Archive for the ‘House of Commons’ Category

Proportional Representation in New Zealand

November 3, 2010 5 comments

I was fortunate enough to attend a talk last Wednesday in Parliament.  The hosts were the NZ-UK Link Foundation and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.  Presenting were Professor Margaret Wilson, former Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, and Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at the University of Oxford.  Both speakers are firmly in favour of proportional representation.

The two speakers discussed New Zealand’s experiences with PR since its instigation in 1993, and the lessons the UK could learn from it.  Originally using FPTP like the UK, New Zealand now uses what it calls ‘Mixed-Member Proportional’ (MMP), which is better known within Europe as the ‘Additional Member System’ (AMS).  The basis of the voting system is that each voter gets two votes: one for a constituency and one for a party list.  The calculated combination of these two votes allows broad proportionality of votes while ensuring a constituency link.

In deference to the speakers, I have chosen to refer throughout this post to MMP, but in other posts, when dealing with electoral reform, I will most likely resort to the more familiar AMS.

NZ’s relevance to the UK

Professor Bogdanor hoped that there was much for Britain to learn from NZ’s experiences.  As in NZ, he felt that the adoption of PR in the UK wouldn’t require any drastic changes in how governments are formed or Parliament works.

NZ and the UK both have unwritten constitutions and, like the UK (and now Australia, as well as Canada) has a hung parliament.  The difference in New Zealand however is that hung parliaments are now the norm, with no party having gained an absolute majority since MMP was adopted.

There are differences too.  New Zealand has a unicameral Parliament (no Upper House), and fewer minor parties than the UK.  Of 19 minor parties in NZ in the FPTP era, only 7 received MPs.  There is also a slight difference in political culture – while in the UK, the largest party is expected to get the first shot at forming a government, there is no such expectation in NZ.

The 1992 and 1993 referendums

Professor Wilson explained that the adoption of PR in NZ was quite accidental.  Before 1996, NZ elections were carried out with first past the post, but there had been occasions in which the largest party in terms of votes did not get the most seats, resulting in calls for reform.  Additionally, respect for Parliament and politicians had declined sharply, with 44% expressing respect for them in a 1992 poll.

In the 1987 General Election, David Lange, the then Prime Minister, announced he would support a referendum on electoral reform before the 1990 election.  Professor Wilson suggested Mr. Lange misread his briefing notes when he made the announcement – oh dear.  It didn’t transpire, but the National Party leader, Jim Bolger, made a similar pledge in 1990.

There were two referendums in the end; the first referendum, in 1992, was principally advisory, and gave the electorate two questions to answer.  Question 1 asked if they wished to abandon FPTP as a means to elect the Parliament; question 2 then gave them a choice of  four different systems with which to replace it – AV, MMP, STV, and List.

As you might have guessed, Question 1 was endorsed, and Question 2 had MMP/AMS adopted by 84% of those who voted – but with only 55% turnout.  Nonetheless, 84% was a clear endorsement, and in 1993 a second, ‘binding’ referendum was held, which would decide firmly whether the change was to take place.  On a turnout of 82% (as the referendum was held simultaneously with the General Election that year), 52% endorsed MMP.

New Zealand’s PR Experience

There were fears that a Westminster system would not be able to handle PR too well, and there were questions in particular about the role of the Governor-General, New Zealand’s representative of the Queen.  In the event, these fears were unfounded, and the parliamentary apparatus adapted with few hiccups.  The Governor-General kept well away from government formation, and Professor Bogdanor felt that the same could be said of the Queen here.

In the run-up to the change taking effect, scheduled for the 1996 General Election, a bipartisan select committee was established in the Parliament to rewrite the House’s Standing Orders to accommodate the new system.  Additionally, the Cabinet Office took the initiative and prepared a living document, known as the Cabinet Manual, to inform the means by which government would be formed and change after each election.  This Manual continues to evolve with each new situation.

The Cabinet Manual provides guidelines on how civil servants are expected to behave during minority governments, coalitions, and in the period of government formation following the collapse of a government, namely absolute neutrality.  Not much changed from their role here in the UK, then.

