Three quarters of a millennium ago, 750 years ago on this date, a Parliament, called by Simon de Montfort, met at the Palace of Westminster, overseen by the King. He was the leading rebel in the Baron’s War against King Henry III. Parliaments had sometimes been called before – gatherings of nobles and knights from every county – this was in fact the seventeenth Parliament. But this time was different – this time, burgesses, elected officials from the major towns of the nation were also invited. This became a tradition, and later Parliaments, particularly under the next king, Edward I, also included these commoners, and they became known as the House of Commons.
This House of Commons continues to meet at Westminster. It now houses both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Each Parliament is opened by the monarch. 274 English Parliaments had met until the Scottish and English Parliaments were united in 1707 to form the Parliament of Great Britain, which had eighteen parliaments. In 1801, this became the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and we are currently coming towards the end of the 55th UK Parliament.
Many people like to say that democracy does not work, that politicians are self-serving and lack principles. Russell Brand likes to suggest that people should not vote. But, despite all its detractors, the Westminster System is recognised the world over as a great model of democracy. Parliament abolished serfdom. Parliament executed the legislation necessary to break the English church out from the power of Rome. Parliament stood up to a king who wished to govern autocratically, even to the point of (rightly, in my view) charging him, and executing him for high treason against the state. Parliament managed the realm as kings relinquished power. In the twentieth century, our two greatest Prime Ministers succeeded one another – Churchill, the redoubtable war-time leader, and Atlee, architect of the rebuilding of the UK, the NHS and the Welfare State.
Parliament has its faults – we remember the expenses scandal which infected all sides of the house. It has had its scoundrels, its liars, and its opportunists. But it is a gathering of elected members, each of whom has to answer to their constituency, and represent its interests. It is a place where the Prime Minister faces weekly questions. It is a place where laws are decided and made. It is a place where committees scrutinise public and private officials. I hope it will still be here in 750 years from now.