During the course of the referendum to leave the European Union, which was held in Britain during the summer of 2016, a common argument that was heard from those supporting the leave side was that leaving the European Union would restore ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and ensure that Britain’s Parliament would become the supreme legislative authority in the UK once more. What’s happened since then has suggested that perhaps those who supported the leave argument were perhaps not being genuine. However, that is neither here nor there.
What is of interest right now for this article, is where the term ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ came from in terms of the United Kingdom and its institutions. The answer to that lies in the so called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and all that followed from it.
The Glorious Revolution which occurred in late 1688, was the result of fears amongst the Protestant establishment of the time that the birth of a son to King James II of England and VII of Scotland, would result in the establishment of a Catholic dynasty in England, Scotland and Ireland, and would undermine the hard work done by the Protestant class, since the reformation under Queen Elizabeth. These were the main concerns of the Immortal Seven who had come together to try and do something about their King. They sent letters to Prince William of Orange, the nephew and son in law of King James, and encouraged him to come to their aid, to ensure the truth faith triumphed, and to prevent England becoming a ‘French puppet.’ James had had months of warnings that something was going to happen, but ultimately didn’t act, so complacent had he become. And when William landed, James saw the army and the navy melt away in great numbers, something which ultimately led to him fleeing the country and moving to France.
In the chaos that ensued, William and his wife and James’ daughter Mary were declared to have taken the throne, due to James being considered to have abdicated. Parliament was convened and the first Parliament of the joint monarchs’ reign confirmed that James II had abdicated, they also conveniently ignored the presence of James’ son to their peril many years later. However, it was this Convention Parliament which set the tone for what was to follow. It drew up a Declaration of Right which addressed what they believed to have been the abuses of King James, it also formally recognised King William and Queen Mary as the rightful rulers, it passed the Bill of Rights which confirmed various privileges for the Protestant people of England, alongside Parliamentary Privilege something that had once been considered a rarity in Parliament before then.
The Bill of Rights also served to limit the royal prerogative as exercised directly by the crown. It did this by preventing the keeping of a standing army during peace time without Parliamentary authorization, ensuring the monarch could not suspend laws without consent from Parliament and finally and has been mentioned before, settling the succession on William and Mary and her sister Anne. This last part was particularly important as it gave ground for the Act of Settlement passed in 1701, which further confirmed Parliament’s authority in confirming the succession to the crown.
By doing all of these things, the Convention Parliament set a strong showing to King William and Queen Mary. It would be them, not the monarch who decided the future course of the country. It would be them not the monarch who decided the succession, and as such from there they continued to hold sway over the crown and would eventually take control of crown finances. Parliamentary Sovereignty was therefore decided in 1689, and evolved from there.
It was not just Parliamentary sovereignty that was enabled by the Glorious Revolution. The Glorious Revolution by its very natured disturbed the consensus that had run through British politics since the restoration. The outcome of this was in part the Williamite War in Ireland which saw James II attempt to reclaim his throne, but also increased English involvement on the continent and in various continental wars, be they the Nine Years War or the War of the Spanish Succession. Such wars long ranging as they were expensive, and as such the financial system that existed within the country at the time was not sufficient enough to fund the activity needed for English participation. As Hodgson argues the financial apparatus that was needed to ensure that the involvement of the British isles on the continent and with its growing empire could be maintained began to be implemented shortly after the Glorious Revolution.
The Bank of England was founded in 1694, five years into the Nine Years War, after Parliament and the King realised that England’s financial situation was so poor they couldn’t even get credit from the City of London. The Bank then became responsible for issuing loans and credit, and from there, Britain’s war machine continued to churn, as did a gradual change in the view of finance. Whereas before finance was seen as being limited to whatever immediate concerns the King and government had, now, following the revolution, finance was seen as needed for long ranging wars, the need to compete on an economic scale to outmanoeuvre enemies in peace time and other political aims. The revolution effectively enabled the financial system to develop in this way through placing the financial power completely in Parliament’s hands. Before, there had always been suspicion on what the money granted by Parliament to the Crown was being used for, now with Parliament firmly in control, it could dictate what the money would be used for and how it would be used, and could do so without fear of reprisal from the sovereign. Such a change enabled the economy to grow and for investment and economic ingenuity to flourish as the system became opened up from a narrow purview.
Ultimately, in conclusion, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had two major impacts on the development of Britain. The first as has been mentioned was take sovereignty away from the Crown and to place it instead with Parliament. This occurred mainly due to the fact that James II fled to France, rather than stand his ground, by doing so, he was considered to have fled by many who had either always opposed his succession or had come to see him as a danger to the security of the Isles. That he would later try to reclaim his throne and that his son and descendants would do the same, became a source of problems for Parliament, but did not come close to ever reversing the settlement established after 1688. This was because upon their ascension William and Mary both recognised what had happened and what the Convention Parliament of 1689 had established, they did this to gain legitimacy and to prevent undermining their cause. In so doing, they set the precedent and allowed Parliament greater power over the succession and over any potential legislative agenda that might have been pursued by the new monarchs. This legislative agenda soon merged with the financial agenda, and with Parliament now in control of the finances, and with somewhat minimal resistance by the crown, they were able to expand England and later Britain’s financial power through the establishment of a central bank, and then a slight opening up of economic opportunities for the gentry and developing middle classes.