Government formation tends to be in the form of informal back-room negotiations between party leaders and advisors, and the final deal is approved by party caucuses.  For the two major parties, Labor and the Nationals, the priority is to become a governing party.  For minor parties, the priority is to be in a position to exert influence over the major parties, by threatening security of supply and/or confidence, or perhaps even to join the government itself.

An innovation in making these negotiations easier has been the rise of what is called ‘agree to disagree’ provisions, which allow minor coalition partners to officially dissent from government policy in specified areas, but are still duty bound nonetheless to vote in favour of the policy they oppose.  Dissent in policy areas outside of ‘agree to disagree’ provisions is unacceptable: they must be arranged in advance.

Professor Bogdanor was dismissive of the very principle of such provisions, although he observed that it could already be being used here, in the shape of the Lib Dem exemption from support on trident renewal.  He felt it makes the government of the day appear ridiculous and only undermines its credibility.  It can only be a temporary measure.  It can also be problematic to tell when the party is speaking for itself or for the government.  There was deep embarrassment, for example, when an NZ foreign minister dissented from the government line and caused a bit of a stink with foreign governments.  Since then, it has been made clear that foreign policy is exempt from ‘agree to disagree’ provisions.

There have been some frustrations for the electorate.  In the 1996 election, voters for the small party, New Zealand First, expecting the party to coalition with Labor after the election (and encouraged by NZ First’s savage attacks on the Nationals), gave their List votes to Labor.  They were, unfortunately, let down – NZ First joined with the Nationals.  At the next election, in 1999, NZ First lost most of its seats.

The impact on Parliament

Under New Zealand’s MMP system, the FPTP-side candidates are chosen by constituency parties, and List-side candidates by the central party.  Professor Bogdanor disliked the List side of MMP (he personally favours STV), as it puts too much power in the hands of the central party, reinforcing party control over MPs.  Memberships of political parties continue to decline, making parties more and more like elites.

I have since posting been corrected slightly in my description of List – it’s not in fact centrally operated, but operated by regional conventions as per each party’s internal constitutions.

Professor Wilson noted no reduction in the degree of partisan, confrontational politics in New Zealand following the adoption of MMP.  There have been, however, a number of defections between the parties, and some conversions into Independent MPs, principally among the constituency MPs.  There have been complaints that this has undermined the main principle of proportionality, and it was proposed in the early 2000’s to require MPs that defect to resign their seats and face re-election.  Fortunately, this wasn’t adopted.

Committees in the NZ Parliament have become more assertive with the onset of permanent hung parliament.  As in the chamber, none of the parties have a majority on any committee.  Private Member Bills, also, have a (marginally) higher chance of succeeding.  MMP has, in Professor Wilson’s view, slowed down lawmaking (which is a positive), but not by a great deal.

Has MMP Worked?

The goal of NZ’s pro-PR reformers was to create a more representative parliament with more checks and balances on the Executive.  The MMP Parliament has 34% women, 15% Maori, and another 9% Asian and Pacific.  The parties use the List to improve these numbers, but it is clearly still poor as regards female representation at least.

In terms of checks and balances, the small size of Parliament, rather than the voting system, makes MPs there more effective in making a difference, as numbers are more important.  Whips are still powerful, as the potential independence inherent in a small parliament is offset by the presence of List MPs.

The frequent presence of coalition and minority governments also means more leverage for the Opposition and minority parties, but a consequent side-effect has been that much more decision-making is taken behind closed doors, with senior politicians relying more and more on specialist advisers (the notorious SpAds).  The effect has been a decline in the amount and quality of debate in Parliament, and less transparency.

Professor Wilson also pointed out the NZ Parliament has had its own expenses crisis, although not on the same scale as Britain’s.


Professor Wilson felt that MMP changed the nature of decision-making, slowing it down, but has also made it less open and increased the influence of unaccountable SpAds.  Select committees have enjoyed an increase in influence.  On the whole, Professor Wilson, while reiterating her support for MMP, felt the changes were ‘not revolutionary’.  As it stands, there is a referendum due in 2011 on whether to retain MMP or adopt another system, and it’s not clear what the result will be.

Professor Bogdanor found it curious that major constitutional change, normally a low priority, is now being considered in the UK now, only after a huge crisis of confidence in politics and Parliament following the expenses revelations last year.  He also observed that despite the main call by the public being for greater control over MPs, such as could be attainable through primaries and recall votes, the changes being proposed, such as PR, fixed-term parliaments, and primaries, would not address this one jot.

