The British Parliament

First edition 1996
Revised April 2008

The Meaning of the Word Parliament
The British Constitution
The British Countries, the Commonwealth, Dependent Territories
Position and Premises of the Parliament
The two Houses, its Origin, Lords and Commoners
The Parliament from 1500 to 1800
The Parliament from 1800 to 1928
The supply of members for the Parliament
The Constituencies
The Functions of Parliament
The Government and the Sovereign


The word Parliament is of French origin from parler = to speak.
It is first recorded in English between 1216 and 1259 in the historian Matthew Paris' works.

Up to the times of Henry VIII Parliament is in common use for:
   a.   A speech delivered to a group (e.g. general to soldiers)
   b.   Conversation betwen people (e.g. father to son)
   c.   A meeting of any assembly (»a parliament was held«)

During the reigns of the later Plantagenets it gradually became the word for a temporary assemblage of persons summoned by the Sovereign.
The Plantagenets or House of Anjou were a French family which provided 14 kings from Henry II (1154-1189) to Henry VII (1457-1509). Henry VII founded the House of Tudor.

From the Stuart kings and onwards the main meaning becomes:
A permanent or continuous institution, the composition, character, and size of which have changed from time to time. Usually used with an a or the or in the plural form.

In this form the word can cover:
  • the institution,
  • the building,
  • the group of members at a time.

Generic the word Parliament is used of several other nations' assemblages without considering the form of Parliament (e.g. one or two chambers or houses, or a non-democratic representation).

High Court of Parliament:
Earlier used of the sittings (=sessions) of Parliament. Now mostly of the Parliament in its judicial capacity.

A parliamentarian:
In 17th century a person who supported the Parliament against the king. Also used of a Christian who accepted church government by Parliament.
Today the word means a person skilled in parliamentarian debates and usages.

A kind of government effected through a parliamentarian majority.

The corresponding adjective.

Parliamenteer, parliamenter:
Obsolete words for a person involved in parliamentary business or a member of Parliament.

The British Constitution
In most countries the legal background for government and parliamentary administration is a solid, written act by a sovereign or administration of a kind like the »Constitution of the United States«.

The British constitution is not written down in a single document. The constitutions is made up of:

   Statute Law

William Pitt (1770) said »that together with the acts the Petition of Rights of 1629 and the Bill of Rights of 1689, the Magna Carta form the 'Bible of the English Constitution'«.

Today, however, a number of additional acts clarifying and regulating the administration, are included in the Constitution.

To understand the expressions statute, act etc. it may be convenient to look at the three distinct forms of British » law «:
  • the statute law,
  • the common law and
  • the conventions.

Statue Law
The Statute Law is a law (=act) passed by both Houses of Parliament and given the sovereign's assent. The Statute Laws are said to be contained in the Statute Book - a non-physical book in which all acts are » noted «.

An example: the Reform Act of 1832 ascertains the right to vote and the rules for representation in Parliament.

Some lines of regulation of the relationship between the Sovereign and Parliament is noted in the Act of Settlement of 1701 and in the Abdication Act of 1936. The abdication of Edward VIII was a novelty in British history and demanded an act. Edward VIII became king 20 January 1936 and abdicated 10 December 1936 because of his connection with Mrs. Simpson. His younger brother,George, became King George VI the 10 December 1936.

The Bill of Rights from 1689 states the rights and privileges of Parliament, among other things that the sole right to taxation lays in the House of Commons.

The Parliament Act of 1911 states the relations between the House of Lords (HoL) and the House of Commons (HoC).

The lack of a constitution means, for instance, that Parliament can prolong the Parliament sessions without asking the electorate (= the voters). It has been done during both World Wars.

Common Law
The second element in the legal spheres of Britain is the Common Law. Common Law are decisions and actual cases decided on in court not only considering the acts, but also according to customs or precedents.

The judges' decisions in England have a far wider importance than in Denmark. If Parliament is unsatisfied with a court decision based on Common Law, the Parliament must pass and act to solve the problem.

