views updated May 23 2018


PARLIAMENT. Between 1450 and 1700 the English Parliament developed from a medieval institution dominated by the monarch to one whose role, function, and procedure is still recognizable today. During this transition, Parliament developed omnicompetence in statutory matters; expanded its membership dramatically (particularly in the House of Commons); revived the early medieval process of impeachment; and became a permanent and essential part of the government structure in England. Parliament during the period of the English Civil War and Interregnum (16421660) assumed the role of the executive and ordered the trial and execution of Charles I (ruled 16251649) in January 1649 before internal dissension and political circumstances brought about the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Although the Restoration Settlement again limited the power of Parliament, its growing role in fiscal matters and the highly charged political and religious atmosphere of the late-seventeenth century enabled it to play a role in deposing another monarch, James II (ruled 16851688), in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The subsequent passage of the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Triennial Act (1694) gave Parliament a more closely knit relationship with the monarchy and the governance of England. This period also saw the rise of the political parties and the increasing reliance of the monarch on Parliament for financial support.


Parliament was called and dissolved at the whim of the monarch until the enactment of the Triennial Act of 1641. Forty days before the start of the Parliament, individual writs of summons were sent to all the peers of the realm, except those disqualified by lunacy, poverty, or minority of age (usually under 21). Sometimes, as in 1626 with the case of the earl of Bristol, who was imprisoned due to his bitter dispute over foreign policy with Charles I, political confrontation with the monarch also determined whether a writ was received. The senior judges in the land were also summoned to act as legal advisers to the monarch. The membership of the House of Commons was determined by elections (under widely varying rules) held among the enfranchised in the constituencies. Towns and boroughs normally elected two members of Parliament (although a few single-member constituencies existed, primarily in Wales), while two Knights of the Shire were elected for each county. The elections were determined by the vote of 40-shilling freeholdersthose men who were resident in the county and held 40 shillings per annum in freehold land. The borough franchise, however, was not so clear-cut and ranged from the most common, voting by the freeman of the borough, to oligarchic control of the town corporation, and on occasion only those resident in the borough. This led to a select few controlling the vote in certain areas. An extreme example of this was the Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, election of 1572, where one person selected the two M.P.s. The elections were further complicated by the interference of both the crown and noble patrons. The crown certainly enjoyed considerable influence, particularly in areas in which it controlled the majority of the property, while powerful magnates, such as William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke, supposedly influenced favorably at least 98 seats between 1614 and 1628.


Until 1540, membership of the House of Lords consisted of the nobility, bishops, and representatives of the regular clergy (abbots and priors). Throughout the early Tudor period the spiritual peers reached a maximum of 48, and they easily outnumbered the temporal peers, whose numbers fluctuated between 34 and 45. However, Henry VIII's (ruled 15091547) break with Rome in the mid-1530s signaled dramatic changes in membership. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, the parliamentary careers of abbots and priors ended, thereby removing 27 spiritual peers. Even with the creation of six new bishoprics between 1540 and 1542, the temporal peers now outnumbered their spiritual colleaguesa situation that was never reversed. For the next 100 years, the nobility summoned to Parliament continued to fluctuate. Elizabeth I (ruled 15581603), who was notoriously parsimonious in handing out favors, only elevated two commoners to the peerage, and the natural attrition through the failure of peers to produce male heirs, as well as nobles executed for treason, actually caused the numbers to fall from 57 to 55 over the course of her reign.

The accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I (ruled 16031625) changed this situation dramatically. In part, James was anxious to make up for years of Elizabethan parsimony by creating new peers, but he also saw the peerage as a money-making device. Elevation through both deserving recognition and the sale of titles meant that by the end of James's reign in 1625, the peers eligible to attend Parliament numbered 104. This process continued under Charles I (ruled 16251649) until the nobility reached 123 at the start of the Short Parliament (April 1640). However, during the political turmoil of the early 1640s, Charles attempted to use the bishops to ensure he always had a loyal voting bloc. This led to the exclusion of the bishops in 1642, and the numbers of the nobility attending the Lords dropped even further when the Civil War broke out and Royalist peers deserted the Parliament. By late 1642, the number in the Lords had fallen to 30. In March 1649, after Charles had lost the Civil War and been executed, the monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished. With the Restoration in 1660, the Lords returned in its familiar preCivil War guise with the bishops taking their place alongside the nobility. The temporal peerage continued to grow and exceeded 150 by the turn of the century.

Changes in the Commons membership were not as drastic as those in the Lords, except during the Civil War and Interregnum. Before 1640, the number of M.P.s steadily increased, from 296 in 1485 to 493 in 1628 and 513 in 1689. In a similar fashion to the Lords, the king's supporters deserted Parliament after 1642, and over 100 attended a rival Royalist Parliament that convened in Oxford in early 1644. The numbers dropped further in December 1648 when Colonel Thomas Pride, in what has come to be known as "Pride's Purge," arrested 45 members and excluded 186 more. Other M.P.s stayed away of their own volition, leaving the "Rump Parliament" with a little over 200. Further changes in membership occurred during the Protectorate Parliaments before the Commons was restored to its preCivil War state in 1660.


The three major functions of Parliament were legislation, advice, and supply. To this may be added the revival in 1621 of Parliament as the highest court in the land. During the medieval period, Parliament had acted as a law court. This role fell into abeyance during the sixteenth century, but in 1621 charges of impeachment were presented against the Lord Chancellor, Sir Francis Bacon (15611626). This process continued throughout the 1620s and later. This role was supplemented by the like revival of the role of the Lords as the highest appellate court.

The legislative aspect of Parliament also changed. The medieval House of Commons was not an equal part of the parliamentary trinity of King, Lords, and Commons, but precedents in the fifteenth century saw it grow into a constitutionally equal partner. In 1489, the judges ruled that legislation did not have the force of law unless the Commons and the Lords assented to it. The Commons had the right to initiate legislation, like the Lords, and throughout the sixteenth century the three-reading procedure developed into the norm. This required each bill to be read three times in both the Lords and the Commons before it was presented for the monarch's assent, or, occasionally, veto. Equally, it became more common for each bill to be committed for detailed scrutiny and amendment after the second reading. During the 1530s it was accepted that statute law could regulate every sphere of life, including religious and spiritual matters and property rights. This omnicompetence of statute law increased the monarch's need for Parliament through this extension of legislative jurisdiction.

Parliament's conciliar or advice function grew out of its origins in the king's great council, which was called together to advise the king on matters of national importance, such as war. Although Parliament was primarily called for matters of taxation, it also offered the governing elite a chance to present grievances to the king and to offer advice. For example, James I in 1624 asked Parliament to advise him on England's reaction to the Thirty Years' War (16181648).

The supply side of parliamentary operation was its most important role. During times of peace, monarchs were expected to live off their own revenues, although this became increasingly difficult after the inflationary years of the first half of the sixteenth century. In practice, monarchs became more accustomed to requesting taxes from Parliament for day-to-day fiscal matters. Supply was passed by act of Parliament in two distinct forms: lay and clerical taxation. The Clergy voted a clerical tax and the Commons initiated a tax based both on income and movable property. Both forms were enacted as statutes and required the assent of the parliamentary trinity. Because of drastic underassessment of income and the failure of an effective collection method, England remained one of the most lightly taxed nations in Europe, while the amount brought into the crown declined dramatically during the period.


