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University 18 Yrs + | Parliament

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What is UK Parliament for?

Parliament is one of the remaining ancient English institutions together with the Monarchy, the City of London, Oxford and Cambridge Universities and the Church of England (Scotland had its own Parliament abolished by the Act of Union in 1707). It gradually developed roles over time and still fulfils each of these roles.

Giving Legitimacy to Government

Parliament gives legitimacy to Government. All the medieval and Tudor Kings and Queens were absolute monarchs but still felt the need every so often to summon a Parliament to gain approval for what they were doing.

Elizabeth I called Parliament to agree her religious settlement and it became a convention that Parliament approved taxation. Charles I’s attempt to rule without Parliament was a major cause of the Civil War in the 17th century.

The Government still requires approval from Parliament for its major actions and although the party system means it hardly ever loses, just occasionally it does and even when it wins it may have had to make compromises with groups of Government MPs to get things through.

The Government can be brought down if it loses a vote of no confidence in Parliament and this happened in 1924 and 1979.

Addressing Local Grievances

Parliaments were summoned on the basis of representatives from each borough and county and when they came to Westminster they brought with them local grievances for the Monarch to do something about.

MPs still regularly speak in Parliament about problems in their constituency and sometimes even about individuals who they feel they have been poorly treated by Government, perhaps as a result of Government policy.

The Westminster and constituency offices of MPs deal with large numbers of local and individual problems raised by constituents.

The Voice of the Nation

Every so often Parliament acts as the voice of the nation debating and voting on the issues of the day.

From the condemnation of Charles I’s attempt at absolute rule in the 1640s, to the decision to end the war against the American colonists in 1776 to the decision to move to Free Trade in 1846. From the decision not to accept Irish Home Rule in 1886, to the decision to bring down Prime Minister Chamberlain in 1940 for failing to prosecute the war effectively, to the involvement of the UK in Syria in 2013 and 2015, Parliament has played a decisive role. However some key decisions such as on whether to remain in the European Union have, in recent years, been decided by voters in a referendum (2016).

Ministerial Recruitment and Evaluation

The Hanoverian Kings came to depend on their ministers to run the country and manage Parliament and the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, that Ministers had to be in Parliament to answer for decisions in their Departments, became accepted by the 19th century.

Although a few ministers are in the Lords, the Commons provides Ministerial recruitment and evaluation so that MPs who establish a reputation in the Commons may become Ministers and Ministers are tested, and sometimes destroyed, by their performance there.

Scrutiny of Legislation, Finance and Policy

Although Britain had a Constitutional monarchy by the 18th century, Parliament and government was controlled by the landed aristocracy who bought Parliamentary seats, the majority of which were small towns that had been important centuries before, and distributed patronage in the form of jobs to their supporters, all paid for by taxation on business and industry.

After the Reform Act of 1832 made the first step towards change, new MPs from the middle classes entered parliament and they wanted to reduce the power and expense of the corrupt aristocratic state they experienced. They saw the role for Parliament in scrutiny of the legislation, finance and policy of the Government, for example, whether laws are fair and effective, whether policies have been carefully thought out and not simply what the ruling party wants or whether public money is being spent carefully and not wasted. This is now one of the major roles that Parliament has and the issue is whether it does this effectively.

A Link to and from Voters

As the mass of people gained the vote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries political parties developed locally organise elections. Parties began to develop political programmes and choose candidates and expected their elected MPs to follow the party line in Parliament.

By the mid 20th century the idea of the winning party being elected on a manifesto which they tried to carry out and then the voters judged them at the next election was established. Therefore, Parliament became part of a system of linkage from the voters, through elected MPs, to the Government and through MPs back to the voters again that was critical to British democracy. Westminster is still almost entirely organised through the party system but the problem is that the voters themselves have become much less loyal to political parties and the links between voters, Parliament and Government have become more uncertain.