Photograph of Westminster bridge by night
All that mighty heart. Night view from Westminster Bridge. Photo ©

Under licence from CC Creative Commons, adapted from the original.

April 2017

Siobhan Foster, the British Council’s Parliamentary Relations Manager, discusses the soft power of the UK Parliament.

Symbols matter. As Prime Minister Theresa May said after the tragic recent terrorist attack in Westminster, the Houses of Parliament were a target for a reason. The values our Parliament represents command the admiration and respect of people around the world.

In fact people in the UK may be surprised by the high level of trust that the British political system commands overseas. The British Council’s recent research into the views of young people across the G20 countries found that trust in British government, institutions, and values is high. Parliament is an important part of this, and it must be remembered that its activities resonate far beyond domestic politics. Trust in our parliamentarians, and trust in the institution of Parliament, creates trust in the decisions made there and in the country on whose behalf they are made. This soft power can build or undermine confidence in the UK and its relationships overseas. 

The Mother of Parliaments

Often described as the ‘mother of parliaments’, the Palace of Westminster is well-known internationally for its influence on other legislatures around the world and for its historic role in global events. Since the signing of the Magna Carta, which forever changed the relationship between those who govern and the governed, to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, to debates at key moments in the First and Second World Wars, to the more recent decisions over British involvement in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, Parliament’s actions have had and continue to have far reaching global consequences.

Parliament’s practices and structures have also been used as a model in many other political systems, and the UK’s commitment to robust and open debate is evidenced every day by the live televised proceedings of the House of Commons that can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world – although the raucous nature of those debates can sometimes shock foreign observers. 

Parliament continues to be known too for its many traditions. Some of these practices are not particularly relevant to the modern world: some staff, for example, continue to wear mourning dress as a result of Prince Albert’s death in 1861. Others remain critically important, such as the continued principle of openness to the public. Despite direct challenges to this in recent years, from the murder of Jo Cox MP to the terrorist attack of recent days, UK MPs hold dear the principle that their constituents can meet them directly at constituency surgeries or at Central Lobby in the heart of Parliament. This principle is not common around the world. For many global visitors, the idea that any person is able to sit in a room with a parliamentarian and discuss issues with them is extraordinary.

Looking to the Future

It would of course be wrong to assume that the UK gets it right all the time. The Palace of Westminster can sometimes feel overly traditional and outdated. The unelected and very large House of Lords is rarely praised as a role model overseas. Until as late as 1998, MPs wishing to raise a point of order were required to wear a hat when speaking, and snuff continues to be provided by Parliament for Members and Officers of the House. Even more importantly, there also continues to be a lack of diversity. There are more male MPs currently than the total number of female MPs who have ever sat in the Chamber , and black and ethnic minority MPs make up just 6% of parliament (while representing 13% of the population). Mhairi Black MP attracted a lot of attention as the new Baby of the House, elected in 2015 aged 20. But she is the exception to the rule, with 50 being the average age of MPs elected that year and only 49% of 18-24s voting in the 2015 General Election. 

Parliament, then, does not always appear to work for everyone, and the UK certainly has lessons to learn from counterparts in other more modern legislatures around the world. Some of these have implemented interesting proposals for making decision-making more representative, including in places where the UK might not traditionally have considered for gaining insight into parliamentary processes. For example, Morocco’s National Integrated Youth Strategy allows provisions for increased youth participation in decision-making and was drafted with the input of Morocco’s young people. Rwanda’s 2003 constitution introduced quotas for women, including a 30% quota for women in Parliament. This has seen participation of women in politics rise; in 2013, women’s representation rose to 64% . In the Nordic countries, women represent 41% of parliamentarians. By comparison, the UK still has a way to go.

Parliament is not simply a building full of politicians, but a hugely important international symbol - and an influential part of the UK’s global standing

For many years the UK has sought to harness the soft power and global influence of its Parliament via reaching out to other countries. The important work of institutions such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the John Smith Trust, have all made important contributions to sharing lessons from the British Parliamentary and political system. They also help the UK to learn from other international models, and create lasting connections for the UK with those involved in politics or governance in a range of countries. The British Council has recently launched a new Future Leaders Connect network, which aims to complement these schemes by building a relationship between the UK Parliament and emerging leaders around the world who will be shaping their countries’ and the global policy landscape in the future. This will help future policy leaders to develop their policy understanding and leadership skills, and understanding of how policymaking takes place in different national and global contexts. It will support them to connect with their peers in the UK and globally and enable them to have their voice heard.

It is sometimes easy to be cynical about Parliament and those who work there or to take them for granted. But, as recent days should have reminded us, Parliament is not simply a building full of politicians, but a hugely important international symbol – and an influential part of the UK’s global standing.

Siobhan Foster, Parliamentary Relations Manager, British Council

See also