Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar: Peter Catterall, The Free Churches and the Parliamentary Labour Party, c.1918-39

At our first ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar of the term, Peter Catterall (University of Westminster) spoke on ‘The Free Churches and the Parliamentary Labour Party, c.1918-39‘. Here he gives an overview of his paper…

Did the Labour Party, in Morgan Phillips’ famous phrase, owe ‘more to Methodism than Marx’? After all, Nonconformity had historically been closely associated with Liberalism. A historic witness for liberty from an Erastian Church of England and the State had helped to produce that allegiance: indeed, the British Quarterly Review commented in 1862 ‘it may almost be said that there would be no Liberal party at all without Dissent’. This relationship arguably reached its apogee in 1906 when opposition to the 1902 Education Act produced a phalanx of Nonconformist candidates to fight and sometimes win in 1906 in seats that the Liberals in recent elections had tended to leave uncontested. According to the Christian World 163 Nonconformists were returned for English or Welsh constituencies. Reflecting the partisanship of the moment, they did not include in their list the handful of Free Churchmen returned that year as Tories.

The Christian World did, however, include those Nonconformists returned for Labour. Estimates of how many members of the first Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) were in fact Nonconformists vary between seven and eighteen out of thirty, depending on how churchmanship is defined. If, for instance, a Baptist is defined as someone who has undergone believer’s baptism and is in membership with a Baptist church, then inter-war Labour MPs like Arthur Greenwood (who clearly identified as Baptist) should be excluded. Such a definition might also exclude sermon-tasters, like Ramsay MacDonald, who regularly attended the services conducted by Congregationalist and socialist T. Rhondda Williams, or Ben Turner, who was cradled in Congregationalism and laced his parliamentary speeches with scripture. If a more inclusive definition of Free Churchmanship is used to include those who were occasional attenders and culturally Nonconformist then some 44% of inter-war Labour MPs fall into this category.

Their presence within the PLP declined through the period, so that only 20% of the cohort first elected in 1935 were Nonconformist. This, though, meant that Nonconformity was still disproportionately represented in the inter-war PLP. Their numbers reflected the way in which the chapels inculcated drive and ideals, speaking and organisational skills and a reputation for honesty in their adherents. The minority who acquired these attributes in the late nineteenth century could be highly prized in the trade union movement, even though they might also have personal characteristics (such as temperance) which separated them from the average working man.

Electorally, however, the working-men’s clubs (and particularly the CIU) and Catholicism were much more important as social bases for the Labour vote than Nonconformity. Nonconformists may have been a significant element within the PLP, but some characteristic emphases such as temperance were gradually dropped despite the protests of the Wesleyan lay preacher and party general secretary Arthur Henderson, who nearly resigned from the National Executive Committee over the issue in 1927. Individual Labour MPs, such as C. H. Wilson may have succeeded their Liberal counterparts as the parliamentary spokesmen on certain issues of direct concern to the Free Churches, as became apparent during the debates on the Tithes Act 1936. The generality of Labour Free Churchmen, however, were less committed on moral issues such as gambling or alcohol, while the structure of the party meant it was less easy for outside bodies like the Free Churches to influence it than had been the case with the more amorphous pre-1914 Liberal Party.

Accordingly, Nonconformity’s contribution to Labour was more in terms of personnel than of policies. There was, however, a contribution as well in terms of rhetoric and tone. The moral crusading tone adopted by the ‘Nonconformist Conscience’ of the late nineteenth century found its way from Free Church pulpits to Labour platforms. This rhetoric served to emphasize the righteousness of Labour’s cause. It was also used in a spirit of rivalry to claim Labour’s moral superiority over churches which had failed to heed their own message, inferring that the discarded mantle had fallen on the Labour Party. The Nonconformist Conscience was thus adapted to the needs of the party. Indeed, J. R. Clynes, who was claimed as a Congregationalist in the denominational press, was as Lord Privy Seal in the first Labour government of 1924 to reassure a churches’ deputation that the party’s policy was based upon the Sermon on the Mount.


Join us tonight for the next in our Parliaments, politics and people seminar – Chris Kyle (University of Syracuse) will speak on ‘‘A Dog, a Butcher and a Puritan’: The Politics of Lent in Early Modern England‘. Full details here.

