Naoroji: the life of the first Indian MP

Last month we were delighted to celebrate the life and work of Dr Dadabhai Naoroji at an event in Portcullis House, Westminster, in collaboration with the Zoroastrian All Party Parliamentary Group and the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe (ZFTE). 2017 is the centenary of the death of Naoroji, who we remember as the first Indian to be elected to Parliament. But Naoroji’s achievements were much broader than this; for he was a towering figure in the development of the Indian National Congress, as well as in many aspects of Indian intellectual and religious life.

Born near Bombay in 1825, Naoroji initially moved to England to further his business career, before becoming a professor at UCL, founding the ZFTE and campaigning for Indian independence. In his most famous work, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, Naoroji argued that British rule was a ‘drain’ on Indian resources. He entered British politics when he stood as a Liberal for Holborn in 1886. After his defeat, the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury infamously doubted that a ‘British constituency would elect a black man.’ The remark gained Naoroji public sympathy and support for his next campaign, in Finsbury in 1892. He won by just five votes, and stayed in Parliament for three years. He was one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress, and in 1907 returned to Bombay for good.

Emily Thornberry and our panel, photograph by Raj Bakrania

At our celebration  a range of highly qualified speakers reflected on his life and significance. After a welcome from Gordon Marsden MP (on behalf of the HPT) and Gareth Thomas (on behalf of the APPG), Malcolm Deboo read a statement from Lord Bilimoria, co-chairman of the APPG, who unfortunately was unable to attend. Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary and current MP for Islington and Finsbury, spoke of her pride that Naoroji had been one of her predecessors. The High Commissioner of India, HE Mr Yashvardhan Kumar Sinha, talked about the importance of Naoroji in the movement for Indian independence and the development of the Indian National Congress.

Lord Parekh, photograph by Raj Bakrania

Our main speaker was the distinguished political scientist Lord Parekh, who gave us an overview of Naoroji’s life and importance. He remarked how much support Lord Salisbury had inadvertently given Naoroji, drawing many to his campaign who would not have otherwise joined him. He described how Naoroji had campaigned for women’s suffrage, old age pensions, Irish Home Rule and the abolition of the House of Lords. But his major interest was, of course, Indian independence. Naoroji had great sympathy for Britain and British culture – in particular a culture that valued justice and ‘fair play’. Naoroji argued, however, that the problem with British rule in India was that they were acting in a ‘un-British’ way: not following these principles of justice. Lord Parekh concluded by discussing the legacy of the ‘Grand Old Man of India’: secularism, the Indian National Congress, and as an inspiration for figures like Ghandi and Jinnah. His remarks were followed by Lord Bourne, Under Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government, and time for wider questions.

Photograph by Raj Bakrania

The occasion was an excellent opportunity to mark not only the life and work of a hugely important figure, whose influence spanned two continents; but also to reflect on the relationship between two countries and two Parliaments over more than a century. We were enormously pleased to welcome so many members of the Zoroastrian community, as well as historians and others interested in the impact of India on Britain and its politics. We would like to thank our speakers; our partners – the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, founded by Naoroji, and the APPG; and our generous sponsors, Cobra Beer, and Tata UK.


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Reporting Parliament: Hansard, Throwback Thursday

Today in our ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for Parliament Week, we have a guestblog from the team at Hansard. Here they have recorded the ‘day in the life’ of a Hansard reporter, now and thirty years ago…

2017: Thursday, 9 am

I’m on the bus to work, flicking between cat memes and the Hansard website on my iPhone to read last night’s work. I scan today’s online Order Paper to see what lies ahead. The main business is programmed, so at least I know what time I’ll finish tonight.

1987: Thursday, 9 am

Wednesday’s business finished at 1 o’clock this morning —  Labour and the Conservatives have really fallen out over the plans for the nationalised industries.

9.30 am

I arrive in the Hansard reporters room. Unlike most offices in London, it’s wood-panelled and lined with books. Oh, and it’s just a couple of strides from the Commons Chamber. It looks like an old film set, only marginally less atmospheric; PCs will never have the romance of typewriters.