The third element comprises Conventions which are practices and customs indispendable to the working of government. Such rules and regulations are traditionally unwritten agreements.

The rules for the Cabinet are for instance not in the form of an act, but the salaries for the members of Parliament (MP) are fixed in an act.

The regions over which the Parliament can pass laws have changed. It is of importance for the understanding of the historical development to know the extent of »Britain« at the exact time in question. However, a thorough investigation cannot be done in this short paper.
Some information can be found in the Times Historical Atlas of the World.

The following list is an up-to-date overview of Britain and its different associated areas. At the end of the chapter is a list of the principal countries which in 1914 were part of the British Empire - when it included a quarter of all the World's population.

England is of course the mother country and forms with Wales and Scotland Great Britain. Together with Northern Ireland they form the United Kingdom. Note that it does not include the Channel Islands nor the Isle of Man; they are both dependent territories of the English Crown.

Wales = Cymru
By the two acts 1536 and 1542 the Duchy of Wales formed a union with England.

In 1603 Scotland formed a union with England. It came into being when James I of England = James VI of Scotland became jointly king in the two countries. In 1707 the two countries were united in a single Parliament in London. Scotland retained its own system of internal laws and local church government.
This union continued to 1999 when the Scottish Parliament opened its first session on the 12 May. The Scottish Parliament is responsible for local government and have tax-raising powers within certain limitations. Matters like the foreign and defence politics are with other areas still handled in the United Kingdom's Parliament in London which includes 72 Scottish members. The number of Scottish members will be reduced to about 60 in 2007.

Northern Ireland (NI)
Ireland was in December 1921 divided into the Irish Free State - which formed a Republic in 1949 - and Northern Ireland, which continued to be a part of the United Kingdom with 18 seats in Parliament in 2003.

British Commonwealth
The British Commonwealth has the English Sovereign as Head of State. In the single communities the Sovereign is represented by a Governor-General appointed in cooperation with the region in question. Today the Commonwealth comprises:
  • Antigua
  • Australia
  • Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Barbuda
  • Belize
  • Canada
  • Grenada
  • Jamaica
  • New Zealand
  • Papua - New Guinea
  • Saint Christopher = Kitts & Nevis / Saint Kitts and Nevis, population 46,200, got internal self-government from 1967; at that time including Anguilla which declared itself independent of St. Kitts and became a British Dependent Territory from 1971 and formally separated from St. Kitts in 1980.
  • Saint Vincent & the Grenadines
  • Solomon Islands & Tuvalu

Dependent Territories and UK British Overseas Territories
These are areas and territories not belonging to the Commonwealth, but governed from either London, Canberra or Wellington. The areas are called Dependent Territories.

Most of the dependent territories have a certain degree of selvgoverning, but constitutionally dependency to the british, Australian or New Zealand Crown. All told these areas had 7.2 mill. citizens, before Hong Kong was restored to China in 1997 with its 6.9 mill. citizens, which leaves very few to all of the other territories.
  • - To the British Crown:
    • Anguilla, West Indies, population 11,900
    • Bermuda, Atlantic Ocean west, population 62,900
    • British Antarctic Territory, part of Antarctic Continent with Graham Land Peninsula, S Orkney Isls., S. Shetland Isls. No inhabitants
    • British Indian Ocean Territory, population 2,900 and no permanent inhabitants
    • British Virgin Islands, Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Jost van Dyke, West Indies, population 19,600
    • Cayman Islands, West Indies, population 41,000
    • Falkland Islands, population 2,000
    • Gibraltar, population 29,300, diplomatic talks of sovereignty between Spain and UK broke down i 2003 after a 99 % no to change of sovereignty in a referendum in 2002
    • Montserrat, West Indies, population 4,500 after the volcanic eruption in 1997 (before 11,000)
    • Pitcairn, Ducie, Henderson & Oeno, population 48
    • Saint Helena, Gough Island, Inaccessible Island, Nightingale Island, Ascension & Tristan da Cunha, population 7,200
    • South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands, population -
    • Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus
    • Turks Island & Caicos Island, West Indies, population 19,350, Crown Colony with local self-government