I found the talk very interesting.  It should be remembered, however, the AMS/MMP is but one possible option for PR that could be adopted, and Bogdanor himself favoured STV.  AMS isn’t on the cards at next year’s referendum, but it’s always useful to learn a bit more about the options.


Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: Report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

October 28, 2010 Leave a comment

On Wednesday, August 20th, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee put before the House of Commons its report on the current hot topic in Parliament, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

The report is enormous – 255 pages thick.  The committee, chaired by Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, deserves an enormous amount of kudos for doing what it could in the time allocated.  Because frankly, one of the biggest shames of this Bill is that it’s being shoved through the parliamentary process in the worst possible fashion.

The report criticises the fast pace of the progress of the Bill, and notes that the Bill, presented for First Reading on July 22nd 2010 with practically zero consultation with any interested parties.  Parliament went into recess shortly after, meaning that Parliament has had precious little opportunity to scrutinise the Bill properly.  While the Bill was paraded by the government as a ‘major step’ towards restoring people’s faith in Parliament:

“the Government’s failure to consult on the provisions in this Bill risk undermining that laudable intention.”


“it is always regrettable, and generally leads to poorer legislation, when such an approach to timetabling legislation becomes a characteristic of any government’s political reforms.”

The Bill is, essentially, two Bills in one: a Bill to establish a referendum on adopting a new electoral system, and another on reducing the number of parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 600.  For some, (arguably Labour supporters), the Bill is largely a politically-motivated fix, not a principled attempt to correct flaws in the Constitution.  However it makes sense to combine these two issues, but, the missed opportunity for the committee is adding Lords reform – meaning constitutional reform will continue to be dealt with piecemeal and not comprehensively.

The Referendum

The committee welcomed the government’s decision to put the electoral system change to a public vote.  The report is silent on the merits of either FPTP or AV (makes sense – as the paper is long enough already!).

The Bill’s present question for the referendum is:

“Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘fire past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”

However the Electoral Commission proposed something a bit friendlier:

‘”At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons.  Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”

The committee saw the merits and drawbacks of holding the vote on May 5th 2011, at the same time as elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.  The Scottish and Welsh legislatures claim it will overshadow their own elections and confuse the electorate, but Professor Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit in University College, London (UCL), disagreed:

“the likelihood is that the referendum is the second order poll, and that it will be overshadowed by the elections rather than vice versa.  That has been the experience in other countries which have had referendums at the same time as elections.  In Canada, and in New Zealand in 1993, the political parties remained silent on the referendum issue, not least because they were concentrating their efforts on fighting the election, not the referendum campaign.”

Pairing the elections and the referendum would save about £30 million in administrative costs, increase turnout, and minimise voter fatigue, which can only be to the good.  If the referendum were held on its own, the turnout for the poll would likely be very low.  The Hansard Society noted the low priority for the public of the issue, saying “only one in five (19%) report having discussed ‘the electoral system’ in the last year”.

So it makes sense ultimately for the referendum to buddy up with the devolved elections; but in order for everything to be ready in time, the Bill must become law 6 months before the vote – November 5th, 2011.  This means there’s been a phenomenal rush to get the Bill onto the Statute Books.  As it stands, the Lords will hardly have a moment to scrutinise the Bill within that deadline.  Given the huge number of amendments being proposed to the Bill and the ambivalent nature of all the parties to it, I would be surprised if it’s met.

Constituency Redrawing

While this section of the Bill is principally the Conservative Party’s baby, the Liberal Democrats also pledged in their manifesto to reduce the number of MPs to 500 but only if the UK adopted Single Transferable Vote (STV).  The Tories themselves wanted a 10% drop to 585.  600, then, is clearly a compromise.

The committee reported general surprise from its witnesses about the decision to cut the number of MPs.  Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy (a pro-electoral reform body) felt that, without a debate with the public on what MPs are for, this decision is putting “the cart before the horse”, and Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit added that there has been no input from the public on this decision.