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Writing Parliamentary Biography, the Commons 1640-1660. Part 3: John Pym (1584-1643) the ubiquitous but invisible MP

In the third of a four-part series, Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, discusses writing the biography of a ‘workaholic’ political leader…

In the last blog, I discussed Sir Simonds D’Ewes, whose compulsive autobiographical instinct has left us with a feast of materials about his own life and opinions, but who poses a challenge to the biographer wanting to move beyond D’Ewes’s own estimation of himself. In stark contrast, the parliamentary career of John Pym raises basic questions of motivation and personality. Born into a Somerset minor gentry family, he was educated at Oxford and the Middle Temple. He held a modest government office, a receivership of crown revenues, but by the time the Short Parliament met in April 1640 he was a veteran of five Parliaments. By April 1640 he had also been a widower for 20 years, and it could be argued that Westminster became his family.

Pym can justifiably be considered leader of the Commons opposition to the government of Charles I, and developed the traits of what would today be called a workaholic. The minister who preached his funeral sermon recalled how Pym would work from 3 a.m. ‘to the evening, and from evening to midnight’, and the official record of the House of Commons confirms that this was hardly an exaggeration. In the period between the opening of the Long Parliament (3 Nov. 1640) and October 1643, when his health failed, Pym reported to the Commons on conferences requested by the Lords on 146 occasions. In the same period, when the Commons asked for a conference with the Lords, he managed the resulting meetings 191 times. Apart from these conferences and their associated meetings, Pym was named to no fewer than 226 Commons committees. He was missing from the Commons for a week in July 1642, and for 5 days in October and another 5 in December that year. He was absent for 5 days in March 1643, for 6 in May and 6 in June. We know this because otherwise his name appears on most of the 1004 pages of vol. 2 of the Commons Journal: meaning that for the rest of the time he was ever-present, and practically lived in the House of Commons.

Faced with this mountain of official evidence, we can also infer things from what is not there. For instance, despite all this committee activity, Pym was never a teller in a single Commons division. And only 18 of the 226 committees he was called to serve on were devoted to producing legislation. Pym was an administrator, not a parliamentary draftsman. But as if to balance the overwhelming volume of committee lists, reports from conferences, and brief accounts of his interventions in debate recorded in diaries such as that of D’Ewes, we have very little on Pym’s private life. He left no substantial collection of personal papers; his surviving letters are few in number and not particularly revealing. The speeches of his that were printed were subject to forgery and distortion by propagandists. Pym was entering old age when Parliament assembled in 1640, and there was nothing dashing, romantic or outstanding about the personality of this staid, hyper-industrious Puritan administrator. Probably for these reasons Pym has attracted very few biographers, and the most celebrated book in which Pym figures in the title, The Reign of King Pym by J. H. Hexter (1941), is not a biography of Pym at all, but a study of party politics in the early years of the Long Parliament.

It is easy to identify the causes which absorbed so much of Pym’s time: the trial of the earl of Strafford in 1641; developing the narrative and rhetoric of the great ‘popish’ conspiracy that drove the opposition to Charles I; co-ordinating and harmonizing the activities of the two Houses of Parliament; courting the City of London, Parliament’s most important source of finance; concluding the Solemn League and Covenant with the Scots, which transformed the course of the Civil War. Particularly after he himself narrowly escaped arrest in January 1642 on charges of high treason, which carried the penalty of death by hanging, evisceration and dismemberment, he became an implacable opponent of Charles I, sceptical of any outcome to the Civil War except the complete defeat of the king. It is much less easy to determine what kind of post-war state Pym envisaged. While a detailed study of all his official activities makes it difficult to believe he was merely a man-of-business for great men in either Lords or Commons, it is much harder to encapsulate the world-view he worked for, especially since he died in November 1643 while the Civil War was raging. As things stood at his death, he has a claim (taking into account his lack of landed wealth, his distance from virtually all offices of state and in the period 1640-3 his independence from any controlling patron) to be considered England’s first career politician.

In the final blog of this series, I will look at the problems of writing the biography of the most famous and controversial MP of them all: Oliver Cromwell.


You can read the other blogs in Stephen’s series here:

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MPs in World War I: Michael Hugh Hicks-Beach, Viscount Quenington (1877-1916)

Michael Hugh Hicks-Beach had served as Tewkesbury’s Conservative MP for just over a decade when he was killed in action in Egypt on 23 April 1916. He shared his first name with his father, Michael Edward Hicks-Beach (first Earl St Aldwyn), who had a distinguished political career, holding several ministerial positions. Most notably, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Salisbury’s 1885-6 and 1895-1902 ministries. Hicks-Beach was the only son of his two marriages.

