The British Parliament

The Parliament of the United Kingdom, commonly called the British or English Parliament, is the government of Great Britain and the model for many governments worldwide.

So let's catch the first airplane to jolly ol' England and learn out more about this.

May we introduce ourselves?

Like the leaves in a common clover

there are three parts to the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

The Sovereign (King or Queen)

Sitting at the head of the government is the sovereign, currently Queen Elizabeth II. As will be gone over in more detail later, the Sovereign in England is a strange mix of complete opposites – on the one hand, she is the focus of the whole government; on the other, her role is basically not to get involved.

The House of Lords

Often referred to as the Upper House, the House of Peers, or just Peers.

The House of Lords consists of 785 members with the following breakdown:

Membership in the House of Lords is by appointment only. A committee recommends who they think should be appointed; these names then go to the Prime Minister and then the sovereign for approval.

The House of Commons

Also known as the Lower House, or just the Commons.

The House of Commons is a body of 650 people elected from all over Great Britain for five-year terms. These are called Members of Parliament, or MP.

It's not so lonely at the top

Parliament, as we know it today, has been a long time coming; to understand why it is the way it is, we need to go back to medieval England.

Medieval Europe was a feudal system; this meant that the whole of society was layered like a large cake.

The top layer is the king; the bottom is the common people. Each layer in the middle is someone holding a title, have others in the lower level who owes total loyalty to them, and has someone above them who they owe complete loyalty to as well.

In England, at least, the king was simply the top layer on this feudal cake. But strangely, the king himself had little land and no real army himself. He had to rely on the noblemen below him to police his kingdom and provide the soldiers he needed when going to war. So while the king was, of course, the king, he still needed to discuss matters with the noble lords to see if he had enough support to raise taxes, go to war, and so on.

Painting of the Signoria of Venice by Francesco Guardi

And so it came to pass that he would, from time to time, gather them, as well as the highest church authorities, together to consult in meetings called a Great Council.

This was how things went until the reign of King John – formally Prince John of Robin Hood fame.

The lords, or Barons, felt King John was overstepping his role and stepping on their toes.

So they revolted, and at Runnymede the king was forced to sign an agreement, known as the Magna Carta, saying that he will respect their authority. Sadly, this didn't settle the matter, and so later, after a lot more fighting, the king agreed that all laws had to be approved by the Great Council. This Great Council would later be called the Parliament, and this particular group the House of Lords.

And the House of Commons? The commons was another tradition that has goes a long way back. From time to time, the king would summon the knights from different parts of his kingdom to get the local feel on the politics of the day and bounce ideas off of them. However, King Edward I took this practice and made a regular part of Parliament with the power to take part in deciding on proposed laws and taxes.

How things get done

In principle, the sovereign runs the show but, out of accepted practice, is now not supposed to, in reality, get involved. Part of the reason for this, believe it or not, stems from the American Revolution.

At the time of the revolution, there were two parties or viewpoints. The Whigs favored a stronger parliament and less role for the king; the Torres, on the other hand, favored a strong king. When trouble with the American colonies ignited, the king was dead set on keeping them under his control. After eight long years of fighting Great Britain lost her thirteen American colonies, embarrassing the king. Support for the Whigs grew, and the sovereigns had to back down from politics.

The sovereign's legal rule is still there, but by tradition, he/she is expected to stay out of things publicly.

It is Parliament that passes laws, approves taxes, treaties, and so on. For a law to be legal (an act of Parliament), both the House of Lords and Commons must approve. Finally, the sovereign must give her royal assent (approval) to all bills to be final. But, here too, all bills are given assent per accepted policy. In truth, the last time an assent was denied was in the reign of Queen Ann in 1708.

Note: While giving the royal assent is always done, it appears that in behind the scene politics, the sovereign does sometimes use the threat of her non-approval to steer bills away that she does not favor.

All this puts the sovereign in a strange middle-ground. The monarch is lord of all, but is expected to be on the sidelines. She appoints the Prime Minister, but only selects those others tell her to appoint. Personally, I don't fully understand it – but then again, I'm not British, so I guess I don't need to.

But then again, perhaps seeing how the sovereign and her Parliament work together gives us insight into what life was like hundreds of years ago, how we now regard government, and the struggle to get where we are.

History, philosophy, and politics all rolled into one. It's not every day that all three live in a lesson on government.

On the web

An introduction to Parliament (primary)

This is a cartoon that goes over the history of Parliament of the UK and how it works.

Take a tour of the House of Lords

This video tour of the House of Lords allows a view of the room where they meet and how things operate there.

UK Parliament tour - House of Commons Chamber

This is a quick look into the House of Commons.

UK: Boris Johnson and Corbyn lock horns on Brexit in Parliament

A short video segment of a debate in Parliament, showing how active these debates can get with people on both sides, vocalizing the views one way or another.

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