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The United Kingdom Parliament has one of the longest histories of any representative assembly in the world and is often referred to, mistakenly, as the “mother of parliaments.” The modern U.K. parliament consists of representatives from the four countries of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and is located in the Palace of Westminster in central London, England. Hence, it is commonly referred to as the Westminster parliament.
After the 2005 U.K. general election there were 646 elected members of Parliament: 529 representing English constituencies, 18 from Northern Ireland, 59 from Scotland, and 40 from Wales. The U.K. parliament is bicameral. In addition to the elected members who sit in the lower chamber, the House of Commons, there are also some 700 members of the upper chamber, the House of Lords, who are known as “peers.” The numerical composition of both houses of Parliament had been subject to change as a result of the constitutional reforms of the post-1997 Labour governments. The creation of a devolved parliament in Scotland in 1999, alongside representative assemblies in Northern Ireland and Wales, led to a reduction in the size of the House of Commons from 659 to 646 in 2005; whereas the abolition of hereditary peers, under the provisions of the House of Lords Act 1999, virtually halved the total membership of the upper chamber from 1295 to 695. After the implementation of this act, some 80 percent of the members of a new “interim House” were “life peers” who were appointed for their lifetimes, 4 percent were bishops or archbishops of the established Church of England, 4 percent were law lords, and 12 percent were “elected hereditary” peers. The 92 elected hereditary peers were to be removed after the second phase of reform, and the law lords and their associated judicial functions were to be removed upon the creation of a separate supreme court in 2008. Following the changes to the composition of the House of Lords, an independent public body, the House of Lords Appointment Commission, was established in May 2002 to scrutinize nominations made by political parties and to recommend nonpolitical appointees to the Queen. Formally, life peers are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister.
In addition to the two chambers—the Commons and the Lords—the monarch is also part of Parliament and, in fact, the legally precise institutional term for the body is the Crown-in-Parliament. Indeed, the history of the U.K. parliament reflects the changing relationships between monarch, political executive, and legislature, and between the constituent nations of the United Kingdom.
The origins of the English parliament can be traced back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the institutional forms of the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot, a national assembly of freemen, and the medieval king’s court, the Curia Regis. In the thirteenth century, monarchs became more reliant for the consent and authorization of their policies, particularly taxation policies, upon intermittent meetings of the feudal magnates, the great earls and barons (who controlled private armies), the archbishops, bishops and abbots (who represented the church as the major landowner of the time), and eventually, between 1265 and 1295, representatives of urban citizens and commercial classes. In 1265 the Simon de Montfort parliament (named after the most powerful baron) met for the first time in Westminster Hall, in the Royal Palace of Westminster. In 1295 the “model parliament,” summoned by King Edward I, extended the base of representation formally to members of the “Commons.” Initially representatives of the Commons were not allowed to speak in the presence of their more powerful feudal superiors and, for this reason, began to meet separately from the Lords, and after 1377 elected a “Speaker” to speak on their behalf to the monarch. Importantly, the principles of consent and representation were invoked at the time in support of, and not as a challenge to, strong monarchical (executive) government. Parliamentary government in Britain has historically been conceived, and functioned, as a means of legitimating executive power.
The inversion of the power relationship between the Crown and Parliament eventually came during the civil war in the seventeenth century and reflected a wider transformation of economic, social, and political forces in the English state. Attendant upon these wider economic and social transformations came institutional change. These changes found confirmation, eventually, in the Constitutional Settlement of 1689. After 1689 legal supremacy rested in Parliament rather than in any other state institution—whether monarch or law courts. The boundaries of legitimate state power were thus marked out. The subsequent history of parliamentary development in Britain (in 1707 the Act of Union merged the separate English and Scottish parliaments into a single parliament of Great Britain) saw Parliament retained at the center of the state but, inevitably, it was not to be sustained as the central institution of state decision making—which became focused upon the prime minister, cabinet, and executive.
The U.K. parliament is a multifunctional institution. As a representative body Parliament has served the functions of providing consent, legitimation, and authorization for executive actions. Modern governments derive their authority from their majority party position within a democratically elected House of Commons. Conventionally government ministers are recruited primarily from the Commons, but may also be members of the Lords. Parliament serves, therefore, to recruit ministers and also to hold them accountable by requiring them to explain and defend their actions. A key role of Parliament, therefore, is to examine government policy and administration and to inform the public about what the government is doing and why. A variety of procedures are available to perform these scrutiny and informing functions: debates; questions; and committees—“standing committees” that process legislation and “select committees” that scrutinize and investigate executive actions more broadly. Although the U.K. parliament is a legislature, its primary legislative role is to scrutinize, amend, improve, and authorize laws proposed by the executive. Each house has a similar fivestage legislative process, and all laws have to be agreed by both houses. Although the Lords actively proposes and makes legislative amendments, ultimately, the final decision rests with the government in the House of Commons. Under the Parliament Act of 1949, if the Lords does not approve a bill it can only delay its passage into law for up to one year. Given the control of the majority party in the House of Commons, the average success rate of government proposals becoming law is some 95 percent. The final stage of the legislative process in Parliament is the royal assent, whereby legislation is accepted with the symbolic words “La Reyne le veult”—“the queen wills it.” These words underline the continued significance of “the Crownin-Parliament” and point to the institutional complexity of the United Kingdom as both a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy.
- Blackburn, Robert, and Andrew K 2003. Parliament: Functions, Practice, and Procedures. 2nd ed. London: Sweet and Maxwell.
- Judge, D 1993. The Parliamentary State. London: Sage.
- Rush, M 2005. Parliament Today. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
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