The relationship between the English crown and Parliament in early modern England has been the subject of major debate in British history. Until the 1970s, the dominant historiography saw the House of Commons marching onward from an embryonic power under Henry VIII to executive power in the mid-seventeenth century and then to a Glorious Revolution led by Parliament, before the late Victorian model of parliamentary government eventually emerged. This Whig view of parliamentary history, most eloquently championed by S. R. Gardiner, was challenged first by Marxist historians, who viewed the Civil War and parliamentary tensions as a bourgeois revolution. However, the Marxist interpretation foundered because the Civil War can be better explained as an aristocratic and/or religious rebellion and because no widespread or lasting social revolution occurred. Furthermore, relations between Parliament and the crown returned in 1660 to their preCivil War status.

The more fundamental challenge to the Whig interpretation was led by a diverse group of revisionists, in particular, Geoffrey Elton, Conrad Russell, and Kevin Sharpe. They emphasized consensus, not conflict, as the primary mode of interpreting the relationship between crown and Parliament. Elton and Russell, especially, saw the Parliament as an effective, businesslike institution in which conflict was often more the result of misunderstanding than hostility or the competition for power. Sharpe, on the other hand, saw what conflict there was in Parliament as the result of competing factions. Since the late 1980s, this revisionist view has been nuanced by the work of scholars such as Thomas Cogswell, Ann Hughes, and Richard Cust. In their "postrevisionist" view, an underlying tension and conflict was ever present, but it usually only manifested itself in times of political crisisfor example, during the mismanagement of the war against France and Spain by Charles I in the late 1620s.


Henry VII (ruled 14851509) and Henry VIII both needed Parliament to achieve their objectives. Henry VII solidified his hold on the throne by calling and consulting seven Parliaments between 1485 and 1509, while Henry VIII enacted the Reformation through Parliament. Although there was some parliamentary opposition to the policies of both monarchs, generally relations between the crown and Parliament in the early Tudor period were good. Henry VIII, in particular, adopted a style of personal intervention in parliamentary affairs, even appearing in the Commons on occasion to use his physical presence to sway M.P.s toward royal policies. There was opposition in Parliament, especially in the Lords, to the religious reformation of the 1530s, but this was defeated without a significant crisis or breakdown in relations. The mid-Tudor Parliaments of Edward VI (ruled 15471553) and Mary I (ruled 15531558) likewise witnessed some opposition to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation (both carried out through parliamentary statute), but again those opposed to government policy were in the minority. That changes in England's official religion, including the introduction of the Protestant Book of Common Prayer (1549) and the return of England to Roman Catholicism (15531554), were enacted through Parliament was testimony to its increased role in the governance of the nation and the newfound awareness of the omnicompetence of statute.

Under Elizabeth I, both Parliament and the Privy Council attempted to persuade the queen to marry or, later, to name a successor. Elizabeth had no particular liking for Parliaments and avoided calling them whenever possible, and Parliament only assembled on 13 occasions between 1559 and 1601. Furthermore, these sessions were short and relatively harmonious. No constitutional crisis erupted during the period and Elizabeth effectively managed her Parliaments by curtailing discussions on her marital status and on further Protestant reformation. Although her policy of granting manufacturing monopolies to individuals and companies came in for severe criticism in the Parliaments of 1597, 1598, and 1601, her "golden speech" of 30 November 1601, in which she promised to abolish the monopoly grants, won her fulsome praise. At the end of the Tudor dynasty, relations between the Parliament and crown were in good shape.

The policies of the first Stuart monarch, James I and VI, did cause friction between the crown and Commons in his first Parliament (16041610). In particular, James's desire to enact a union between England and his native Scotland aroused the ire of many M.P.s, and anti-Scottish hysteria in the Lower House. James was forced to abandon his plans for union in 1607. Similarly, disagreement arose in 1610 over the Great Contract, a scheme to reform the English financial system, but neither the Commons nor James could agree to the terms stipulated by the other party. Relations between the king and Parliament sank lower in 1614, during the "Addled Parliament." No legislation was enacted and a bitter session was dissolved by the king after claims of undue royal influence on the elections. Although the Parliament has now been seen as an example of two factions competing for influence, it certainly discouraged James from relying on the goodwill of Parliament. In the next Parliament (1621), the king once again dissolved the Parliament in anger after it refused his decree regarding not meddling with foreign policy and the marriage of his son, Prince Charles. However, in the final Jacobean Parliament (1624), both the crown and Parliament worked together to enact legislation and debate the impending crisis with Spain.

This legacy of relative goodwill, if punctuated by friction and occasional moments of high tension, was rapidly dissipated by Charles I. His first Parliament of 1625 ended in acrimony over money and religion; the 1626 Parliament was dissolved in similar circumstances, and in 1628 both Houses forced Charles to accept the Petition of Righta statement of the freedom, liberties, and privileges of Parliament. With relations at a low point in 1629, Charles vowed to live without Parliaments. The political reality of a Scottish army camped in northern England saw Charles once again turn to Parliament for financing to fight a campaign in 1640. However, he found Parliament even less inclined to his policies in 1640 than eleven years earlier. In the subsequent struggle between Charles and his Parliament, the king was forced to cede some of his authority to Parliament, but he refused to give up the right to control the army. The conflict culminated in war between Parliament and kinga war won by Parliamentand Charles was executed in 1649, the House of Lords was abolished, and a republic declared. The parliamentary trinity of King, Lords, and Commons had been destroyed.

Parliament during the 1640s had gradually assumed executive powers, taxing the populace, fielding an army, and effectively running the country. Parliament continued in this role and acted as the sole legal governing authority until 1653, when Oliver Cromwell (15991658) was named Lord Protector. After the establishment of the Protectorate, Parliament sat only intermittently until 1659. The relationship between Parliament and Cromwell was often fractious and they never managed to establish an effective working relationship. This contributed to the ineffectiveness of the republic, and Parliament finally voted in early 1660 for the restoration of the monarchy.

The next major constitutional crisis between Parliament and the crown arose during the Exclusion Crisis. Between 1679 and 1681, a majority in the Commons assisted by a substantial minority in the Lords attempted to exclude Charles II's brother, the Catholic Duke of York, from the succession to the throne. Although this movement failed, it left Charles at odds with substantial sections of his Parliament. The crisis spilled over into James's reign, and after a series of pro-Catholic policies championed by the king, an Assembly of Peers invited the Dutchman William of Orange (ruled 16891702) to take over the throne. James fled England, and when Parliament met in 1689 it enacted the Revolution Settlement. The situation was complicated by the emergence in the previous twenty years of embryonic political parties. The Whigs believed in a contractual form of government and the right to resist a tyrannical monarch. In contrast, the Tories favored the view of a monarch's divine right to rule, where civil authority descended directly from God. Negotiations between the two parties and the king led to a compromise in which William agreed to rule jointly with his wife, Mary Stuart (ruled 16891694). It also led to fundamental changes in the relationship between Parliament and the crown. The Bill of Rights (1689) stipulated the "undoubted rights and liberties" of Parliament and that it was required to meet frequently. The revised coronation oath stated that monarchs ruled according to the statutes made by Parliament and the Protestant religion established by law, thus excluding Catholics from the succession. Furthermore, the 1689 Mutiny Act established that a standing army could only be raised in the kingdom with the consent of Parliament. Finally, the financial settlement imposed on William and Mary ensured that the crown revenue was forever tied to parliamentary taxation. This in turn assured that Parliament would meet every year from 1689. The settlement witnessed the establishment of Parliament as a permanent institution of government, and in it we can see the structures and actions of the modern Westminster Parliament.