  • Hong Kong - a former territory - was restored to China 1997

  • - Under the Australian Crown are six territories:
    • Ashmore Island and Cartier Island
    • Christmas Island
    • Cocos Islands = Keeling Islands
    • Coral Sea Island
    • Heard Island and McDonald Islands
    • Norfolk Island
  • - Under the New Zealand Crown are one territory and two associated states.
    • Cook Islands
    • Niue
    • Torkelau Territory
From Edward the Confessor, 1042-1066, there has been a Palace at Westminster. The Palace was a royal residence as well until the reign of Henry VIII, 1509-1547, when the king withdrew to Whitehall 1512. The Westminster Palace accomodated in Westminster Hall the »Model« Parliament summoned by Edward I, 1272-1307. It was closely connected to Westminster Monastery and later Westminster Abbey. The palace has its ups and downs during the centuries as the following quotation is an example of:

»After the death of Queen Eleanor he [Edward I] conceaved a dislike for residence at Westminster Palace and abandoned it ... The Palace fell into neglect and suffered a bad fire in 1298. Yet oddly enough, in 1292 the King put in train the rebuilding of St. Stephen's Chapel meaning to rival St. Louis's Sainte Chapelle in Paris.«

Shortly after Edward I's death the two houses were separated. The lords met in a room called the Painted Chamber and discussed the matters brought forward in the White Chamber.

The Commons had more humble lodgings and used different rooms in the Palace or in the nearby Westminster Abbey. After the Reformation, 1547, the assembly room became permanently St. Stephen's Royal Chapel - an expression which in literature has been used also as a kind of metaphor for the HoC.

For more than 500 years the Old Palace was the Parliament and it survived revolutions and fires. The Parliament was nearly destructed when Guy Fawkes tried to blow it up 4 November 1605: The Gun Powder Plot planned by Catholics led by Guy Fawkes.

In between, the Houses were of course architecturally changed to give better accommodation for the MPs. Christopher Wren made extensive alterations in 1706: put up false ceilings and pannelled the walls thereby covering 13th cent. wallpaintings.

In 1834 the palace was destroyed in a fire. A new palace was erected shortly after and opened 1847, the clock tower with Big Ben not until 1858. The architect was Charles Barry, who erected the building in the flourishinng Gothic style. The floor plan was somewhat better suited to the purpose of the building, but still lacking many conveniencies and not setting aside sufficient space for the growing bureaucracy.

In the Second World War the HoC were bombed in May 1941 and hit by 11 bombs. The building was rebuilt in a more quiet architecture by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott.

Of the original buildings only the Westminster Hall with its hammerbeam roof has survived. The hall was earlier used as The High Court at Westminster. Its sessions include the trial of Thomas More in 1535 during the Reformation, the trial of Charles I from 20 to 27 January 1649, and the King was executed outside the Banqueting House 30 January 1649. Banqueting House is the only surviving part of Whitehall Palace.

The case of Dr. Henry Sacheverell, a highchurch parson who in a sermon denied the resistance of 1688 was also tried her and so was Warren Hastings, 1732 - 1818, in a case of corruption and cruelty. Hastings had been administrator in the East India Company and became Govenor-General of Bengal, but after the Indian War, 1774-1778, he returned to England and was charged as mentioned. The trial lasted seven years, and in the end he was acquitted.


The Origin of the Parliament
The monarchy saw in the Middle Ages the need for a central government and the kings from William the Conqueror to the first Henrys began the formation of central governmental institutions. The monarchy was backed by the only class of any importance in the country, namely the highest nobility, which was vested with large estates and privileges.

The group was not very large and its fundamental concerns were not to take powers themselves, but to secure a government which supported its wishes for exclusivenes to the riches of the country. With such interests the nobility would inevitably come into some opposition to the king and they would try to force restrictions on the power of the king or to gain some kind of control over the central government.

In the early Middle Ages the third estate - the church - had not yet reached the power it held later in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a power which it only temporarily lost during the Reformation.

