Parliament: The Ascendancy of Commons

The Ascendancy of Commons

Despite a general division into Whig and Tory parties toward the end of the 17th cent., political groupings in Parliament were more inclined to form about a particular personality or issue. Although members had considerable freedom to make temporary political alliances without regard to their constituencies, control over members was exercised by the ministry and the crown through patronage, which rested on the purchase of parliamentary seats and tight control over a narrow electorate. As members were paid no salaries, private wealth and liberal patronage were prerequisites to a seat in Commons; as a result, Parliament represented only the propertied upper classes, and private legislation took precedence over public acts throughout the 18th cent.

The parliamentary skills of Sir Robert Walpole, in many respects the first prime minister, both signified and contributed to the growing importance of Commons. The crown retained the theoretical power to appoint a ministry of its choice, but the resignation (1782) of George III's minister Lord North established, once and for all, a tendency that had developed gradually since the Glorious Revolution—that the prime minister could not function without the support and confidence of the House of Commons.

The complexion of Parliament changed rapidly after 1800. The union (1800) of Ireland and England dissolved the Irish Parliament and added to the British Parliament 100 Irish members, who functioned as an important political bloc throughout the 19th cent. With the appearance of powerful new classes created by the Industrial Revolution and with the currency of democratic doctrines grew demands for extension of suffrage, reform of flagrant abuses of patronage, and reorganization of the entire representative basis of Commons. The first step was achieved by the great Reform Bill of 1832 (see Reform Acts), followed by the Reform Bills of 1867 and 1884 and the eventual establishment of universal suffrage by the Representation of the People Acts in 1948. Parliamentary committees, appointed to investigate social conditions and recommend legislation, played an enlarged role.

The tendency toward consolidation of parties was accelerated as public opinion became a factor in elections free from patronage. Although the Liberals and the Conservatives were known to stand for certain general policies, it was not until near the end of the 19th cent. that William E. Gladstone began the practice of making national campaign tours to pledge the party to a program for the coming Parliament. With the development of the party caucus, at about the same time, freedom of action by individual members was reduced.

By the late 19th cent. members of working-class origin (later organized into the Labour party) were being elected to the House of Commons. Concomitantly, the class represented in the House of Lords began to lose power in British society, and through long conflict with the Commons, particularly on matters of social legislation, the House of Lords itself was weakened. Commons was at first able to intimidate Lords by threatening the creation of enough new peers to override any opposition by the upper house. The contest over the financial bill of 1909 finally led Commons to a more drastic solution. The Parliament Act of 1911 stripped the House of Lords of its veto power on money bills, and on other bills provided that a measure should become law if passed by Commons in two separate sessions, even if vetoed by Lords, if two years had elapsed between sessions. The Parliament Act of 1949 reduced the period to one year. The 1911 act also provided for the payment of salaries to members, thus opening participation to representatives of all classes.

Party discipline became increasingly strong as the 20th cent. progressed, to the extent that a member may be ejected from the parliamentary party if he or she does not vote the party line on specified issues. The result has been to eliminate choice for most MPs on most issues. Long periods of loyal party service in Commons have become nearly required for achieving ministerial status. The rise of socialism in Great Britain after World War II did not greatly affect parliamentary structure, although increased delegation of important functions to the civil service reduced Parliament's immediate control of many governmental activities.

Toward the end of the century Parliament implemented some fundamental changes by moving to redefine the role of the House of Lords and by accepting Scotland's desire to create its own parliament for the governing of domestic affairs; a Welsh assembly was also established. The removal of many hereditary peers from the House of Lords strengthened the remaining members' belief that they had a legitimate constitutional right to challenge those laws passed by the Commons that they regarded as bad law.

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