See also Charles I (England) ; Church of England ; Cromwell, Oliver ; Edward VI (England) ; Elizabeth I (England) ; England ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; Exclusion Crisis ; Glorious Revolution (Britain) ; Henry VII (England) ; Henry VIII (England) ; James I and VI (England and Scotland) ; James II (England) ; Mary I (England) ; Political Parties in England ; Representative Institutions ; William and Mary .


Cogswell, Thomas. The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 16211624. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Cust, Richard, and Ann Hughes, eds. Conflict in Early Stuart England: Studies in Religion and Politics, 16031642. London, 1989.

Elton, G. R. The Parliament of England, 15591581. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Foster, Elizabeth Read. The House of Lords, 16031649: Structure, Procedure and the Nature of its Business. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983.

Gardiner, S. R. History of England from the Accession of James to the Outbreak of the Civil War. 10 vols. London, 18831884.

Graves, Michael A. R. The Tudor Parliaments: Crown, Lords and Commons, 14851603. London, 1985.

Kenyon, J. P., ed. The Stuart Constitution, 16031688: Documents and Commentary. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Kishlansky, Mark A. Parliamentary Selection: Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Kyle, Chris R., and Jason Peacey, eds. Parliament at Work: Parliamentary Committees, Political Power, and Public Access in Early Modern England. Rochester, N.Y., 2002.

Russell, Conrad. Parliaments and English Politics, 16211629. Oxford, 1979.

Sharpe, Kevin. "Re-writing the History of Parliament in Seventeenth-Century England." In Remapping Early Modern England: The Culture of Seventeenth-Century Politics, edited by Kevin Sharpe, pp. 269293. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Smith, David L. The Stuart Parliaments, 16031689. London, 1999.

Chris R. Kyle

Parliamentary Government

views updated Jun 11 2018

Parliamentary Government


Changing conceptions and institutions

Research and evaluation


Parliamentary government, or cabinet government, is the form of constitutional democracy in which executive authority emerges from, and is responsible to, legislative authority. It differs from the arrangement of independently elected executive and legislative agencies found in the United States. Developed in western Europe and particularly in Great Britain, parliamentary government provides the pattern usually assumed by democratic experiments in eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. In common usage the term “parliamentary government” is reserved for those political systems that not only are parliamentary but are based on free and competitive elections. This excludes oneparty dictatorships exercising power within a formal parliamentary structure.

The essential union of executive and legislative branches is accompanied by the constitutional principle that the legislative body, or parliament, is supreme. Usually the principal executive, the prime minister, is appointed by a monarchical or presidential head of state. The prime minister, in turn, chooses the executive heads of government departments, the most important of whom are in the prime minister’s cabinet. Both the prime minister and his cabinet, known together as the government, are ordinarily members of parliament. They hold ministerial office only as long as they have majority support in parliament. In a bicameral legislature, this requirement usually means majority support in the more popularly elected house. Occasionally a government may be made responsible to both houses. In any case, the rule of continuous legislative confidence is regularly demonstrated in the government’s submission of its program and record for parliamentary approval. A defeat for the government through an adverse legislative vote, on a plainly important issue, indicates a lack of confidence requiring the government either to resign or to attempt, by means of a general election, to secure a new parliamentary majority. A government can stay in office only temporarily without parliamentary support for its policies. Stalemate between an executive of one persuasion and a legislature of another, as occurs with the American system of separated powers, is meant to be impossible in the parliamentary system. Instability of executive authority, on the other hand, is entirely possible. The accepted way to avoid it is by the development in parliament of a strong partisan majority prepared to support a prime minister and his cabinet during the several years between parliamentary elections. The executive authority then becomes the effective policy maker.


More than most working governmental forms, the parliamentary system is not so much an invention as it is an evolutionary product. Its essential union of executive and legislative authority is not simply a deliberate constitutional design. It is more significantly the result of the process by which representative assemblies successfully challenged monarchs in the course of modern history. This process, it must be said, was European, although attempts have been made to transfer its result to other parts of the world. It can even be argued that the process was characteristically British rather than European, and that, therefore, parliamentary regimes in continental Europe represented institutional transfers.

The outstanding feature of the historical experience was the evolution of parliament from a monarch’s council to a supremacy of its own. Assembled originally, as early as the medieval period, to provide advice and especially to give financial support to the monarch, parliament became in modern history the means by which first an established landowning oligarchy, then a commercial class, and finally representatives of the bulk of the population secured control of the machinery of government. The development was a long one, covering three to five centuries, and it coincided with what now seems, by comparison with new nations, a most gradual change in European society. In particular, parliamentary government developed where there was a substantial historical interval of capitalist, middle-class ascendancy between the era of dominance by court and nobility and the era of mass democracy. Especially in the nineteenth century, parliament seemed to be the agency of the substantial middle class produced by commercial and industrial capitalism.

In Britain, Parliament’s supremacy over the monarch dates from 1688, when Parliament asserted its authority to determine the monarchical succession. This authority was made effective by the eighteenth-century development of a cabinet in which those who were nominally ministers of the crown became responsible in fact to Parliament. The monarch, losing control of his ministers, ceased to be the effective executive. In an increasingly rationalist and subsequently democratic age, the hereditary principle did not provide a likely basis for independent executive authority. The claims of a representative body were not successfully resisted by a monarch. Where the monarch resisted too stubbornly, he was likely to be dethroned in favor of another monarch or of a president. The latter, even if not popularly elected, might be a stronger claimant to independent executive authority, but usually his powers were cast in the mold of a constitutional monarch’s. The presidential innovation was a late one in the parliamentary system; the French only introduced the presidency after 1870. This change may make the parliamentary order less smoothly evolutionary, as indeed was the case in France, than the retention of the monarchy while its power is reduced. The parliamentary system with a president has been successful in a few nations and has been introduced in many new nations. [SeeMonarchy.]

Parliamentary government developed its more essential features in Britain before the emergence of mass democracy. The larger part of the British population did not even have the right to vote until about the last quarter of the nineteenth century, by which time parliamentary government, including the cabinet system, was well established. Elsewhere, however, the establishment of parliamentary institutions and the achievement of universal suffrage more nearly coincided. The results in such instances were not always so favorable for the stability of the governmental system as the British phasing seems to have been. The evolutionary length of British experience bears emphasis because it may not necessarily be typical of nations attempting to practice parliamentary government. This raises the important general question whether parliamentary government can be dissociated from conditions chiefly typical of Britain, the British-settled territories, and those smaller Continental nations which closely resemble them.

Changing conceptions and institutions

The parliamentary system has been differently conceived, not only over time but also from country to country. The view that the parliamentary body itself, rather than the cabinet, was the effective policy-making authority remained a prevailing French conception, in the form of “government by assembly,” long after it had lost meaning in the British system. By the middle of the nineteenth century, often viewed as the classical period of parliamentary government, the British cabinet had assumed a central importance. This was reflected in Bagehot’s famous appraisal (1865-1867). Still, Bagehot did not move Parliament off stage. The cabinet, although it exercised leadership, remained an agency of Parliament in the sense that the House of Commons decided whether to turn out a government after discussion of its policy. Bagehot regarded this elective function, rather than the legislative function, as the most important one that Parliament performed. In this way, Parliament remained the locus of power despite the cabinet’s admittedly crucial role in the whole system.