Michael Hugh Hicks-Beach, Viscount Quenington

Michael Hugh Hicks-Beach, Viscount Quenington

After following in his father’s footsteps with his education at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford, Hicks-Beach became his father’s private secretary as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This gave him ‘a good grip of financial problems’ and ‘a knowledge of the inner working of the Parliamentary machine which he turned to good use in later years’. When his father stepped down in 1902, Hicks-Beach travelled overseas, with China, Japan and Korea among the countries he visited. He then served as private secretary to the Conservative Chief Whip, Sir Alexander Acland-Hood.

The Hicks family, who took the additional name of Beach in 1790, had long been settled in Gloucestershire. Hicks-Beach’s grandfather, Sir Michael Hicks Hicks-Beach, had sat briefly for East Gloucestershire in 1854. His father had sat for the same constituency for two decades from 1864. He transferred in 1885 to Bristol West, which he represented until his elevation to the peerage in 1906.

In 1904 Hicks-Beach was chosen to contest the Tewkesbury division of Gloucestershire for the Conservatives at the next general election. A letter giving advice for his first political meeting at Berkeley that December provides interesting insights into the preoccupations of this largely rural and agricultural constituency. Hicks-Beach was warned that when talking to the elderly Lord Fitzhardinge, he should speak ‘very loud … & slow; not about Motor Bikes & wireless telegraph; & certainly not about Politics’. Safer topics were to ask about ‘the Decoy for Wild Ducks & how many times he hunted last season’. When it came to addressing the voters, Hicks-Beach was told that they did not ‘think so much about what you say, as the way you say it. They want it very understandable’.

Hicks-Beach’s victory for the Conservatives in 1906 – in the face of a Liberal landslide across the country as a whole – was helped by his family’s traditional local influence. However, it also owed much to ‘the frank and genial character of the young candidate himself, and the sporting way in which he fought his campaign against apparent odds’. His personality – being described by the Gloucestershire Chronicle as ‘so amiable, so upright, so thoroughly conscientious, so splendid a type of the young English gentleman that his charm was quite irresistible’ – was in stark contrast with his father, whose aloofness and severity had earned him the nickname ‘Black Michael’.

Soon after taking his seat at Westminster, Hicks-Beach made his maiden speech on the land tenure bill, and he took a particular interest in agricultural questions during his time in Parliament, where he was regarded as an effective speaker and generally well-liked. He asked several questions in 1906 regarding the military garrison at St. Helena, where he had served as a captain with the Gloucestershire militia during the Boer War. His battalion was responsible for guarding General Cronje and other troops captured at the Battle of Paardeberg in 1900. When his militia battalion was disbanded under Lord Haldane’s army reorganisation scheme in 1908, Hicks-Beach carried the colours at their final parade.

He subsequently joined the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars yeomanry (RGH). When the First World War began, he was stationed with them in Norfolk, before going out in April 1915 to serve with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. The RGH initially went to Egypt, and Hicks-Beach then saw action with them at Chocolate Hill, Gallipoli, in August 1915, being mentioned in dispatches. The RGH returned to Egypt, with Hicks-Beach (also known as Viscount Quenington since his father’s promotion to an earldom) as their adjutant.

On 23 April 1916, Hicks-Beach was involved in severe fighting at Katia, thirty miles from the Suez canal, where German and Turkish troops (some mounted on camels) made a surprise attack. Heavily outnumbered, the British withdrew (although they had their revenge with an aerial attack on the enemy camp the following day). Hicks-Beach was seriously wounded, and according to one account, was rescued by Corporal William Castle, who ‘under heavy Turkish fire placed [him] across his horse and galloped six miles to safety’. However, he died of his wounds.

Unusually for an officer killed overseas, Hicks-Beach was buried alongside his wife, Marjorie, in the Cairo New British Protestant Cemetery. She had gone out to Egypt in late 1915 to visit her husband, accompanied by his sister, Lady Victoria Hicks-Beach. With German U-boats targeting passenger vessels in the Mediterranean, Marjorie and Victoria were forced to stay longer than planned in Cairo. Victoria helped in running the British Empire Nurses’ Club, while Marjorie worked in a canteen for soldiers. Sadly, she contracted typhoid, which led to pneumonia, and died on 4 March 1916, aged 32. Described as ‘a lady of many interests, intellectual and social’, she had taken a leading role in raising money in Gloucestershire for the Red Cross Society.


