Have you ever watched or listened to Prime Minister’s Questions broadcast from Parliament? The sight and sound of the country’s leader being cheered and jeered is a strange one. Some people feel that this is the sign of a true democracy. Differences of opinion can be frankly and forcefully expressed and the country’s leaders held to account for what they do when they face the elected representatives of the people.
The original idea of a parliament was of a place where talking took place. The word “parliament” comes from the French verb parler, “to talk”. The other important word associated with parliaments is “democracy”. This means a form of government where everyone is able to have a say. This is usually done by electing a representative to speak for you, and we do this when voting in elections and choosing a candidate. The word democracy comes from the Greek language and means “rule by the people”.
A LONG TRADITION
Ancient Athens had its own assembly, where citizens gathered to make decisions on important matters. Rome, in its early days, had something similar. The roots of Britain’s modern parliament lie with the Witenagemot (or Witan) of Anglo-Saxon England. Here, leading nobles, churchmen and judges met to discuss important issues with the king.
Today many countries around the world have parliaments. Sometimes they are only there to agree with the decisions of a dictator or ruling group. Elsewhere, as in countries from Canada and Sweden to India and South Korea, they form the very foundation of democratic government.
Britain’s parliament is known as the Mother of Parliaments. Though the Althing of Iceland is older, Britain’s parliament has been at the centre of national life for more than a thousand years. Most modern parliaments have been influenced by the British example.
A BRAKE ON ROYAL POWER
England’s parliament developed over centuries through a series of arguments with the ruling monarch. Kings and queens often deeply resented having to account to the people for their actions. In 1215, King John was forced to sign Magna Carta, a document that set strict limitations on royal power. Four hundred years later England was even split by civil war over the issue. King Charles I and his supporters objected to parliament’s attempts to restrict the king’s divine right to rule as he pleased. There was bitter fighting from 1642 to 1649, which ended with Charles’s execution. The monarchy was replaced by a parliament for the next 11 years.
A TALE OF TWO HOUSES
For a long time, only the most powerful nobles, bishops and other dignitaries had a voice in the running of the country. Most people were not considered important enough to be given a say. This view was increasingly questioned, and over several centuries almost all men eventually gained the franchise, or the right to vote.
The representatives of the new voters joined a separate assembly from the nobles and bishops, with its own debating chamber. This was known as the House of Commons (since it represented the commoners rather than the nobility). The old parliament continued as the House of Lords. Today the House of Lords still exists, but it has changed a great deal since medieval times. Once, most members inherited their positions in the House of Lords from their aristocratic ancestors, or were given titles by the king or queen for favours bestowed. Today, this tradition has been abolished—most members are appointed by the government.
The Lords is the older, more important-sounding assembly, but it has a great deal less power than the democratically elected Commons. It can act only as a revising chamber. This means that the Lords discuss laws proposed by the Commons, and may suggest alterations if they want, but they cannot insist that changes are made.
AN EXAMPLE TO OTHERS
Other countries have copied the two-chamber (or bicameral) system. The upper chamber (the Lords) can take a longer, more measured look at things than members of the lower chamber (the Commons), who have to respond directly to the concerns of their voters. This leads to better decision-making in the long run. Neither the United States nor Australia has ever had a society divided into nobility and commoners, but both have a House of Representatives (lower house) and a Senate (upper house).
REPRESENTING THE PEOPLE
The people are represented in Parliament by Members of Parliament (MPs). Each MP is elected by the voters of a particular district or constituency. Every four or five years people can choose a new MP and a new government if they so wish in a large election across Britain known as a general election. People in inner-city Liverpool, for example, will have different problems and priorities from those who live in rural Hampshire. The system of electing one member for each constituency allows these differences to be reflected in the discussion of how the country should be governed.
Women have only been allowed to vote in Britain since 1918, and even then only women over 30 years of age. Australia gave women the vote in 1902, but the very first country to enfranchise women was New Zealand, in 1893.
The main political parties emerged in the 19th century, as individual MPs realized they could gain more power by joining with others who shared the same political objectives. In Britain, the Liberal Party, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have all established governments. In Australia the major political parties are the Liberal Party and the Labor Party; in New Zealand it is the National Party and the Labour Party.
HER MAJESTY’S GOVERNMENT
In Britain, the running of the country is handled by the government, on behalf of the monarch—the queen or king. The leader of the party that wins the most seats in Parliament is invited by the reigning monarch to form a government. The new prime minister does this by appointing MPs from his or her party to take responsibility for particular departments—Health, Transport, Defence and so on. Teams of experienced civil servants help these ministers to run their departments. Members of the second largest party in Parliament make up what is known as the opposition.
SHAPING THE DEBATE
The layout of the debating chamber underlines the adversarial (one side against another) nature of Britain’s parliamentary system. The majority party occupies seats on one side of the chamber, while the opposition faces them from the other side. Some people believe this arrangement encourages petty squabbling between the parties with the opposition obstructing the government for the sake of it. Things would be better, they say, if politicians of all parties worked together.
In other countries (Israel, for example) debates are often held in a circular chamber. The idea is that confrontation will be replaced by cooperation. But this too can cause problems. Where a parliament is dedicated to finding agreements at all costs, the result may be that no one is ever really satisfied. There are advantages and disadvantages to every system.