The many parliaments of our archipelago

There are ten, or maybe eleven, legislatures in the island chain known to the British as the British Isles - and three, or maybe four, armies. We see ourselves as relatively uniform, but the inhabitants and constitutions of the North Atlantic Archipelago are an eclectic bunch.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
14 January 2014



The North Atlantic Archipelago - wikimedia

There is some debate about what to call our archipelago. In Britain, we like to pretend that all of the islands are ours. So we tend to call the whole chain “the British Isles”. The Irish don't like that. The second biggest landmass is, after all, their island. I prefer “the North Atlantic Archipelago”.

Whatever we call it, there are ten legislatures and three (legal) armies on our cluster of islands. At a push, there's a case to be made to bump those numbers up to eleven and four. That's not counting the role of law courts in settling legislation through precedent, nor of religious bodies such as the General Synod. I've taken recently to asking my friends, a relatively politically interested bunch, if they can list them all. Most have failed. In fact, when I first started asking this question, I missed a couple myself.

Let's get the obvious ones out of the way first: the fully independent countries.

There's the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. It has two halves: the Commons and the Lords, together making up our first legislature. It is responsible for by far the biggest military force on our islands. Most of my friends get this far.

Then there's Ireland. It's had parliaments of one sort or another for more then a thousand years, barring 1800 to 1919. Today the Oireachtas is the bicameral chamber of the Republic of Ireland, sitting in Leinster House. It's made up of the Dáil Éireann, led by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny; an upper house, the Seanad Éireann; and a president, currently Michael Higgins. It is responsible for the second army. That's two.


Leinster House in 1911 - Wikimedia

Then there are the devolved legislatures of the UK. The Scottish Parliament passed its first Act in 1235, was suspended in 1707, and re-convened in 1999. Now led by Alex Salmond, it has always (when it has existed) had law making powers.


Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0.

Northern Ireland has had some kind of legislature for the majority of the time since the Republic gained independence. Initially, this came in the form of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which sat from 1921 to 1972. This was replaced in 1973 but abolished in 1974. In 1982, another Assembly was convened to hold the Secretary of State to account, but this was dissolved in 1986. The modern Northern Ireland Assembly formed at Stormont in 1998, took on its full powers in 1999, was suspended in 2002, and reconvened in 2007. Its First Minister is Peter Robinson.


The Parliament Buildings, Stormont - wikimedia

The Welsh Assembly, the Senedd, opened in 1999. Initially, it didn't have legislative powers. However, after a campaign led by First Minister Carwyn Jones, it gained in a 2011 referendum the right to set laws without the permission of Westminster. That's five.


The Welsh Assembly building, designed by Richard Rogers - wikimedia

London has its assembly and mayor, but they don't have control over any laws, so don't count. The media may be obsessed with Boris Johnson, but in hard political power, he is a comparative irrelevance. He is nothing, for example, to Carwyn Jones. But the one with power is in Wales, and the one without it is in London. To be noticed by the British press, geography is all.

This is only half way there. Yet if I ask them to name the heads of each of these governments as well as the countries they govern, then very few of my friends succeed. More of them, in my entirely informal sample, are able to correctly identify the Governor of New Jersey as Chris Christie than are able to tell me that the First Minister of Wales is Carwyn Jones – and that's before traffic jams on the Fort Lee Bridge became global news.

So, where are the other five? This is when it gets complex, as there is some ambiguity about what constitutes our archipelago. But there is one more place on which everyone can agree. The Isle of Man is an internally self governing Crown Dependancy. Historically it fell within the Lordship of the Isles and so for some years it was ultimately ruled by the Norwegian Crown. The island became part of Scotland in the treaty of Perth in 1266, and then came under the English crown in 1399.

By 1765, the Duke of Atholl, in Perthshire, owned Man. He, or, rather, the Duchess, sold it that year to the British Crown, as agreed in the 1765 Isle of Man Purchase Act.

(And since the Duchy of Atholl has come up, this Perthshire family is also responsible for the third army in our list. The Atholl Highlanders are the only remaining legally constituted private army in the UK or, in fact, Europe. They are entirely ceremonial.)


The Tynwald -

After Man was bought, it was almost absorbed into the county of Cumberland. This attempt at its freedom was, however, seen off. Though the head of state is the Lord of Mann, also known as British monarch, it retains its independent, uniquely tri-chameral legislature: the Tynwald, made up of the House of Keys, the revising Legislative Council, and the Tynwald Court. The members of the former are elected by every Manx citizen of sixteen or older, whilst the Council is made up of various appointees, and the Court is all the members of the other two combined. It has its own political parties, including the Manx Labour Party and the Liberal Vannin Party, but its Chief Minister, Allan Bell, like most of its politicians, is an independent.

The Tynwald was founded by Norse people more than 1000 years ago, and so has a good claim to being the oldest continuously serving parliament in the world. If Westminster is the mother of Parliaments, then here is their grandmother.

So that's six.

Channel Islands.png

the Channel Islands, Wikimedia

Now for the more controversial ones. The first major question relates to the Channel Islands. Geologically, they are not a part of the British Isles. They are really islands off the French coast. But by tradition, they sit with their northern neighbours and the Ordnance Survey count them, so I will.


The States building in Jersey - wikimedia

They add the extra four to our list. First, there is the Bailiwick of Jersey. Its parliament, The States of Jersey, is elected by everyone who is 16 or older. Its head of state is the holder of the Duchy of Normandy, also known as Elizabeth Windsor. It's a self governing parliamentary democracy led by Chief Minister Ian Gorst, with the UK taking responsibility for its defence.


