The Parliament is the legislative organ of the government. It occupies a very eminent and important position in the British political system due to the adoption of the parliamentary form of government from the very beginning. This is also known as the Westminster form of government as the Parliament is situated in Westminster, London.
In the United Kingdom, the Parliament consists of the Monarch, the House of Lords (Upper House) and the House of Commons (Lower House). The monarch is not a Member of the Parliament and does not sit in the Parliament or attend its meetings but he’s an integral part of the same.
The Parliament has evolved over a long period of time. In the 1200s, the ruling elite in the United Kingdom consisted of the monarch, the barons, the senior military officers, the merchant class and the clergy. King John was the King of England from 1199 until his death in 1216. He was the third king of the House of Plantagenet. He was an autocrat and concentrated all powers to himself. He tortured his subjects and raised the taxes imposed on them annually. Failure to pay the taxes on time could result in imprisonment or death. The Barons and merchants’ lands and businesses were often seized by the King and their taxes had been increased too, which they had to pay even if they ran at a loss. The King also tried to reduce the Church’s power and started State sponsored harassment of the same. As a result, all of them united against King John. In the run-up to 1215, huge battles between the King’s Army and his opponents’ Army ensured.
Ultimately, the King’s forces were defeated in London in 1215 and his opponents’ Army marched to the King’s palace. They forced him to negotiate and sign the Magna Carta in 1215. He agreed to follow sixty rules laid down by the Barons. Rule of Law ensured that nobody, not even the King was above the law. In 1265, as de facto ruler Simon de Montfort got ordinary representatives of towns and cities to the Montfort Parliament. His Parliament was merely a packed room of people discussing the issues of the country and its welfare, but Simon is regarded as one of the forerunners of British parliamentary democracy. The Oxford Parliament stripped the King of unlimited authority and power and the Montfort Parliament included ordinary representatives of the people and citizens from the towns and cities. Gradually, the Parliament became more powerful than the King.
The Parliament examines what the Government is doing, makes new laws, holds the power to set taxes and debates the issues of the day. The House of Commons and House of Lords each play an important role in Parliament’s work.
The voters of the UK elect 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent their interests and concerns in the House of Commons. MPs consider and propose new laws, and can scrutinise government policies by asking ministers questions about current issues either in the Commons Chamber or in Committees.
The House of Commons of England started to evolve in the 13th and 14th centuries. It became the House of Commons of Great Britain after the political union with Scotland in 1707, and assumed the title of “House of Commons of Great Britain and Ireland” after the political union with Ireland at the start of the 19th century. The “United Kingdom” referred to was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1800, and became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland after the independence of the Irish Free State in 1922. Accordingly, the House of Commons assumed its current title. Under the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, the Lords’ power to reject legislation was reduced to a delaying power. The government is solely responsible to the House of Commons and the Prime Minister stays in office as long as he or she retains the confidence of a majority of the Commons.
The members of the House of Lords can be:
(i). The politicians/persons nominated by the political parties. e.g. Baron Nazir Ahmed of the British Labour Party.
(ii). Distinguished personalities of various walks of life like the Bureaucracy, Military, Arts, Academics, Journalism, Culture, etc. e.g. Field Marshal Lord Charles Guthrie(Military), Lord Inderjit Singh (Journalism), etc.
It is interesting that there is no bar of becoming a member of the House of Lords of people who were not originally born in the UK, but became British citizens later, like Lord Inderjit Singh and Lord Meghnad Desai, et.al.
(iii). The Lords Spiritual of the United Kingdom, i.e. the clergy, who are the 26 Bishops of the established Church of England who serve in the House of Lords. Example, Baron Williams of Oystermouth (Archbishop of Canterbury from December 2002 to December 2012).
(iv). Hereditary Peers, Peers who are the members of the House of Lords by virtue of their ancestry. These are usually members of the aristocracy, royalty, nobility, etc. e.g. Lord Harold Macmillan (then Earl of Stockton and later, the UK Prime Minister), Lord Mountbatten (distinguished military officer and member of the British Royal Family), etc.
Ministers in the United Kingdom are members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. A handful have been appointed who were outside Parliament, but in most cases they then entered Parliament in a by-election or by receiving a peerage (being made a peer). Since 1902, all prime ministers have been members of the Commons; the sole exception was during the long summer recess in 1963: the 14th Earl of Home disclaimed his peerage (under a new mechanism which remains in force) three days after becoming prime minister, and became Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The new session of Parliament was delayed to await the outcome of his by-election, which happened to be already under way due to a recent death. As anticipated, he won that election, which was for the highest-majority seat in Scotland among his party; otherwise he would have been constitutionally obliged to resign. Since 1990, almost all cabinet ministers, save for three whose offices are an intrinsic part of the House of Lords, have belonged to the Commons.
Few major cabinet positions (except Lord Privy Seal, Lord Chancellor and Leader of the House of Lords) have been filled by a peer in recent times. Notable exceptions are Peter Carington, 6th Lord Carrington, who served as Foreign Secretary from 1979 to 1982; David Young, Lord Young of Graffham, who was appointed Employment Secretary in 1985; Lord Mandelson, who served as Business Secretary; Lord Adonis, who served as Transport Secretary; Baroness Amos, who served as International Development Secretary; Baroness Morgan of Cotes, who is serving as Culture Secretary; and Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, who is serving as Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Minister of State for International Development. The elected status of members of the Commons (as opposed to the unelected Lords) and their direct accountability to that House, together with empowerment and transparency, ensures ministerial accountability. Responsible government is an international constitutional paradigm. The Prime Minister chooses the ministers, and may decide to remove them at any time, although the appointments and dismissals are formally made by the monarch.
In the past, the House of Lords used to be very powerful, but in the modern day, the House of Lords must respect the primacy of the House of Commons. The House of Lords is not an elected house, so to make it more powerful than the Commons was deemed improper. As such, the two Parliament Acts in 1911 and 1949, plus conventions have severely limited the powers of the House of Lords. For example these removed the House of Lords’ right to veto a bill (potential law) and besides this, they placed a limit of a year on how long they can potentially delay it before sending it back to the Commons to be amended. The House of Lords is a legislative House, the people in it are not front bencher politicians. All MPs in the House of Commons may not be equally brilliant, but their function is to use their expertise to ensure a bill is feasible, pro-people, cost-effective and that it’s passed soon by the Parliament.
Therefore, the House of Lords and the House of Commons of the British Parliament are two different Chambers embracing the representatives of the people of the UK. It is a very distinctive feature of the British Constitution indicating that the interests of all people are to be taken care of by the British Government. In essence, British Constitution is concerned not with a particular group of people but with the compendium of people who are not alike but may appear to be antagonistic to one another and they are the British Parliament, Monarch, Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, Judiciary and the Clergy, thereby acting as the guardian of the people of the UK. In fact, the British Constitution is a real constitution, of the people, by the people and for the people.
About the author: Sauro Dasgupta is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a specialization in International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. He is interested in reading, writing, public speaking and his writings have been published in many important magazines, journals and newspapers. He can be contacted at [email protected]