Job opportunity: research assistant/research fellow, House of Commons 1832-1945 project

The History of Parliament has a vacancy for a research assistant / research fellow on its 1832-1945 House of Commons project. The successful candidate will have a PhD (or be close to completing one) in a relevant area of history or a related field and will join a small team of professional historians writing articles for the 1832-68 volumes and undertaking research on the period after 1832.

Further particulars are available here and an application form can be downloaded here.

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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Kayleigh Milden, ‘From the Grassroots: An oral history of community politics in Devon.’

Reporting back from our latest ‘Parliaments, politics and people‘ seminar – our ‘From the Grassroots’ project co-ordinator, Dr Kayleigh Milden, shared some of the new archive’s secrets…

In this seminar I explored approaches in oral history and how this related to the research undertaken for the HLF-funded History of Parliament project ‘From the Grassroots: an oral history of community politics in Devon’. Oral history is most powerful when exploring peoples’ ‘emotional engagement’ with political history. Taking inspiration from oral historians such as Alessandro Portelli, Luisa Passerini, and Alistair Thomson, I argued that oral testimony is more than just a method to find out facts about the past, and that ‘deeper resonances’ often emerge from how the past is adapted by individuals in order to construct their own historical ‘truths.’

Throughout the paper I discussed a selection of interview excerpts from the project archive. This included Joan Morrish, a former Liberal Party councillor in Exeter. This clip strongly revealed the salience of the links between religious nonconformity and Liberalism in Devon’s rural districts, such as the South Hams, which continued well into the post-war period.

An excerpt from Anita Long’s interview, a Labour activist in Exeter, showed the power of family history in the construction of political identity. Anita’s narrative demonstrated how some of the ‘big’ events in twentieth-century British history, such as the First World War and the birth of the NHS, reverberate down the generations and continue to influence political beliefs.

I then played two interview clips relating to politics in North Devon. Mary Warman, a Conservative Party activist, recalled her involved as a young woman in the 1958 Torrington by-election. Mary remembered the excitement around the election and how the public meetings were always full, contrasting this with the apparent political apathy of today. That said, there is evidence from other interviews that suggest the ‘spirit of the hustings’ (to use historian Jon Lawence’s phase) continued until at least the early noughties in some parts of Devon. The second clip relating to North Devon was from David Verney’s interview (former Liberal councillor) who recalled working as an activist on Jeremy Thorpe’s campaign for the 1959 election. David related that through his “almost aggressive” determination and natural charisma, Thorpe reignited Liberalism in North Devon, confirming the Party’s revival in the region by the end of the decade. This excerpt led into a discussion of how Thorpe, despite not being local, was able to become integrated within the distinct culture of this part of the county; indeed, for many people, he had become an icon of North Devon.

The final excerpt came from Jeff Coates’ interview, who is a former Conservative councillor and party official in Exeter. Jeff recalled his memories of Enoch Powell’s visit the University of Exeter in 1968, just a few months after his so-called ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Jeff’s interview described the protest that broke out when Powell was invited to speak on economic policy by the University’s Conservative and Unionist Association. This interview has not only unearthed a piece of Devon’s ‘hidden history,’ but also demonstrated the impact that both student activism, and party youth originations, had on the topography of Devon politics since the 1960s.

I concluded with the thought that the archive of 70 oral history recordings contain a fascinating insight into the modern political history of Devon, and hope that the interviews will be used for future academic research.


You can find out more about ‘From the Grassroots’, listen to extracts from the interviews and share your own memories on the project’s website.

The last ‘Parliaments, poltiics and people’  seminar of the academic year takes place tonight, as Oxford’s Alex Middleton will speak on ‘The idea of Whiggism in mid-Victorian politics’. For full details, see here – hope you can join us!

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MPs and Waterloo

To mark today’s anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the Victorian Commons, explores the the impact of the battle’s veterans on the House of Commons…

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, much of the focus inevitably centres on the duke of Wellington’s achievements as a military commander and saviour of the nation. His other extraordinary career, as a highly accomplished politician, party leader and prime minister, seems almost too much to take in, especially given that as a Tory premier he succeeding in passing a number of key liberal reforms, including the repeal of the Test Acts (1828) and Catholic emancipation (1829). Polymath, on this occasion, doesn’t quite seem to cover it.