Michael Edward Hicks-Beach, 1st Earl St Aldwyn

Victoria remained in Cairo until she was able to secure transport home in mid-May 1916. In the meantime, Hicks-Beach’s father, who had been in poor health for some time, died only a week after his son. Hicks-Beach’s infant son, Michael John (1912-92), therefore succeeded his grandfather as second Earl St Aldwyn. He would later serve as Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Lords, 1958-77. Hicks-Beach also left a five year old daughter, Delia. Poignantly, the Gloucestershire Archives hold the final letter she wrote to her father in Egypt, postmarked 19 April, which he never received.


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‘Speaking in Parliament: History, politics, rhetoric’ conference report

Last week, in collaboration with Professor Christopher Reid (Queen Mary, University of London, author of ‘Imprison’d Wranglers: the Rhetorical Culture of the House of Commons’) we hosted a conference dedicated to the art and history of parliamentary rhetoric. Academics with backgrounds in history, English, drama and politics came together from across the world for this two-day meeting, wonderfully organised by the team at Queen Mary.

Day one began with Professor Richard Toye with a keynote lecture on Winston Churchill’s parliamentary oratory. Toye argued that Churchill’s rhetoric in parliament was deeply connected to both the space and history of the Commons’ chamber but also his understanding of the place of parliament within the British constitution. He charted the evolution of Churchill’s speeches, blending his famous rhetoric with an intimate, conversational style suited to the small space of the Commons’ chamber. Toye then explored the relationship of oratory in the Commons’ to Churchill’s political career, arguing that as a centrist politician (who switched parties more than once), for Churchill the Commons presented an opportunity to gain political power, and saw his speeches as a way to make his mark. This strategy finally worked for Churchill in 1940.

Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox, by Joshua Reynolds

Our first panel explored identity, gender and representation. Ben Griffin explored how 19th and 20th century used their occupational identities in their speeches to gain authority in a speech, yet these identities were used tactically, in different ways at different times. Maggie Inchley discussed Margaret Thatcher’s voice, arguing that women’s voices are at a disadvantaged in male rhetorical culture, and Thatcher’s voice in particular has been a strong source for satirists. Robert Jones finished with a discussion on the lack of representations of politicians actually speaking in 18th century political art (such as in this image of the brilliant parliamentary orator Charles James Fox), suggesting there was something ‘unseemly’ about this aspect of parliamentary culture.

Two panel sessions followed in the afternoon. In the first, Daniel Seward discussed the emergence of classical references in Tudor parliaments; Ugo Bruschi debated the role of the monarch in Hanoverian parliamentary speeches, from gradual acceptance they were a ‘ventriloquist’ in the session’s opening speech, to the uproar should the monarch attempt to influence debate; Kari Palonen discussed the theoretical relationship between debate and voting. In the second, focussing on procedures and conditions, our own Hannes Kleineke investigated what we know about speech in medieval parliaments without detailed records of debates we know happened; Andrea Cullen presented an insight into speaking in Australian parliaments based on a survey of past and present members; Christoph Konrath and Melanie Sully argued a variety of historical and political factors meant that debate was virtually non-existent in the Austrian parliament, as MPs address their speeches to TV cameras (and use a wide variety of props to catch the viewer’s attention); finally Marc Geddes wrapped up the session exploring the roles MPs perform during select committees.

We concluded the day with a drink and some extracts from interviews given to our oral history project exploring how MPs felt as they spoke in Commons, with comments from David Natzler, Clerk of the Commons, and Professor Alan Finlayson.

Day two’s proceedings also began with Professor Finlayson. In his highly stimulating keynote lecture, he asked what is the point of parliamentary speaking? The answer to his question, perhaps inevitably, was that there was no single answer, but many. Deliberation – the process of finding out the general will, which Bentham thought was the point – is one objective, but as Carl Schmitt most vigorously argued, this sort of rational debate may be difficult to achieve in the days of mass party politics. Oratory is no longer seen regarded as important in the way it once was; but people still value fine words at the appropriate moment – great parliamentary moments such as Hilary Benn’s intervention during the recent Syria debate. Opposition has been seen, especially by Kari Palonen as a key function, the constant dramatization of the problem at the heart of democracy that to any question there is no right answer, and no general will to be discovered: the constant conflict embedded within parliamentary debate is a real contest between competing interests. And finally, the function of acting as a theatre in which great issues are not just debated, but seen to be debated, even performed. Though the theatrical element might, for some be unwelcome, the problem, Finlayson suggested was not that it was drama; but bad drama.