In the twentieth century, however, the original British model changed as the cabinet increasingly had the support of a cohesive majority and thus stayed in office from one general election to the next. The British Parliament was no longer expected to exercise its power to dismiss a government. The elective function was transferred from the Commons to the general public. Parliament remained to register the electorate’s decision as to which party’s leadership was to form the cabinet, but parliamentary debates lost the impact they had formerly had on the life of the government. Accompanying the increasingly direct relation of the cabinet to the electorate was a strengthening of the prime minister’s role. As the leader of a majority party, he has come, in effect, to be chosen as a chief executive when voters elect parliamentary representatives of his party. He bears individually a responsibility to the country. His cabinet has tended to become more a changing team of ministers carrying out the leader’s program than a genuinely collegial policy-making body. The effect of this tendency, along with that which has made the government more directly responsible to the electorate than to Parliament, has been to give the British system an appearance that is less parliamentary and more presidential. It might even seem more presidential than the American system, since the prime minister is less restrained by a parliament, in which his party has a cohesive majority, than is a president of the United States by the Congress. On the other hand, the prime minister’s cohesive majority, ordinarily so supportive, may decide to displace him in admittedly rare but important circumstances. Moreover, conceiving of the parliamentary system in near-presidential terms is also somewhat hazardous in that a cohesive majority party may not always exist as it has in Britain during the middle years of the twentieth century [seeMajority rule].

Yet the tendencies that have changed parliamentary government in Britain are observable elsewhere, and usually in association with a strong parliamentary party possessing a majority or a near-majority of seats. An important case in point is the working of the West German system after World War ii. Here the chancellor, as a German counterpart of the British prime minister, established an ascendancy based on his party leadership and his popularity with the electorate. Most other Continental nations in the parliamentary mold have not developed strong executive leadership to the same degree as West Germany; in the Fourth French Republic, parliamentary government broke down in the absence of a stable cabinet system. The smaller European nations have also been successful in strengthening their cabinets while retaining the parliamentary system. The Englishspeaking nations of the overseas Commonwealth even more closely resemble the British pattern.

Cohesion and party government

Political parties have not always provided a popular base for executive leadership. Earlier they were simply groups of representatives tending loosely to support ministers or potential ministers. Although they began to have followings in the electorate before mass enfranchisement, modern, large-scale organization of political parties dates only from the last decades of the nineteenth century. So does the crucial cohesiveness of the parliamentary party in support of its leadership. Such support represents a commitment to the electorate, and this commitment makes it possible for parliamentary government to be effective party government.

The vital party is the one in parliament, rather than the extraparliamentary, mass-membership organization. The latter may be divided in its support of a leadership and its policy, but as long as the parliamentary party is able to unite, it serves as the base of stable executive authority. The parliamentary party may be influenced by the external organization and its apparatus, but decisions are made by the publicly elected members of the parliamentary party, who ordinarily support their leadership. This is a residual aspect of parliamentary supremacy, transferred from its operation in the body as a whole to operation within a party. As such, it has been strong enough in Britain and in other parliamentary nations to resist the pressures, especially of social-democratic political movements, to make parliamentary parties into agents of an outside, dues-paying, activist membership. Members of parliament feel responsible to their party’s broader electorate, not just to active party workers. This is consistent with the willing acceptance by parliamentary members of the policy positions of their leaders, who also regard themselves as directly responsible to the broader electorate.

Coalition and competition

Party cohesion alone is not the key to the achievement of executive stability in the parliamentary system. Equally important is the presence of a party, or perhaps a combination of parties, commanding a majority in the legislative body. The simplest case, barring the noncompetitive one-party arrangement, is the two-party competition that largely characterizes British parliamentary politics. Given only two major parties, the probability is high that one party will have a parliamentary majority, even a comfortable working majority. This regularly happened in Britain during the three decades following 1931. Minor parties, as opposed to a third party or other substantial parties in a multiparty system, do not ordinarily win enough seats to reduce one of the large parties to only plurality strength. Even a third party, or any number of other competing parties, would not necessarily prevent one party from gaining a majority. The Christian Democratic parties of Germany and Italy secured narrow and fairly brief majorities in such multiparty circumstances during the post-World War n years. However, absent from these unusual successes was the other ingredient of the British model of party government: a single opposition party large enough to be a potential majority and so an alternative governing party, to the point of providing a leadership core of potential ministers called the “shadow cabinet”

Despite the practical success of the two-party model, it is not necessarily an essential feature of the parliamentary system. The British themselves had a three-party system, often without a majority party, as recently as the 1920s, and they may have it again. Moreover, there are other nations that have almost consistently had more than two important parties and yet maintained parliamentary government. The leading examples, it is true, are the Scandinavian countries and a few Englishspeaking nations. Their particular multiparty systems have often produced a majority or near-majority party and have seldom been as fragmented as the French system, which provides the main instance of the difficulty of maintaining parliamentary government in a multiparty system.

Without a majority party, various means are used to try to secure majority legislative support, as required by parliamentary government. A large, but not always the largest, plurality party can form a cabinet of its own members while seeking the votes of another party (or of other parties) so as to produce a working majority. This was British practice in the 1920s. Elsewhere, it has been usual to form a cabinet that is itself a coalition representing enough parties for a parliamentary majority. Such a coalition might be headed by a prime minister acting as a leader either of the largest single party or of a smaller but key center party. The task of achieving stability is likely to be facilitated if one party is fairly near a majority on its own and can therefore manage with one or two minor coalition partners. A broader coalition is also feasible, but if it includes all or most of the large parties, the effect is to eliminate the possibility of an opposition presenting itself as an alternative government. The very broad coalition, therefore, has usually been regarded as suited only to wartime or other special circumstances, when it is deemed appropriate in two-party as well as in multiparty systems.

Special circumstances, however, can become institutionalized, as in Austria after World War n. Regularly the two major Austrian parties united in a coalition, excluding minor parties, and yet fought competitive elections against each other. In this novel arrangement, the chief function of elections was to decide which of the two parties would increase its share of cabinet positions, not to decide which of the two should form a cabinet. Elections may serve a similarly limited purpose in a more clearly multiparty nation when a coalition cabinet is established over a fairly broad political spectrum, embracing perhaps two-thirds but not all of a parliament. In this case the voters, by electing more or fewer representatives of a given party, help determine the relative strength of the several parties regularly composing the cabinet. It means a more limited form of electoral competition than that between two parties, or two groups of parties, each contending to form a government of its own. But it is competition nonetheless, and of a kind that seems relevant where clear-cut alternatives are simply not available. The result is an operation of parliamentary government different from the standard British method, but it is not incompatible with democracy.

The same cannot be said so surely for those systems in which there is one-party domination. Much depends on both the degree and the method of domination. Clearly, when one party has a legal monopoly, as in communist states, there can be no parliamentary government in the Western sense. But where party competition is legal, even if socially discouraged, the problem is more elusive. It is conceivable that a nation, soon after independence, for instance, could regard as legitimate only the party that led the national independence movement. This seems to be the case, in varying degrees, in Africa and Asia during the immediate post-imperial period. Parties other than the governing party often have too little support to furnish serious parliamentary opposition. Political competition takes place mainly within the one major party. Given freedom of expression, in and out of parliament, and given free choice of parliamentary candidates at local party levels, intraparty competition can be substantial. But when, as often happens, the leader of the single party regards open criticism as illegitimate, whether from within his party or from outside, the result tends to resemble the deliberately one-party dictatorships of communist nations.

