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Democracy and the Unlearned!

Over the next few weeks I shall be lending my “on-foot services” to Coventry City Council by taking part in the electoral register canvass (to ensure that as many people as possible that are eligible to vote are actually registered to do so).

It is impossible to escape the debates around the nature of “democracy” that have been taking place lately and there seem to be many views on what that word means! Should a yes/no referendum endorsed by parliament trump an elected parliament? Should that parliament trump government? Should “party democracy” trump MPs? Should MPs represent their parties or the electorate of their local constituency? How much control do any of our locally or nationally elected representatives have anyway? More questions than answers!

The electoral canvass training that I attended today took place in the council chamber – a building which itself reflects how government has evolved in Coventry over the centuries. Although the building was only completed at the end of the first world war, the architects ensured that it was fitting with the medieval city and in particular its neighbour and forerunner – St Mary's Guildhall (see previous blog post for literary connections!).

There are stained glass windows in the council chamber depicting both Edward III and Henry VI. Both granted charters to the city giving powers to appoint officials, raise taxes and carry out a degree of self government. Edward’s charter of 1345 saw the City being given the power to appoint a mayor (which happened a few years later with the appointment of John Ward). The City’s Council has met in the vicinity ever since.

Government under Henry VI has close Coventry connections – with the city effectively becoming England’s capital in the mid to late 1450s. Parliament was held here (in the Chapter House of the Bendictine Priory which was later destroyed by Henry VIII with the dissolution of the monasteries).

The first national parliament to be held in Coventry (also in the Priory) was under Henry IV in 1404. It was known as the “Unlearned Parliament” as Henry forebid any lawyers or “learned men” from attending as he pushed through his new regime of taxation! Perhaps we’ve moved on a little bit........

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