It happened today - October 23, 2015
Just over three centuries ago, on Oct. 23 1707, the Parliament of Great Britain first met. If that sounds odd, it’s because it was the successor to the Parliament of England and, in a very loose sense, that of Scotland, following the 1706 Acts of Union passed in both parliaments. It sat until 1801, when the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland came into existence. And a fine thing it was too.
It is instructive to compare the flourishing of representative institutions in England with their withering in Europe as the Middle Ages ended. By the 16th century even a terrifying bully like Henry VIII did not dare undertake major initiatives without parliament, whereas in France a leading political theorist, law professor and member of the Paris Parlement, Jean Bodin, wrote “When edicts are ratified by Estates or Parlements, it is for the purpose of securing obedience to them, and not because otherwise a sovereign prince could not validly make law” while in 1527 the president of the highest court assured king François I “we do not wish to dispute or minimize your power; that would be sacrilege, and we know very well that you are above the laws.”
Indeed, the French Estates General did not meet at all from 1614 until the collapse of the ancien régime. Meanwhile the English parliament confirmed kings, deposed them if they were tyrants, protected rights and ensured that no one was above the law.
As for Scotland, well, the truth is that even it had a parliament quite unlike that of England. As James I complained on becoming king of England as well as Scotland (where he was James VI), the parliament in Edinburgh listened to him “not only as a king but as a counselor. Contrary, here, nothing but curiosity from morning to evening to find fault with my propositions. There, all things warranted that came from me. Here, all things suspected!” And indeed the Scottish parliament ended as it had lived, in a supine and crooked act of acquiescence to instructions from above to dissolve itself.
In this, as in many other things, the Scots benefited enormously from the Act of Union. They acquired representative government that really did limit rulers, were incorporated in the mighty polity that launched the Industrial Revolution, founded the Anglosphere, ruled the waves, and dominated the globe culturally.
The union with Ireland from 1801 was obviously never as happy or successful, leading to the separation of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the ongoing “troubles” in Ulster. But if Daniel Hannan is to be believed in Inventing Freedom, the relationship between the rest of Ireland and Britain has never been closer or happier. If only the same could be said of Scotland.
That there should now be such petty discontent with Great Britain north of the border, and such lukewarm defence of it on both sides, is a tragedy and a pathetic one. I blame the British elite, which seems to me not to cherish its history and its traditions and have put up such a feeble fight against Scottish separatism.
The summoning of the first Parliament of Great Britain should be cause for celebration. If only there were celebrants.