Another kind of difficulty about the role of the opposition arises when substantial competition comes from parties that are not in fact democratic, such as communist and fascist parties. Their opposition raises the question of their legitimacy in any democratic system. This question stems from the assumption that such parties would, if in power, overturn the very parliamentary regime under which they had operated. This is exactly what the National Socialist party did to the Weimar Republic. Even without actually coming to power, a fascist or communist party can adversely affect the working of the parliamentary system by securing enough votes to become the principal opposition. The electorate then has no choice except to vote for the government, unless it is willing to support an opposition dedicated to a radical transformation of the democratic constitutional order. The French and Italian Communist parties came close to creating such limiting alternatives after World War n.

The executive and dissolution

Strengthening the cabinet and prime minister has changed parliamentary government from its nineteenth-century character, but it has not violated the basic principle of executive responsibility to parliament. On the other hand, increasing the power of the head of state, monarchical or presidential, must be understood as a step away from parliamentary government. An important and independent policymaking role for an elected president, for example, seems incompatible with the parliamentary system. The consequence of such an increase of power, as exemplified by the constitution of the Fifth French Republic and especially by the practices of President de Gaulle, is not enough to create a full-fledged presidential system but is enough to produce a hybrid parliamentary system. The counterparliamentary tendency is likely to be all the stronger when a president, equipped with constitutional authority, is popularly elected and so can claim a popular mandate to rival parliament and its chosen cabinet. Such a president ceases to be the nonpartisan, dignified head of state typified by a modern constitutional monarch or by a president chosen by parliament to play the monarch’s role [seeDelegation of powers].

Even a constitutional monarch, however, has a political function by virtue of his power to appoint the prime minister. In principle, this involves choosing a man whom a parliamentary majority would elect. And, in practice, the choice often falls automatically on the known leader of the majority party. Matters are more complicated if there is no clearly known leader of the majority party, perhaps because of a sudden death or resignation. Potentially still more complicated is the situation where there is no majority party. But even in this contingency, which regularly occurs in multiparty systems, the head of state is effectively limited in his choice by the hard fact that the prime minister, in order to remain in office, must have the support of a parliamentary majority. For the head of state to insist on his own preference, rather than parliament’s, would violate a principle of the system.

The same applies to the power of dissolving parliament. Technically, like the choice of prime minister, this is in the hands of the head of state. But for a head of state to dissolve parliament against the wishes of its prime minister and cabinet, or to refuse to dissolve when the prime minister advises him to dissolve, would interfere with the regular working of parliamentary government. Originally, as with so many other powers, dissolution was in fact the prerogative of the head of state, notably of the British monarch. But the exercises of authority over this important political matter is now the prime minister’s. In some systems, e.g., the Third French Republic, parliament retained the power to dissolve itself after a given number of years. This weakens the executive authority because the prime minister needs the power to dissolve parliament as a means of retaining the support of a majority. Members of the prime minister’s majority, in this view, will be more likely to continue voting for him if they believe that his parliamentary defeat might mean not his resignation but a new general election. Ordinary members will not want to risk their seats.

This line of argument seems applicable in a multiparty parliament, where a prime minister might effectively threaten dissolution to keep coalition members in line. But the threat in relation to one’s own party seems irrelevant in a two-party multiparty parliament, where a prime minister unquestionably has the effective power to dissolve, but he does not use it as a means to discipline his own followers. They generally have sufficient reasons to support him without the threat of dissolution. Rather, the British prime minister arranges to dissolve Parliament at a time calculated to be of maximum party advantage—for him as well as his parliamentary followers. Therefore, the least desirable occasion to dissolve would be just after a desertion by parliamentary members of his party. Going to the country with a divided party would only be to the advantage of the opposition. In summary, the power of dissolution strengthens a prime minister’s position, as it is meant to do in a parliamentary system; but with a highly developed party structure, like Britain’s, it is used primarily to time a general election for party advantage and not for retaliation against a loss of parliamentary confidence.

Individual members and the legislative function

Given the tendency of the parliamentary system, in its British form, to develop strong executive authority based on a cohesive party majority, it follows that the legislature is not a policy-making body in the manner of the U.S. Congress—more or less coequal with the executive. Individual nonministerial members of the House of Commons, for example, do not directly legislate, as do American congressmen when deciding whether to accept governmental proposals or to substitute proposals of their own. Members of the British Parliament may, especially in private party councils, influence what their leadership presents by way of policy, and they certainly question ministers (in a daily question hour) about policy particulars, in addition to debating policy generally. But they do not make policy as members of a coordinate branch of government; they lack the legislative facilities to do so. British parliamentary committees are not independent loci of power providing nonministerial members with opportunities to overturn the government’s program. In this respect the British situation is extreme, since the House of Commons avoids official subject-matter committees altogether. Other parliamentary governments, even if otherwise in the British mold, do not usually go this far in guarding against a challenge to the theoretical supremacy of the whole house or to the practical supremacy of the government, whose authority rests on the confidence of a majority in the whole house. Nevertheless, wherever parliamentary government has developed a strong and stable executive, there is necessarily an important limitation on the exercise of independent policy making by the nonministerial membership. This means that parliament’s public importance rests heavily on its public debates, but those may now fail to secure as much attention as is given party leaders on radio and television.

Only where parliamentary government has not developed strong executive leadership do legislative activity and organization resemble the American congressional pattern. The extreme examples are provided by the Third and Fourth French republics, both of which had effective subject-matter committees whose leaders could substitute their policies for the government’s. These committee leaders were often rivals of governmental leaders, who could be driven from office by adverse committee action and subsequent adverse parliamentary action. Responsibility, in this situation, is not firmly fixed in the cabinet, which usually has no stable majority in the legislature. Even on foreign policy questions, where greater executive authority has been usual in all systems, the French style of parliamentary government imposed limits on cabinet leadership. The absence of a coherent parliamentary majority, which enabled French representatives to play more active and more direct roles, is closely associated with the instability of governments in the Third and Fourth French republics.

Research and evaluation

Parliamentary government, notably its British form, has long been carefully studied by historical and legal scholars. There are standard treatises describing the laws and customs—the constitution—of the British Parliament. Not all of the historical and legal work has been by Englishmen, but it has generally expressed admiration for British institutions. This was true of earlier Continental scholars, who hoped that their nations would emulate the British system, and it was true also of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century American scholars, who saw much in the British system worth adapting to the United States. For instance, Woodrow Wilson admired the British system, in Walter Bagehot’s classic description, as superior to the American presidential-congressional system. Bagehot, it should be noted, was not a conventional historical or legal scholar but a most insightful journalist. Of a different order is the standard twentieth-century analysis by Sir Ivor Jennings. In his volumes Parliament (1939) and Cabinet Government (1936), Jennings uses a wealth of historical material to illustrate the operating constitutional principles. He presents these principles as greatly modified by democratic usages since Bagehot’s time.

Since World War n there has been considerable new research in the less formal elements of parliamentary government. The research, it is true, has not been aimed directly at understanding parliamentary government as opposed to another form of government; but any effort to learn more generally about legislative and executive behavior has added to the knowledge of parliamentary institutions. The new literature involves roll-call analysis, systematic accounts of backgrounds of legislators, effects of external party organizations, intraparty and intracabinet decision making, and the participation by interest groups in the parliamentary process. The last of these subjects was hardly studied at all in most parliamentary democracies before the 1950s; indeed, until then interest groups, or pressure groups, tended to be regarded as only American political phenomena. Consequently, there was a significant gap in knowledge of even the otherwise much-studied British system.

