In 2015, the Houses of Parliament, along with the people of the UK, commemorate two important anniversaries: 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta in June 1215 and 750 years since the calling of the Simon de Montfort Parliament in January 1265. These historic events can be seen as marking the start of a journey towards our modern-day rights and representation. So this week, exactly 750 years since Simon de Montfort summoned that Parliament to meet in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey on 20 January 1265, is an important week for the House of Commons in particular.
It was not the first English Parliament, and the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments have parallel histories, but, because it was the first Parliament in which representatives from towns were summoned, alongside the knights, it is seen as the earliest forerunner of the modern Parliament. I look forward to attending the commemorative events in Westminster Abbey tomorrow, together with Members of both Houses and, importantly, with Members of the UK Youth Parliament. Another important occasion takes place in February, when the four existing copies of the 1215 Magna Carta will be displayed in the House of Lords.
This year sees other anniversaries too, including the 50th anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill, the 200th anniversary of Waterloo and the 600th anniversary of Agincourt. We will also be marking the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, the 40th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act, the 50th anniversary of the first Race Relations Act and the 600th anniversary of the role of Serjeant at Arms.
These will all be commemorated in a programme being organised jointly by both Houses of Parliament out of existing budgets. This programme of celebrations, entitled “Parliament in the Making”, is designed to raise awareness of our democratic heritage. Our programme aims to increase public understanding that Parliament is at the heart of our democracy and that its work matters to everyone. It aims to mark our history in innovative ways that are relevant to contemporary society.
I hope that many colleagues will now have seen the first manifestation of that intent in the shape of the banners in Westminster Hall, which give fresh artistic interpretations of key moments in our 800-year journey. I know that colleagues will wish to play a full part in this programme—indeed, there have been hundreds of nominations from Members of Parliament for the schools flag project. Flags designed by schools from all the historic counties of the United Kingdom will fly later this year in Parliament square and at the national Magna Carta celebrations at Runnymede in June. There will be other opportunities to participate, too, with a number of lectures and public arts projects, as well as a major public celebration entitled “LiberTeas” on Sunday 14 June. Details are available on the parliamentary website.
I am grateful—and I feel sure that all colleagues will similarly be grateful—to all the staff of both Houses who have worked hard and imaginatively to make these events possible, and to the Speakers’ advisory group on the 2015 anniversaries, which has advised both the Lord Speaker and me on the programme. In particular, I am sure that the House would want me to thank the group’s Commons Chairman, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) for the energy and wisdom that he has brought to the task.
It is a happy coincidence that these significant anniversaries fall in an election year. It is less reassuring to note the many challenges to democracy around the globe, recently made manifest in the horrific and devastating events in Paris.
Parliament is not everything about our democracy, but our democracy is not worth anything without this Parliament. That is why it has rightly been at the centre of national attention throughout the centuries and why it must continue to be so. The contest for influence here has ranged from Cromwell to the Chartists, Lords to the Levellers and Speakers to suffragettes. Importantly, it is not only—or even mainly—a matter of decisions imposed from the top down, but of pressure from the bottom up, that has shaped our institution to be what it is today. While the nature and size of the electorate represented here have changed enormously over the generations, the principle of representation has remained remarkably consistent across all that time. It is that principle that, very properly, we commemorate and celebrate this year.