History and workings of Parliament in 800 years of Magna Carta

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, delivered a lecture at the British Ambassador’s residence in Japan on 6 August 2015 on the history and workings of Parliament in 800 years of Magna Carta. Read the speech below.

It is my enormous pleasure to be here today, to be able to offer some thoughts on the past and the future of the UK House of Commons to you and then to deal as best I can with the questions that you choose to put to me.  It is also an immense privilege for me to be here in Japan as the ties between our two countries are very close and if anything are becoming closer still and that applies as much to the relationship between the House of Commons and the Diet as to other institutions.  I should also state at the outset that I have come here not to lecture but to learn as there is much that our parliamentary democracy might benefit from discoveries about innovations made here.  This applies especially to the whole theme of Digital Democracy, the better application of the incredible revolution in communications which we have witnessed over the past ten years to the world of parliaments and politics more broadly, as this has become a particular personal crusade of mine.

The title which has been advertised today, namely the history and workings of the UK Parliament in the 800th year of Magna Carta, involves, to put it mildly, an extensive amount of potential territory.  If I were to follow it literally and take you through every aspect of the development of Parliament from the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and the creation of what is now viewed as the first example of something akin to the modern House of Commons almost exactly 50 years later in January 1265, then it would be an extremely long speech indeed, almost eight hundred years long in fact, and I suspect that even as expert and as courteous an audience as we have here would be exhausted.  So I will spare you that burden.  There are people at the Embassy who will be happy to point you towards an extensive reading list about Parliament and its history if you would like to read more detail later.  What I intend to be today is somewhere more thematic.  I would like to discuss briefly why the history of Parliament matters. I want to reflect upon what I consider to be the most important features of the House of Commons as it functions today.  Finally, I will look at the future of democratic legislatures.

Let me start, however, with the history of the House of Commons as that would be difficult to ignore at any time but impossible in a year such as this with, as I mentioned, the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the 750th anniversary of the 1265 Parliament having been and continuing to be celebrated not only in the United Kingdom itself but in many other nations including, I am pleased to observe, Japan.  It is, after all, a very distinct feature of the British political system that its institutions have extremely long and in most cases almost continuous histories but have evolved over that time.  It is almost impossible to understand British democracy and British society absent that crucial fact.

I should say, however, the history is not an argument by itself.  That something has been with us for a very long time does not necessarily imply that it is superior to alternatives with shorter pedigrees.  It could reflect other factors. The UK, for example, like Japan, is an island nation, close to but set apart from the rest of the continent of which it is manifestly part, but with an isolation which has largely enabled it to develop in its own fashion albeit with external events sometimes acting as a catalyst.  It strikes me that the crucial aspect about the Magna Carta in 1215 and then the first Parliament of 1265, and we should very much view them as intimately linked because in the eyes of many of those involved in the so-called Simon de Montfort Parliament of 1265 this was the institutional means of ensuring that the pledges made in the Magna Carta were actually honoured by later Kings, is the values which quickly became associated with Magna Carta and Parliament and have endured since.

What are those values?  I think that they can best be expressed in three essential principles.  The first is the notion that authority must be subject to checks and balances if it is not to become arbitrary in character, even tyrannical.  The second is that political legitimacy must ultimately be derived through political representation and not individual status alone.  The meaning of “representation” and the nature and numbers of those to be represented has, manifestly, changed fundamentally over the centuries, but to me this has been the continued extension of a principle with deep historical roots.  Finally, both Magna Carta and the first Parliament pay homage to the importance of the rule of law.

The House of Commons has been a varied creature over the many hundreds of years of its history but I believe that there is a very compelling argument that whoever has sat there, whatever has been said in its chamber and whatever it has done it terms of its deeds has been overwhelmingly shaped by these three principles: checks and balances, the role of representation and rule of law.