The Rt Hon. Paul Murphy, MP, argued that larger constituencies would make MPs still more remote from their constituents.  The Deputy Prime Minister argued that the priority should be to ensure each vote carries the same weight.  But the committee questioned the wisdom of this approach:

“there is an argument…that the point of a constituency-based system, rather than a system of proportional representation, is to prioritise representation  of the views of local communities over absolute equality of votes for individuals.  It is important that the equalisation requirement is not drawn so tightly, that new constituencies lack a sense of local identity as a result”.

Therefore, if equal votes is our priority, rather than representation of communities, then the government should not have picked AV as their replacement voting system, but have gone straight to PR.

The Hansard Society felt a reduction of 50 MPs was simply “plucked from thin air – 600 simply being a neat number”.  Prof. Ron Johnston and Prof. Justin Fisher felt that it was largely “a rather populist response to the expenses scandal”, allowing the government to facetiously tell the country ‘we’re proving to the country we can work harder with less money’.   The committee concluded that while it felt there could be a justification for reducing the size of the Commons, the government simply hasn’t presented it.

Nor would the reduction make Parliament work any better or more cheaply.  According to the Hansard Society, increasing the average size of constituencies expand MPs’ casework, and require them to deal with even more local stakeholders and local authorities, implicating more time consumed and costs generated.  No savings were demonstrated by the government – indeed, the report points out it would be about a millionth of the budget of the NHS.

International comparisons show the House of Commons is not that much larger than the German or Italian lower Houses (with 622 and 630 representatives respectively).  More important than international comparisons is the uniqueness of the UK’s political structure – we are a unitary state, unlike Germany or America which are federal, and being parliamentary, unlike the US or France.  Here, the executive sits in the legislature, requiring a larger legislature to ensure separation of powers.

The Boundary Commissions

The committee’s report was unhappy with the government’s attitude to constituency redrawing, describing it as ‘mathematical’, and that insufficient consideration of local views was being provided.    The Committee has tabled an amendment to the Bill (which will be dealt with in the House’s committee stage) which would make it easier for members of the public to influence the redrawing process, and to have more of an impact.  Let’s hope the House accepts it.

The committee was also unhappy with the concentration of power the Bill grants the government in clause 8(6), allowing the government to amend a Boundary Commission report at will.  The government tried to assure the committee that this power would only be used to amend obvious errors in the reports, but as the boundary appeals are dominated by political parties, the committee wasn’t convinced.   The committee therefore insisted on statutory limitations on these powers, namely that amendments to the Boundary Commission’s report only be made with the Commission’s consent.

By not attempting to reach a consensus on its boundary reform proposals, the government is leaving itself exposed to claims that the Bill is purely partisan, and it will set a precedent for future governments to tinker with constituency drawing more aggressively.  The question of course is whether consensus on such a hot potato as constituency boundaries is at all possible, of course.

The Payroll Vote

The committee observed that the cuts threaten to make the ‘payroll vote’ – the number of MPs working for the government – proportionately larger, and threatening Britain’s separation of powers.

The number of ministers in the Commons is limited to just 95, as per the House of Commons Disqualification Act (1975), and each of these can have a Parliamentary Private Secretary, meaning the maximum potential number on the ‘payroll vote’ can be 190 MPs.

It’s likely that the 50 constituencies abolished would be backbenchers, meaning the government would grow in size in the House.  In the government’s defence, reducing the size of the Executive in the House isn’t a simple mathematical affair, as the ministerial  workloads would intensify.  The side-effect may be an increase in the number of ministers sitting in the House of Lords.  The committee wasn’t impressed by this, describing it as ‘ironic’ that the government would make excuses for this, given their haste and lack of concern about the impact of reducing the size of the House overall.  Therefore, the committee tabled an amendment which would limit the payroll vote to 15% of the House.

All in all, the committee’s report appears to be quite constructive.  It’s supportive of the Bill in principle, but critical of the spirit of its passage through Parliament.  The arbitrary constituency boundary redrawings resembles not a little the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The House of Commons is coming to the end of its own committee stage for the Bill, and very shortly will be before the House of Lords.

Deputy PM considering moving 2015 Scottish Elections date?

September 16, 2010 2 comments

I am returning after a long spell away from this blog.  I am pleased to announce that my absence is now at an end, and I look forward to posting with my usual regularity – i.e. every now and then!

