The British Parliament – “Mother of Parliaments”
The British Parliament is often referred to as the Mother of Parliaments (in fact a misquotation of John Bright, who remarked in 1865 that “England is the Mother of Parliaments”) because the British Parliament has been the model for most other parliamentary systems. In our article “Pivotal Moments : March 8 1265 – The First English Parliament” : http://guernseydonkey.com/?p=10754 we looked at what might be regarded as the seminal moment in Parliaments long history.
In this article we look at 4 other amazing facts about one of our most venerated institutions.
Being Speaker has sometimes been a dangerous job
The first person we know to have held the position of Speaker was Sir Peter de la Mare in 1376. The Speaker was literally “THE Speaker” – the spokesperson for the House of Commons, whose job it was to tell the king and the lords what the Commons thought of them and their proposals.
It’s not surprising, then, that some of them got into hot water: de la Mare was imprisoned as a result of his work. The powerful soon tried to make sure that their preferred candidate was elected Speaker. However, as a result, many of the men elected over the next 150 years were close to one great faction or another, and met grisly ends during their titanic struggles for power. Seven Speakers between 1394 and 1535 were executed, killed in battle, or murdered.
MPs’ pay and expenses have always been a hot topic
MP’s rates were fixed in 1327 at 2 shillings (10p) per day for MPs from cities and towns, and 4 shillings (20p) a day for those who were sent by the counties. It may not sound a lot, but it was in the Middle Ages.
The local communities that sent them were responsible for finding ways to pay the rates, and they didn’t like it one bit – there were a number of legal disputes between MPs and towns and counties about getting hold of the money. In the 16th and 17th centuries it became more common for very rich men to be elected, especially if they told their constituencies that they wouldn’t insist on their wages.
The practice died out, and it was only in 1911 that MPs started to get paid again. By this time, a much more democratic electorate was sending men to parliament who could not afford to go without some sort of salary. But even then, there was so much opposition from within parliament that the government tried to claim that MPs would only receive an ‘allowance’ for expenses, rather than a salary.
The House of Commons’ first dedicated home was an old chapel
St Stephen’s Hall, which housed the House of Commons in Westminster from 1547 onwards, began life as a private royal chapel. Edward I began work on the chapel to rival Louis IX’s Sainte Chapelle in Paris, but it took 70 years to complete. The total cost was around £9,000, which paid for the Purbeck marble and lavish painted roof and walls.
After the royal family left the Palace of Westminster during the reign of Henry VIII, his son Edward transformed it into a meeting place for the Commons. The walls were whitewashed, and the MPs sat on pews facing one another – leading to the adversarial chamber we still have today. As the Commons grew in numbers and importance over the centuries, the size of the hall became a distinct problem for MPs.
The House of Lords has often been controversial
Calls for reform of the House of Lords are by no means a modern phenomenon. The Lords’ opposition to the decision of the ‘rump’ Commons to put Charles I on trial in 1649 led to the abolition of the house as “useless and dangerous”. In 1657 Oliver Cromwell reinstated an ‘Other House’, but the Lords did not return in full until the restoration of Charles II.
The Lords came under attack again in the early 20th century, thanks to opposition by Conservative peers to the 1906 Liberal government’s reforms. The matter came to a head when the Lords, against parliamentary convention, vetoed the ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909. Following two elections in 1910 and George V’s agreement to create hundreds of new Liberal peers, the Lords were forced to agree to both the budget and the 1911 Parliament Act.
David Lloyd George’s “ordinary men chosen at random from the unemployed” could no longer veto money bills or laws passed by the Commons in three successive sessions. The preamble to the act hinted at further reform of the house, but it was only in 1999 that most of the hereditary peers were removed, and for many, the reform of the Lords is unfinished business.