Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
804 of 1105



PARLIAMENT, The British, is the supreme legislature of the United Kingdom, and its history is, to a large extent, the history of the growth of political freedom. The attempts to trace the origin of this parliament to the Saxon period fail to connect the Wittena-gemote (meeting of wise men) with the representative principle, the hereditary character, or the royal summons, three characteristics of the present British parliament, which are deemed essentials of its constitution. It is by act of the crown alone that parliament can be assembled; only twice have the lords and commons met by their own authority—first, before the restoration of Charles II., and again at the revolution in 1688. Parliament is also prorogued (adjourned to a certain day), or dissolved by royal proclamation only.


—While the main constitution of parliament, as Blackstone says, was marked out in magna charta, A. D. 1215, when King John promised to summon the nobles, bishops, etc., to council, its actual first existence is commonly referred to the year 1265, when the writs of Simon de Montfort first summoned knights, citizens and burgesses to parliament. From that time parliament has consisted continuously of two houses, the lords and the commons, while the Saxon Wittena-gemote and later councils consisted of one chamber only. The creation of a house of commons elected by the people (or by the property element), may be said to have had its birth in that jealous care of the rights of property, so all-pervading in the British mind. The early kings had so abused the power of raising money, and the lords and bishops were so subservient to the royal will, that it became necessary to have the check of an elective body to assert and jealously maintain control over the taxing power. This control, claimed and exercised by the lower house of parliament for centuries, is so absolute that all bills, whether for the raising or the expenditure of money, must originate in the commons. The successive steps by which the important power over the public purse was transferred from the king to the commons, is a history of determination on the one hand and of stubborn resistance on the other, the English monarchs using every wile to secure supplies, which the parliament stubbornly refused except on condition of redress of grievances. The steady increase of the power of parliament during the reigns of the arbitrary house of Tudor, culminated during the Stuart dynasty in that struggle for supremacy between Charles I. and his parliament, which ended in the complete victory of the latter, the subversion of the monarchy, the abolition of the house of lords, and the establishment of the commonwealth.


—The duration of a parliament, outside of the seven years' limitation embodied in the act of 1715, is dependent upon the policy and measures of the ministry commanding a majority in the lower house. Practically, the average life of a parliament in the present century has been less than four years; the shortest one having lasted only four and one-half months (in 1807), and the longest a little over six years. The "appeal to the country," caused by the resignation of ministers who fail to command a majority, is made through writs of election. The last general election was in 1880, returning 338 liberals, 239 conservatives, and 60 home rulers. Members are chosen by what is regarded in England as nearly universal suffrage. There are, however, but 3,181,701 actual voters (in 1883) out of the population of 35,246,633, or about one in every eleven inhabitants: while in France and in the United States, where manhood suffrage is really universal, the proportion of voters to the population is one in every four or five inhabitants. The reform act of 1867-8 was a large extension of the franchise, giving it to all householders in boroughs (cities and towns), and to occupants of lands or houses bringing £12 rent or upward in counties, or in the country. This leaves the large class of agricultural and other laborers unrepresented. Since 1872 parliamentary elections are by secret ballot. (See BALLOT.)


—The omnipotence of parliament is regarded as the great feature in British polity. "The power and jurisdiction of parliament, "says Coke, "is so transcendent and absolute that it can not be confined, either for causes or persons, within any bounds." It wields not only the whole legislative power, but, for nearly two hundred years past, the executive power as well. In theory, the queen appoints the ministers or heads of administrative departments; in practice, these heads can be no other than the representatives of the will of the house of commons for the time being. What is called the government of England embraces not only the cabinet, but from forty to fifty political heads of departments, who quit their places with every change of administration. These changes, as we have seen, occurring every four years on an average, are effected by the majority in the house of commons, and this in its turn is dependent upon qualified suffrage. The powers of parliament are theoretically divided between three co-ordinate branches—the crown, the peers, and the commons—for the sovereign is, by the constitution, a part of parliament, having to be present in person or by proxy, and every law requiring the royal assent to its passage. The veto power, still lodged in the crown, has not been exercised since 1707, or for nearly two centuries. The house of lords, which has in theory equal law-making powers with the commons, can really do little but register the edicts of the latter. Although there are some measures of policy, such as the right of Catholics and Jews to sit in parliament, the extension of the suffrage, and the reduction or abolition of taxes or prescriptive privilege, upon which the stubborn opposition of the lords has for years stood in the path of reform, that reform has always sooner or later been carried. The political history of England is one long testimony to the weakness of precedent and prerogative when standing in opposition to the power of an enlightened public opinion.