Horace Seymour MP with his Waterloo medal

Horace Seymour MP with his Waterloo medal

As a ‘military politician’, however, Wellington was by no means alone. Many of those who fought alongside him at Waterloo also went on to pursue successful (though less spectacular) political careers, most notably in the Commons. Horace Seymour, aided by his unenviable reputation for having slain more Frenchmen than anyone else during the battle, clocked up almost a quarter of a century as an MP, sitting for a variety of English and Irish constituencies until his death in 1851. Veterans like William Browne MP, severely wounded in a Waterloo infantry charge, Lord Fitzroy Somerset MP, who had his arm hacked off, and Frederick Ponsonby, who was ‘pierced by lance and sabre, ridden over by Prussian cavalry and left for dead on the field, where he was twice plundered’, became a familiar sight in late Hanoverian and early Victorian elections.

Lord Fitzroy Somerset MP

Lord Fitzroy Somerset MP

On the hustings military credentials could even count for more than party allegiance, enabling veterans to make broad based appeals and even attract cross-party support. The independently-minded veteran Thomas Davies MP, for instance, refused ‘to act on the principle of party’ during his 21 year career representing Worcester, claiming to have kept himself ‘entirely free from every government’. The 1820s and 1830s witnessed the largest influx of MPs bearing Waterloo medals, but a surprising number also served well into the Victorian era. Henry Wyndham MP, celebrated for his daring but unsuccessful attempt to capture Napoleon’s brother Jerome during the battle, represented Cockermouth from 1852-60. Lord Hotham, who had first entered the Commons in 1820, was still in place in 1868.

In total almost fifty Waterloo veterans eventually made their way into the Commons, creating a cohort of army officer MPs whose political influence and ability to capitalise on their military experience has yet to be fully explored. (For related work on the ‘politics of patriotism’ see in particular J. Parry’s study below.) Distributed across both sides of the House, but also containing a striking number who refused to declare any party allegiance, these veterans undoubtedly helped to sustain cultures of backbench independence at a time of growing partisanship and government control. Along with the great commander himself, they serve as an important reminder of the enduring role of ‘military politicians’ well into the era of modern British politics


Biographies of the MPs mentioned here and other Waterloo veterans can be found in the History of Parliament’s 1790-1820 and 1820-32 published volumes and on the 1832-68 project’s preview site.

Further reading:

Parry, The Politics of Patriotism: English Liberalism, National Identity and Europe, 1830-86 (2006)





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The long-lived charter: Magna Carta’s 800 year legacy

800 years ago today, Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede. In the last of our series celebrating the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s Parliament, Dr Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Historical Manuscripts at the British Library and lead researcher for the Library’s acclaimed Magna Carta exhibition, discusses how Magna Carta came to become an important symbol of the parliamentary system…

Though Magna Carta does not – as is occasionally claimed – represent the foundation of democracy, Magna Carta holds an important place in the history of parliament. In its medieval context it for the first time placed the executive under the rule of law and explicitly limited the Crown’s capacity to raise revenue without the consent of a ‘common counsel of the realm’. Clause 12 for instance stated that ‘No scutage or aid is to be levied…except by the common counsel of our realm…’ Whilst clause 14 insisted that the King was, ‘to obtain the common counsel of the realm for the assessment of an aid’ and that this counsel was to be ‘summoned…with at least forty days’ notice’ where the ‘business will go forward…according to the counsel of those present’. Such language describing a ‘common counsel of the realm’ summoned to discuss taxation are early iterations of what would later become known as parliaments. Indeed, still today some of the most vigorous debates in the House are on the level and extent of taxation in the country.