More can be learned by detailed studies of particular elements in the established systems. But there is also a special need to understand, in comparative perspective, the common factors associated with stability and effectiveness of parliamentary government or with failure of such government. Western Europe and the English-speaking Commonwealth nations provide the main laboratories, since their historical experience with parliamentary institutions is long and varied. From this experience, there is some hope of developing hypotheses of more general applicability with respect to parliamentary government in developing nations. For such hypotheses to have validity, however, they must also be examined in the environment of the developing nations themselves. This lies in the future, since so far there has been an understandable scholarly tendency to regard the new constitutional arrangements of developing nations as less durable and so less meaningful than the broader problems of nation-building and informal group processes.

The evidence is not yet conclusive as to the adaptability of parliamentary government outside of its limited Western homelands. What is known, however, gives little cause for optimism, since no developing nation with a non-Western background has a long period of experience with parliamentary government. The record of parliamentary government is somewhat discouraging even in the advanced nations of western Europe. None of the three major Continental nations—France, Germany, and Italy—consistently maintained a parliamentary system through the first six decades of this century.

Yet the parliamentary system provided the pattern for most new twentieth-century democratic governments. This held for the embryonic political institutions of the supranational European community and for the initial stages, at least, of constitutions in many non-Western nations. The new African and Asian nations emerging from British control generally adopted parliamentary constitutions without monarchs. So did several nations that had been under the rule of other imperial powers. Japan, the most developed of non-Western nations, also established a parliamentary system.

Whether many of these nations, especially the new ones, would be able to remain for long within the rules of parliamentary government was uncertain despite the impressive scale of the Indian effort. French-speaking African nations, for example, just as they were becoming independent, tended to move away from the parliamentary form when France itself did so in changing from the Fourth Republic to the Fifth Republic.

Maintaining a strong and effective executive, yet one responsible to a legislative body, has proved difficult, if not impossible, even in many European circumstances. And without such an executive—that is, without parliamentary government that is also cabinet government—the system seems unable to cope with all of the domestic and foreign problems of a state in the modern world.

Leon D. Epstein

[See alsoConstitutions and constitutionalism; Government; Local government; Monarchy; Parties, political. Other relevant material may be found inCoalitions; Democracy; Legislation; Presidential government; and the biographies ofBagehot; Bentham; Burke; Dicey.]


Bagehot, Walter (1865-1867) 1964 The English Constitution. London: Watts.

Campion, Gilbert F.; and Lidderdale, D. W. S. 1953 European Parliamentary Procedure: A Comparative Handbook. London: Allen & Unwin.

Dawson, Robert M. (1947) 1963 The Government of Canada. 4th ed., rev. Univ. of Toronto Press.

Emerson, Rupert 1955 Representative Government in Southeast Asia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press; London: Allen & Unwin.

Encel, Solomon 1962 Cabinet Government in Australia. Melbourne Univ. Press; London: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Friedrich, Carl J. (1937) 1950 Constitutional Government and Democracy: Theory and Practice in Europe and America. Rev. ed. Boston: Ginn. → Originally published as Constitutional Government and Politics: Nature and Development.

Hansard Society of Parliamentary Government 1958 What Are the Problems of Parliamentary Government in West Africa? London: The Society.

Hiscocks, Richard 1957 Democracy in Western Germany. Oxford Univ. Press.

Inter-Parliamentary Union (1961) 1962 Parliaments: A Comparative Study on the Structure and Functioning of Representative Institutions in Forty-one Countries. London: Cassell. → First published in French.

Jenks, Edward 1903 Parliamentary England (Story of the Nations). New York: Putnam.

Jennings, William Ivor (1936) 1959 Cabinet Government. 3d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Jennings, William Ivor (1939) 1957 Parliament. 2d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mackintosh, John P. 1962 The British Cabinet. Univ. of Toronto Press.

Maki, John M. 1962 Government and Politics in Japan: The Road to Democracy. New York: Praeger.

Morris-Jones, Wyndraeth H. 1957 Parliament in India. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Ullman, Richard K.; and King-Hall, Stephen 1955 German Parliaments: A Study of the Development of Representative Institutions in Germany. New York: Praeger.

Wahlke, John C ; and Eulau, Heinz (editors) 1959 Legislative Behavior: A Reader in Theory and Research. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Williams, Philip M. (1954) 1964 Crisis and Compromise: Politics in the Fourth Republic. 3d ed. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press. → First published as Politics in Post-war France: Parties and the Constitution in the Fourth Republic.

Wiseman, Herbert V. 1958 The Cabinet in the Commonwealth: Post-war Developments in Africa, the West Indies and South-East Asia. London: Stevens.


views updated May 14 2018


English Parliament

Parliament is a servant which became a master. It originated with three royal needs; the need of monarchs to obtain advice and information; the realization that subjects were more likely to pay taxes if they knew what they were for; and the need to find some way of dealing with complaints, grievances, and petitions from all over the realm. The third function of Parliament gradually atrophied as, in the Middle Ages, an elaborate network of local and national courts was established, though the concept of the High Court of Parliament survives in the appellate jurisdiction of the House of Lords and petitions are still submitted. Two other characteristics which have survived are that the advice is not always palatable, nor the taxation paid cheerfully even after explanation given. Representative institutions developed for similar reasons in many other European countries, though they varied in composition and powers according to local circumstances.

In a general sense, Parliament may be traced back to the Saxon witan and the Norman Council, each of which included the chief men of the realm, lay and clerical. But the development of Parliament as a wider, national body, with a representative element, reflects the incessant demands of government for more money, and a change in the distribution of wealth brought about by the spread of commerce and the growth of towns. Feudal dues were intended to be exceptional—for the king's marriage, his ransom, or the knighting of his son—but chronic warfare, particularly against France, demanded ever-increasing taxation and made it impossible for the king to ‘live of his own’. Consequently, Parliament developed at moments of crisis, usually associated with a disputed succession, or domestic or foreign war.

Any institution which survives over eight centuries must have adapted and changed its functions. In Saxon and Norman times, a good deal of public business was done at crown-wearings, ceremonial occasions at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun. Since the great men were expected to attend to show respect, it was easy to consult them. Charters often referred to the consent of the barons, since it was to the king's advantage that his policies should be known to have the support of all important subjects. In the course of the 13th cent., these meetings came to be referred to as discussions—colloquia or parliamenta. But though their purpose was to assist the king, they could also be turned against an unpopular or unsuccessful monarch. In December 1203 John left Normandy to seek urgent help from his barons at Oxford in saving the duchy: they promised obedience but demanded ‘the rights of the kingdom inviolate’. In 1234, the council at Gloucester forced Henry III to dismiss his unpopular foreign adviser Peter des Roches. In 1257, when the king was absent fighting in Gascony, his regents called another council to appeal for money. Though they augmented the barons with representatives of the lower clergy and two knights from each shire, the money was not forthcoming. During the conflict between Simon de Montfort's party and the king, each side used Parliament in turn: de Montfort's Parliament in January 1265 included both knights and members from certain boroughs.

By this time, Parliament was becoming a familiar institution, usually, but not invariably, meeting at Westminster. But its composition still varied considerably. The lesser clergy, summoned for the first time in 1257, attended irregularly thereafter, and then dropped out, using convocation instead. Edward I's ‘Model’ Parliament of 1295, called to provide funds for war against the Scots, included 2 archbishops, 18 bishops, 67 abbots, 3 heads of religious orders, 48 lay barons, the lower clergy, 2 knights from each shire, and 2 burgesses from 110 boroughs—a total of more than 400 members. Though not a model in the sense that its composition was subsequently adhered to, it was very different from a small council of 40 to 50 members. For some years, composition and procedures remained flexible. In 1305 all members not of the council were sent home early, though the Parliament continued. In 1372, the burgesses were held back after the knights had been dismissed to see whether they would make a separate grant.

