History Of Parliaments Research Paper

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Nowadays, a Parliament is a central institution of the democratic state under the rule of law. The term parliament comes from French and describes a forum in which social understandings are reached by verbal negotiation, through the act of speaking. A Parliament is a representative institution, elected by direct universal suffrage. It plays an indispensable role in the workings of the State, as an active participant in the coalescing of political will, in public management, and essentially through conduct of the legislative process and concentration of the ruling elite. The decisive function of policy legitimization performed by parliaments is central to representative democracy which is the predominant system of political organization in contemporary states. Experience of direct democracy, which dispenses with the representative parliamentary system or acts in parallel to it, is generally limited to referendums, Switzerland being among the few countries that practice direct democracy on a regular basis. A Parliament is an assembly of public delegates who receive a mandate for a limited period, are voted to office through elections based upon a pluralistic political-party system, and serve as a channel for the expression of the opinions of society.

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The approaches of political scientists and historians to the study of parliaments are closely related. Most contemporary researchers apply the insights of both disciplines in their efforts to analyze and explain the institutional structures and workings of parliaments. Comparative studies of the trajectory of societies, of the formation of states, and of the composition of their social and economic groups are the components of research on representation, participation, and decision-making processes conducted through and by means of parliaments. The achievement that parliamentary institutions represent, in terms of the development of democracy within society throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, provides the social sciences with ample scope for research. Political science, sociology, and history continually delve into the origins, composition, work methods, social relevance, political prominence, and social roles of parliaments.

1. Functions And Types

The functions of parliaments have differed according to the system of government. Various terms may designate a parliamentary institution according to the different systems, such as: parliament, court, assembly, council. Under a parliamentary system, executive power emanates from the legislative branch invested in parliament, and governments hold office and remain in power so long as they enjoy the confidence of the parliament. Under a presidential system, parliament serves as a counterpoint to the political legitimacy bestowed upon the president through direct presidential elections. Parliaments also exist in nondemocratic regimes, such as the fascist dictatorships and ‘democratic peoples’ republics’ of the twentieth century. Under such systems they tend to be mere puppets or facades since they exercise no real power but rather serve as rubber stamps to endorse the power of the government, devoid of the legitimacy bestowed by a pluralistic party system and in the absence of representative electoral processes.

Depending on the process leading to their formation, parliaments can be classified according to three criteria: composition, action, and structure. Composition is subject to two variants: the first of these relates to criteria based on noble birth or propertied status, whereas the second is based on universal suffrage. Functionally speaking, contemporary parliaments can also be classified as bicameral or unicameral, depending on the constitutional framework of the State, which may have opted for a single chamber or for two chambers. In any case, the chamber (or at least one of the chambers) ought to be elected directly by the people in free elections.

In functional terms, parliaments may be classified as ‘active’ or ‘deliberative.’ Active parliaments are those that, within a parliamentary system, have the power to appoint and support the government, as is the case in most modern parliamentary democracies. The so- called deliberative parliaments are those that have no direct responsibility for the business of government, and include the pro-forma parliaments tolerated by authoritarian regimes. Under a presidential system, as a counterpoint to the legitimacy of the ‘working’ executive branch, the parliament assumes a pre-dominantly deliberative role. These characteristics apply equally to unicameral and bicameral parliaments, in both federative and centralized states.

It is the decisive role performed by parliaments in the process of forming governments and providing them with support that has given currency to the term Parliamentary System to describe the form of government in which empowerment and support of the Executive Branch are dependent on a vote of confidence from the parliament. This definition applies to the form of government a term that expresses the legitimacy that stems from the legislative branch in its executive form. Under a presidential system in which the Executive is the predominant Branch of Government, as is the case in the United States, the Head of State is voted to office by direct elections and consequently his legitimacy competes with that of the parliament. In both parliamentary and presidential systems, the parliament is said to embody the Legislative Branch and its political legitimacy stems from the ballot.

