This year our parliament celebrates its seven hundred and fiftieth birthday, which rather puts things in perspective.
Simon de Montfort summoned representatives of the barons, the knights, and the burgesses to be assembled in what became the first parliament of the realm. Of course this legislature has undergone numerous transformations over the years: with the Act of Union with Scotland, the Parliament of England became the Parliament of Great Britain in 1707 and then the Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1801 when Ireland joined.
The most remarkable thing, however, is that we have – not without struggle or violence – maintained an unbroken tradition of parliamentary government for so many centuries. No major state today has such a long legacy to look back to and to draw upon – the political history of the United Kingdom is frankly unparalleled. Whereas the French and other countries argue their freedoms come from abstract ideas, the freedoms of the English are an inheritance which has been accumulated over long periods of time.
Much of our work in Parliament today is guarding that heritage and making sure it is protected for future generations. But it should also give us a better perspective when interacting with other countries. Most of all it should have taught us that simply turning up in Baghdad or Kabul and expecting them to turn into parliamentary democracies overnight when we have had the benefit of centuries’ experience is hopelessly naïve.
The word “parliament” comes from the French word “parler” – to talk – and we do a fine amount of that here as well. Recently I have had the opportunity to speak on a variety of issues ranging from Holocaust Memorial Day, allowing prayers before council meetings, and contaminated blood supplies. The Holocaust was an historical event of almost terrible importance, but, unlike de Montfort’s parliament centuries ago, this mass slaughter took place within living memory. There are survivors still living in Britain today – indeed, here in Lincolnshire – who can recall the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, and many Jews, Poles, and others suffer the absence of loved ones who died in these hellish places.
Freedom of worship is just one of the many freedoms that Jews were deprived of in Germany and throughout Europe during the war, and it’s one of the freedoms which is even now threatened in our own country. Recently I was very happy to speak in favour of a bill put down by my colleague Jake Berry MP which seeks to protect the rights of councils and other local authorities to say prayers before meetings, should they so desire.
Fundamentally, councils should be able to sort out their own business, and if they, in reflection of the religion of the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants they represent, wish to say a quick prayer before meetings then why not? Such freedoms are under threat, which is why we seek to give them legal backing now. We want to secure another 750 years of parliamentary democracy in Britain.
Sir Edward Leigh