measure, definite dates being laid down at which the closure shall be enforced and division taken. On the 17th of June 1887, after prolonged debates on the Crimes Bill in committee, clause 6 only having been reached, the remaining 14 clauses were put without discussion, and the bill was reported in accordance with previous notice. This was the first use of the "guillotine," but the precedent was followed by Mr Gladstone in 1893, when many of the clauses of the Home Rule Bill were carried through committee and on report by the same machinery. To the Conservatives must be imputed the invention of this method of legislation, to their opponents the use of it for attempting to carry a great constitutional innovation to which the majority of English and Scottish representatives were opposed, and subsequently its extension and development (1906-1909) as a regular part of the legislative machinery.
The principle of closure has been extended even to the debates on supply. The old rule, that the redress of grievances should precede the granting of money, dating from a time when the minister of the Crown was so far from commanding the confidence of the majority in the House of Commons that he was the chief object of their attacks, nevertheless continued to govern the proceedings of the house in relation to supply without much resultant inconvenience, until the period when the new methods adopted by the Irish Nationalist party created a new situation. Until 1872 it continued to be possible to discuss any subject by an amendment to the motion for going into supply. In that year a resolution was passed limiting the amendments to matters relevant to the class of estimates about to be considered, and these relevant amendments were further restricted to the first day on which it was proposed to go into committee. This resolution was continued in 1873, but was allowed to drop in 1874. It was revived in a modified form in 1876, but was again allowed to drop in 1877. In 1879, on the recommendation of the Northcote committee, it was provided in a sessional order that whenever the committees of supply or of ways and means stood as the first order on a Monday, the Speaker should leave the chair without question put, except on first going into committee on the army, navy and civil service estimates respectively. In 1882 Thursday was added to Monday for the purposes of the order, and, some further exceptions having been made to the operation of the rule, it became a standing order. The conditions, however, under which the estimates were voted remained unsatisfactory. The most useful function of the opposition is the exposure of abuses in the various departments of administration, and this can best be performed upon the estimates. But ministers, occupied with their legislative proposals, were irresistibly tempted to postpone the consideration of the estimates until the last weeks of the session, when they were hurried through thin houses, the members of which were impatient to be gone. To meet this abuse, and to distribute the time with some regard to the comparative importance of the subjects discussed, Mr Balfour in 1896 proposed and carried a sessional order for the closure of supply, a maximum of twenty-three days being given to its consideration, of which the last three alone might be taken after the 5th of August. On the last but one of the allotted days at 10 o'clock the chairman was to put the outstanding votes, and on the last day the Speaker was to put the remaining questions necessary to complete the reports of supply. In 1901 Mr Balfour so altered the resolution that the question was put, not with respect to each vote, but to each class of votes in the Civil Service estimates, and to the total amounts of the outstanding votes in the army, navy and revenue estimates.
Other Changes in MethodsEdit
It is only possible here to refer briefly to some other changes in the procedure of the house which altered in various respects its character as a business-like assembly. The chief of these is as regards the hours. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays the house meets at 2.45 p.m., "questions" beginning at 3 and ending (apart from urgency) at 3.45; and opposed business ends at 11. On Fridays the house meets at 12 noon, and opposed business is suspended at 5 p.m.; this is the only day when government business has not precedence, and private members bills have the first call, though at 8.15 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays up to Easter and on Wednesdays up to Whitsuntide the business is interrupted in order that private members motions may be taken. These arrangements, which only date from 1906, represent a considerable change from the old days before 1879 when the standing order was formed that no opposed business, with certain exceptions, should be taken after 12.30 a.m., or 1888 when the closing hour was fixed at midnight. In fact the hours of the house have become generally earlier. Another important change has been made as regards motions for the adjournment of the house, which used to afford an opportunity to the private members at any time to discuss matters of urgent importance. Since 1902 no motion for the adjournment of the house can be made until all questions have been disposed of, and then, if forty members support it, the debate takes place at 8.15 p.m. This alteration has much modified the character of the debates on such motions, which used to be taken when feelings were hot, whereas now there is time for reflection. In other respects the most noticeable thing in the recent evolution of the House of Commons has been its steady loss of power, as an assembly, in face of the control of the government 2nd party leaders. In former times the private members had far larger opportunities for introducing and carrying bills, which now have no chance, unless the government affords "facilities"; and the great function of debating "supply" has largely been restricted by the closure, under which millions of money are voted without debate. The house is still ruled by technical rules of procedure which are, in the main, dilatory and obstructive, and hamper the expression of views which are distasteful to the Whips or to the government, who can by them arrange the business so as to suit their convenience. It is true indeed that this dilatory character of the proceedings assists to encourage debate, within limits; but with the influx of a new class of representatives, especially the Labor members, there has been in recent years a rather pronounced feeling that the procedure of the house might well be drastically revised with the object of making it a more business-like assembly. Reform of the House of Commons has been postponed to some extent because reform of the House of Lords has, to professed reformers, been a better "cry" ; but when reform is once "in the air" in parliament it is not likely to stop, with so large a field of antiquated procedure before it as is represented by many of the traditional methods of the House of Commons.
- (H. Ch.)
- Or rather, the representatives of the Commons (see Representation): but the term has long been used for the deputies themselves collectively.
- In 1254 we have a distinct case of two knights summoned from each shire by royal writ. A war was going on in Gascony and the king wanted money. He called the barons and asked if they would provide the necessary funds. The barons said that unfortunately the minor gentry were exceedingly unwilling to contribute, and the king sent to ask that two knights from each shire might be sent up to consult with him. In the result, the Commons refused to grant a subsidy, and the king had to fall back on the Church; but though the summoning of the knights of the shire was in form a small change from the previous practice of sending some one down to the countries to put pressure on them, the innovation is important as the first occasion on which their representatives met in a central assembly.—[H. Ch.]
- It now appears that substantially this was effected as early as 1275. The transition period between Simon de Montforts parliament of 1265 and the model parliament of 1295 was long a puzzle to historical students, since, except for two provincial councils in 1283, no trace was found in the records, between 1265 and 1295, of the representation of cities or boroughs, or of representation of the counties between 1275 and 1290. But in 1910 Mr C. Hilary Jenkinson (see English Historical Review, for April) found in the Record Office some old documents which proved to be fragments of three writs and of returns of members for the Easter parliament of 1275. They make it certain that knights of the shire were then present, and that burgesses and citizens were summoned (not as in 1265 through the mayors, but as since 1295 through the sheriffs). The importance of the 1295 parliament thus appears to be smaller in English constitutional history, the full reforms appearing to have been adopted 20 years earlier. It is noteworthy, however, that in the writs of 1275 the instruction to the sheriff is "venire facias", not "eligi facias".—[H. Ch.]