2. Origins

Modern parliaments stem from two roots. The first of these is the corporative assemblies of the Estates that were summoned under the Ancien Regime in Europe, and the second, the broad-based popular representation originating from revolutionary movements. The first model of corporative representation brought together the three Estates—namely, the nobility, the clergy, and the ‘third estate’ which evolved gradually into a form of parliamentary representation as sovereign rulers required assent to levy taxes and make war. This first version of the dependence of the sovereign ruler on an institution of a parliamentary nature did not lead directly to democracy nor to recognition of popular sovereignty. The origin of these lies in the second root of modern parliaments—the popular revolutionary root—from which stem: the origins of the process of definition of popular sovereignty, the concept of citizenship, the legitimacy of power based on representation and the delegation of sovereign power, the rule of impersonality of the law within a context of absolute civil equality among citizens, the extension of such rights to all adult citizens within society and the adoption and consolidation of liberal democracy, the expansion of suffrage and political parties, the constitution of government and of its control (under both the parliamentary and presidential systems), and the expression of popular will through the ballot. Both roots reflect anti-absolutist sentiments and it is from them that a representative democratic model, with elections at predetermined intervals, developed.

Both these origins of parliamentary power are clearly preserved and apparent in the structure and functioning of the British parliament. The House of Commons, based upon the weight it amassed in the civil war of 1642–9 and the upon manifestation of its social powers in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–9, assumed its role of expressing the collective will as a source of power detrimental to that of the Crown. The result of the revolution, which established the right of parliament to chose a new sovereign, is reflected in the jusnaturalist and contractual arguments presented in Locke’s Two Treaties on Civil Government (1690)—one of the principal theoretical works in support of the legitimacy and controlling powers of parliament.

The House of Lords, with its elitist composition, preserves the corporativist tradition of the Estates. Modern French tradition, established with the Jeu de Paume Oath of June 20,1789 at the advent of the French Revolution, signals a break with the system of Estates General of the Ancien Regime and use of the term Parliament to designate the judicial and notarial functions, as it had since the twelfth century. The parliamentary assembly installed in the very earliest days of the revolution enshrined the principal of popular sovereignty. In both the British and the French cases, affirmation of the principle of popular sovereignty arose from revolutionary movements, whereby the political absolutism of European states was substituted by constitutionalism. The role performed by a representative system in the formation of the United States is unique. The affirmation of the will of the Americans against unconditional rule by the British Crown led to the establishment of a community-based version of the decision-making process, similar to the community practices of the Protestant congregations, which served as a collegiate political model for the provincial and continental congresses, in which no form of corporative representation was present.

3. Evolution

At the onset of the nineteenth century there were three types of parliaments: mixed–popular and aristocratic–bicameral under the English model; the French unicameral, popular model; and the American bicameral, popular and federalist model. In Western Europe and in the Latin-American republics, an era of constitutionalization began. Both monarchies and republics adopted political systems dependent on representative legitimacy. Under parliamentary systems (in which the Government is dependent on investiture by the Legislative Branch), and under presidential systems (in which the Executive is chosen by direct elections), parliaments assumed increasing importance in political life. Parliament became the forum for representation and expression of social and economic forces, where the repercussions of rights claimed took on resonance and the extension of political and civil rights was played out.

The role of parliaments evolved during the course of the nineteenth century from being initially consultative to being deliberative. The legitimacy of parliaments became independent of the legitimacy of the sovereign upon emerging from the electoral process. As a consequence of electoral and census systems which, throughout the 1800s, maintained cultural and economic distinctions among citizens, despite their all being held (theoretically) equal before the law, parliaments maintained an indirect corporative dimension until the institution of universal suffrage. Such distinctions were based on the systematic exclusion of women and the preference for the rich, the well-born, and the literate.

The itinerary of consolidation of the power of the Legislative Branch was implemented in different ways under the North American presidential, the British parliamentary, and the French and German parliamentary models. The United States Congress reflects the federative structure of the State and the fact that the United States spent the nineteenth century engaged in a process of expanding its frontiers and acquiring new territory. Furthermore, the political model adopted by the American Congress implies that each state of the federation, through actions taken by its own political spheres, has joined the Union. The principle of legally joining a federation of states, together with that of popular sovereignty, is enshrined in the bicameral parliamentary systems predominant in federative states (such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, India, Austria, Mexico, Argentina, Germany, Japan, and Indonesia). In centralized states, bicameralism is the result of the continuity of mixed forms of representation, with roots stemming back to the Estates and to popular sovereignty. Both the British and the French parliamentary systems provide examples of such evolution. In both cases, tradition has been partially preserved through the upper house (the House of Lords and the Senate), whereas popular representation is ensured by the Lower House (the House of Commons and the National Assembly). This model was also adopted by the Scandinavian monarchies and also, at specific times, by such states as the German Empire (1871–1918) and the multinational Austrian–Hungarian Empire (1848–1918).