We continued with some fascinating panel sessions. Josephine Hoegaerts discussed how people thought about voice production in France and Britain during (especially) the nineteenth century, dealing with a slightly shady world of quacks and ‘stammering professors’ who offered advice on voice production, and suggested that over the period there was a decline in the level of tolerance for unconventional voices. Theo Jung, focussing on the French Parliament, talked about silent deputies during the period of the July monarchy (1830-48), a spectrum from those who were perhaps insufficiently confident to intervene to a few more powerful figures whose silence (sometimes punctuated by sighing, animal noises and other forms of non-verbal expression) could itself be deeply meaningful. Ian Harris, referring to the reporters of debates and other parliamentary proceedings from the 1770s especially, argued that those who recorded these matters for the newspapers saw themselves – and were – engaged in a process of selection, rather than of faithful reporting, which made them into historians themselves. Interested in the substance of the debate, they left out material which simply repeated what they had already heard, no matter how important the speaker.

After lunch, John Vice, who is editor of Hansard for the House of Lords, graphically illustrated the way reporters in different countries recorded interruptions in debate (from a light exploding in the Eerste Kamer in the Netherlands, to the attempted military coup in the chamber of the Spanish cortes in 1981), showing how some provided almost no information on what had happened, thus avoiding potentially controversial interpretations of the event; while others went into some, and perhaps contestable, detail. Robin Eagles looked at the speeches of John Sheffield, the duke of Buckingham and Normanby, eventually collected and edited by Alexander Pope, and showed how Pope seems to have intervened extensively to make them more elegant. Roland Quinault examined the parliamentary speaking of Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father: although Randolph, for whom Parliament was the ‘greatest of all great institutions’ disliked platform speaking and the amount of preparation involved, most of what he published in his collected speeches consisted of platform oratory. Jonne Haarmstra spoke about the Dutch economist, prime minister and central bank governor Jelle Zijlstra (1918-2001), whose expertise made him unusual among politicians and meant that his interventions, though much respected, could also be frustratingly difficult for other politicians to engage with.

In the final session, Kathryn Rix described two oddball MPs of the nineteenth century whose interventions were enjoyed by their colleagues, though for different reasons. ‘Beer Barrell’ Kearsley always amused, both because of his uncommon girth, and because of his curious speeches, which had no middle, but a beginning and an end (which were in any case difficult to tell apart). ‘Noisy Tom Collins’ was a more astute conservative politician, seen as the ‘arch interrupter’: his interruptions, however, were often welcomed, as they frequently reflected the boredom of the House with a tedious speaker. Andreas Serafim looked at how politicians used humour in debate, partly as a way of building a community, a relationship with their auditory, and partly as ekphrasis, bringing things more vividly to the mind of the listener. Henk te Velde, talking about parliamentary oratory in Britain and France mostly in the nineteenth century, referred to the connoisseurs of parliamentary eloquence, and emphasised how speaking was linked to the idea of political freedom, and what would become identified by writers such as Weber and Schmitt as a distinction between debating parliaments and working parliaments. Pasi Ihalainen completed proceedings with a summary of his research on the debates throughout Europe in 1917-18 on constitutional issues, and how the experience of one country could be taken up by another.

A wide-ranging conference, with many aspects of parliamentary speaking discussed, it showed the potential of the subject: how many matters could be fruitfully investigated. We are already discussing the next one….


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Parliament, Politics and People Seminar: Jason Frost, ‘Church, State and Parliament in the Late Eighteenth Century in the Martyrdom Day Sermons of 30th January’

Reporting back from our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar, Jason Frost (University of Westminster) spoke on ‘Church, State and Parliament in the Late Eighteenth Century in the Martyrdom Day Sermons of 30th January.’ Here he discusses his paper…

“…That every thirtieth day of January…shall be forever hereafter set apart to be kept and observed in all the Churches and Chapels of these Your Majesty’s Kingdoms of England and Ireland, Dominion of Wales etc as an Anniversary day of fasting and humiliation to implore the mercy of God that neither the guilt of the Sacred and Innocent Blood, nor those of other sins by which God was provoked to deliver up both of us and our King into the hands of cruel and unreasonable men may at any time hereafter be visited upon us or our posterity.” [Danby Pickering, The Statutes at Large from the Thirty-Ninth Year of Queen Elizabeth, to the Twelve Year of King Charles II Inclusive Vol. VII (Cambridge: 1763), p. 492.]

