I have again today come across the famous saying that “Westminster is the Mother of all Parliaments”, and indeed, the “Westminster System” of politics does operate in many countries.

However, the claim that Westminster is the Mother of all Parliaments, is a misquote – and quite a serious one.

The original quote comes from the Liberal statesman, John Bright, who on on 18th January 1865 gave a speech in Birmingham to support the reform of the electoral system, and said “England is the Mother of all Parliaments”. The speech was part of a long running campaign that culminated in the Reform Act of 1867.

While only a single quote in a single speech in a long campaign, it has gained a misplaced importance suggesting that Westminster is the grand founder of Parliaments, rather than being an (at the time) deeply corrupt body that owed its existence to the people of England.

Anyhow, while I fully expect that people will continue to refer to Westminster as the Mother of all Parliaments, I am just publishing this blog post to get it off my chest before I end up being like one of those tedious pedants who feels compelled to correct people every time Big Ben is mentioned.

The idea that England is the Mother of Parliaments is actually quite a nice one, as it is a reminder that it is the people of England who created the Parliament as we know it today, and that its authority stems from the people.

*petty minded rant over*

Incidentally, the title of oldest Parliament can be divided between the parliament of Iceland established in 930 (but dissolved between 1800-1845) and the parliament of the Isle of Man which was established in 979, and is the oldest Parliament in continuous standing.

You can read more at A Short History of Parliament and here is a pdf extract.

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6 comments on “Westminster is NOT the Mother of all Parliaments
  1. Tom says:

    Glad you mentioned Big Ben. That’s my favourite clock tower in the whole of London.

  2. Joe Rooney says:

    The “Oldest (continuous) Parliament” has resisted sharing power with its citizens through e-Democracy; this has been supported by UK political leaders and media since 2000, who, equally, see a threat in giving UK citizens a 24/7 say in the way they are governed

  3. Niall says:

    I know this is an old post, but I thought it was worth noting that the usage of the term “parliament” has changed.

    As I understand it, in Bright’s phrase, “a parliament” meant what we’d maybe consider a session — “a parliament” being the coming together of a specific set of MPs after a general election, up until the “dissolution of [that particular] parliament” when the next general election is called.

    England is the mother of all parliaments in that the people of England vote for each parliament. Well, that’s if you forget that England is only one part of the United Kingdom….

  4. Wills says:

    This is all a bit silly, since John Bright didn’t say “the mother of all parliaments”, he said “the mother of parliaments”. So a woman can be the mother of twins without being the mother of all twins.

    England, not the UK, has a long parliamentary tradition, grown into a particular form which has then been adopted, more or less, by many nations around the world to harness the power of the state to the needs of the people.

    Doesn’t mean that can’t be done in other ways.

  5. DNA Cowboy says:

    The term is not related to the ‘oldest parliament’ rather the longest continuous global parliament in history, something we have every ‘right’ to be proud of seeing as how England/United Kingdom propagated the system around the world, leaving the place a far more stable environment than we found it.

  6. Rusty Nagel says:

    John Bright may have coined the phrase, but language isn’t preseved in aspic – meanings change over time.

    As you point out, the Westminster parliamentry system, or modified versions of it, have been adopted all over the world, so that is the reason, these days, that the expression “mother of all parliaments” is used to refer to the UK national parliament, and it is not wrong to use the expression in that way.
    Words and phrases mean what they are generally understood to mean – not what some pedant insists are historical meanings.

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