I am very conscious of these political values when I take the chair of the House of Commons.  I am, officially, the 157th Speaker in a line which runs back to the fourteenth century.  If we were to count everyone who it could be claimed had served as the Presiding Officer of the House from the 1265 Parliament onwards, that number would rise even higher, up to 175 individuals on some counts. There is even a case to be made for including certain meetings of a semi-parliamentary nature such as what is described as the “Mad” Parliament which convened in Oxford, England in 1258, although why that one alone is known as “Mad” is, I must confess, something of a mystery to me.  Yet I would contend that it is not the number of Speakers that matters, or the date on which an institution can be said to have been founded that renders it worthy of respect, but the values that it embodies.  I respect history, I do not worship it. I do not expect others whether at home or abroad to do either.  Yet I do have the utmost confidence that checks and balances, meaningful representation and the absolute integrity of the rule of law remain the nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide of democracy.  That is why I am as proud as I am to be the Speaker of the House particularly in this special year.

Understanding these values also makes it much easier to appreciate why the workings of the House of Commons have come to be as they are.  Some of our procedures are straightforward.  Others are more arcane, even idiosyncratic.  As I promised earlier, I will not seek to set out every aspect of how a bill becomes a law in the United Kingdom or outline the complicated machinery involved in the operations of the chamber as a deliberating body or the more recent use of select committees.  My essential argument here is that in almost every instance, the explanation for why Parliament is as it is can be found by its relentless ambition to hold the executive to account as a check and balance, to articulate public concerns through representation and to act as the guardian to the rule of its laws.

In the modern era, the three most important functions of the House of the Commons are, in my view, the consideration of legislation, holding the executive to account by means of multiple forms of scrutiny and campaigning, whether on behalf of individuals in a Member of Parliament’s personal constituency, communities within that constituency or causes which might well include interests within that constituency but which could be regional, national or international in their character.

I will touch upon all three of these quite swiftly.  The first – legislation – is plainly central.  The law only changes with the assent of Parliament.  The Government of the day has to introduce new or amended legislation to the House of Commons where its principles will usually be debated by the whole House at various stages known as “Readings” while the most detailed of its provisions will tend to be dealt with by a committee of MPs created especially for that exercise, although in certain circumstances, notably if the matter is considered to be constitutional in its nature, the whole of the House of Commons might act as one very large committee examining the clauses of that legislation.  The task of examining legislation, I will concede with absolute candour, is a very challenging one.  The House of Commons has limited time, limited personnel and limited expertise to deal with material that can be very considerable in its length and extremely technical in its content. It is an area where I am sure that we could do better and I always look for inspiration on my international travels on this.

The second area is executive scrutiny by which I mean holding ministers and the whole Government to account for the implementation of policy or the content of policy which does not need legislation. In our system, Members of Parliament have various means to do this, whether it be through written questions to ministers and departments, verbal questions at specially allocated ministerial question time in the chamber of the House of Commons itself, through participation in our select committees which in the UK are specialist bodies designed to be permanent watchdogs on departments or by initiating debates on an issue of policy in the House of Commons or its Westminster Hall annex.

This aspect of legislative life is extremely important.  It is also one where I have made my own contribution as Speaker during the six years in which I have occupied the office.  I have done so through the revival of what was quite an old parliamentary device known as the Urgent Question, or UQ which had fallen into virtual disuse in the late twentieth and very early twenty first centuries. The UQ allows any Member of Parliament on any sitting morning to petition me to have a minister come to the House of Commons at very little notice to answer a question relating to a matter that has taken place quite suddenly either in the United Kingdom or overseas with that answer then triggering the opportunity for further questions and in effect a mini-debate for a duration which I as the Speaker control the length of.  Before I became Speaker in June 2009 a mere two UQs had been awarded in the 12 months previously. In my tenure some 227 Urgent Questions have been accepted or roughly one every sitting week.  I believe that the revival of this instrument has made the House of Commons a more topical political institution and has strengthened MPs in terms of the executive.

Finally, there is what I have described as the campaigning function of Members of Parliament which has become ever more significant and which many voters would probably identify with most of all.  To be a Member of Parliament is to have an extraordinary platform for the power of publicity.  This has to be handled with some care but when employed surgically it can be a fantastic resource.  It is up to the individual Member of Parliament to determine how and on what to campaign but very few miss the opportunity to do so and most have varied issues and interests.  Before I became Speaker, for example, besides taking up the individual concerns of hundreds if not thousands of people in my constituency which is called Buckingham, I also campaigned relentlessly on the teaching of those with special educational needs, particularly autism and an on a range of international controversies, including that of the dire suffering of the people of Burma at the hands of the military regime there.  Many MPs have a similarly diverse array of campaigns with which they closely involved at any time.