It was with the inclusion of this relatively short clause in the far more substantial Act of Attainder of several persons guilty of the horrid murder of his late Sacred Majesty King Charles I of May, 1660 that the Martyrdom Day observance was added to the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer alongside the other great ‘official’ national commemorations of Accession Day of the reigning monarch and Gunpowder Treason Day (5th November). Preached every year between 1661 and 1795 and then again between 1807 and 1811, observances were held by the Court; at the Chapel Royal, the House of Lords; at Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons; at St Margaret’s Church, the Lord Mayor and the Corporation of the City of London; at St Paul’s Cathedral; the two universities; in both Houses of Convocation; the town corporations and in every parish church. Although the Sermon would never be uniform in composition and would differ depending upon where and in what year it was given, on this solemn annual occasion the focus of the entire nation’s attention would be commanded to remember that faithful day in 1649.

Having analysed the text of the available Sermons between 1779 and 1793 one can discern five key themes which amount to an ‘accepted political orthodoxy’: the Social Man, a Christian Identity, the Divinity of Government, Toleration and the Perfect Constitution. Throughout the Sermon series the preachers consistently rejected the ‘state of nature’ theories then being made fashionable by the likes of Rousseau. They argued instead that the only way man was able to preserve his individual freedom was to enter into society with one another. However, the necessity of such action was recognised as being insufficient to contain man’s natural desire for freedom. What was needed was a species of transcendental signifier; some concept of divine order which placed authority and legitimacy beyond the physical reach of any man and thus provided a guarantee of individual rights. This ‘vital spirit’, this ‘invigorating influence’ could not be found among the ideas of men. Only the influence of a religious faith could affect this bond, this identity between men. The Sermons define Christianity as the only true ‘national spirit’; it being the medium through which man can be united as a community.

As this community of faith grew in size and complexity the formulation and adjudication of society’s communally accepted regulations began to be delegated to a smaller group drawn from amongst that society. Divine Providence having made man insufficient to exist without society, to come to deny the emergence of this concept of order through delegated government was in effect to challenge God himself. However, although held together through this adherence to a Christian identity, the Sermons repeatedly emphasised the notion that the true spirit of Christianity is the spirit of love, humanity and moderation. They implicitly rejected the wholesale relevance of perpetuating denominational division based purely upon differences in creedal formulae. If a policy of toleration had the effect of making men loyal and orderly subjects, there could no longer be any justification for refusing to grant such in the case of fellow Trinitarian Christians. This more ecumenical attitude was in direct response to the changing nature of ‘the other’ confronting civilised society. No longer was the struggle one of an intercine battle for theological dominance. The new strains which the American Rebellion placed upon society and the violence and bloodshed apparent during the French Revolution rendered a conflict between doctrinal particulars largely irrelevant. The fault-line was now one between God and Atheism; order and anarchy. This new spirit of tolerance extended to include even Catholics; something which on the surface would appear to overthrow centuries of accepted political orthodoxy, as evidenced in at least two Sermons calling in which the congregation is called upon to grant assistance to those refugee prelates and clergy of the fallen Church of France. How would Britain forestall such a descent into irreligion and darkness? It would do so by holding fast to its superior constitution. Running throughout the Sermons were numerous pre-eminent declarations as to the near perfection of the British Constitution (as it had been settled during the Glorious Revolution). So faultless was this system that it was almost akin to the handwriting of God; the nearest a human system could come to establishing heaven on earth. To challenge any one part of it was to nullify the entire structure; a point made clear in the Bishop of Lincoln’s 1780 Sermon when he launched a veiled attack against the rebellious American Colonists by alluding to a body of men who foolishly believe that liberty can be ever achieved through the use of unconstitutional means.

From such themes can we deduce a vision of Church, State and Parliament during this period? Taken in that order, the Church is represented as both the propagator and custodian of the only authority truly capable of uniting men as brothers in society; of establishing a genuinely ‘national spirit’. It was only through the influence of this spirit that the Providential vision of human society could be realised. The Church, or more broadly in the light of the changing socio-political circumstances, Trinitarian Christianity, represented the means through which human relationships could be both ordered and civilised. Without the influence of this ‘vital spirit’ humanity could never be truly free. Only with an ordered society could man ever hope to reach his true potential. The role of the State was therefore cast as emergent from, and ultimately dependent on, the continued good order of society. The State, or Government, was essentially the delegated body charged with the regulation and adjudication of the mutually agreed framework of interaction and behaviour which formed the basis of human community. Its duty was to resolve the tensions inherent within human society so as to prevent any one individual or element within that structure raising rebellion against the rest, and thereby endangering the entire edifice. The State/Government was supposed to act as the medium through which the spirit of the Gospel, the vision of the Lord, was made reality on earth. But in the same way that the State/Government sought to restrain man’s inherent yearning to bridle against the divine order, it is the function of Parliament; conceived of as the physical embodiment of society as bonded by a national spirit, to safeguard society from the excesses of an overactive and/or tyrannous State/Government. Parliament acted as a permanent reminder that it is to the national interest that the God-ordained concept of State/Government was directed, never to the individual or minority interest. This vision was symbolically Trinitarian, Church; as Father and creator, State; the Son as physical manifestation of the Father on earth, and the Holy Spirit, Parliament; the conduit through which the national interest remains ever present.