Someone across the dormitory is snoring, the sun is beaming through thin curtains and Big Ben is chiming loudly overhead. I’m not working again till lunchtime, but I suppose I’ll get up.

I turn on my computer, check my emails and load up the programs I’ll need to produce my work for the day. But there are some things that just won’t do in digital.[1] And the list is one of them. Reporters work in a rota of 16 that we call “the List”. Each member of the team is responsible for reporting five minutes of debate at a time. We call each chunk of debate we report “a Turn”.  As soon as I arrive each day, I make sure I have a printed copy of the List, which tells me the time at which I need to be in the Chamber for my Turn.

I read the papers over a bacon sandwich in the Press caff. There’s an amusing sketch about ‘the Hansard writers’ scratching their heads in the Gallery as the new shadow Energy Secretary engages in robust debate about something they’re all starting to call ‘privatisation’. We’ve been coping with his speaking style for years now; must’ve been be a slow news day.

10 am to 10.10 am

© UK Parliament/(Mark Duffy)

I’m sat in the Press Gallery. Hansard reporters sit in the two seats directly above the Speaker’s Chair, and we call it “the Box”. For five minutes, I act as an extra pair of eyes and ears for the person before me in the List. Then it’s my Turn and the person who follows me in the List helps me out.

As I’ll be working till about 11 tonight, I try to ring my family. No reply. I spend a pleasant couple of hours instead in an almost deserted National Portrait gallery. I’ll ring home again tonight between Turns, if I get a chance.

I take longhand notes of what’s going on—who’s speaking, intervening or heckling. I scribble figures, acronyms and the names of organisations I’ll need to check when I leave the Chamber. If it’s a quiet debate, I google names on my phone to save time later. But, as I said, there are some things that just won’t do in digital.

For example, an MP names a constituent and head of a local health board (do they still exist?) I need to spell that name correctly. So when I leave the Chamber, I scrawl a note: “Please confirm your constituent’s name, Susan/Susanne/Suzanne/Suzan?” Names are never spelt as you’d imagine. I send the note down to the Chamber in a dumbwaiter that we call “the Chute”. Yes, really, a dumbwaiter. It’s the quickest way to contact MPs when they’re in a debate.

10.10 am

I return to my desk to type up my Turn. The sound in the Chamber is recorded and stored on an audio system called Sliq, which integrates with our specially adapted version of Word. To listen to my Turn as I type, I just put on my headphones and use a foot pedal to control playback.

When I input information such as debate headings and the names of MPs who have spoken, I instantly generate tags containing metadata. This informs how content appears on Hansard’s website and enables you to search, for example, for contributions by your MP.

I use Google to research anything in my turn that seems unclear, to find quotations and to confirm the spelling of companies’ names. Another reporter has checked the Chute and picked up a reply to the note I’d sent to the MP. It simply reads, “Soosan.” Glad I checked.

10.50 am

When I’ve finished typing, editing and checking, I click “send” and my Turn becomes “RFS”.  Ready for Subbing. My computer helpfully asks me whether I’m sure about this decision. Probably not, but we have deadlines.

Our report of what is said in the Chamber is published online in its final form within three hours. And each chunk of debate isn’t finished until it’s been through an extra layer of checking by a sub-editor. To meet these strict deadlines reporters aim to complete a Turn in 45 minutes.

After convincing my computer that I actually would like to send my turn, I pop down to the café to top up my caffeine levels. Then I head back to the Chamber for my next Turn. And then my next Turn.

1 pm

It’s lunchtime, but I have a Turn at 1.10 pm. I’ll grab something afterwards.

I join a group of Hansard reporters in the canteen. We exchange predictions about when the House might adjourn. Nobody knows. I decide I better eat while I have the chance.

4.45 pm

My second Turn comprises some very bad-tempered exchanges at the beginning of an Opposition day. As I scribble a quick note to send down the Chute — ‘Susan’ is a common enough name, but you never know — a lobby correspondent from The Times goes into his paper’s phone booth to ring the office.