In later centuries, Parliament became one of the chief loci for debates using Magna Carta to assert the rights of the subject against the royal prerogative. In particular it was the Parliamentarians in the seventeenth century that reinterpreted and reinvented Magna Carta to defend their position against the encroachments of the Stuart monarchs. The man most responsible for this was the lawyer and politician Sir Edward Coke, who invoked Magna Carta at every opportunity in the courts of law, in the Houses of Parliament and in the prolific production of legal commentaries. For Coke, the Great Charter proved an essential document that underpinned the common law tradition and ensured the independence of the judiciary and Parliament from arbitrary royal interference. As the country plunged into Civil War in 1642, those Parliamentarians fighting Charles I followed Coke’s lead and continued to invoke Magna Carta as a symbol legitimising their violent opposition to the tyranny of the Crown. It was emblazoned on ensigns carried into battle and even described as ‘that which we have fought for’ by Thomas Fairfax, Commander in Chief of the New Model Army.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Magna Carta would continue to hold an important position in discussions surrounding the executive power of Parliament. But, it was used in a different way. Whereas in the seventeenth century Magna Carta was invoked in Parliament’s defence, in the eighteenth century it was used by political reformers to challenge that very power this elite and unrepresentative Parliament had won. Yet for all its invocations in the period – accelerated by the boom in printing and production of consumer goods that accompanied the industrial revolution – Magna Carta had become little more than a catch all symbol of ancient ‘English liberties’ that were under threat from an oppressive Parliament. It had become a slogan calculated to stir patriotic emotions and mobilise public support.

Porcelain figure of John Wilkes, holding a scroll inscribed ‘Magna Carta’.  © Trustees of the British Museum

Porcelain figure of John Wilkes, holding a scroll inscribed ‘Magna Carta’. © Trustees of the British Museum

Though Magna Carta was widely used throughout the eighteenth century, it was the MP and newspaper editor John Wilkes who capitalised most successfully upon the Charter to mobilise public opinion in his favour following his arrest, and subsequent exile to France, after he libelled King George III in 1763. Whilst abroad he ensured that he remained prominent within the public sphere, being represented in popular prints, porcelain, and private portraits all depicting him holding the Great Charter of English Liberties – which he was ostensibly defending. Helped by figures like Wilkes, the long eighteenth century saw a strong revival of the tradition of Magna Carta as a powerful public resource, a symbol readily mobilised and contested by rival political factions. Its regular appearance in the press as a defence against an over-mighty Parliament ensured that the prominence of the Great Charter in the legal textbooks was translated into a shared cultural appreciation which was sustained well into the nineteenth century and arguably right up to the present (where it is still invoked in satirical cartoons).

Such powerful radical propaganda created a strong connection between Magna Carta and parliamentary reform in the popular imagination. Indeed, so strong was it that when the Reform Act of 1832 was passed it was explicitly represented as a new Magna Carta. This was not the last time that Magna Carta would be raised in connection with Parliamentary Reform. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was but the first in a series of legislative developments that paved the way to universal suffrage in 1928 and in the agitation for these later reforms Magna Carta continued to be lionised. From the eccentric Magna Charta Association of the 1870s to the Suffragettes, Magna Carta persisted as a useful symbol of legitimate political rights and set a precedent exonerating direct (even violent) political action. Most prominent in this respect, however, was its use by the Chartists between 1838 and the early 1850s. The choice of the word ‘charter’ in this context was significant. Developing as it did upon the long tradition of radical appropriation of the Great Charter, the allusion to Magna Carta was one which all politically active contemporaries would have been aware; representing the People’s Charter as a new Magna Carta that would ultimately secure the political rights of all classes.

Given this rich history, it is unsurprising that Magna Carta has remained a powerful symbol for parliamentarians up to the present and has even found its way into the fabric of the building at the Palace of Westminster, whose gothic architecture has a purposefully medieval feel. Looking down into the chamber of the House of Lords are the sculptures of sixteen barons and two bishops who were present at the sealing of Magna Carta. Commissioned in 1847, their purpose was to remind the Lords of their ancestors who helped achieve the ‘common counsel’ of Parliament on Runnymede meadow in 1215. They were designed to be ‘severe and monumental’, to inspire their reputed descendants to act with equal focus, tenacity and courage in the prosecution of the business brought before them in the House.