—It may appear something like a paradox to assert that the powers of the popular branch of parliament are even greater now than in the days of Cromwell, when both the throne and the house of peers were abolished, and all sovereignty was swallowed up in a parliament of one chamber. Yet it is apparent that, with the single exception of the judicial power, which is still reserved to the house of lords, the commons of England, through their legislation and through their cabinet, wield a far more comprehensive authority than did the long parliament under the lord protector. The very constitution of the kingdom, that unwritten yet all-controlling governmental power, is nothing but the net result of the long series of parliamentary assertions and statutes, down to the latest embodiment of administrative power in the cabinet, which is defined by Bagehot as "a committee of the legislative body, selected to be the executive body."


—The organization of parliament is attended with great formality. The lord chancellor announces to the house of commons (previously summoned by the gentleman usher of the black rod to attend in the house of lords) that as soon as the members of both houses shall be sworn, her majesty will declare the causes of her calling this parliament; and further requests them to choose their speaker, who must be presented in the house of lords the day after, for the royal approbation. This being done, the speaker formally claims, on behalf of the commons, "all their ancient and undoubted rights and privileges." These being graciously confirmed, the commons, with the speaker, withdraw to their own chamber: then follows the taking of the oaths, and an address in answer to the speech from the throne.


—The queen's speech is delivered in the house of lords by herself in person, or by the lord chancellor, reading it in her presence, or by commissioners whom she appoints (and this is called opening parliament by commission). Before this, neither house can proceed with any business. The lord high chancellor presides as speaker of the house of lords. The presence of forty members or upward is required in the commons to constitute a quorum (the whole number of members in 1882 being 652). In the house of lords, which consists of 516 members, business may proceed with only three peers present. The parliament is obliged to meet at least as often as once a year. Customarily, the annual sessions of parliament begin early in February, and end some time in August: but this depends upon the public business, the ministry, and the concurrence of the two houses, so that parliament not unfrequently has a special session in November, or else does not rise until September, long after the close of the London "season." The opening of the daily session (formerly at 10 o'clock, and later at 12 M.) is now fixed at 4 P. M.—except morning sittings for private business, or toward the close of a session, in which cases the house resumes at the hour of 6 P. M.—the sittings often continuing far into the night. Both houses are opened with a fixed ceremony. At ten minutes to four, two gentlemen in court suits of black, steel buckles and swords, accompanied by a third, carrying a huge golden mace upon his shoulder, precede the speaker, who is dressed in a full-bottomed wig and robes of black silk, and who enters the house followed by a train-bearer, chaplain and secretary, to the cry of "Way for Mr. Speaker! Hats off for Mr. Speaker!" Then all persons must be uncovered, except only the members of the house of commons, whose peculiar privilege it is to wear their hats, a right usually exercised except when speaking. The chaplain reads prayers; the strangers' and reporters' galleries are then opened; the members present are counted. If after four o'clock there are not forty present, the house is adjourned till the next day. At half past four public business begins (half an hour being devoted to private business and petitions), after which the leading members of the government are all found in their places to answer any questions put by members of the house, of which one day's notice has been given. The house of lords usually meets at 5 P. M., but frequently sits as a court of appeal during the day, when it is open to the public like other judicial tribunals. At other times admission to the strangers' gallery is had only through a peer's order. In the house of lords the bishops always sit together, and the members of the administration occupy a front bench on the right of the woolsack (speaker's chair). The peers who vote with the government occupy the benches on the same side of the house; the peers in opposition are ranged on opposite benches. In the commons no particular places are allotted to members; but the front bench on the speaker's right is occupied by the members of the administration, while the leading members of the opposition usually take the front bench on the other side of the speaker's chair. The mass of members sit somewhat promiscuously, though approximately divided into supporters of the government, occupying benches on the right of the chair, and members of the opposition party on the left. The members of parliament in both houses serve without salary. Members elected to the house of commons serve as such until the next general election for a new parliament.


—It was formerly illegal to publish any of the proceedings or debates in parliament; and history records a long series of exclusions, punishments for contempt, and disgraceful persecutions against writers and printers who had presumed to make the people acquainted with what was said and done in parliament. At length, however, all restrictions were removed, and the daily press contains pretty full reports. Besides this, effected by private enterprise, "Hansard's Debates" are a full report (though in the third person) of the speeches made in both houses, taken in short-hand, and paid for, though not published, by the government. The journals of the house of lords have been printed officially ever since 1509, and those of the commons since 1547, in great folio volumes, with numerous indexes.


