The Rise of Parliament in England
In considering the history of Parliament, it is convenient to commence with the events leading up to the Civil War in England, when the institution of Parliament was at a crossroad. In Europe, under despotic monarchs the old feudal Parliaments were falling more and more into neglect. In England, however, as in the Netherlands, Parliament could not only maintain itself against the trend but could also struggle for greater strength.
Parliaments, Kings and Courts are not, and certainly were not, abstract methods of ruling. These institutions represented the administrative power of various economic classes and groups with their different interests in the organisation of society.
James I ruled through a Privy Council and Secretaries of State. The Law Courts, as the financial department, were openly involved in politics. Very few officials were paid; most obtained their money by fees, fines or tips. Patronage was the principal method of advancement as a servant of the Crown. Even foreign countries paid fees to courtiers to keep their interests in a favourable light.
Parliaments were only called into operation at odd intervals, generally in order to sanction new methods of raising money for the Crown. The Kings received monies raised by various means and this was a bone of contention as it made the Monarch partially independent of Parliamentary sanction.
The large landowners, or Lords, were increased in number by the Stuarts in order to strengthen their control over the House of Lords. The largest social group were the Gentry, or smaller landowners; they numbered about three-quarters of the House of Commons. The smaller groups—merchants, financiers and manufacturers—tended to side with the gentry, especially in the Commons. The legal profession was used by the sons of the gentry to gain knowledge of the law and a wider education. Oliver Cromwell was himself trained in this way.
The middle class groupings not only occupied the House of Commons but, as the ballot was based on property, also provided the electorate. Oddly enough, the Town middle class in places like London were not well placed in the number of Parliamentary votes available to them.
The lower social groupings had no political influence and exerted themselves, when conditions were favourable, by spasmodic rioting. The gentry were not entirely dependent on the land and had interests in wool, mining and trading, well as shipping loans. Thus they became more resentful interference by the Crown and Court in matters of trade, finance and taxes, but neither they, nor any other class, had the strength or the desire to remove the power of the Crown and the great lords.
The ideas of men were encompassed by religion and politics were often expressed in those terms. Thus the radical wing of English Society were by definition strict Protestants, who by using the House of Commons as a platform strengthened Parliamentary procedure. The tussles between James I and the Puritans often, therefore, revolved around Church matters. James halted the process of Church lands going to laymen and the Puritans sought to clip wealth from the Bishops.
But Parliament was still weak; between 1603 and 1629 it sat for only three years and four months. While the Crown could force loans, it was dependent to some extent on London usurers. A split arose over James I’s Great Contract, a cloth and wool trading plan which floundered in an economic morass. As a result James dispensed with Parliament for 10 years.
The crowning of Charles I tended to aggravate the simmering conflict. Not as flexible as his father, Charles was influenced by the continental despotisms and saw himself as King by “Divine Right” (an argument which was rather new). In his second Parliament (1626) Charles, in what he no doubt considered a smart move, removed the leaders by making them Sheriffs’ But the gap was filled by the few, eloquent extremists. When the King forced a loan, 70 gentry went to gaol rather than pay up. The Commons wanted intervention in Germany to offset Spain but refused to pay or sanction taxes for its prosecution. The gentry and traders needed a navy to protect their trading vessels but they jibbed at paying “Ship Money.” At the back of this conflict was the Commons’ strong objection to money being raised without parliamentary consent, the mistrust of Charles’ objects and a fear of England being tied to either Spain or France.
The King’s threat to restore Church and monastic lands, thus bringing the Church nearer to the old Catholic faith, alarmed even the Scottish peers. The King and Court became weaker, while Parliament and the social groups who supported it gained strength The Long Parliament (1640/1) removed the King’s advisers, ordered a Parliament every three years, broke some of the Crown monopolies (some of which Charles had dug up from feudal times), abolished the Star Chamber and ended the Welsh and Northern Councils, bringing the country as a whole increasingly under the control of Parliament.