My typist is waiting for me. I perch on the upright chair and unravel my Stenograph note. Disaster strikes. The typewriter ribbon snaps, and in the panic a rather full ashtray is knocked on to the floor. Eventually, I resume my dictation, but there goes any chance of a dinner break later.

5.30 pm, House adjourned

A doorkeeper in a tailcoat and a white bow tie shouts “Ho-o-o-m-me”, the bells ring, and with the day’s business over, I finish my Last Turn.

6.45 pm

Off to the theatre. Or the cinema. Or an exhibition. I mean, where else would you go on a Thursday night?

10.30 pm, House adjourned

A doorkeeper in a tailcoat and a white bow tie shouts “Ho-o-o-m-me”, the bells ring, and with the day’s business over, I finish my Last Turn.

11.15 pm

I say goodnight to the sub-editors still working as I hand in my last Turn. As I head back to the dorm I see the courier from Her Majesty’s Stationery Office drive through the carriage gates to pick up the day’s copy for overnight printing.

I never did get a reply to that note I sent. Good job I found the name in the Councils, Committees & Boards book. Soosan? Who would have thought.

[1] “In digital?”—I hear you shriek—“In digital what? I thought you were supposed to be a Hansard reporter! Digital is an adjective, not a noun. I shall read no further.” Well, things change. It’s 2017. Just sayin’.

Charlie Browne (Senior Reporter)/Vivien Wilson (Managing Editor – Hansard)

You can read all of our ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for this year’s Parliament Week here.

Charlie Browne also blogs about Hansard over on Parliament’s website.

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Acquitted with three huzzas: the impeachment of Robert Harley, earl of Oxford

UKParliamentWeek_Logo_PARTNER_TAG_RGB2017In today’s ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for Parliament Week 2017, Dr Robin Eagles considers the value of manuscript news accounts of the impeachment of the earl of Oxford just over 300 years ago for providing a more detailed impression of the proceedings.

On 1 July 1717 Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, was acquitted of high treason. It was a process that had begun two years previously with his impeachment by the House of Commons, since which he had spent much of the intervening time imprisoned in the Tower of London. (For more on impeachment see the earlier post by Dr Andrew Thrush.)

The former lord high treasurer under Queen Anne, Oxford had been displaced shortly before Anne’s death and on the succession of George I in the summer of 1714 he had been made thoroughly aware that he remained persona non grata for the new regime as well. By the spring of 1715 moves were afoot to impeach Oxford and other former ministers, including Viscount Bolingbroke, for their involvement in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) which brought Britain out of the War of the Spanish Succession, abandoning Hanover and other allies along the way.

Oxford’s case offers the historian a variety of ways of examining the debates of both Houses through the use of a number of sources: print and manuscript. While there were official printed versions of the proceedings – and some journalists such as Abel Boyer risked the ire of both Houses by publishing unofficial accounts – other journalists continued to communicate their news via manuscript newsletters, which were harder to regulate.

Such subscription services tended to be expensive and were thus for the most part the preserve of the wealthy. Their impact, however, was greater than this suggests as provincial papers often regurgitated their reports even though their reliability was sometimes questionable. The news service subscribed to by the Scots Jacobite peer, John Fleming, 6th earl of Wigtown, and now held in the Bodleian Library [Bod. Lib. MS Eng. hist. c1039-1042], seems to have prided itself on speed of delivery, thereby sometimes allowing accuracy to suffer. Nevertheless, in the days before printing of debates was permitted, the manuscript news services offer an additional glimpse into details of the process – how it was managed by Parliament – and the response of Oxford’s friends and foes to his acquittal.

On 7 July 1715 the newsletter recounted how Robert Walpole had reported to the Commons that day from committee with 16 articles to present to the Lords against Oxford, two of them amounting to high treason; of the remaining 14 one complained of the controversial decision to persuade Anne to create a dozen new peers at a stroke in the winter of 1711/12. Two days later the newsletter reported the proceedings in the Commons of 8 July when the Members read the articles against Oxford in detail. A clause was agreed saving to the Lower House the right to submit additional articles at a later date. It was also resolved that Oxford should be sequestered from Parliament and ‘committed to safe custody’. These three resolutions were tested in divisions during which ‘the Party for his L[or]dship were overpowered in number in every one of them.’