Alexander Lock is Curator of Modern Historical Manuscripts at the British Library and was lead researcher in the post-medieval legacy of Magna Carta for the British Library’s acclaimed exhibition on Magna Carta which is open until 1 September 2015.

You can read all the posts in our ‘Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’ series here. The series is in preparation for our ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, which will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.

UK Parliament are also coordinating a series of events to celebrate the anniversary: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition at Westminster Hall and the new digital arts project ‘Democracy Street’.

Posted in 18th Century history, 19th Century history, Early modern history, Magna Carta & Simon de Montfort | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Henry Miller, ‘Popular politics before democracy: the culture of petitioning in Manchester, c. 1780-1914’

Dr Henry Miller, formerly of the History of Parliament Trust, but now at the University of Manchester, reports back from his recent seminar paper discussing the enormous popularity of petitioning in the ‘long 19th century’ (c. 1780-1914)…

The second ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar of the summer term took place on the 26 May. The premise of my paper was that many accounts of modern British political history privilege the struggle for the right to vote, voting, elections and electoral culture, and political parties. As a result they have almost entirely ignored petitioning, which was the most popular, accessible and open form of political activity in this pre-democratic era. Thousands of petitions, containing millions of signatures were sent to the House of Commons every year after 1833. These figures do not take into account other forms of petitioning activity, such as petitions to the Lords, monarch, government departments and ministers, and local authorities.

Displaying graphs of the number of petitions and signatures per year to the Commons revealed that petitioning remained at a high level through the period, and there was no straightforward ‘decline’ after the extension of the franchise in 1867 and 1885 as sometimes assumed. After this general overview, the focus of the paper shifted to Manchester, centre of the cotton industry and home to many of the major political campaigns in this period. Painting with a broad brush, it was suggested that there were three phases of petitioning. Firstly, in the late 18th and early 19th century petitioning was about representation. Business interests in Manchester used petitions to Parliament and government to further the town’s economic interests at a time when it lacked representation in the Commons. This use of petitioning as a tool for business lobbying was institutionalised after the formation of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce in 1820. At the same time, petitioning was a means for nascent urban elites to claim to represent wider public opinion through the formalised process of public meetings. Petitioning at this time was conceptualised as an open, public, deliberative form of political activity, with petitions frequently left in public places to be signed.

Resuming after an unexpected fire alarm, the paper argued, secondly, that after 1830, petitioning was increasingly used as tool for mass mobilization by extra-parliamentary campaigns. Perfecting many of the techniques pioneered by anti-slavery and radicals, the Anti-Corn Law League, women’s suffrage movement and others, mobilised huge numbers from the wider north-west region. A particular feature was the more aggressive and systematic use of canvassing. Petitioning campaigns were timed to peak to coincide with parliamentary debates, requiring considerable co-ordination by figures such as Lydia Becker, architect of the women’s suffrage campaign in the 1870s. The methods used to generate huge numbers of petitions led some politicians and constitutional commentators to question the legitimacy and value of such petitions in the late Victorian period. At the same time the extension of the franchise seemed to render petitions an increasingly redundant form of political activity. Yet in the third and final part of the paper, I challenged the idea that petitioning declined before 1914, highlighting continued innovations in the culture and practice of petitioning by the women’s suffrage campaign and its continued relevance to popular politics.

Questions focused on the evolution of petitioning after 1918 into other forms, such as letters to MPs, and the importance of religion in Victorian petitioning campaigns. In answer to the question of why people petitioned given the high failure rate and the opposition of MPs to many demands, I suggested that it was in part due to the lack of other options as well as the simplicity and flexibility of petitioning that enabled it to be continuously adapted in myriad ways.


Our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar takes place tonight, when our own Dr Kayleigh Milden will speak on our oral history project ‘From the grassroots: an oral history of community politics in Devon′.  You can find out more about From the Grassroots here. Hope you can join us!