According to BBC News, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Nick Clegg, is in talks with the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, about moving the date of the Scottish Parliament elections in 2015.  Apparently, Mr. Clegg is concerned that the election will coincide with Westminster’s, assuming Mr. Cameron’s pledge to fix election dates goes through.

I am rather puzzled as to why Mr. Clegg is doing this.  Seeing as his party is currently pushing for fixed term elections for the House of Commons (of which I can appreciate the merits), I do not see how he can legitimately argue for Scotland’s Parliament to move for his convenience.  It defeats the entire point of elections being fixed.  Additionally, I do not see such a move being appreciated by many Scots, who will see interference in the Scottish Parliament’s electoral timetable (which is a Reserved Matter under the Scotland Act 1998), as unwelcome encroachment by Westminster.

The United States has a myriad of elections all the time coinciding on the same day, ranging from General, presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial and State elections.  It doesn’t seem to go down with any problems there.  Why not here?

It is for similar reasons that I question criticisms by some quarters that the planned referendum on electoral reform for Westminster in 2011 should not coincide with the Scottish and Welsh elections.  Surely maximum turnout can only be a plus?  Why would they be inviting lower turnout and increased cost, by forsaking the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone?

If anybody can propose a rationale for this, I would be interested to hear it.

Magna Carta

Ah, Magna Carta. There are few documents which are so symbolic to the English-speaking peoples, and few which are so symbolic to the rise of constitutional government. Yet much of the document no longer exists in law. While the significance of Magna Carta for later generations, and for ourselves, is well appreciated, the significance of the document for contemporaries is often overlooked.

From an international perspective, Magna Carta isn’t really that special. The Concordat of Worms predates Magna Carta by almost a century and served to inspire the modern concept of national sovereignty; the Golden Bull of 1222 issued by King Andrew II of Hungary achieved much of the same as Magna Carta; and in 1356, the ‘Joyous Charter’ in the Low Countries was the result of a century’s accumulation of privileges granted by the Duke of Brabrant to his subjects.

But back to England.  The Magna Carta of 1215 was repudiated by King John in the very same year, with the encouragement of the Pope. In 1216 John died, and his nine-year-old son Henry III became King, defusing the brewing civil war – but more on that in a bit.

Henry’s elderly regent, William Marshall, reissued Magna Carta in Henry’s name within days of John’s death, but omitting the more contentious chapters. In 1225, Henry came of age, and reissued a third, shorter Magna Carta.

Henry died in 1272, a very long reign for the time; long enough to allow Magna Carta become integral to English liberties. Edward I, Henry’s son, reconfirmed Magna Carta again in the Parliament of 1297. It became tradition for every English king to reconfirm Magna Carta, until the final time in 1416 by Henry V. It is the 1225 version which remains in legal force today…

…sort of. It took Parliament 600 years, but starting with the 1828 Offences Against the Person Act, sections of Magna Carta have since been overwritten or repealed.

What’s in force today

The first chapter to go was chapter 26; the last was chapter 30 in 1969. All that remains of Magna Carta is Chapters 1, 9, and 29:

“EDWARD by the Grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, and Duke of Guyan, to all Archbishops, Bishops &c.  We have seen the Great Charter of the Lord Henry sometimes King of England, our Father, of the Liberties of England in these words:

HENRY by the Grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Guyan, and Earl of Anjou, to all Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Priors, Earls, Barons, Sheriffs, Provosts, Officers, and to all Bailiffs, and other our faithful Subjects, which shall see this present Charter, Greeting: Know Ye, that We, unto the honour of Almighty God, and for the salvation of the souls of our Progenitors and Successors Kings of England, to the advancement of Holy Church and amendment of our Realm, of our meer and free will, have given and granted to all Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Priors, Earls, Barons, and to all Freemen of this our Realm, these Liberties following, to be kept in our Kingdom of England for ever.”

Chapter 1, in which the English Church is declared free:

[1]”FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever.”

Chapter 9, in which London is promised its ancient liberties to be governed differently from the rest of England:

[9]”THE City of London shall have all the old Liberties and Customs which it hath been used to have. Moreover We will and grant, that all other Cities, Boroughs, Towns, and the Barons of the Five Ports, and all other Ports, shall have all their Liberties and free Customs.”