The next important step in the evolution of Parliament was the separation into houses. Previously there had been only one chamber, with groups of committees breaking off for discussions: the burgesses had a largely silent role as spectators. At first the knights of the shire tended to identify with the barons as the landed or aristocratic interest, but in the course of the 14th cent. they sat increasingly with the burgesses. The lay lords and the greater clergy then came to form the upper house.

We must not however exaggerate the importance of Parliament at this stage in the regular business of government. Attendances were not always good, partly because travel was difficult, partly because involvement was not always welcome. Sessions were short—sometimes no more than a week, often a month or so. But the Commons were beginning to assert themselves. Taxation, which had been voted jointly, was said in the reign of Henry IV to be by the Commons ‘with the assent of the Lords’—a significant change.

The early part of the 15th cent. saw further advances. The Hundred Years War against France led to incessant demands for supply, and in the Wars of the Roses which followed, each side made use of parliaments as an instrument and to demonstrate support. With the return of more stable conditions, the use of parliaments diminished. Edward IV summoned only one parliament in the last five years of his reign and Henry VII only one in the last twelve years of his.

The Tudor period saw a great leap forward, the power of Parliament and that of the monarchy advancing together. Henry VIII's use of Parliament to regulate the succession and to reform the church strengthened its authority and the elimination of the abbots from the Upper House left the lay lords in a strong majority. In 1536, the Act of Union brought the principality of Wales into Parliament's range. Yet, by and large, it remained under royal control. During Elizabeth's reign there were signs of restiveness, but in the last ten years of her reign, Parliament was in existence for only some seven months.

In the course of the 17th cent., Parliament made a decisive breakthrough. The ineptitude of James I and Charles I lost them control and lack of trust led in 1642 to civil war. But the result was stalemate. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 could be seen as proof that, as kings had always argued, it was the bulwark against anarchy or despotism. Few vital royal prerogatives were lost. Yet Parliament in 1660 was far from discredited. It had demonstrated a remarkable capacity to improvise in government and to wage war, and an important part of Charles II's appeal from exile had been his promise to summon a free parliament: none of his predecessors, he assured the speaker rather excessively, had greater esteem for parliaments than he had. Even so, relations with parliaments during the rest of his reign were often fraught. The balance tipped in 1688. After James II's flight, the House of Commons took advantage of the situation to improve its position in relation to the new monarchs. The financial settlement given William III was deliberately ungenerous: ‘when princes have not needed money,’ declared Sir Joseph Williamson, with great candour, ‘they have not needed us.’ Twenty-five years of almost continuous warfare, on a scale never before seen, guaranteed annual sessions and assured Parliament of a regular and inescapable place in the machinery of government. Ministers like Harley and Walpole learned how to control Parliament through patronage and cajolery and made reputations as managers. The ‘corruption’ of Hanoverian politics, which used to be greatly deplored, is no more than a testimony to Parliament's enhanced position, since no one bribes when they can ignore or intimidate. They were helped in their task by the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 since the 45 MPs and 16 representative peers who arrived at Westminster were, by and large, penurious and purchasable.

In many ways, Parliament after the revolution was at its zenith. The government of aristocracy and gentry, who had a near monopoly of wealth, leisure, and education, seemed natural and inevitable and could boast of notable achievements. The constitution was greatly admired, at home and abroad. The standard of debate was high, with orators like Pulteney, Murray, Chatham, North, Fox, Burke, Sheridan, Pitt the Younger, and Canning. In 1801, the Act of Union with Ireland meant that, for the first time, Parliament could claim total sovereignty over the British Isles, though the result was not an unmixed blessing.

Yet even when Parliament was at its strongest, there were tremors. The breakaway of the Americans in 1776 foreshadowed the time when Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, Ireland, and the colonies would follow suit. At the same time, Parliament, with great reluctance, allowed reports of its proceedings to appear in newspapers. ‘This’, Pulteney had once declared, ‘looks very like making us accountable without doors for what we say within.’ He was right and through that gap public opinion forced an entrance. The movement of population, the growth of great unrepresented towns, and the development of a more critical, utilitarian attitude gnawed at the foundations of aristocratic rule. In 1832 the first great reform took place. As its opponents gloomily forecast, it led, by stages, to full democracy, though not at the speed which they had envisaged. A continuous series of adjustments, many of them piecemeal, changed the nature of Parliament—the abolition of religious tests, more equal electoral areas, payment for MPs, extension of the franchise through to 1948. Though the Parliament Act of 1911 stripped the House of Lords of much of its remaining power, the introduction of life peerages in 1958 gave it an unexpected and new lease of life. A further reform in 2000 deprived the hereditary peers of their seats. The institution of referenda—on the European Economic Community and on devolution—took some powers away from Parliament itself, handing them directly to the electors, and critics of the EEC argued that the very sovereignty of Parliament had been surrendered.

There is still much criticism of Parliament as an institution, though less than in the 1930s. The domination of party is deplored by many people who would never dream of voting for an independent. The introduction of TV does not seem to have much effect in improving decorum. But the familiar accusation that Parliament is a talking-shop is based upon a misunderstanding. It is not, and never has been, a governing body, but a check upon government. Whether it does that well is much debated. In the prime minister, the Commons found a master more powerful than kings in the past, even if his ultimate deterrent, a dissolution, is little more than a threat of mass suicide. But events in many countries remind us that there are worse things than talking-shops: there are civil wars. See also Commons, House of; Lords, House of.

J. A. Cannon

Irish Parliament

The Irish Parliament was instituted at much the same time as the English, Sir John Wogan summoning an assembly in 1295 to Kilkenny, which included the lords and two knights from certain counties. Burgesses were added in 1311. The native Irish were excluded as ‘not fit to be trusted with the counsel of the realm’. Though an Act of 1542 allowed the native Irish to take part, Parliament remained an Anglo-Irish institution. Control was exercised through Poynings's law (1494), which subjected the Irish Parliament to the English Privy Council. More counties and boroughs were brought in during the 17th cent., and after the Glorious Revolution the Commons consisted of 64 knights, 234 burgesses, and 2 representatives from Trinity College, Dublin. There were some 80 peers in the House of Lords.

Though the Irish Parliament had a splendid building on College Green, begun in 1729, real power was in the hands of the lord-lieutenant and the English government. Debates were often eloquent and the castle government paid much attention to management, but they did not engage directly on the levers of power. Until the Octennial Act of 1768 parliaments lasted the length of the reign: there was no parliament between 1666 and 1692 (save for James II's Assembly of 1689), and the first Parliament of George II in 1727 lasted until 1760. Sessions were held every other year.

Throughout much of the 18th cent. there were repeated attempts to wriggle free from English control. Not until England began to run into difficulties after the Seven Years War were concessions forthcoming. The granting of the Octennial Act in 1768 came at a time when the English were anxious to increase the Irish army to cut military expense, and the repeal of Poynings's law in 1782 came when the Volunteers carried a clear threat in the midst of the American War.