The reasons for the parliamentarian development is thus to be found in the opposition between king and nobility and the roots of the Parliament go back to the signing of the Magna Carta on Runnymede 15 June 1215.

After some disturbancies King John, 1199-1216, was on that day forced to sign a charter or writ between him and the Lords. The Magna Carta contained 63 articles among which are found the first regulations of the citizens' civil rights - taking citizens as the feudal noblemen - such as:
  1. No arbitrary arrest by the king's forces
  2. Trial by a jury of equal men
  3. Equality before the law
  4. Parliamentary control of taxation.

There was no thought of a distributed representation in the articles. It was a feudal document and the nobility was not concerned about liberty, equality etc. »All they wanted was to put a stop to the king's playing ducks and drakes with feudal customs«. In 1265 the first representatives for the rural shires were summoned by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, 1208-1265, who became king Henry II's brother-in-law in 1238. However, all the members were high ranking noblemen. The king could accordingly see some point in inviting men of humbler birth to advice him to get a more powerful opposition to the highest rank of the nobility.

The first institution which employed civil servants from the regular gentry, i.e. the class below the nobility, was the judiciary administration, the courts. The court cases were divided into what was later to be called the Court of Common Pleas, which heard cases between subjects, and the Coram Rege, the King's Bench, which heard cases of importance for the country.

The king was head of these courts, but executed his power through appointed officials. King Henry II appointed the first five members in 1178. By these court representatives the monarchy had entered into active competition with the nobility's old-established right to solve cases in which they were themselves a part.

A rest of this connection to the judiciary authorities are maintained in the position of the HoL as having the authorithy as the Court of Appeal for all courts in the United Kingdom, except criminal cases in Scotland which have their own Court of Appeal.

The significance of the 1265 Parliament was not great, but it has certainly made an impression on the King. Montfort was shortly before in a skirmish beaten by the King, and the Parliament was more a group of the lower, disappointed gentry who were more afraid of the nobility's power than of the King's.

From 1300 up to Charles I the summoning of Commons were often called Parliaments and the summoning of the Lords were called Great Councils. The last Great Councils were Charles I's, since then both Houses have been called Parliament.

Montfort's Parliament was not new in idea, as the shires and towns had also earlier elected representatives to talk their cases at court, but it was the first time that these representatives met at the same time at the same place, thus being able to discuss as a group.

The King, Edward I, called a few parliaments in his reign. One of them, the 1295 Parliament, has since been named »The Model Parliament«. The writs of summon was very carefully worded in legally significant languageto ascertain that the representatives should have »full and sufficient power to act on behalf of their communities«. The legal power to bind their electors remained unchanged in this respect until the 1872 reforms and forms one of the foundation stones for the constituency representation convention.

The Speaker
The next step in the development of the Parliament was the appointment of a Speaker. This position as the foremost member of Parliament has since developed into a traditional position hold by a MP known for »high morality and integrety« and today it is seldom that the Speaker is dismissed. He sits for life.

The Speaker's role in the 13th century was not yet a permanent body. It was called by the King's order when necessary, sometimes with the interruption of several years.


The presentation of the highlights of Parliamentary history for the period 1500 to 1800 may necessarily be short and the text is concentrated on the more familiar sessions:

The first part of this period saw only a few parliaments. Henry VII used it little and during the reign of Henry VIII no parliament was held between 1515 and 1522. In his whole reign, 1509 - 1547, he only called nine parliaments.

However his Parliament of 1529-36, the Reformation Parliament, was very important. The King and Parliament together formed the legislation for transferring the power from the Church to the Crown thus immensely increasing the power of the throne. Not since William the Conqueror 500 years earlier had seized all land had the Crown been able to exercise such power backed up with land possessions.

Henry VIII's Parliament had 298 seats.

1532-33 - First act 1487 - Star Chamber Act
The act gave instructions for the councillors, the Keeper of the Great Seal, Lord Chancellor and other of the highest councillors, to meet the King in the Whitehall Palace chamber which ceiling was painted with gilted stars. »I will make a Star Chamber matter of it« a common expression as a metaphor for »it should come to the ears of the highest authorities« - a quotation from Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, I, i.