Parliaments emerged upon the European scene as a counterpoint to monarchic autocracy. In their contemporary form as ‘parliaments of citizens,’ they emerged from an extensive line of development going back to the principle of egalitarian representation first put forward in the eighteenth century. The parliamentary model of the late twentieth century is the fruit of the maturing of philosophical concepts with respect to human rights and the separation of powers. As the twenty-first century dawns, there is widespread social awareness that there can be no exercise of power without political representation, and that this resides in the legislative bodies. The transformation of political regimes into fully-fledged democracies has led to an expansion and diversification of the roles of parliaments. To the role of authorizing tax collection has been added deliberation of public budgets, supervision of government actions, and full participation in decisions regarding public policies.

The reform of electoral systems and extension of suffrage have placed on the stage of public and social life the professional politician, a party member who represents specific interests. The principal interest that became enshrined over the length of the nineteenth century—from the French Revolution to the end of World War I—was to force the acceptance of, respect for, and practice of popular sovereignty as the source of the legitimacy of all power.

Central to an understanding of the evolution of parliaments is the concept of popular sovereignty. It was the new element that entered the political scene in the eighteenth century, whereby Monarchic authority—though still enjoying wide support—was no longer accepted as being absolute, nor independent of social support. It found expression in parliamentary democracy which essentially signifies a system in which government is made up of a nationally-elected as sembly to which it is accountable. Acceptance of this concept was consolidated during the course of the nineteenth century when the ideal of democracy became associated with the parliamentary system of government.

‘Active’ parliaments—the importance of which has increased remarkably since 1945 and is sill increasing at the onset of the twenty-first century—have taken on a direct responsibility for furthering the public interest. This is in line with a historic trend, initiated in the 1790s, of delegating sovereignty to elected representative bodies. In such parliaments, the house assumes not only the role of deliberating themes of interest to society but also of making decisions relating to public polices stemming from them. Under presidential systems, as is the case of the United States, the powers of the Executive are legitimized directly by popular vote, independently of parliament. Although this is true in terms of the origin of legitimacy (the ballot), it does not mean that the concrete exercise of power is free of controls. On the other hand, the extension of suffrage and the continuous rate of development of political participation since the 1830s have brought about changes in the exercise of power which have not excluded the presidential systems. Though it may even be possible to govern without parliament—against parliament it is not possible to govern. Though a strong presidential government might tend to ignore collective assemblies, nonetheless, the democratic framework of the State serves to counterbalance the relationship. Parliamentary democracy is an achievement of the Western European States and, increasingly of a number of Latin American and former communist Eastern European States. It is also the result achieved by certain nations of the British Commonwealth which, since becoming independent of Britain, have incorporated the parliamentary system of government. Such is the case in Canada, Australia, India, and New Zealand. Democratic and parliamentary systems are rarer and less stable in Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East.

The expansion of suffrage, resulting in mass democracy and recourse to regular popular participation (formalized through political parties or indirectly through lobbies or special interest groups), have caused parliaments to assume the roles of formulation and assessment of public policies (and of decision-making under parliamentary systems of government), particularly in the financial area (through the preparation of the budget and the exercise of control over its execution). The rate at which parliamentary institutions have assumed a leading role in the political process varies from one region to another. In periods of economic expansion or of war, the active role of parliaments may go into retreat, as occurred in the Belle Epoque and during World Wars I and II. Under authoritarian regimes, of the left or of the right, it is not uncommon for parliaments to be merely irrelevant decorative trimmings to the institutional architecture (as was the case in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, in the communist countries, and under the military dictatorships of Latin America in the twentieth century). Beginning in the 1990s, successful experiences of systems of government centered upon parliaments have been adopted in various regions of the world. In Eastern European countries, the West European parliamentary model of political organization has been widely adopted, though it runs up against the tendency to fall back on a powerful Head of State with a presidential profile that is a legacy of the centralizing tendency of a communist past which lasted from 1945 to 1990. In Latin America, with the restoration of democracy that began in the 1980s, parliaments have taken on importance in a context clearly dominated by the presidential models of the North American type. In Asia, Japan, and India active parliaments have been the rule since the late 1940s. In Africa, although practically all countries have parliamentary institutions, the parliamentary model, whether active or deliberative, remains incipient and the role of parliaments largely irrelevant.