Reading the manuscript account offers one a sense of how hard-fought the issues were – even if Oxford lost out each time. The Commons sat from 11 in the morning until midnight and it was reported that a chair was to be brought in for Oxford to sit in as it took an hour simply to read through the charges against him (though this pales into insignificance when compared with the six hours it reputedly took to read through the 120-page report on the Atterbury Plot in March 1723). On 9 July the articles were presented to the Lords, who spent until three in the morning debating the issues before concluding in favour of committing Oxford to house arrest (initially) and thence to the Tower.

Over the next two years Oxford was not exactly left to rot. In the winter of 1715/16 preparations were made for his trial, even down to ordering scaffolding to be erected in Westminster Hall and chamber pots to be bought in for the convenience of the Lords when trying him. Despite this, the case was continually put off as both government and Parliament became distracted by dealing with the 1715 rebels and then by the fissures in the ministry that resulted in the ‘Whig Schism’. It was ultimately this that offered Oxford and his friends the opportunity to secure his release, though, and in the summer of 1717 when his trial was at last brought on, the numbers of those in favour of acquitting him (or at least willing to sit on their hands and let him walk free) had been swelled by former members of the ministry now glad of any opportunity of embarrassing the administration of Sunderland and Stanhope.

Even so, the proceedings in the chamber as related in the Wigtown newsletters proved another marathon session with the debates in both Houses lasting ‘from 11 in the forenoon till 11 at night’. Despite speeches in the Commons such as those by Thomas Miller citing the example of the Catalans, abandoned by Britain at Utrecht, and how Oxford had ‘been in Effect as well as L[or]d High Admiral & Archb[isho]p of Canterbury as L[or]d High Treasurer & Secretary of State’, the Commons were unable to concert their action before the Lords resolved to proceed to trial whether the MPs were ready or not. In Westminster Hall Oxford was acquitted unanimously, as those on the opposite side chose to withdraw rather than face defeat. The acquittal was greeted with ‘three huzzas’. Clearly not everyone was satisfied with the result, and the newsletter of 9 July reported how ‘people clamour mightily that since there is such an honest & just foundation to accuse [him] that he should Escape the Justice of the nation’. Oxford himself, having held a ‘Great Levy to felicitate him’ on his good fortune, retreated from the capital to the relative safety of his country seat.

Unlike many of the proceedings in Parliament of this period, the Oxford trial was well reported in the print media as well as in manuscript newsletters. However, it is by reference to both that a full picture of the events can be gleaned: a valuable reminder of the continuing importance of manuscript news in an age of print.


Georgian lords 2

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‘His life was lovely and pleasant & he died in glory’: the Hon. Neil James Archibald Primrose (1882-1917)

Continuing our series on MPs who died while serving in the First World War, Dr. Kathryn Rix looks at the life of a former prime minister’s son.

One of the first MPs to die while fighting in the First World War, William Glynne Charles Gladstone, was the grandson of a former Liberal prime minister. On 15 November 1917 the son of another former Liberal prime minister, the Hon. Neil James Archibald Primrose, died of wounds sustained while fighting in Palestine. At the time of his death he was Liberal MP for Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, which he had represented since January 1910.

Neil James Archibald Primrose

Born at Dalmeny House near Edinburgh in 1882, Primrose was the younger son of the fifth Earl of Rosebery, who had served briefly as Liberal prime minister from 1894-5, following Gladstone’s retirement. His mother, Hannah de Rothschild, who had inherited vast wealth from her father, died just before Primrose’s eighth birthday. Primrose had a close relationship with his father, sharing his fondness for equestrian pursuits.