Parliaments, politics and people will return in the new term!

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Writing Parliamentary Biography. The Commons 1640-1660. Part 2: Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602-50), the self-fashioning MP

In the second of a four-part series, Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, discusses the problems associated with judging the life of a prolific diarist…

Simonds D’Ewes was born into a family recently settled in Suffolk but with roots in the Netherlands. He was the son and grandson of lawyers, and was himself put to the law at a very young age. He was called to the bar at the age of 21, but his inherited landed wealth meant that he did not need to practise law to make a living. He first entered Parliament in 1640 for the Suffolk borough of Sudbury, and sat in the Long Parliament all through the English civil war until Col. Thomas Pride’s purge in December 1648. He was a staunch Puritan of a conservative kind.

D’Ewes’s fame rests on his parliamentary diaries, which provide unrivalled insights into the politics of the House of Commons between 1640 and 1645. D’Ewes was a compulsive diarist, and started keeping a diary 20 years before he entered Parliament. When he arrived at Westminster, he collaborated with other MPs who kept diaries, but by March 1642 he considered himself the chief among them, and over 400 years later few would dissent from that verdict. Because of sensitivities among MPs about the confidential nature of the parliamentary record, he sometimes found himself defending his diary-keeping practices. He insisted that he was composing it at home from memory, and was not usurping the job of the clerk.

D’Ewes in fact kept three series of diaries. All of them are very personal and very opinionated, with D’Ewes himself at the centre of his narrative. The best-known are his parliamentary diaries in English, but he also kept a Latin diary between 1644 and 1647, and also an intermittent series of diaries in virtually impenetrable code or cipher. He devised the cipher as a schoolboy, and in the cipher diary he writes his most critical remarks about fellow-politicians. In his Latin diary he tells us how he spent his time when not in the Commons (mainly in scholarly and pious activities), and he sometimes uses one of his diaries to comment on something in another of them. So when he decided to give up his English parliamentary diary in 1645, he explained in his Latin diary that this was out of disgust at proposals for by-elections even though Parliament was at war with the king. He thought that by-elections proved that the Commons were intent on self-perpetuation and abandoning the ancient constitution.

D’Ewes has come down through the ages as bumptious and conceited, and most of the evidence for that comes from his own unpublished, private writings. The mass of surviving letters and diaries inevitably creates an impression of egotism simply because of D’Ewes’s habit of recording his own doings, and his determination that the record created for posterity should survive. The personal diary by definition has the ego at its centre. Offsetting D’Ewes’s pomposity and egotism are his extraordinary loyalty to his friends, which involved him in countless appearances at parliamentary committees as an agent on their behalf when they were in trouble; and his bravery in holding to unpopular lines of argument, especially since he was acutely sensitive to what other MPs thought of him.

The problem for any biographer of D’Ewes is that he has left so much commentary about his life and work (manuscripts and letters, as well as diaries) that it becomes hard to steer a path between two extremes. One is to take him at his own estimation, and also to take events at his own estimation of them. The other is to discount the autobiographical element as mere boastful egotism. Historians have disputed whether his own speeches, recorded in summary in his parliamentary diaries, might in fact not actually have been delivered in the Commons at all, but were instead just versions of what he might have said, had he been given the opportunity. After studying his parliamentary career in detail and writing his biography, I concluded that in the context of the typical parliamentary day, D’Ewes’s speeches could have been given much as he recorded them, and there seems no reason to believe, in the context of his entire parliamentary activity, that they were contaminated by wishful thinking or an element of fantasy.

The only antidote to the snares and pitfalls posed by such a self-conscious and self-fashioning politician is constantly to be comparing his own version of events and interpretation of them with the official record of the Commons, and (to a lesser degree) with other parliamentary diaries. By doing so, we can learn for example how sophisticated was his understanding of Catholicism compared with that of most MPs. Because of his continental European ancestry and his friendships with visiting ambassadors and various nobles from Catholic territories overseas, he distinguished between ‘moderate and temperate’ Catholics, especially those hostile to the Habsburg dynasty, and those who were treacherous, or ‘Jesuit’, or those thought to be in the pay of Spain. By contrast, the official record, the Commons Journal, bears ample testimony to the fact that most of his colleagues drew no such distinctions, and loathed and feared ‘papists’ of every kind.