And Chapter 29, probably the most famous of all, which promises trial by jury:

[29]”NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. “

The Inspiration for Magna Carta

So much for modern law. But Magna Carta’s significance goes beyond that of trial by jury. The very creation of the document was an expression of, but also a catalyst for major political change in the Thirteenth Century, which would ultimately result in the foundation of the House of Commons and the early beginnings of parliamentary government.

King John of England became King in 1199 in the midst of a time of great social and economic change. The kings of the Twelfth Century had been able to fight wars and govern the realm largely with the revenue of their own lands, through duties on imports, and through occasional feudal taxes known as ‘scutage’. But since 1180 heavy inflation had caused the revenue from Crown lands to fall to less then half its value by 1230, not exactly helped by the piecemeal portioning off of royal lands to reward royal supporters. Additionally in 1204 King Philip II of France conquered Normandy. All of these factors made the monarch less and less capable of supporting itself and the government.

John sought to offset this by exploiting the royal prerogative to the full, implementing scutage, abusing forest law, and enacting England’s first income tax. The ploy was successful, trebling royal income, but causing deep resentment in the kingdom.

In 1211 Llywelyn the Great of Wales rebelled against John’s overlordship, backed by the Pope who had declared John an excommunicant of the Church (in other words, persona non grata in the afterlife) in 1209 over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This crisis caused his campaign to recover Normandy to falter, coming to a crashing end in the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214. In the end,John reconciled himself with the Pope by offering to sell his kingdoms, England and Ireland, to the Pope for 1,000 marks. Understandably, this didn’t go down too well with his subjects.

The subsequent humiliating peace with France caused the Barons to rebel against John’s incompetent government. Llywelyn’s seizure of Shrewsbury in May 1215, joined with Scottish and French armies also invading, entering London in June. This made it clear to John that he had no choice but to come to terms with his barons if he was to save his kingdom. He met his barons at Runnymede, just outside London, on June 15th, and attached his seal to the ‘Articles of the Barons’, later to be solemnised as the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta, taxes, and Parliament

Magna Carta’s original document had 63 articles. Chapters 12 and 14 related to taxation. Article 12 prohibits taxation without ‘common counsel’ and lists the exceptions. ‘Our’ of course relates to the king, as signatory:

[12]”No scutage or aid shall be imposed in our kingdom unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter, and for these only a reasonable aid shall be levied. Be it done in like manner concerning aids from the city of London.”

Article 14 then defines what a ‘common counsel’ is – in other words, a gathering of the kingdom’s magnates, bishops and great men:

[14]”And to obtain the common counsel of the kingdom about the assessing of an aid (except in the three cases aforesaid) or of a scutage, we will cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and greater barons, individually by our letters — and, in addition, we will cause to be summoned generally through our sheriffs and bailiffs all those holding of us in chief — for a fixed date, namely, after the expiry of at least forty days, and to a fixed place; and in all letters of such summons we will specify the reason for the summons. And when the summons has thus been made, the business shall proceed on the day appointed, according to the counsel of those present, though not all have come who were summoned.”

The most repugnant chapter from the view of King John, however, was Chapter 61, which sought to constrain his royal power and give the barons the right to rebel against his government if he did not carry out their commands. Here is an abridged version:

[61]”…if we do not correct the transgression, or if we are out of the kingdom, if our justiciar does not correct it, within forty days, reckoning from the time it was brought to our notice or to that of our justiciar if we were out of the kingdom, the aforesaid four barons shall refer that case to the rest of the twenty-five barons and those twenty-five barons together with the community of the whole land shall distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely, by seizing castles, lands, possessions, and in such other ways as they can, saving our person and the persons of our queen and our children, until, in their opinion, amends have been made, and when amends have been made, they shall obey us as they did before.”

As we know, John was compelled to put his seal to Magna Carta to save his crown, but as soon as opportunity allowed he renounced Magna Carta and started the First Baron’s War. In 1216 he died, replaced by his son – and the rest we know.

Chapter 61 was the main bone of contention for John in 1215, but it was chapters 12 and 14 which would inspire and shape the evolution of the first true parliaments by the end of the century. Taxation by consent was fast becoming a universally agreed to requirement. ‘Common counsel’ in the form of representative barons and clergy suited the start of the century fine; but it would be unjustifiable in a representative legislature within fifty years.