Politics and Government

What are the origins of parliamentary government?


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The origins of parliamentary government can be traced to Iceland where in 930, when most of its arable land had been claimed, a legislative and judiciary parliament, known as the Althing, was founded as the political hub of the Icelandic Commonwealth. Contributing to these origins, was the Witenagemot, or "meeting of wise men", whose members were known as the Witan. This was a political institution of Germanic origin which operated between the 7th and 11th centuries in Anglo-Saxon England and was in some respects a predecessor to Parliament but had different powers and was limited by a lack of a fixed procedure, schedule, or meeting place. It was more an advisory council which answered to the king and whose assembling without his summons and approval could be considered treason, whereas a parliament requires that the king be answerable to it. Under the Anglo-Saxon kings the Witenagemont exercised important legislative, administrative, and judicial functions, and after the Norman invasion of England in 1066, King William I reportedly engaged in "very deep speech with his Witan", a phrase translated from the Old French language which used the word "parlement" to mean "speech-making", "debate", or "discussion". But under William I and his successors, the Witenagemont was superceded by the curia regis, a Latin term meaning "King's Court". In 1215 the Magna Carta was granted by King John and by 1265 widespread calls for elections and national representation resulted in Simon de Montford, Earl of Leicester, assembling a rudimentary parliament which allowed two knights from every shire, and two citizens or "burgesses" from each of 21 cities and boroughs to attend. In 1295, King Edward I convened what was known as the Model Parliament, which represented four estates as follows: # the peerage, including the higher clergy, who held baronies of the crown; # the knights; # the burgesses; # the lower clergy. In time the lower clergy ceased to attend Parliament, and the knights and burgesses drew together with interests in common. By 1332, the form of modern parliament was established with two distinct houses: # the House of Lords, consisting of the peerage and higher clergy; # the House of Commons, consisting of the knights and burgesses. The Bill of Rights Act of 1689 set out the foundations of constitutional monarchy. Rights obtained by Parliament included: # Freedom from Royal interference with the law; # Freedom from taxation by Royal prerogative; # Freedom to petition the King; # Freedom to elect members of Parliament without interference from the Sovereign. The modern concept of prime ministerial government traces back to 1707 with the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain which united the governments of Scotland and England by Act of Union, and also 1800 when another Act of Union included Ireland in the United Kingdom of Great Britain. This period coincided with developments in the parliamentary system of Sweden where executive power was historically shared between the King and a noble Privy Council until 1680. Following this, the common estates of the Parliament initiated a period of autocratic rule by the king, until, as a reaction to the failed Great Northern War, a parliamentary system was introduced in 1719 which eventually presented as a constitutional monarchy and granted civil liberties with the monarch remaining as a formal, symbolic head of state with ceremonial duties. When King George I came to the throne of Great Britain in 1714, his inability to speak English saw the chairing of cabinet go to the leading minister, literally the prime or first minister. As Parliament's role in controlling government increased, it gradually democratised with the broadening of the voting franchise and in the decision of who the king could ask to form a government. By the nineteenth century, the Great Reform Act of 1832 led to parliamentary dominance in decisions about the nature of governments, and who the prime ministers were to be.