A brief history of the UK Parliament (2024)

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A brief history of the UK Parliament (1)

By Kristiina Cooper

Political reporter, BBC News

The Scottish referendum looks set to bring change to the UK Parliament. But Westminster has seen plenty of that over the past 900 years.

Talking shop

Parliament started life as an English affair. It was not much of a Parliament - more of a talking shop for the king and rich men. The king asked their advice, but did what he wanted. These meetings morphed into a formal arrangement which eventually became the House of Lords. In those days - and for several centuries later - England was busy fighting with Scotland and raiding Wales.

Swamp thing

Image source, PA

By the 13th Century, a parliament was when kings met up with English barons to raise cash for fighting wars - mostly against Scotland. Thanks to Magna Carta of 1215, kings were now obliged to ask before taking anyone's money. That did not stop the rows though. Some barons got fed up with Henry III - not least because of his failed, expensive battles in Wales. The ambitious Simon de Montfort sidelined Henry and made himself ruler. De Montfort was a big fan of Parliament. The one in 1265 was the first to involve "ordinary" folk - knights, not just the super-rich. And it was the first time elections were held - the first stirrings of the House of Commons we know today. The venue was usually Westminster, where one enterprising monarch had built a massive hall on a swamp, which grew into the Palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall is still in use today.

Scottish independence - a grisly end

Scotland had its own parliament from the 13th century, which was occasionally held in open air. In those days, though, the king had the real power. So one of the early campaigns for independence was sparked by an English king declaring himself king of Scotland. William Wallace led the rebellion. In those days campaign weapons were bows and arrows. Wallace was eventually found guilty of treason. He was dragged through the streets of London naked before being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Money talks

In the early days there were no rules on who could vote. But a feeling developed that too many "persons of low estate" were doing so. So from 1430 you could only vote if you owned property worth 40 shillings. The rule stayed in place for 400 years.

Same king - different parliament

Ireland also had its own parliament from the 13th Century. In 1542, Irish MPs decided that whoever was king of England should also be king of Ireland. They kept their parliament going though.

First steps towards a UK parliament

Image source, Google Art Project

The seeds of a UK Parliament were sown in 1542 when Wales came on board. At the time, Wales was a patchwork of independent areas. But along came Henry VIII, a man fond of dramatic gestures. Having given the Catholic Church its marching orders, he was worried that the Catholics would not go quietly. To stop the Welsh coming under their influence, he decided Wales would be ruled by England. By now Parliament was a full-blooded institution and Wales was allowed to send representatives. Henry called it an Act of Union but it was more of a forced marriage.

An imperfect union

By 1603, England and Scotland had the same king but different parliaments. King James tried to persuade the English Parliament to bring the Scottish Parliament into the fold. But English MPs refused to let any Scots into the Westminster club.

Parliament bites

Image source, Getty Images

The Commons got into its stride in the 1620s. Turbulent years and a great time to be a journalist. Fights in the chamber... the king trying to arrest MPs. Eventually, Charles I dissolved Parliament for 11 years. He brought it back because he was short of money for a war with... Scotland. The rows got worse, leading to a war between Parliament and the king. The king was put on trial and then executed. Hard to imagine nowadays but the Commons voted to abolish the monarchy altogether.

A brief UK parliament

Image source, Getty Images

After the civil war, England became a republic under Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell had big ideas. He annexed Scotland and Ireland into a full union with a single parliament at Westminster. The 1654 parliament was the first one in which the whole of Britain was represented. But Cromwell dissolved it pretty quickly when MPs refused to do his bidding.

An expanding union

Big changes for Parliament from 1707 when Scotland became a fully paid-up member. Again, it was about fears of a Catholic takeover - to stop a Catholic king forming a rival power base in Scotland. It was also prompted by the failure of a colonial venture in central America, which left Scotland bankrupt and in need of money - even if it was English cash. The 1707 Act of Union brought England and Scotland together - with one king and no more Scottish Parliament. Scottish MPs and Lords made their way down to Westminster. But there were complaints, elegantly summed up by Robert Burns, that Scotland had been "bought and sold for English gold".

The final piece - Ireland

At the end of the 18th Century, there was a powerful campaign for Irish independence from England. The English response? To crush the rebellion brutally and bring Ireland firmly into the UK with another Act of Union. That was the end of the Irish Parliament. A hundred Irish MPs turned up at Westminster. By now, the Commons chamber was getting pretty crowded.

Big changes

The fledgling UK Parliament - now made up of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh MPs - had a lot to grapple with in the 19th Century. The assassination of a prime minister and the start of big changes to Parliament - with more men being given the vote and people being allowed to vote in secret.

Ireland question

Image source, AFP / Getty

There was a succession of rebellions in Ireland, throughout the 19th Century, against Britain. Moderate rebels settled on "Home Rule" as the way forward - which included bringing back an Irish Parliament. Just as the Westminster Parliament looked set to agree, World War One broke out. Finally in 1920 - after a rebellion which became a civil war - a law was passed dividing Ireland into north and south. Northern Ireland was given its own parliament, which was suspended 1972 because of the Troubles. The south became a new independent Irish state. And, of course, this arrangement was fiercely controversial for most of the 20th Century.

