Press conference, Thatcher Room, House of Commons

Thank you for coming today to support the launch of our 2015 Anniversaries programme, Parliament in the Making.

As Mr Speaker has explained, this programme has been inspired by the anniversaries of de Montfort and Magna Carta, anniversaries of inherent importance, anniversaries Parliament should celebrate. But, we have chosen to do so by using them as the starting point of 800 years of constitutional history
Understanding of constitutional history is not what it was and that’s a shame.

A country that does not know its past will find it more difficulty to navigate its future
Our ambition this year is to inspire people about our 800 year journey from Magna Carta to the present day, to educate a new generation about that journey and to encourage participation.

Participation in the events we and our partners have planned, and participation in civil society and in our democratic institutions.

Academics have suggested that the lack of public knowledge of constitutional history explains some, and I emphasise some, of the current disaffection with politics.

So we are using these timely anniversaries, coinciding as they do with an election year, as a platform for addressing that situation.

In doing so we hope to encourage the public to value their rights, their freedoms and their representation more highly.

At the heart of our programme is our banners exhibition, ‘The Beginning of that Freedome’ in Westminster Hall.

The location is one that has provided the stage and offered witness to many of the moments in the history which we now commemorate.

We selected eighteen moments to show how this country, over eight hundred years, has built a powerful system of civil rights and representative government.

We may not have a written constitution, but the events and moments celebrated in these banners are key texts in the history of our rights and freedoms.

That’s not just in the UK. Magna Carta and the English Parliament are known across the world as patterns to be learned from. Often adapted, yes, but many countries have been inspired by them as they established their own courts and parliaments.

The banners start with the two principal anniversaries we are celebrating.

First, the most famous event of all, King John’s acceptance of Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215.

Then the assembly at Westminster of the Simon de Montfort Parliament on 20th January 1265, seven hundred and fifty years ago today.

Many banners mark the passage of key pieces of legislation.

Other banners mark moments not when people actually achieved rights or liberties, but when the aspiration for them was articulated in a clear and ringing way that still resonates profoundly today.

Like the Putney debates of 1647, the People’s Charter in 1838, the struggle of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834, or the foundation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897.

They all depict more than moments. Every one of them stands for one of the rights and liberties that people have fought to achieve - and to protect - over those eight centuries.
Magna Carta affirmed the rule of law and the right to a fair trial.

The de Montfort parliament stands for representative government: that people affected by decisions should have a right to be involved in them.

Both of these fundamental principles were reasserted and strengthened by the great statements of liberty of the seventeenth century – the Petition of Right and the Bill of Rights.

And then, nearly a hundred and fifty years later, the 1828 Catholic Emancipation Act, and the 1832 Reform Act were key moments in a process. A process in which those principles were made into a reality for everyone.

It would mean that – as Colonel Rainborowe said at the Putney debates — not just the few, but every person should be involved in decisions that affect them.

And so the 1918 and 1928 Representation of the People Acts finally made Britain a democracy.

A third group of banners shows how the rule of law and representative and democratic government helped people who seemed powerless and vulnerable.

They represent recognition that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.

The 1601 Poor Law, flawed as it was, accepted some obligation to provide for poor people.

In 1806 the abolition of the slave trade was a first step in asserting that the principle of freedom had to apply to all people equally.

Then a more representative government had to recognise that poor working people should have rights at work, rights not to labour in inhuman conditions. The 1833 Factory Act, was the result.

It also finally recognised that working people should be able to campaign for their own rights at work, by forming trade unions.

This is the right for which the Tolpuddle Martyrs had been condemned in 1834.

It’s only been over the last half century that other groups have been able to achieve the right to be treated with dignity, respect and equality, with the landmark legislation on racial equality in 1965, on homosexuality in 1967, and discrimination against the disabled in 1995.

These banners are a powerful reminder to Parliament that defending the rights of all the people is one of the most important things we do.

They also remind us that rights have to be secured and defended by everyone, not just politicians. And that includes the press and the law.

Parliament has to be reported, supported, nagged, contradicted by a free press – just as John Wilkes and his supporters in the eighteenth century battled against Parliament, insisting that it do its work in a full and public light.

Most important of all, it’s for the people continually to hold Parliament to account: to insist that it do its job, to ask the most difficult questions about how rights can be protected, or reconciled when they conflict.

And it's for the people to use these hard won rights, rather than to take them for granted.
Working as Commons Chair of the Speakers’ Advisory Group for the 2015 Anniversaries has certainly reminded me of the importance of these stories from our past.

It has been extraordinary to see how the nine artists that we commissioned, who we are very glad to have with us here today, have so differently interpreted the moments that we selected.

So now we can all see these stories with fresh eyes.

We hope the Parliamentarians of today, including those elected for the first time in May, will be newly inspired by the achievements of those who walked these corridors of Westminster before them - and by those others who fought to gain and to protect our liberties.

More importantly, these banners will, we are sure, speak powerfully to all those who pass through Westminster Hall between now and the end of November.

Our hope, I repeat, is that they will be inspired, educated and encouraged to participate.

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