1534 The Act of Supremacy
Henry VIII asserts control over the English Church. He is appointed Head of the Anglican Church, a position which the sovereign still holds today. The dissollution of the monasteries weakens the powers of the clergy.

1534 The Act of Succession
The first act of succession in England - for the children of Henry and Anne Boleyn. It is treason to dispute the act, states one of paragraphs.

1541 Wales
Wales is granted representation in Parliament.

It was in the interest of Henry VIII to strenghten the Parliament's freedom.He ascertained their immunity towards arrest during the sessions and he reported during his divorce negotiations with the pope that »debate in our Parliament is free, and it is not possible for us to interfere in their discussion about any matter, and foresooth they decide as they think fit according to what they deem to be profit or otherwise of the state«.

Not a very convincing statement, when we consider the effort of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth to create more boroughs in the towns in order to buy or bribe more MPs to follow the Sovereigns wishes in Parliament.

During Elizabeth I's reign the Sovereign as head of State and Church was confirmed:

1559 Act of Supremacy
Recognized the Sovereign as head of the Anglican Church.

1559 Act of Uniformity
Imposed uniformity in all religious matters and stated penalties and punishment for non-obedience.

James I's Parliament had 467 seats after Henry's incorporation of Wales.

Charles I
The Parliaments during Charles I's reign became more and more in opposition to the King. Charles I was executed 1649.

Cromwell to Charles II
The Cromwell era to 1660 and the Restoration 1660 with Charles II & James II up to the Glorious Revolution in 1688 saw some remarkable Parliaments. They are often mentioned by their »nicknames« and the most important are listed in alphabetical order:

Barebone's Parliament
= Nominated P. = P. of the Saints.
It lasted from 4/7 1653 to 12/12 1653. So called from a Londoner leatherseller; his full name was Praise God Bar(e)bone.
A Parliament of only 120 members which would make new elections on a basis of principle of the divine right of the godly = the Puritans, to rule the country. The members were nominated by Cromwell himself, but the Parliament could not agree on the matter. The list only included five Scotch members.

Cavalier Parliament
= Long Parliament of Charles II

Convention Parliament
In 1689 Britain faced a constitutional difficult situation. According to convention only the King could summon a Parliament, but the country had just dismissed a king and had nobody to call a Parliament.

The Whigs and Tories fostered the idea of calling in all surviving members of the last parliament and after some debate and some threats from the future king, William III, to return to Holland if the Convention Parliament did not agree on his and his wife's promotion, the Convention declared them for King and Queen and William could now summon a Constitutional Parliament.

Devil's Parliament
= Coventry 1459 during Henry VI (falls outside this period).

Drunken Parliament
= Scottish parliament held 1/1 1661 after the Restoration.

Little Parliament
= Barebone's Parliament.

Long Parliament
Two Long Parliament have been held. The first during Charles I from 3/11 1640 and dispersed by Cromwell 1653. It was twice restored in 1659 and dissolved in March 1660 after restoring Charles II.
The other Long Parliament sat from 1661 to 1679. It was assembled by Charles II. This Parliament is also called the Pensionary Parliament.

Merciless Parliament
(Falls outside this era) 1388, during Richard II.

Pensioner / Pensionary Parliament
= Long P of Charles II. So called because the members lived for so long away from home.

Rump Parliament
= A degoratory term. It was not applied at that time. The Rump Prliament. = Long Parliament of Charles II.

Short Parliament
The Short Parliament sat from 10/5 1768 to 13/6 1774. No (or few) Parliamentary debates are noted in this interval.

Useless Parliament
The Useless Parliament sat from 18/6 1625 to 12/8 1625. It was Charles I's first Parliament.

In the 18th century the distribution of members to Parliament was rural / urban: 122 from counties and 432 MPs from boroughs. The elections were not in anyway fair or gave a balanced representation in Parliament. Running for Parliament cost a lot of money. In Yorkshire in 1807 Earl Fitzwilliam used £ 97,000, the Earl of Harewood used £ 94,000 and William Wilberforce used £ 30,000.