4. Future Prospects

Issues discussed when examining the history of parliaments fall largely into three groups: the external environment; domestic characteristics; and the political characteristics of parliaments. The external environment includes efforts to articulate four trends: the constitutional structure of parliaments, the administrative structure, the (political or electoral) system upon which they are based, and the interest groups with which they must interact. Their domestic characteristics comprise five factors that are decisive for the process of constituting parliaments: their members (their social and professional background, political experience and aspirations, and their degree of commitment to the legislative branch); parliamentary parties, committees, and houses as operational institutions, relations between members of parliament and their constituents as a reflection of social, economic, and cultural structures. The characteristics of their politics open up the possibility of studying parliaments as forums where the repercussions of short-, medium-, and long-term structures are felt and the way in which they reflect the dynamics of political decisions.

There are four principal trends in the historical research on modern parliaments: recovery and systemization of sources; sociological analysis of the composition of parliamentary representation; a physiological examination of parliamentary speeches; analysis of the role of parliaments in public administration (the formation and control of governments, monitoring and assessment of public policies, and taking of measurements among the voters and public institutions). A great portion of these trends is typically European. In Great Britain and in Germany, for example, recovery of sources is an important approach when placing parliaments within a historical context. The same is true in Brazil, Canada, and Australia. In all these cases, this monumental work has been linked directly to the consolidation of their respective identities over time and to the legitimization of the democratic structures of the State. However, as also occurs in other walks of life, historical research trends evolve.

Not so long ago it was possible to write on the history of parliaments by concentrating solely upon formal texts. Causes and developments would be carefully taken into account, accounts taken down in writing in accordance with the level of detail required, and the consequences for political parties and other significant players in the political processes analyzed. In many of the older texts, an implicit (and sometimes explicit) premise recurring throughout the explanation of the causes and consequences of parliamentary life was that it was possible to chart their progress. History reveals the emergence of parliamentary democracy, as legislation expands the electorate (in accordance with the results of the census, especially in the nineteenth century), to a certain degree making the vote more equal and elections more ‘honest.’ It was perfectly possible to explore democracy through reference to certain key political dates in each country. Thus the British system came to be regarded as a paradigm by others, as it ensures mechanisms which guarantee the peaceful transfer of power.

Such emphases have been radically altered. First, historical research, in a more skeptical and less self-confident age, no longer seeks to chart the progress from a smaller to a larger state, not least because society at the end of the twentieth century has become much more ambivalent about the building of progress. Second, because much more emphasis had been devoted to continuity than to change (especially with respect to representative democracy). Third, research efforts (polling) at the constituency level have greatly increased. It is hardly surprising that such work produces revelations that do not support the progressive view. It could be argued that the nature of the political process has undergone changes for the worse, from the viewpoint of the lower classes. The way in which governments manipulate electoral laws and the rules defining constituencies and how majorities are defined (for example, proportional systems, simple majorities or mixed systems) have become relevant research themes in the field of historical research, the results of which are only now coming to light.

Furthermore, historians have begun to question the importance of the vote for participation in the political process. Indeed, a well-substantiated demand addressed to the administration is likely to be more effective than heated political speeches supported by a few votes in a legislative body. The parallel with nineteenth-century Brazilian politics (and the process of overthrowing dictatorships in the twentieth century, particularly in Latin America) are cases in point. As O’Gorman and Vernon showed for Great Britain, lack of voter participation has not been an obstacle to political participation. Members of Parliament must take a broad spectrum of interests into account if they wish to remain on good terms with their constituents. The right to vote does not necessarily bring with it access to political power. The suffragettes of the early twentieth century produced brilliant political propaganda, showing that educated, intelligent women with an interest in public affairs were denied access to the vote, whereas ignorant, vulgar, and drunken men were free to participate in it. In reality, such campaigns had a reach far beyond the mere exercise of the ballot: they were an affirmation of the importance of women in a stable political system.