The States of Aldernay (left) and Guernsey (right)

Then there's the Bailiwick of Guernsey. And this gets a little complex. The Bailiwick covers a number of islands, which between them have three Parliaments: Guernsey itself, Aldernay, and Sark.

Guernsey, like all of the Channel Islands, is a possession of the British Crown (or, rather, the Duchy of Normandy), but not a part of the UK or the EU. Its parliament is called “the States of Deliberation”, and has 45 members elected from Guernsey, and two delegates from Aldernay. Like Man and Jersey, the voting age on the island is now 16. The current Chief Minister is Peter Harwood.

The 1903 people of Aldernay have their laws set by the elected States of Aldernay which consists of ten members, plus the President of the States of Aldernay who, since 2010, has been Stuart Trought. The parliament has existed in some form or other since the medieval period, making it too one of the oldest in the world. As mentioned above, it sends two representatives to Guernsey too, as some of its affairs are settled there.

Then there's Sark. With 600 people, it's the smallest self governing part of the British Isles and, in fact, Europe (the population of the Vatican is 813). It remained the last fully feudal outpost in Europe until 2008, when it gave in to pressure from various quarters and held free elections for the first time. Its parliament is called “The Chief Pleas”, and it retains legal powers on the island, though in practice, often delegates these the Guernsey. The current Seigneur of Sark is John Michael Beaumont.

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle over the years, because included politically in Sark is the nearby island of Brecqhou. This has since 1993 been owned by the Barclay brothers, who have pushed for independence from Sark. From 1995 to 2005, the twins also owned the Scotsman Newspaper, the media outlet arguably most vocal in its opposition to Scottish independence.


The Chief Pleas building, Sark

For the dubious eleventh legislature and fourth army, there is a case to be made that the Faroe Islands are a part of our archipelago. Geologically, they are different: an Iceland-like igneous intrusion from the spreading Atlantic. But the Highlands of Scotland too are a lump of rock distinct from the rest of the UK, so if this was a measure, Inverness would be counted an an Appalachian town.


The Faroe Islands - wikimedia

Likewise, if we are counting political differences in our archipelago then it seems odd to exclude somewhere because they are politically different. If I were sitting in Shetland, it would seem bizarre to me that the Isles of Scilly would count as a part of the same island chain, but my near neighbours on the Faroes would not.

Whilst constitutionally a part of Denmark, the Faroes are autonomous. Their parliament, the Løgting, dates to the Viking era and is again one of the oldest in the world. The first known Prime Minister, the Løgmaður, was called Gilli. He took office around the year 1000. Kaj Leo Holm Johannesen became his latest successor in 2008. It's worth noting that this means that all eleven of the people leading the administrations of our stretched archipelago are men.


the Løgting -

This, of course, is all dynamic. There have been other Parliament in the past. The tin mining communities of Cornwall and Devon both used to have their own: the Stannery Parliaments. These sat for the last time in Devon in 1786, and in Cornwall in 1753. There have been some attempts to reconvene the latter, and Mebyon Kernow continue to call for a National Assembly for Cornwall and have achieved reasonable electoral success locally.

Shetland is thought to have had its own Norse parliament, 'Ting', until perhaps 1611, and Dingwall on Orkney is thought to be so called because, like Thingvellir in Iceland, it's where the Orkadian 'thing' met. There was also until at least the 16th century a Council of the Isles, which met on Islay and oversaw the laws and governance of the Hebrides. The current Lord, Prince Charles, is yet to convene it...

In July 2013, Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney and the leaders of the councils of the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland announced the Lerwick Declaration. This establishing a ministerial working group to discuss new powers for this collection of islands. What will it conclude? A new Thing? We shall see.


The ruins of Finlaggan Castle on Islay, where the Council of the Isles met - wikimedia

As well as geographical regions within these islands, there have always been different groups, sometimes with their own legal systems. Scotland, England and Wales, for example, had, for many years, Kings of the Gypsies, in some cases, operating with the expressed permission of the national kings and queens. There is some reference to at least some of these Kings being appointed by a Gypsy Council. Should we count this as an historic legislature?

But enough of the past and the future. Today, there are ten, or maybe eleven, of the things. Does all of this matter? Does the fact that my friends – and, I suspect, most British people, have no idea as to the constitutional complexity displayed on our archipelago, make any difference to anyone? I think so. At least a little.

For a start, I think it matters that our media is so focussed on London that too often it doesn't notice what's happening around us, even in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This ignorance is a proxy for media disregard of events in Yorkshire or in Newcastle. British democracy is bent by the gravitational power of the South East of England.

And does it really matter that British people are unaware of the constitutional arrangements with the Crown Dependancies? Maybe not. Why should people in Britain be any more interested in the legalistic quirks of the 600 people in Sark than they are in those of the 600 people who live on their street? Maybe they shouldn't be.

But we should care in so far as it impacts on us. Man and the Channel Islands are all tax havens – facilitating large companies in failing to pay taxes in the UK. That matters to us. And the ignorance also poisons our constitutional debates. I am fed up, for example, with hearing people calling a potential future independent Scotland a 'small' country.

A country is an ill defined thing, but look at the self governing peoples in our archipelago, and we find a different story. Sark is small. Wales is medium sized. Scotland's pretty big by this comparison. And if we look at the global list of countries and territories, ranked by population, then we find that the median country – the one in the middle – is Ireland. Scotland, with a few hundred thousand more people, is bigger. Changes seem less radical when looked at in the context of the world's constitutional cornucopia.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, it feels to me as though the peoples of the North Atlantic Archipelago don't really know ourselves. And there's something a little worrying about that.

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