Given his background, it was unsurprising that Primrose wished to pursue a political career after his education at Eton and New College, Oxford, where he spent more time on ‘hunting and racing and jesting’ than his studies, graduating with a third class degree in History. His political ambitions – at a time when MPs were unpaid – were aided by a legacy from his maternal great-aunt, Lucy Cohen, who left him £150,000 and her London house.

In April 1908 Primrose was selected as the prospective Liberal candidate for Wisbech. Despite various difficulties during his campaign – most significantly, Conservative efforts to capitalise on his father’s opposition to David Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ – he defeated his Conservative opponent, T. C. Garfit, by 200 votes. He more than doubled his majority at that year’s second general election in December. Considerable interest was generated by this contest because his Conservative rival on this occasion was also the son of a former prime minister: Lord Robert Cecil, third son of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury.

Fittingly for the son of a peer, Primrose’s maiden speech, on 11 April 1910, was on the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, a highly topical issue given the Lords’ recent rejection of the People’s Budget. He declared himself ‘emphatically in favour of a Second Chamber’, but warned that ‘if the House of Lords is not radically and thoroughly changed, the country will not want a Second Chamber at all’. His father was among those who came to hear his speech. Although generally loyal to Liberal ministers, Primrose was not afraid of taking an independent line on particular issues. He was not a regular speaker in the Commons, but

when he did intervene in debate he was always listened to with respect and often with admiration, for there was pith in his speeches, now and then a flash of eloquence, and many a happily-turned phrase.

In the Commons Primrose was a close companion of Thomas Agar-Robartes, the Liberal MP for St. Austell, sitting with him ‘side by side on the third bench below the gangway on the government side’. They had become friends at Oxford, and Agar-Robartes returned from active service on the Western Front to be best man at Primrose’s wedding to Lady Victoria Stanley, daughter of the Earl of Derby, in April 1915. Primrose was deeply affected by Agar-Robartes’ death during the Battle of Loos in September 1915, the fifth MP since 1914 to die while serving in the forces.

Like Agar-Robartes, Primrose began his war service with the Royal Bucks Hussars, which he had joined in 1909 as a second lieutenant. (His father had an estate at Mentmore in Buckinghamshire.) Keen to serve overseas, he used his connections to secure a transfer from his regiment, which had been assigned to coastal defence duties in Norfolk, in order to embark for France in September 1914.

Primrose spent the war alternating between military service and government office. In February 1915 he returned to London to take up the post of under-secretary at the Foreign Office. His Foreign Office superior, Sir Edward Grey, had been under-secretary to Rosebery when he was Foreign Secretary. When the Liberals formed a coalition in May 1915, this post was given instead to Primrose’s erstwhile opponent at Wisbech, Lord Robert Cecil. Primrose resumed his military duties, joining the Royal Bucks Hussars, who had recently suffered heavy losses at Gallipoli, in Egypt.

In June 1916 Primrose was awarded the Military Cross, making him the most highly decorated of those MPs killed during the First World War. That September he again took office, as parliamentary military secretary to the Ministry of Munitions, and in December he reluctantly became the Liberal Chief Whip (jointly with Lord Edmund Talbot). He did not enjoy these duties, and resigned in March 1917 in order to return to active military service, reflecting that ‘I am of military age, and I feel that I ought to be doing my duty as a soldier’.

Primrose trained at Aldershot with a reserve cavalry regiment before re-joining the Royal Bucks Hussars in Egypt. He was wounded by machine-gun fire during an attack on the Abu Shushe ridge – site of the Biblical city of Gezer – and died of his wounds on 15 November 1917. He was buried at Ramleh cemetery, where his older brother, Lord Dalmeny, who was also serving in Palestine, was among those at his funeral.

Memorial to Neil Primrose in St. Giles’s, Edinburgh (photograph by andrewrabbott CC BY-SA 4.0)

Paying tribute to Primrose in the Commons, Lloyd George praised his ability ‘far above the average’ and noted that ‘in spite of the reserve and shyness which held him back, his future was full of promise’. He also observed that Primrose ‘deliberately chose the path of danger. He fell charging at the head of his troops, at the very moment of victory’. Primrose’s ‘proud and afflicted father’, Lord Rosebery, erected several memorials to him, with that in St. Giles’s Church, Edinburgh, recording that ‘his life was lovely and pleasant & he died in glory’.

