At the end of the 17th century, after a period of Civil War and a peaceful
the tradition of parliamentary sovereignty became past of the legal framework of the English
constitution. In 1628, the Parliament opposed a petition of rights to the King, claiming
for political guarantees against money for Charles Iís European and colonial wars.
The Kingís refusal to renounce to this prerogative led to a civil war and to the Kingís
execution in 1649.
The principle of the petition re-emerged in the events of 1688, called
Revolution for it was bloodless. The current King James II was forced to leave the
country and was replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband William on the
condition that the two would accept a declaration of rights in exchange of the throne.
The contract was instituted: political power against rights. After it was approved, the
declaration was known as the Bill of Rights in 1689, which constituted the first
constitutional monarchy in the world by stipulating once for all:
1.The King canít suspend a law voted in Parliament
2.The King canít raise taxes or maintain a permanent army in time of peace
without a vote in Parliament.
The new institution created the notion of Government by the leaders of
majority and led to the formation of two political parties alternating in power as the
majority and the opposition. The name of the first party is the Whigs: they supported
the new regime and represented the world of business and commerce. In the 19th
century, the Whigs became the Liberal Party. The second party was the Tories, who
supported a more authoritarian definition of the monarchy. They represented the
class of agricultural landowners. In the 19th century, the Tories became the
In the field of individual rights, before the Glorious Revolution, a piece
passed in 1679 and called the Habeas Corpus aimed at protecting subjects against
royal absolutism alongside the lines first defined by Magna Carta. The Habeas
Corpus banned arrest and detention without trial, but freedom from custody could only
be obtained after paying an amount of money, given as a guarantee and called a
bail. Therefore, by the end of the 17th century, England has become the first
representative government in Europe. The Kingís right to suspend legislation ( to
refuse to give assent to a bill accepted by both Houses of Parliament) became purely
theoretical: this right of veto was last exercised in 1707. Later on, the tradition of
cabinet government and the position of Prime Minister progressively emerged and
later became an unquestionable right of the British people. The P.M. was the leader
of the majority party in the House of Commons. He became the real head of
Government: British Kings were said to reign but not to rule. Yet, this perfect picture of
British liberties needs to be corrected by several remarks.
The Myth of English liberty.
In the 18th century, apart from the Bill of Rights and the Habeas Corpus,
constitution really protected British subjects from political abuses. The King had the
full power of creating Lords (Peers). He therefore had an influence over legislation.
In terms of elections, out of 8 million inhabitants, only 160 000 were
voters. Until the
middle of this century, parliamentary debates were secret but before 1872, ballot was
not secret. Thus, the King could use corruption and intimidation to buy votes. Radical
agitators criticized the fact that the British were subjects instead of being full citizens:
parliamentary reforms became more and more advocated both inside and outside
The major group of protesters were the American colonists who
represented in Parliament for they lived outside Britain but who had to pay
taxes to the British government.
The second major group of protesters was the middle-class dissenters who
were refused access public jobs for religious reasons.
British people had to wait until 1832, i.e. several decades after the American
French revolutions to witness some partial changes in their system of representation.
Under popular pressure, the 1832í Reform Act abolished unrepresentative seats in
Parliament in order to increase representation. For instance, the mediaeval village of
Dunwich, which had totally disappeared from the map still returned an MP to
Parliament and the village of Old Sarum had 7 voters who elected 2 MPs!
At the same time, the Act distributed new seats to represent the population
industrial centers like Birmingham or Manchester but even after 1832, the numbers of
voters represented no more than one fifth of the adult male population. It is only in the
second part of the 19th century that the progressive extension of the franchise
opened Parliament to the working class. Full universal suffrage for men over 21 was
finally reached in 1918 but paradoxically, this very late measure was at the same time
an early victory for the cause of womenís rights. British women received the right to
vote in 1918, i.e. some 38 years before French women. Voting parity for all citizens,
male or female, was finally decided in 1928.
From the experience of the middle ages and thanks to the institutional
triggered off ( brought about) by the Glorious Revolution, British political culture
inspired most modern parliamentary regime. However, the long absence of truly
democratic representation was one of the origins of the American Revolution
and led to the definition of new political and led to the definition of new political models.
*Extracted from: http://www.skyminds.net/civilization/3.php
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