The mother of Parliaments

Lord Norton

47566I was in a meeting in the Lords last week when someone referred to Westminster as ‘the mother of Parliaments’.   It is not uncommon to hear such a reference. 

However, the 19th Century politician John Bright, who coined the phrase ‘the mother of Parliaments’, was not referring to Westminster.  What he said, in a speech in Birmingham, was ‘England is the mother of Parliaments’.

This does, of course, beg a question.  If England is the mother of Parliaments, which country can claim to be the father?

9 comments for “The mother of Parliaments

  1. Neil
    19/11/2008 at 11:08 pm

    The answer is Iceland. Around CE 930, the Danish Viking population of Iceland founded the Althing (Assembly) at Thingvellir – an open air meeting for all the free men (not women or slaves) of the island, held for two weeks every year (that means about 4,500 men out of a population of around 60,000). A lawspeaker (lögsögumaður) presided, much as the Speaker does in the House of Commons. In the 11th century, Adam of Bremen wrote that, ‘The Icelanders have no other king than the laws’. It was at the Althing in CE 1000 that the Icelanders voted to adopt Christianity, while allowing pagan worship to continue. There were also local Things, rather like our councils. Thingvellir straddles the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and European plates are shearing apart.

  2. Krishna
    20/11/2008 at 4:19 am

    Wouldn’t that naturally be the US- birthplace of representative democracy?

  3. Matt Korris
    20/11/2008 at 10:46 am

    Along with the Icelandic Alþingi, there’s the Tynwald (the Parliament of the Isle of Man) and the Løgting (the Parliament of the Faroe Islands), all of which have claims to being the oldest or longest continuously sitting parliament.

  4. 20/11/2008 at 12:55 pm

    France. Which makes the mother and father unmarried with long periods of estrangement, and rather explains the character of most parliaments. 😉

  5. lordnorton
    20/11/2008 at 1:46 pm

    In had in mind two candidates (possibly three, depending on the criteria one utilises)and Neil and Matt Korris have identified them. Iceland and the Isle of Man are the two prime candidates competing for the honour of the longest continuously serving parliaments.

    Khrisna: When the USA was founded, only the House of Representatives was directly elected and the electors at the time comprised white adult males. In other words, pretty similar to the original Greek polis. It would be difficult for the USA to be the father, given that the mother of Parliaments gave birth some five centuries before the founding fathers assembled in Philadelphia.

    McDuff: France is somewhat exceptional, though nowadays not as exceptional as it was (given that some new democracies have adopted the premier-presidential model). In the UK, we tend to prefer to avoid co-habitation of the sort encouraged by the French Constitution. Not that we are sniffy about such things, you understand.

  6. Frank Wynerth Summers
    20/11/2008 at 7:34 pm

    I am afraid there are few constituional arrangemnts good or bad not precedented in ancient Greece. Nor is it safe to assume (although it may be true) that any place in or near Europe that came after was not influenced by Hellenistic people or Greek texts. Tribal councils, federations of tribes in Boleuterions cross-divided by polis but with direct not representational voting, the Plethos of the single democratic polis,the diarchy’s nearly bicameral royal council at arms, the councillors of the tyrant are all found there. United by the Olympic and Heraclion Games, by language and literacy and by the Oracle the Greeks had a broad universe of political diversity. While he was alive Aristolte was admired for collecting hundred of constitutions for comparative study. They were truly diverse. His “Politics” only alludes to that vast research but it does allude to it.

    Greeks, Jews, Vikings and Romans take turns getting credit for things to which each contributed in an amazingly complex web of cause and effect. Right now, Greece’s role in Western European culture is undervalued. In America between 1760 and 1860 it may have been exagerated.

  7. Carole
    21/11/2008 at 7:09 am

    It may just be an illegitimate child!

  8. David
    25/11/2008 at 1:28 pm

    Rather puts the European Parliament’s quest for ‘legitimacy’ into a new perspective.

  9. 26/11/2008 at 4:44 pm

    Lord Norton is, of course, correct about the original nature of our American Congress. But, now that we’ve had a directly elected upper house for almost a century, it’s interesting to see the parent parliament at Westminster debating whether, for better or worse, to follow America’s example.

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