What then of the future of the House of Commons and indeed of parliaments across democracies?  It seems to me that there are three common challenges which we need to recognise and respond to.

The first is that of popular relevance.  By that I mean that we need to spend a substantial amount of our time discussing and offering direction on the immediate issues of importance to the public and which are amplified by our now restless and relentless media.  We have to be talking about the same subjects which our people are talking about and on a similar timetable to them. Otherwise we will appear to be in a universe of our own, oblivious to the rest of our national discourse.  As I said a little earlier, my primary contribution to this has been through the restoration of the Urgent Question to centre stage in the House of Commons schedule but I have also encouraged a shift away from very general set-piece debates on matters decided weeks in advance to a much more flexible formula.

The second is that of digital democracy.  A strategy for engagement with the electorate, especially the younger elements of it, which embraces modern technology is about more than having a good website even if it is a very fine website indeed which I believe the UK Parliament does today have.  It has to be a much more all-encompassing approach than that.  It has to reflect the sheer speed at which contemporary communications is changing.  If I had been delivering these words exactly a decade ago, August 2005, it is unlikely that they would have been noted by anyone on Facebook, because Facebook at that stage was unknown outside of a relatively few American universities, they would not have prompted a response on Twitter because at that stage no tweet had yet been sent.  They would have had only a limited chance of being captured on smartphones because they were in such a comparative infancy that they could be deemed stupid phones by our current standards.  As for the likes of Flickr, WhatsApp and Snapchat?  Forget it, they were not even at their design stage.  And if you were kind enough to invite me back to Japan again in as little as two years, August 2017, I strongly suspect that there would be a whole new array of platforms of which we now know little.

All of which, to my mind, makes the argument for a fundamental and enduring debate about the relationship between technology and politics and technology and parliaments.  We cannot afford to be the canals in the emerging era of the trains.  We have to be far more imaginative, much more experimental, we need to be willing to be leaders and not followers when it comes to new trends.  It is for that reason that I established a Digital Democracy Commission for the House of Commons at the end of 2013 which reported earlier this year and we will spend much of the next two years not only implementing its wide-ranging recommendations but deciding how best to embed the spirit of innovation in to every aspect of the work of the House of Commons in the years ahead of us.  I am convinced that other legislatures will also need to transform themselves in this way as we must do.

The third element is a more physical form of public engagement as well as that of the internet kind.  We are blessed in Britain with an extraordinarily distinctive parliamentary building, including a most spectacular clock tower and bell, which is easily identified across the whole of the world.  The estate has its faults, it was hardly purpose-built for the requirements of twenty first century legislators, yet it remains a very impressive asset for us.  If we are to stimulate interest in what occurs within this architectural triumph, however, then we need to encourage citizens, and the youngest citizens who are still schoolchildren as a priority, to visit our Parliament and through it to appreciate democracy.

We have recently taken a great leap forward in this regard with the opening of a new Education Centre at the Palace of Westminster which will enable us to increase the numbers of schoolchildren who come to see us from 45,000 per year to 100,000 a year or a million pupils over the course of a decade.  Their experience will also be vastly improved by this new facility.  It is not the only alteration that we need to make in order to roll out the red carpet to the British public but it is an extremely important step for us.  I have sought to champion a larger number of different forms of tours for all age groups as well and I also spend as much time as I can when the House of Commons is not sitting, touring the United Kingdom talking about what Parliament does and making the case for visiting it.  I believe that only a genuinely open door Parliament will capture the imagination of those it serves.

I have spoken at some length but am aware that I can only do modest justice to the title which I was asked to contemplate.  It has been a very long road from Magna Carta to our modern democracy.  It is right, though, that we take the opportunity that this year with its important anniversaries to think more fully about the roots of our democracy and our society and that we not wallow in the past but use that past as a stimulant to be bold about our future.  I am by instinct an optimist. I have faith in the values which our Parliament has stood for over the centuries.  I am confident that they still count for much today.  Thank you for listening and I really welcome the chance to answer your questions.