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Sir Edward Coke, Magna Carta, and 17th century rebellion

In the latest in our ongoing series celebrating the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s Parliament, Professor George Garnett discusses the importance of Sir Edward Coke’s 17th century commentary on Magna Carta…

Sir Edward Coke’s role in English common law is widely acknowledged to be commensurate with that of his near contemporary William Shakespeare in English literature. But in an important sense his influence was far greater. Shakespeare scarcely intruded into the purview of the authorities, which is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to reconstruct his biography. Coke, by contrast, not only held, successively, most of the most important judicial offices in the kingdom, but also, after his sacking by his sovereign in 1616, became the principal legal intelligence behind the burgeoning parliamentary opposition to Stuart innovation. The fury which Coke as a judge had occasionally provoked in James I – on the most celebrated occasion, by invoking the thirteenth-century law book Bracton – turned to fear on the part of both James and his son and successor Charles I when Coke had ceased to be a judge. And what most alarmed Charles was Coke’s revelation, in the preface to his First Institute (1st edn, 1628; 2nd edn, 1629) – a commentary on Littleton’s Tenures – that he already had in hand, in his Second Institute, a commentary on Magna Carta.

Coke's Institutes, held at the British Library (

Coke’s Second Institute, held at the British Library

This needling of his monarch had the desired effect. When Coke lay on his deathbed in 1634, Charles sent his agents to ransack Coke’s study below. They confiscated the manuscripts they found, and conveyed them direct to the king, who insisted on rifling through them himself – evidently, he did not trust anyone else to go through them for him. The confiscated materials were eventually released only in 1641, when the House of Commons voted for them to be published on the very day of the Earl of Strafford’s execution. The Second Institute was expeditiously published in 1642. It consisted of commentaries on a large number of statutes judged by Coke to be of particular significance, but it begins, like the Statute Book itself, with Henry III’s Magna Carta of 1225. Coke thought this particular commentary so important that, in his preface, he failed to mention any of his discussions of subsequent statutes. And indeed it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Coke’s interpretation of Magna Carta set the terms of constitutional debate in England for the rest of the seventeenth century, and beyond. As he concluded his discussion of the chapter concerned with due process (cap. 29), in his view the most important chapter of all:

As the gold-finer will not out of the dust, threds or shreds of gold, let passe the least crum, in respect of the excellency of the metall; so ought not the learned reader to let passe any syllable of this Law, in respect of the excellency of the matter.

Yet curiously there has been no scholarly assessment of this first substantial and influential commentary on the text, the most substantial prior to William Blackstone’s. Coke’s unforgiving legalism and convoluted style have proved rebarbative, his handwriting is almost impossible to decipher, and few have hitherto had the courage to take on the substantial manuscript remains, most of which survive in the British Library, Cambridge University Library, and Holkham Hall, Norfolk, the seat of Coke’s descendants, where much of Coke’s library of printed books survives intact.


George Garnett is Professor of Medieval History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. His many publications include a number on Magna Carta and Coke, including his lecture this January to the Inner Temple, Why Good Lawyers are such Bad Historians:  
the Case of Sir Edward Coke; ‘The ould fields: law and history in the prefaces to Sir Edward Coke’s Reports’ in the Journal of Legal History xxxiv (2013), and his article for the Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyMagna Carta through Eight Centuries‘ (subscription required).

Professor Garnett is taking part in our ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, which will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. You can see all the latest news on the conference website, including information on two public lectures (full details on how to register for our public events are available here).

You can read  all the posts so far in our ‘Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’ series here. UK Parliament are also coordinating a series of events to celebrate the anniversary: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition at Westminster Hall; the new digital arts project ‘Democracy Street’ and they invite you all to take part in ‘LiberTeas’ on June 14.