In the next blog I will consider a very different figure, whose biography raises a very different problem: the workaholic and ubiquitous John Pym.


You can read the first of Stephen’s blogs in this series: Part 1: Methods‘ here.

There’s also more on parliamentary diaries, see ‘Researching the House of Commons: Parliamentary Diaries‘ and ‘Publication of Proceedings in Parliament 1624: The House of Commons‘.

Watch out for the next in this series, coming soon…

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Cabinet resignations: an issue of principle

Following Iain Duncan-Smith’s high profile resignation from the cabinet this weekend, we take a look back at some other examples of resignations from the cabinet due to policy differences…

Resigning your post in government has long been the unhappy minister’s weapon of last resort. As Iain Duncan-Smith has been discovering this weekend, it can be an extremely powerful tool to highlight your opposition to government policies (and a chance to undermine your political enemies at the same time). For historians, these resignations can be controversial, with long-running debates over the reasons behind the resignation and the impact they had.

In recent years two examples of resignation on principle stand out. Robin Cook’s resignation from Tony Blair’s cabinet in opposition to the 2003 Iraq War not only highlighted the case against the war, but also greatly added to the reputation of Cook in the years before his death. Sir Geoffrey Howe, meanwhile, has long been credited with causing the downfall of Margaret Thatcher – widely seen as belittling him throughout his cabinet career – with an explosive and well-timed speech over Europe.

Some resignations have become lost from public memory, as the issues and motivations behind the decisions fade from public life – such as the resignation of four cabinet ministers over lay appropriation of church funds in Ireland in 1834 – an important matter in the history of the Liberal party, but little understood today. One of these four ministers, Lord Ripon, was a former prime minister (as Viscount Goderich, 1827-8). Another, Lord Stanley (the future earl of Derby), subsequently held the premiership three times, having left the Whig party for the Conservatives.

An equally high profile figure, whose resignation was prompted not by domestic matters, but by foreign policy concerns, was William Pitt the Elder, who resigned from the post of Secretary of State in 1762. Pitt was the leading figure in a ministry flushed with success in the Seven Years’ War, although his political fortunes changed when George III acceded to the throne in 1760 leading to the rise of John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute. Pitt had been used to getting his way in cabinet, especially after taking credit for the ‘annus mirabilis’ of 1759 and military successes in Canada, Europe, Africa, and India, but he fell out of step with Bute and the new king who hoped to end the war. The breakdown came in 1761, during peace negotiations with the French and Louis XV. When a new alliance between France and Spain became known which threatened to continue the war, Pitt called for a pre-emptive strike on the Spanish. With little support from the rest of the cabinet, Pitt chose to carry out his, often threatened, resignation. In doing so Pitt maintained the political image he had so carefully constructed: he was a politician who had never sought office, but had led a successful war campaign that was now threatened by a bad peace treaty, which faced considerable public criticism. Pitt also faced criticism for his resignation and lost some of his famed popularity. However, he returned to office as Prime Minister in 1766.

In the 1880s a resignation of another rising star shook the cabinet and the Conservative administration of Lord Salisbury. Randolph Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the champions of ‘Tory Democracy’, resigned his post in 1886 over the apparently minor matter of defence estimates and the Secretary for War, W.H. Smith’s refusal to cut £500,000 from his budget. Historians have argued about the motivations behind his resignation ever since. To some, Churchill was an ambitious, independent politician who had tired of cabinet responsibility. He either believed he was indispensable to Salisbury due to his considerable popularity, and the threat of resignation would force Salisbury to back him, or perhaps he was even after the leadership of the party himself. On the other hand, Churchill’s actions have been explained by his belief that the Conservative government had to pursue reforming policies, such as retrenchment in defence to concentrate spending elsewhere, in order to win public support. If they failed to do so, the Liberal party would regain power and implement Home Rule in Ireland, a policy to which Churchill was steadily opposed. In his resignation letter Churchill wrote that he hoped his resignation would ‘help turn the Tory party into a more powerful governing force’ (see also his resignation statement to the House of Commons). Either way, Churchill’s resignation proved to be his most controversial political act, and he never again returned to high office.


Further reading:

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