In 1750 only 22 of 203 English boroughs had over 1,000 voters, while 22 had 500-1,000 and 11 had under 500. The 158 boroughs had less than 400 voters - all 21 in Cornwall had under 200, Gatton had only 6, and Calne had 13 voters.

In the 1761 election only 4 counties were contested, in 1780 it was down to 2 countied, the most common reason was the »Grand Families« shared a seat by prior agreement.
From 1708 to 1832 Northamptonshire only contested four times out of 35 elections.

Parliament from 1800 to 1928
The period from 1800 to 1928 saw some very important reforms:
The franchise was extended first to all freeholders and later to all citizens.
The end of double voting was also introduced in this period. It had been legal for citizens to vote both in the constituency where he lived, but also at the place where he owned property.
The secret ballot was also one of the refomrs in this period.

The first reform period falls around 1831-1832. The Act passed in 1832 changed the principle of representing the communities to representing the individuals. »Ten-pound house holders« now got a vote.

However, it was very difficult to ascertain if a house rent was ten pound or above per annum, and a newer act in 1867 gave the vote to all town dwellers who owned houses and to all renters whose lodgings cost more than ten pound p.a.

1873 The secret Ballot
The first secret ballot was at the election of 1873.
The next act of franchise or suffrage = the right to vote, was passed in 1884 and gave the same rights to the rural population. No women had yet got the right to vote - and no sons living by their father - and no real poor people had got the voting right.

The redistribution of Constituencies
The 1832 reform of 7 June changed the distributio of MPs. Some of the boroughs = constituencies had experienced a decreasing population, and the seats in Parliament were now redistributed to more popolous areas. The redistribution of the shires had to wait the Reform Bill of 2855 when the county division eventually was changed to a system depending on the number of citizens.

The situation was really bad before the redistribution. Cornwall with a electorate of 300,000 sent 42 members to parliament, while Lancashire with 1,300,000 voters only sent 14 MPs. Up to 1790 Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds were not at all represented in the Parliament.

The crises around 1830 and later in Parliament has been thoroughly described by the contemporary MP Thomas Babington Macaulay in his The History of England.

1918 The Peple's Act
In the 20th century the People's Act of 1918 finally gave all male citizens their right to vote if they had been registered as residents in a community for at least six months.

Ten years later the common and universal adult suffrage was completed by the inclusion of women at the age of 21 - with the exemption of lunatics and peers.

Cabinets from the Majority Party
One more important constitutional reform was introduced in 1832. The King wanted to continue with his Tory cabinet in defiance of a majority of Whigs in the Parliament, but the people's will proved too strong for the King to oppose, and he was adviced to appoint a Whig cabinet. The type of government was thus changed from Government by influence to Government by party.

The electorate
The electorate in England consists of cirka 49 million voters out of a total population of 56,467,000 (2003). By the election in 1992 77% voted, in 2001 only 59.4 % voted.

The regulations for elections have naturally changed much during the existence of the British Parliament. Today all citizens have the right to vote if they are registered and over 18 years of age.

The Parliament Statute of 1430 according to which only men possessing freehold to the annual value of forty shillings could be elected remained in force until 1832. The age qualification for eligibility has also been higher.

The electorate body has more or less also the privilege of being eligible. However, it is also a new inventions. For centuries it was impossible for women (up to 1918/28), for Jews, Catholics, other religious dissenters and citizens without property to take a seat in the Parliament.

A member of Parliament who dies or has to give up his seat has in the British system no substitute waiting. The constituency has to perform a new election - a by-election - in order to choose a new member.

To stand for Parliament a candidate has to deposit GBP 500. If the candidate receives more than 5% of the votes, the money will be returned. The election is a clean majority election: the candidate who receives most votes gets the seat. All other votes are lost.

In most constituencies the nation wide parties have committees which support their candidates. It is very rare that independent candidates are elected.