Further reading:

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Reporting Parliament: Invasion scare in Sandwich?

In today’s ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for Parliament Week 2017, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Senior Research Fellow in the Commons 1640-60 Section, discusses the problem of ‘fake news’ during the Civil Wars…

The concern of Parliament with the destabilising potential of false news was of long standing, but the advent of civil war in the 1640s provided special reasons to be vigilant against the dissemination of erroneous, but still dangerous, information.

On 7 June 1642, as armed conflict between king and Parliament began to look like a distinct possibility, the House of Commons ordered that ‘no Member of the House shall send any of the pamphlets and false papers into the country’ and instructed the standing Committee for Printing ‘to inquire after the printing of pamphlets of false news’ [Journal of the House of Commons ii. 611a].  However, this was only a taster of the propaganda war to come.  In time royalists and parliamentarians developed their own partisan newspapers and as other commentators ventured into print with their own accounts of battles, armed skirmishes, war crimes, burdensome taxation, high-handed officialdom, and proceedings at Westminster, not to speak of vicious character assassination.

In June 1646 Parliament emerged victorious from the first civil war following the surrender of the royalist capital at Oxford.  Yet a lasting peace settlement was elusive, and the Lords, the Commons and Parliament’s joint executive committee, the Committee at Derby House, remained nervous of unrest.  In the spring of 1648 the outbreak of royalist insurrection in various parts of England heightened tension and led to the deployment of the army and local militias.  On 20 May James Thurbarne, town clerk of Sandwich, who was later to be four times an MP for the coastal borough, informed the Committee at Derby House that a man had landed at the port ‘who affirmeth himself to be the Prince of Wales’, but whom Thurbarne, who had apparently seen him in custody, judged ‘an imposter’.  As he explained to the Committee, ‘his hair is rather flaxen than brown, and his complexion fair though something tanned, whereas the prince himself is of a black complexion and very black hair’.  The Committee accepted Thurbarne’s analysis and expressed itself ‘fully satisfied’ that the man was ‘only an imposter’, but was alive to the real possibility that Kentish people less familiar with the appearance of the 18-year-old prince would be deceived and act upon the false perception.  The royalists, they concluded, had ‘given out’ that the prince had landed ‘purposely to increase their numbers and encourage their design’; the Committee feared that Parliament’s local forces would be overwhelmed [TNA, SP21/24, ff. 63-65v].

The Committee immediately alerted Vice-Admiral Rainborowe, who was to be ‘watchful upon the seas to prevent any danger that may come to this kingdom from foreign parts’, and General Sir Thomas Fairfax, who was to despatch sufficient cavalry to ‘give a timely prevention to this growing evil’ of uprisings, unfolding under the ‘several pretences of horse races, wrestling and Maypoles’.  But it seemed the damage had been done.  Within three days the Committee had received the (accurate) intelligence that Sandwich had been ‘garrisoned for the king’.  However, they were still keen to retrieve the ‘imposter’ and ordered Rainborowe to lay hold on him, by sending in ‘a party of musketeers’ if the mayor did not co-operate [TNA, SP21/24, f. 69].  Furthermore, at some point they despatched former courtier and political agent Sir Thomas Dishington with a set of questions designed to expose the prisoner’s ignorance of the prince’s entourage.  That appears to have worked as far as the authorities were concerned, inasmuch as the man answered only one query, and that one unconvincingly, but it probably came too late to affect the course of the rebellion [BL, Harleian MS 286, f. 326].  That was put down in June by Fairfax and other, local commanders.

It was not to be the last time that ‘the Prince of Wales’ was sighted between then and the Restoration.  Perhaps the most celebrated occasions occurred when the future Charles II was on the run after his defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651.  Then the commonwealth government took care to publicise his physical characteristics as a tall, dark man, but Charles kept one step ahead by adopting disguise – and multiplying confusion.