The grant of legislative independence ushered in the final phase of the Irish Parliament, which has been bathed in a golden light as ‘Grattan's Parliament’. Pitt's commercial propositions had to be withdrawn in 1785 and the Irish Parliament cut loose during the Regency crisis of 1789. But in the end the decisive factor was that law and order broke down in the great rising of 1798. Without a union, Ireland would, wrote the lord-lieutenant Camden, be ‘dreadfully vulnerable in all future wars’, and Pitt seems to have resolved on a union the very day he ordered 5,000 more troops to Ireland to put down the rebellion. By the Act of Union of 1801 the Irish Parliament was suppressed and representation transferred to Westminster. The new parliament house in Dublin, no longer required, became the Bank of Ireland.

J. A. Cannon

Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament differed significantly from its English counterpart. No equivalent of the Houses of Commons and Lords ever existed; instead, the three estates—clergy, barons, and burgh commissioners—assembled in one chamber. Legislation, from the early 15th cent., was drafted by the lords of the Articles, a smaller committee elected by the estates, before being passed in full Parliament. Likewise many judicial matters were delegated to a committee of lords auditors. Parliament was supplemented by the institutions of general council, until the late 15th cent., and from the 16th cent. by the Convention of Estates, effectively parliaments without judicial powers. In the past these bodies were accused of making the Scottish Parliament constitutionally defective—simply a ‘rubber stamp’ for royal decisions. This opinion is now substantially discredited.

Evolving from the king's council of bishops and earls, Parliament is first recorded in 1235, referred to as a colloquium. In the early 14th cent. the presence of knights and freeholders became important, and from 1326 burgh commissioners attended, because of the need to secure their consent for taxation. In the 15th cent. Parliament was often willing to defy the king, repeatedly opposing taxes for James I (1406–37), and frequently openly critical of James III (1460–88). By refusing to forfeit the duke of Albany (d. 1485) between 1479 and 1481, it seriously undermined the king's authority. Called in this period on average more than once a year, Parliament was expected to provide support for many crown policies. However, it could be a dangerous place for a monarch, and James IV (1488–1513) avoided meetings after 1509.

The composition of Parliament remained the same in the 16th cent., although following the Reformation many opposed the presence of the clergy, particularly as they were essentially crown nominees. Shire commissioners attended Parliament from 1594, again as a result of the need to collect tax. By James VI's reign (1567–1625), the Committee of the Articles was heavily dominated by crown supporters, creating parliamentary weakness.

With the Scottish constitutional settlement (1640–1), the royal prerogative was curtailed, and Parliament took control of the executive, a precedent for the English Long Parliament. The Interregnum saw a union of parliaments (1657), but the Scottish Parliament returned strongly after the Restoration (1660). In 1689 the attendance of clergy was abolished, followed by the Committee of the Articles (1690). Parliament's strength was such that the crown turned to corruption to undermine its autonomy. Bribery and parliamentary division, rather than dominant unionism, best explain the crown's ability to secure a parliamentary majority in favour of incorporating union with England (16 January 1707). Finally dissolved on 28 April 1707, the Scottish Parliament has remained important to Scottish national identity, and in 1999, after a referendum, it was restored.

Roland Tanner

Welsh Parliament

Though there is no evidence of a Welsh parliament as a regular part of government, there was a tradition of consultation. Llywelyn called an assembly of magnates at Aberdovey in 1216 to decide on the territorial divisions of south Wales. Glyndŵr is said to have summoned two parliaments—at Machynlleth in 1404 and at Harlech in 1405—to the second of which four influential men from each commote (hundred) were summoned. Since Glyndŵr was anxious to assume the trappings of monarchy, there is no reason to disbelieve the reports. Some representatives from Wales were summoned to the English Parliament in 1322 and 1327 but Wales was not included in the regular representation until after 1536. In 1999, after a referendum, a Welsh Assembly was instituted.

J. A. Cannon


Butt, R. , A History of Parliament: The Middle Ages (1989);
Davies, R. G., and Denton, J. H. (eds.), The English Parliament in the Middle Ages (Manchester, 1981);
Donaldson, G. , Scotland: James V to James VII (Edinburgh, 1965);
Ferguson, W. , Scotland: 1689 to the Present (Edinburgh, 1968);
Graves, M. A. R. , The Tudor Parliament (1985);
—— Early Tudor Parliaments 1485–1558 (1990);
Johnston, E. M. , Great Britain and Ireland, 1760–1800 (1963);
Nicholson, R. , Scotland: The Later Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 1974);
Porritt, E. and and A. G. , The Unreformed House of Commons (2 vols., 1903);
Rait, R. , The Parliaments of Scotland (Glasgow, 1924);
Richardson, H. G., and and Sayles, G. O. , The English Parliament in the Middle Ages (1981).


views updated May 29 2018

parliament Legislative assembly that includes elected members and acts as a debating forum for political affairs. Many parliamentary systems are based on the British Parliament, which emerged in the late 13th century as an extension of the King's Council, and has been housed at Westminster since that time. It is the supreme power in the UK. Parliament comprises the monarch, in whose name members of the government act, and two Houses: the House of Lords, an upper chamber of peers, bishops, and law lords; and the House of Commons. There are 659 members of the Commons (known as ‘members of Parliament’ or MPs), elected in single-member constituencies by universal adult suffrage. The prime minister and cabinet members are almost always members of the Commons. There is a maximum of five years between elections. See also Congress


views updated Jun 11 2018

par·lia·ment / ˈpärləmənt/ • n. (Parliament) (in the UK) the highest legislature, consisting of the sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons: the Secretary of State will lay proposals before Parliament. ∎  the members of this legislature for a particular period, esp. between one dissolution and the next: the act was passed by the last parliament of the reign. ∎  a similar legislature in other nations and states: the Russian parliament.

parliamentary government

views updated Jun 11 2018

parliamentary government A system of government which allocates public decision-making powers to a house of elected representatives, or parliament, typically including decisions on national laws and regulations, the government budget and fiscal policy, and declarations of war with other nation-states. Specific arrangements vary widely between countries, for example regarding the frequency of elections, the number of chambers in parliament, who is entitled to vote, whether voting is obligatory or optional, how votes are converted into a number of appointed representatives, rules which affect the number of political parties or independent representatives, and the relationship between elected representatives and the head of state or the government. The common feature of such systems is that they seek to achieve a proper balance between governmental power and governmental responsiveness.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Parliament in the UK, the highest legislature, consisting of the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons; the members of this legislature for a particular period, especially between one dissolution and the next; a similar legislature in other nations and states. Recorded from Middle English, the word comes from Old French parlement ‘speaking’, from the verb parler.


views updated Jun 08 2018

parliament †talk, conference; deliberative assembly XIII; Great Council of the realm XIV. ME. parlement — (O)F., f. parler speak; see PARLANCE, -MENT. The present form (XV) follows AL. parliamentum, which is prob. based on ME. parliment, etc.
Hence parliamentarian sb., parliamentary XVII.


views updated May 29 2018


a legislative body and consultative assembly. Also, cricket parliament at Lords, 1903; Pimlico parliament (i.e., the mob), 1799.

Examples : parliament of bees, 1640; of brides, 1400; of fools, 1727; of fowls; of men, 1842; of owls; of religions, 1893; of tinners, 1686; of women, 1741.

Parliamentary Law

views updated May 18 2018


The general body of enacted rules and recognized usages governing the procedure of legislative assemblies and other deliberative sessions such as meetings of stockholders and directors of corporations, town meetings, and board meetings. Roberts Rules of Order are an example of such rules.