The regions which after an election sends a member to Parliament is called a constituency. The constituencies were earlier equal to the shires, which later became the counties. The groups of voters in cities and towns were called boroughs. Constituencies were for many hundred years not equally distributed, nor were they representative of the number of voters which again were not corresponding with the total size of the population.

The boroughs, the town electorates, can be divided into 5 classes:
Potwalloper boroughs = votes to all with house and fireplace.
Pot + wallop [= wallon = OE to boil]. Voters were paid for voting in the small potwalloper boroughs. The very poorest often set up a fireplace in a ramshackle hut and were registered as potwallopers and accordingly could vote as they were paid by the Parliamentary candidates.

Scot and Lot boroughs = votes to all male with house or rented house.

Freeman boroughs = votes transferred by inheritance, marriage, apprenticeship or other kind of relationship or dependency.

Corporation boroughs = the towns where the craft or trade corporations executed the sole right to vote. Many voters in this class were non-residents.

Burgage boroughs = votes belonged to a piece of land and the owner had the vote. The best - or worst - example was Old Sarum with 7 voters. The seven voters met in a tent erected in a mould in the wilderness and »the piece of uncultivated grass field sent its member to Parliament«. Sarum was founded in 1091 and moved 1222-1228 to Salisbury.

As mentioned earlier a redistribution became necessary during the 18th century and since several redistributions have taken place as the population grew and migrated - especially from the rural areas to the urban centres.

England has two levels of division into areas: county and district. In 1992 England has 53 counties with 369 districts; today (2003) England has 34 counties and 238 districts outside the six metropolitan districts and London. From 1995 to 1998 46 unitary authority areas were created covering certain areas of the counties. For instance the Isle of Wight became a unitary district in 1995.

Greater London is divided into 32 buroughs + City.
Besides the county/district division England has 8000 parish councils + 700 in Wales. The district division is used in local elections to councils of different functions.

Wales (Cymru) has 2.9 mill. citizens. 19 % speaks Welsh. The interior Welsh government is carried out by the Welsh Grand Committee whose 38 members are also the Welsh representatives in London.
Local authority in Wales is divided in a single level structure of unitary authorities in 22 areas.

Scotland has 5.1 mill. citizens. Up to 1997 Scotland had a Scottish Grand Committee with 72 members. The same 72 members were the Scottish MPs in London. Scotland got from April 1996 a single level local administration with 29 unitary authorities, however the three island councils remained. The 29 unitary authorities superseded 9 regions with 53 Districts + Orkney, Shetland & Western Isles.

Northern Ireland (NI)
Northern Ireland (NI) has 1.7 mill. citizens. In 1991 50,6% were Protestants, 38,4% Catholics. NI has 17 MPs. NI has 26 district councils.

Electorial period
The electorial period is today five years. The Act was passed 1911. During the First World War the period was prolonged and Parliament sat from 31/1 1911 to 25/11 1918. In the Second World War Parliament sat from 26/11 1935 to 15/6 1945.

Within the period of 5 years a new general election must be performed. From the beginning, when a Parliament was summoned - and the members elected to the called meeting, the periods have changed from 3 three over 7 to now 5 years.

The county and district elections take place every 4 years, but the rules are more complicated than those for Parliament and differs from land to land.

The Parties
The most important parties in Britain are:
    The Conservatives, original the Tories until 1830.
    The Labour Party, which had its first appearance in 1892.
    The Liberals, original the Whigs until 1828.
    Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have also nationalist parties.

The Functions of Parliament
The Lords and the Commoners
In the House of Lords the members are not elected. The members fall in different groups:
1. The Lords Spiritual: 2 archbishops, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester plus 21 senior bishops, total 26.
2. The House of Lord Act from 1999 gives seats to 91 lords of which 4 are ladies - all elected from the eligible hereditary peers.
3. Appellate Jurisdiction Act of 1876 gives 27 seats to life peers.
4. Life Peerage Act of 1958 gives 557 seats of which 112 are women for life peers.
All told 701 possible members excluding 12 peers who are absent of various circumstances.

Before the latest amendment act in 1999 the total possible number of peers were ca. 1200.

