Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Glorious Revolution II: the Bill of Rights

Immediately before the formal offer of the Crown on 13 February, the Commons had presented William and Mary with the Declaration of Rights. Though at that stage William studiously ignored it, later that year it was translated into a statute, the Bill of Rights.

The lawyers who drafted the Declaration chose ambiguous language which would affirm the political principles to which they could all adhere. Many of the provisions of the Bill of Rights were aspirations only and the British constitution contained many grey areas. The Declaration reiterated old rights rather then invented new ones and was certainly not an overt attempt to establish a contractual monarchy. There was plenty of scope for varied interpretation.

However the Bill contained one striking novelty: the statement
‘that the raising or keeping of a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with the consent of Parliament, is against the law’.
But what was this to mean in practice? After the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) the question of whether to continue a standing army in peace-time was hotly debated in Parliament. William personally appealed to the Commons to be allowed to keep the Dutch foot-guards. In 1699 the Disbanding Act fixed the number of troops to be kept in establishment ‘and in this negative way legalized a peace-time standing army’.

More importantly, the Glorious Revolution established a Protestant succession to the crown. The Test Act now applied to the monarch. In contrast to the European principle of cuius regio eius religio, from this time onwards monarchs and their spouses had to follow the religion of the people. The principle was reinforced in the Act of Settlement (1701) and the Act of Union (1707).

After 1688 no monarch could rule as Charles II had ruled, though this was not because of the Bill of Rights. In some respects post-1688 monarchs were more powerful than their Stuart predecessors because they were Protestants and had at least the passive support of the bulk of the nation. But though both monarchical and legislative authority was strengthened as a consequence of the Revolution, Parliament benefited disproportionately:
1. It met much more frequently and conducted a much greater volume of business
2. Much politics was party based and rested upon carefully articulated ideologies
3. Because of the Triennial Act of 1694 this was an era of remarkable electoral activity, helping to forge important links between central and local politics.

Between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, six Parliaments were elected and they met for twenty-two sessions – the majority of them for less than ten weeks. A dramatic change followed 1688, and annual parliamentary sessions averaging twenty weeks became the norm. This changed the nature of MPs’ work and how they saw their jobs.

The Triennial Act was passed partly because Parliament never fully trusted William, and feared that the prospect of peace would make him less dependent on them. But frequent elections were acrimonious, time-consuming and expensive. Between the Glorious Revolution and the Septennial Act (1716) general elections took place every two years. However most seats were uncontested and turnout was often low. In England in 1701 there were c. 118,000 county electors and c. 70,000 borough electors.