Interest in electoral policies has been reinforced by detailed studies of elections, supported by long-term statistics. Such statistics have used materials that historians immediately recognize as being prime raw material for such studies. Voter registration records prior to the introduction of the secret ballot in Great Britain in 1872, for example, show who voted for whom. Such surveys make it possible to monitor changes in voting habits and to identify which candidates or parties lost favor with different social groups. The ‘social geography’ of elections and the ‘sociological premises’ of a given society thus become important instruments for historical analysis. Historical research brings together both the quantitative and qualitative techniques of the social sciences to obtain relevant results for the analysis of parliaments.

Political studies relating directly to social and occupational structures also touch upon two other lines of work carried out over the past 40 years. ‘History from the bottom up’ was in vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, when many researchers began to devote themselves increasingly to social structures. Attempts to discover the origins of the ‘working class’ and, somewhat later, of the ‘middle class’ involved deep social analyses. Historians more sensitive to issues of social class admit that political awareness plays a part in the issue. Indeed, class consciousness is related directly to the exercise and pursuit of power and in turn requires the existence of political structures that need to be changed. Nonetheless, in Europe, as of the early nineteenth century, debate on parliamentary reform became enmeshed in discussions on social class and on changes in the ‘political culture.’

Another important intellectual development has been emergence of the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ which began to influence historians in the 1980s. Detailed studies of language as a vehicle for conveying ideas, conducted by historians, have been inspired by radically new ideas borrowed from literary criticism. The relevance, and even the validity, of such an approach has engendered much debate among historians versed in the empirical tradition. Many are reluctant to accept that language can build its own realities, rather than having been invented to serve economic, social, or cultural needs. Unquestionably, extreme versions of poststructuralism, which claim that a text has no validity except in its own context, undermine any type of historical investigation in that they do not accept the notion of relative importance and suggest that change cannot be explained by intentional ‘privilege’ attributed to particular parts of historical documents. The ‘linguistic turn’ causes historians to be even more strict in the control of their premises on parliamentary discourse as a historical source. Language may effectively be used to mold ideas. Studies on demagoguery, populism, and ‘caudilismo,’ and their influence upon the formation of parliaments in such countries as Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, are pioneers in this field. The study of the language used by the Chartist reformers of parliamentary democracy in Great Britain, for example, shows that their real goal was political change.

A third theme relating to the expansion of the democratic process is treated under the term ‘progress.’ Research shows clearly that, when it comes to political change, progress is neither simple nor linear. Parliamentary history is related to, but not defined by, the history of democratization. ‘Democratization’ of itself is a highly problematic and contested concept. Nonvoters are not necessarily excluded from politics. No parliamentary reform ever ‘grants power’ to another social group—at any rate, not directly. Women do not all of a sudden hold power simply as a consequence of a scrap of paper called a ‘law.’ Current research trends show that the law is more likely to ratify a political order already in place than to introduce sweeping change. The recent development of supranational parliaments (the European Union, Mercosur) provides an entirely new field, into which investigative research is about to begin.

Historians have become more involved with continuities. Much of the historical research carried out in the 1980s and 1990s was accompanied by warnings about the dangers of economic reductionism, or of any other type of reductionism. However, the determination of historians to attempt to see things ‘within their context’ has contributed to the clarification of a series of relevant conclusions on the subject of parliamentary reform. They are now more aware that neither the ‘top-down’ explanations based upon the higher policies of central parliaments, nor the ‘bottomup’ approaches that concentrate on extraparliamentary forms of pressure, are of themselves sufficient. The emphasis has swung to the need to understand the intricate interrelations of the complex factors which created the political culture of the twentieth century and, above all, World War II. The changing methods and interpretations nonetheless confirm the central role of parliaments in this culture.


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