The Commoners
In 1885 HoC had 658 members, 1918 707, 1922 615 after the Irish Free State was formed. Each consituency has a population of between circa 60.000 and 100.000 citizens.

The Parliament now has 659 seats, there are 529 for England, 40 for Wales, 72 for Scotland and 18 for Northern Ireland.

The Sessions
The life of a Parliament is divided into sessions of 1 year starting in October and ending late July. Sundays and holidays the session is adjourned. The working year of the Parliament is thus about 160 days for the HoC and 145 days for the HoL.

The Sovereign has no access to the House of Commons. Every autun when the session starts, the Sovereign delivers his / hers opening speech from the throne in the House of Lords.

The Law making
A part of the work in Parliament is debating the bills put forward. A bill has three readings and committee discussion before it can be passed in either of the Houses. The initial presentation of a bill is normally in the HoC. When it passed in the HoC it is transferred to the HoL. When passed both Houses it gets the royal assent and becomes an Act, a Statute Act.

Financial bills are always introduced in the HoC, and the Conventions prohibit the Lords from vetoing such fund-bills.

The majority party in the HoC forms the government with the Prime Minister as leader. The largest minority becomes Opposition with their own leader and a shadow cabinet. This convention has been followed since the 1882 Reforms.

Formally the Crown has the executive power, but does exercise it to Ministers of the Crown. The Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign, who on his / hers advice appoints the other Cabinet Ministers. The first Prime Minister was Robert Walpole (1721). At that time the title was a mock title, it did not become the official title until later. Walpole is the longest functioning First Minister; he sat for 20 years and 326 days.

The Cabinet consists of the most important, but not all Ministers. The Cabinet Ministers also take a seat in the Privy Council. The Lord High Chancellor (= the Speaker of the HoL. He sits on the woolsack) also sits in the Privy Council and is a member of the Government. It is customary that resigned Cabinet Ministers remain members of the Privy Council for life, but they are only called if necessary.

The Sovereign
The Sovereign is the head of state, defender of the Faith. The queen personifies the state. In law she is hold the executive power as head of the judiciary, and is thus symbolically presnet in all courts. She is Commander of all forces and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

The Royal Prerogative includes the right to declare war and peace, the conclusion of treatises and the recognition of states.

The Royal Prerogative of summoning and dissolving Parliaments are executed on the advice of the Cabinet or the Prime Minister.

The prime Minister's power is to resign and with him the whole Cabinet must go.


The contemporary information is from:
Britain - An Official Handbook, HMSO, 1995.
Contemporary British Society, Jørgen Sevaldsen & Ole Vadmand, Academic Press Copenhagen, 1986, 3rd Ed. 1993/95 (7625)
A Dictionary of British Institutions, John Oakland, Routledge, 1993 (7594)
Whitacker's Almanack 1982, 1993, 2003 (5045)

The historical information is taken from:
Chambers Dictionary of World History, ed. Bruce P. Lenman, Chambers, 1993 (7071)
Clive of India, Mark Bence-Jones, Constable, 1974 (5436) Information about Warren Hastings
The Government and Institutions of England, C. A. Bodelsen, Hagerup, 10th Ed. 1969 (2058)
Magna Carta, G. R. C. Davis, Br. Library 1963, Rep. 1977, p. 9ff (2148)
English Constitutional History, S. B. Chrimes, OUP, 1947 (5422)
British Institutions of To-day, Kingstone Derry, Longmans green & Co., 1937 Rep. 1938 (5642)
The Glorious Revolution, John Miller, Longman, 1983, rep. 1995 (7580)

The architectural information is taken from:
The London Encyclopædia, edit. Ben Weinreib & Christopher Hibbert, BCA, London, 1983/85 (5270)
The Houses of Parliament, James Pope-Hennssy, Folio Society, 1945 Rep. 1975 (5289)
Royal Westminster, Penelope Hunting, Royal Institute of Surveyors, 1981 (0002)
A House of Kings, ed. Edward Carpenter, Westminster Abbey, 1966, Rev. 1972, Rep. 1980 (5339)

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Opdateret d. 12.4.2008