Posted in Early modern history, Magna Carta & Simon de Montfort, social history | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Seats in the Commons

After today’s State Opening of Parliament, many MPs will also have to battle to find a seat to debate the Queen’s Speech. This is a historic problem for the Commons, as our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses…

Mr Dennis Skinner, the fabled member for Bolsover, found himself on the day the House first sat after the election in a tussle with the SNP over his favoured seat. Though the dispute (the ‘War of Skinner’s seat’) seems to have been resolved (we will find out today), it’s an interesting example of a familiar issue in a chamber where there have never been enough seats to go around. There’s a parallel in the situation of the naval surgeon, MP from 1812 to 1855 and reformer and radical Joseph Hume. Hume’s unwearying calls for government economy and inquiries into waste, delivered from his habitual seat, just to the left of the Speaker, drove many early nineteenth century ministers (and some of his allies) to distraction.

In July 1831 in anticipation of the second reading of the Reform bill, a subject of understandably massive interest to all members, an attempt was made to dispossess Hume of his seat. As he complained to the Speaker first thing on the day of the second reading, he had been subject to a meticulously planned and perfectly executed conspiracy:

Having understood, on Friday, that an attempt would be made to dispossess him (Mr. Hume) from the place in which he usually sat, he requested a friend to come down that morning, and put his name in his place, and he came down to the House himself shortly after ten o’clock. He then found that some person had been down as early as seven o’clock, and had put down the names of about 200 Members in that quarter of the House, so that several Gentlemen who usually sat near him (Mr. Hume) were obliged to seek for seats in other parts of the House. … When he (Mr. Hume) came down that morning, he found that the name of Colonel Lindsay had been put up in his place. He took down the name of the hon. Member from his place, as it had been affixed there before eight o’clock, and he put it up in the place immediately behind him. That hon. Member, however, being down when the House met, about two minutes before him (Mr. Hume), he could not dispossess him, and he therefore took down the name of Colonel Lindsay without ceremony from the place where he had affixed it, and he retained that place. If it were competent for hon. Members to take places in that way, before ten o’clock in the morning, it would be competent for a Member to do so at three o’clock in the morning, and as he (Mr. Hume) left the House at a later hour than most hon. Members, he would certainly do so, unless they had a definite rule to guide them on the subject.

As the Speaker subsequently explained, the only way to guarantee a seat was by being present at prayers. (Prayers, as a result of a process of the practical time of sitting of the House becoming later and later while its formal start time remained the same, took place at ten in the morning, even when the House did not actually sit until three in the afternoon or later.) Though it was common to place a name on a seat before prayers this was merely ‘a sort of intimation that those who did so would be present at prayers’, and did not establish a right. That could only be obtained by being present at prayers. Hume was told that this was not a subject for a fixed rule, but for the observance of courtesies among members.

The problem of booking a seat in the House was a long-standing one, as there were far fewer places than there were Members. It remained a problem even after the chamber had been reconstructed after the fire of 1834. The practice of attaching a slip of paper on a seat to reserve it had been stopped by a Standing Order of 1835. The House did still permit the reservation of a place in the chamber with a hat, apparently on the presumption that the member concerned would be within the precincts of the House, rather than go out without their hat. No-one seems to have imagined that some members might possess two hats. One member complained to the Speaker in April 1869 that:

He had often come down to the House at three o’clock in the afternoon, when important questions were expected, and had seen that forest of hats which had been mentioned; and he had noticed an hon. Gentleman have one hat upon a seat and another in his hand or upon his head, thus showing that there were hon. Members who kept a reserve of hats for the purpose of securing seats. … His right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle had pointed out that one way by which Members went to work to secure a seat was to have two hats, one of which was sent down to the House by a servant early in the day. Now, he had often wished to secure the seat which he ordinarily occupied; but when an important discussion was anticipated he found the Bench covered with hats, and, as the right hon. Gentleman had said, the House sometimes presented the appearance of a hat shop.

He may have been referring to the activities of the Irish parliamentary party, who would become notorious for keeping a stock of hats for precisely this purpose, in order more effectively to carry out their programme of disruption of the House in later years. The story would later be told of one Irish member who, at the beginning of a new Parliament, would drive down to Westminster with a cab full of his friends’ hats, in order to reserve places for the whole party. This solution is no longer available to the SNP, but clearly the basic problem avoided in many legislatures by having specific seats and desks, still remains.


With thanks to the Victorian Commons’ Kathryn Rix for her contributions to this post.

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