—The restrictions as to who may be elected members of the house of commons have been gradually removed, and since 1870 any subject over twenty-one years of age (even a naturalized alien) is eligible to election to parliament, except clergymen, contractors, judges, peers, bankrupts and office-holders. In several instances members elect below the legal age have been permitted to sit. Curiously enough, dissenting clergymen may be members of the commons, while those of the church of England, the established religion, are excluded, although bishops sit in the house of lords. The houses of parliament do not adjourn on occasion of the death or funeral of members of the body, nor are there any mortuary eulogies on such occasions.


—Although members of parliament serve without salary, the expenses of their election are frequently very heavy. The honor or reputation incident to a seat in parliament, as well as the influence which it enables a man of talent to wield, counts for much. It is not uncommon in vigorously contested elections to have from £1,000 to £5,000 expended in the numerous appliances for political meetings, printing and publishing, lights, brass bands, decorated hustings, and other devices to rouse and to keep up popular enthusiasm. Bribery, also, was formerly a too common channel for expenditure, but since the abolition of the rotten boroughs, the stringent anti-bribery laws, and the adoption of the secret ballot, the control of votes by purchase has been greatly diminished.


—Members of the commons have not the right to resign their places. To accomplish this object one must ask to be appointed "steward of the Chiltern Hundreds," an old and nominal office, without any functions, which is given to any member who applies for it. By this pleasant fiction a member can get out of parliament without violating the law which requires him to serve out the term for which he is elected.


—If the sovereign dies during a recess of parliament, it must convene immediately; and if it has been dissolved, it may resume its powers for a period of six months. All bills affecting the rights or privileges of the peerage must be offered in the house of lords, and can only be amended by the commons. All motions proposed in the house of commons are required to have a second: but this rule is not enforced in the house of lords. In neither house of parliament is any journal read of the previous day's proceedings.


—In the progress of business the ministers have the precedence in bringing forward motions of every kind—In taking a vote in the house of lords the members vote in the order of their rank, the lords voting in the affirmative answering "Content," and those opposed. "Not content." Each peer might vote by proxy for two absentees until 1868, when the practice was discontinued by a standing order. In the house of commons the members vote. "Aye" or "No," instead of "Content" or "Not content." When the vote is counted the ayes pass into a lobby on the right, and the noes into one on the left, in each room is a secretary, who checks off the names of members on a printed list, aided by two tellers appointed by the speaker. The tellers report the figures of the vote to the speaker, who announces it in open house.


—The speaker of the house of commons is precluded from participating in debate on legislative business: but in the lords the presiding officer, if a member of the body, may leave the chair and speak in his character of a peer. On the other hand, he has no casting vote; if the lords are evenly divided, the question is lost. But if the house of commons is tied, it becomes the duty of the speaker to give the casting vote, which determines the question one way or the other.


—The following table exhibits the duration of each parliament since the accession of Henry VIII. in 1509:

Table.  Click to enlarge in new window.

Table.  Click to enlarge in new window.




—BIBLIOGRAPHY. Cobbett (W). Parliamentary History of England, 1606-1803, 36 vols; Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3 series, 1803-83, 343 vols.; Journals of the House of Commons, 1547-1883, 138 vols.: Journals of the House of Lords, 1509-1883. 115 vols.: Standing Orders of the House of Commons, 1882: Standing Orders of House of Lords, 1876; Parliamentary Reports, Accounts, and Papers, 1812-83, about 5,000 folio vols.; May (T. E). Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, 8th ed., 1879; Hallam (H.), Constitutional History of England, new ed., 3 vols., 1872; May (T. E.). Constitutional History of England since the accession of George III., 1760 to 1870, 5th ed., 3 vols., 1871; Hatsell (J.), Precedents and Proceedings in the House of Commons. 4 vols., 1818; Townsend (W. C.), History of the House of Commons, 1688-1832, 2 vols., 1843; Todd (A.). On Parliamentary Government in England, 2 vols., 1867, Grey (Earl), Parliamentary Government, 1867; Cooke (G. W.), History of Party, 3 vols., 1840; Dod (C. R). Parliamentary Companion, 1833-83; Bisset (A.), History of the Struggle for Parliamentary Government in England, 2 vols., 1877.


804 of 1105

Return to top