Tomorrow’s ‘Reporting Parliament’ series will continue with a post from the Georgian Lords. You can read all of the current series here.

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Reporting Parliament – In the Later Middle Ages

Today’s post is the first in our special series of blogs for this year’s Parliament Week: Reporting Parliament throughout the ages. Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow in our Commons 1422-1504 project, describes how medieval constituents kept up to date with parliamentary business…

The evidence for the medieval English parliament, more limited than for other periods of its existence, can give it a somewhat unreal quality. Yet, there is no doubt that it was very real indeed not merely to the Lords and Commons who attended it, but also to the men and women who were governed by the statutes it passed, and, above all, who were taxed by it. The inhabitants of medieval England enjoyed paying taxes no more than most of their modern descendants, and the exclusive use to which premodern parliamentary taxation could by convention be put – the defence of the realm (that is, wars of conquest in France) – was hardly designed to endear these periodic levies to them any more. ‘I prey God send yow the Holy Gost amonge yow in the parlement howse’, wrote John Paston in March 1473 to his brother Sir John, then a Member of the Commons, ‘and rather þe devyll, we sey, then ye shold grante eny more taskys [taxes].’

A dislike of some decision taken in Parliament did, however, also mean that medieval Englishmen, not least those put in some position of authority took a keen interest in the business transacted. We have only a single example of a written report by a pair of MPs to their constituents, that penned by the Members for Colchester in 1485, but it is probable that other similar accounts were compiled at various times. The Colchester men’s colourful narrative recounted the events of the state opening, commenting on Henry VII’s appearance in his ‘ryall estate’ and and the chancellor’s ‘worshipful sermon, in that he shewe many worshipfull points’. They then turned to the election and presentation of the Speaker, before coming to a day-by-day account of the session. On some days, business was transacted more promptly than on others:

The xth day of Novembre there was red a byll for the Subsedy betwen the kyng and the merchaunts, whiche byll was examyned amonges us … and non conclusyon. The xjth day of Novembre the same byll was red afore us and there passed as an aucte. … The xiijth day of Novembre it was Sonday.

On other occasions, Members of the Commons did not submit written reports, but might instead appear before their constituents to give a verbal account of the proceedings to which they had been party. So, on Christmas Eve 1423 the MPs for Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk in that autumn’s Parliament appeared before the mayor and council of the town, ‘many other burgesses being present to hear what had been discussed’ during the session, and ‘openly told of many and diverse matters that had been debated there’, while on 30 Dec. 1461 the MPs Simon Pigott and Henry Bermyngeham were said to have ‘declared the acts of Parliament, … some in writing and some verbally’, suggesting that alongside the verbal report the Members returned with copies of some of the acts passed. Some declarations could be more formal, as well as more comprehensive. In July 1425 one of the Lynn Members, Thomas Burgh, read out the various items of business of that year’s Parliament from a scroll, while his colleague John Copnote gave fuller details of what had been discussed under each heading. At other times, however, the Lynn members were less forthcoming about their doings, and merely provided a summary of what had occurred.

Nor were the audiences for these reports mere static observers. The reports could be followed by some discussion, at least among the ruling elite of Bishop’s Lynn, and could inform fresh instructions given to the MPs, as could interim reports sent by the MPs to the authorities back home: in October 1427 the Members for Lynn, Philip Frank and Bartholomew Petipas sent one such a letter, asking for funds to be spent in the course of building a body of support for Lynn’s interests in the House, a request which was granted on condition that the men would repay any money they might have left over. Money was, as ever, at the heart of the matter. Far from being particularly diligent in carrying out their representative duties, the Lynn Members routinely followed up their reports with a request that they might now be paid their parliamentary wages: clearly, their accounts were, above all, designed to demonstrate that they had done their jobs!