However, the more cautious groups feared riot crazy mobs and the “root and limb” Puritans. The Petition of Great Remonstrance was only carried by 11 votes; the King recovered some of his lost ground. His undoing was the City of London-controlled by Puritans, its citizens having a very low voting quota, the place seethed with riot and revolt. When Charles tried to arrest five members the City gave them refuge; the King’s entry into Parliament with soldiers was regarded as the final straw.
The Civil War divided the country roughly into two parts —Parliamentary London, the East and South—Royalist Wales, the West and North. The class struggles were still not clearly defined and it was in the realm of ideas that the divisions of the Civil War were more sharply expressed.
Parliament’s victory soon revealed that it was unable to rule, because the classes who were in power were not strong or developed enough to do so. The Presbyterians aimed to dispense with the Army. The Independents and Levellers feared this as a blow against them. Eventually the Army purged the House of Presbyterians and the strengthened Independents then purged the Army of Levellers. Cromwell, unable to obtain a “Puritan Policy,” ruled as Protector, his powers curbed by a body called the “Instrument of Government.” Thus the aspirations of the Gentry for a strong Parliament linked with a more pliable King came to naught.
Charles II’s Restoration was welcomed as a means of overthrowing the more extreme Puritans, and though the King was back in the executive saddle Parliament maintained itself. The coming of James II opened the old rupture. James stood for an absolute Catholic monarchy and tried his hand in a number of illegal moves. But times were changed; there were not enough of the old time Catholic Absolutists to back him up. James was exiled and the Stuarts had backed another loser.
English Parliamentary structure and methods became bedevilled by a fear of change. The gentry saw themselves as the class destined to rule England, a position they jealously guarded until the Reform Bills and the construction of a new electoral system. The Kings still played their role, but the Hanoverians lost power. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet became the key men and the Court more and more of a rubber stamp; the King appointed the Ministers, but they could legislate only with the consent of Parliament.
By the 18th and 19th centuries the social face of Britain was changing. The gentry were involved in the rapidly expanding mines,’ and land ownership was not the sole means of wealth. Industry was in a state of technical revolution, factory owners emerged from the gentry. Towns, new and ugly, grew apace, while the old ones decayed and transport advanced, and the far corners of the earth became places fit for plunder. The use of religious terms in politics declined and political labels took their place. A property-less working class grew up and the independent craftsmen were swamped, in the upsurge of capitalism.
The new class of capitalism—manufacture, financier and worker—were confronted with an electoral system that may have been useful in the middle ages, but by the 1820s had become a bad joke. Sheep-grazed hilltops returned two members to Parliament, but new, smoke-laden industrial centres had no representation at all. The voting system was a disorganised fantasy, based on the rateable value of property but much modified over the centuries by local conditions.
The Whig Peers backed up the new ruling classes in the struggle for Parliamentary reform. The Tories were fighting a rearguard action, hoping to ensure that they would not be penalised under the new system. After three attempts, the Reform Bill went through in 1830. Though the new House of Commons still comprised gentry and aristocratic relatives, it allowed the new capitalist class to clear the decks for their ultimate take over.
The next century was one of piece-meal struggle and compromise, as the Commons whittled away the powers of the Lords until in 1911 the Commons obtained the final recognition as the premier body. This period also saw a shifting of ranks, as groups and classes edged from one political party into another. The present Liberal Party no longer contains the descendants of the Great Whig Peers and the Tories are now far more industrialist than landowner.
The emergence of the mass working class as a political and voting force has altered the face of parliamentary tactics. No party can control the machinery of government without some hefty backing coming from the working class. In order to run capitalism in the interests of the privileged few, modern parties have to speak in the name of all and sundry.
In their struggles to better their lot, and for a say in the running of capitalism, the working class have played no small part in the strengthening of parliamentary institutions. The Reform Movement, the Chartists, and the Suffragettes have all been operative only because of working class support. There is now an even greater task for the working class to perform.