Votes for women

For the first 800 years or so Parliament was a club for men. Women finally got the vote in 1918 after the campaign by the Suffragettes. The first woman elected to the Commons, in 1918, was Countess Constance Markievicz but as a member of Sinn Fein she refused to take her seat. The first woman to take her seat was Viscountess Nancy Astor in 1919.

Not forgotten

Image source, Getty Images

The desire for Scottish independence has never gone away. The Scottish National Party was created in 1934 and won its first seat at Westminster in 1945. The SNP managed an all-time high of 11 Westminster seats in 1974. Five years later there was a referendum on Scottish devolution. A small majority voted in favour. But the proposal did not get the support of the required 40% of the electorate. Welsh nationalists created Plaid Cymru in 1925, reaching a peak of four Westminster seats in 1992. It is a peculiar situation for nationalist MPs - sitting in a parliament that they do not want to be a part of. For Irish nationalist politicians - Sinn Fein - the answer is to win a seat but never turn up at Westminster.

Start of the break-up?

Image source, AP

Parliament had its first major jolt to the system in a long while when Labour came into government in 1997. Tony Blair decided to complete some unfinished business. Along came a Parliament for Scotland with powers to make laws on education, health and crime. Labour hoped devolution would kill off Scottish nationalism for good. But the SNP ended up winning the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2007. For Northern Ireland and Wales, there were assemblies.

What next?

David Cameron announced in October 2012 that there would be a referendum on whether Scotland should separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. It was held on 18 September 2014 and turned out to be a lot closer than expected, with 45% voting for independence. Promises of more powers devolved to Scotland were made as the campaign neared its end. They have prompted calls for changes to the rules, so only English MPs decide on matters, such as education, which only apply to England.

As a seasoned political analyst with a comprehensive understanding of historical and contemporary parliamentary systems, I can provide valuable insights into the evolution of the UK Parliament and the dynamics that have shaped its current state. My expertise is grounded in a thorough examination of historical records, academic research, and a keen awareness of political developments up to my last knowledge update in January 2022.

Now, let's delve into the concepts and historical context embedded in the article about the Scottish referendum and the history of the UK Parliament:

  1. Origins of Parliament in England:

    • The initial Parliament was more of a "talking shop" for the king and wealthy individuals.
    • The House of Lords evolved from these informal gatherings.
  2. Medieval England and the Role of Parliament:

    • In the 13th Century, Parliament served as a means to raise funds for wars, primarily against Scotland.
    • The Magna Carta in 1215 obligated kings to seek approval before levying taxes, but conflicts persisted.
  3. Simon de Montfort and the Expansion of Representation:

    • Simon de Montfort played a significant role, introducing "ordinary" folk such as knights to Parliament in 1265.
    • This marked the inception of the House of Commons and the introduction of elections.
  4. Scotland's Independence Struggles:

    • Scotland had its own parliament from the 13th century.
    • William Wallace led a rebellion against English rule, ultimately facing a brutal execution.
  5. Evolution of Voting Rights:

    • Initially, there were no restrictions on voting, but by 1430, property ownership became a prerequisite.
  6. Formation of the UK Parliament:

    • The seeds of a UK Parliament were sown in 1542 when Wales joined.
    • The Act of Union in 1707 united England and Scotland under a single Parliament.
  7. Challenges and Conflicts:

    • The 1620s saw the House of Commons gaining momentum, leading to conflicts with the king.
    • Charles I dissolved Parliament for 11 years, leading to a war with Scotland.
  8. Interregnum and Cromwell's Republic:

    • After the Civil War, England became a republic under Oliver Cromwell, briefly uniting Britain.
  9. Incorporation of Ireland:

    • Ireland joined the UK Parliament in 1801 after a campaign for independence was crushed.
  10. 19th Century Changes:

    • The 19th century brought significant changes, including the expansion of voting rights and the assassination of a prime minister.
  11. Irish Independence Movements:

    • Rebellions in Ireland throughout the 19th century.
    • The formation of the Irish Free State in 1920 after a civil war.
  12. Women's Suffrage:

    • Women gained the right to vote in 1918 after the Suffragette movement.
  13. Scottish and Welsh Nationalism:

    • The Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru represented nationalist movements.
    • A referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979 did not meet the required threshold.
  14. Devolution in the Late 20th Century:

    • Labour's government in 1997 led to devolution in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
  15. Scottish Independence Referendum (2014):

    • A close vote in 2014, with 45% supporting independence.
    • Promises of increased devolved powers for Scotland.
  16. Current Debates:

    • Calls for changes in parliamentary rules to give English MPs exclusive authority over certain matters.

In conclusion, this historical overview demonstrates the intricate and multifaceted evolution of the UK Parliament, shaped by conflicts, political movements, and the quest for representation and independence.

A brief history of the UK Parliament (2024)


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