Beyond this immediate, ‘newsworthy’ reporting of Parliament, the medieval period also saw another form of narrative recording of parliamentary proceedings: the chronicle account. These reports were in their nature different from those made by Members to their constituents, but to the modern observer of equal, if not greater use, as their authors – rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of what had occurred – often strove to separate out matters of greater importance worth preserving for posterity from the merely circumstantial. Some such accounts merely noted the dates of the opening and prorogation or dissolution of parliament, along with a few selected events or acts that stood out to the author’s mind: this was, for instance the case with John Benet’s Chronicle of the final years of Henry VI. Others, however, stand out by their colourful narratives and rich circumstantial detail: to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, we owe many important details of the parliamentary procedure of the last quarter of the 14th century, such as the elections of the early Speakers of the Commons, as well as some interesting commentary on a few of the leading parliamentarians of his day, like Sir Thomas Hungerford. Even here, though, money was never far from the parliamentary reporter’s mind. In 1410, Walsingham reported tartly, the cost of the wages of the parliamentary knights of the shire came to almost as much again as the tax that they had already granted to the King.


Further reading:

  • Parliamentary Texts of the Later Middle Ages ed. Nicholas Pronay and John Taylor (Oxford, 1980).
  • The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham (1376-1422), trans. By David Preest, intr. By J.G. Clark (Woodbridge, 2005).

Our ‘Reporting Parliament’ series will continue throughout Parliament Week.

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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Henry Midgley, Harold Wilson and the Public Accounts Committee 1959-63

At our first ‘Parliaments, Politics & People‘ seminar of the new academic year, Henry Midgley discussed his work on Harold Wilson before he became Prime Minister…

Harold Wilson is well known for many things – his Premiership and long leadership of the Labour Party and his role in key debates such as those around the UK’s recent referendum on membership of the European Union and questions about devolution. Wilson’s government’s work is still cited by current politicians- for example the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee referred back to Wilson’s work on the civil service [Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee The Work of the Civil Service: key themes and preliminary findings] and a recent collection of writings on Wilson’s government was introduced by several serving politicians, including Tom Watson [A. Crines and K. Hickson eds. Harold Wilson: the unprincipled Prime Minister? Reappraising Harold Wilson (London 2016)].

However, some aspects of Wilson’s career remain obscure. In my paper to the seminar, what I tried to do was to shed some light on one little known area of Wilson’s career – his period as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (1959-63). Wilson took on the role unusually in combination with his roles in the Shadow Cabinet. He left it to become leader of the Labour party and what my paper tried to show was that there were links between the work he did at the Committee and his work as an opposition politician.

As Chair of the Committee, Wilson questioned civil servants about major projects and programmes of work where value for money had been compromised. These instances could range from individual misconduct – such as the failure of the Ministry of Aviation’s procedures to stop civil servants acting corruptly – to more systematic failings, like the Ministry of Transport’s failure to budget successfully for the construction of roads. Wilson’s committee was supported by the Exchequer and Audit Department who collected evidence for their inquiries and issued bipartisan reports.

This all may sound fairly interesting to a historian of administration but not to a historian of politics or of Wilson, but Wilson’s period as Chair was significant in three ways. Firstly it enabled him to build up a reputation as an impartial, expert critic of the government. Secondly it gave him a critique of government policy that he could turn into the language of partisanship – railing against Tory waste and incompetence. Later Wilson could bind this into an attack on Alec Douglas-Home and his match stick approach to economics. Lastly Wilson’s tenure on the committee informed his own attitudes to Parliamentary and especially select committee reform.

Our discussion of Wilson’s time at PAC was really interesting. I had focussed very much on Wilson’s own use of and interest in the committee, what I found fascinating was that the discussion focussed on broadening out the scope of what I was thinking about – for example people were asking about how Wilson got away with what he was doing on PAC, were others aware of his work, was this model of chairing a precedent for future chairs? Some of these questions are by their nature unanswerable or hard to answer given the evidence but they have made me think about how I develop this project in the future.


Join us tonight for the latest seminar: Henrik Schoenefeldt (University of Kent) will speak on ‘The challenges of designing the House of Lords’ nineteenth-century ventilation system: a study of a political design process, 1840-47.’ Full details here.


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