The distinction of the English parliament is not that it is the oldest such assembly in the world (although it is one of the oldest), nor that it was unusual at its inception for parliaments were widespread in medieval Europe. The English parliament’s distinction lies in its truly national nature – it was a national not federal assembly – its longevity and the nature of its development. No other parliament in a country of any size was meaningfully maintained by regular meeting through seven or eight centuries, its only competitors for endurance being the tiny Icelandic assembly and the federal arrangements of the Swiss. Most importantly, before England created such an institution to act as a model, no other Parliament in the world developed into an fully fledged executive as well as a legislature.
The English parliament made a very gradual progression to the place we know today. It began as an advising and petitioning body in the 13th century and before the end of the 14th century had come to exercise considerable power over any taxation which was considered over and above the king’s normal and rightful dues, such as the excise. Gradually, this power transmuted into what was effectively a veto over most taxation. Parliament also added the power to propose and pass laws subject to their acceptance by the monarch. These developments meant that executive power gradually drained from the King. From this came cabinet government as the monarch was more and more forced to take the advice of his ministers and by the end of the 18th century the struggle between Crown and Parliament for supremacy had been emphatically decided.
As the Parliament gained power, the Lords gradually diminished in importance and the Commons became by the 19th century, if not before, the dominant House. The final act in the play was a century long extension of the franchise culminating in a government dominated by an assembly elected under full adult suffrage from 1928 onwards.
The treatment of foreigners
Compared with other peoples, the English have been noticeably restrained in their treatment of other peoples residing within England. A few massacres of Jews occurred before their expulsion from England in 1290, but from that time there has not been great slaughter of a minority living within England. Since 1290 there have been occasional outbreaks of anti-foreigner violence. During the Peasants’ Revolt London-based Flemings were murdered. In later times an anti-Spanish “No Popery” mob was frequently got up in London and the influx of Jews and Huguenots in the 17th and 18th centuries caused riots, one so serious in 1753 that it caused the repeal of a law naturalising Jews and Huguenots. But these riots did not result in great numbers of dead, let alone in systematic genocidal persecutions of any particular group. Most notably, the English fonts of authority, whether the crown, church or parliament, have not incited let alone ordered the persecution of a particular racial or ethnic group since the expulsion of the Jews. They have persecuted Christian groups, but that was a matter of religion not ethnicity, the Christians persecuted being English in the main. The only discrimination the English elite have formally sanctioned against an ethnic group for more than half a millennium was the inclusion of Jews within the general prohibitions passed in the half century or so after the Restoration in 1660 which banned those who were not members of the Church of England from holding a crown appointment such as an MP or election to public offices such as that of MP.
Peaceableness and constitutional development
Is this comparative lack of violence a consequence of England’s political arrangements, or are the political arrangements the consequence of the comparative lack of violence in the English character? Probably the answer is that one fed the other. But there must have been an initial exceptional tendency towards reasonableness which started the long climb towards settling disputes without violence.
Perhaps the fundamental answer to English peaceableness lies in the fact that the English enjoyed a level of racial cultural homogeneity from very early on. Long before the English kingdom existed Bede wrote of the English as a single people. The English have never killed one another in any great quantity simply because one part of the population thought another part was in some way not English. That is the best possible starting point for the establishment of a coherent community.
The favoured liberal view of England is that it is the mongrel nation par excellence. In fact, this is the exact opposite of the truth. The general facts of immigration into England are these. The English and England were of course created by the immigration of Germanic peoples. The British monk, Gildas, writing in the sixth century, attributed the bulk of the Saxon settlement to the practice of British leaders employing Saxons to protect the Britons from Barbarian attacks after Rome withdrew around 410 A.D. The English monk Bede (who was born in A.D. 673) attributed the origins of the English to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came to England in the century following the withdrawal of the Romans at the request of British war leaders.
Archaeological evidence suggests that substantial Germanic settlement in England had a longer history and dated from the Roman centuries, perhaps from as early as the third century. What is certain is that in her formative centuries following the exit of Rome, the various invaders and settlers were drawn from peoples with much in common. They were the same physical type, there was a considerable similarity of general culture, their languages flowed from a common linguistic well.
When the Norsemen came they too brought a Teutonic mentality and origin. Even the Normans were Vikings at one remove who, if frenchified, were not physically different from the English nor one imagines utterly without vestiges of the Norse mentality. Moreover, the number of Normans who settled in England immediately after the Conquest was small, perhaps as few as 5000.
After the Conquest, the only significant immigration into England for many centuries were the Jews. They were expelled from England in 1290. There was then no large scale and sudden immigration from outside the British Isles until the flight of the Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which granted limited toleration to the Huguenots within France) in 1684 by Louis X1V.
There was other immigration in the period 1066-1650, but it was small and highly selective. Craftsmen of talent were encouraged particularly in the Tudor period. Italian families with trading and banking expertise (such as it was in those days) appeared after the expulsion of the Jews. Foreign merchants were permitted, but for much of the period on sufferance and subject to restrictions such as forced residence within specially designated foreign quarters.
The upshot of all this is that for six centuries after the Conquest England was an unusually homogeneous country, both racially and culturally. This is reflected in the absence since the Norman Conquest of any serious regional separatist movement within the heart of English territory.
There has been meaningful resistance at the periphery – Cornwall, the Welsh marches and the far north, but even that has been effectively dead since the sixteenth century. Englishmen have fought but not to create separate nations.
How England became the mother of modern politics Part 1 appeared yesterday, Part 3 will appear tomorrow