Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Alan Marshall, The political ideas and parliamentary career of Thomas Scot, regicide, 1645-1660

Today Dr Alan Marshall (Bath Spa University) reports back from his last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar paper: The political ideas and parliamentary career of Thomas Scot, regicide, 1645-1660

This paper’s general aim was to briefly survey some of the ideas of Thomas Scot, the regicide, to delineate the hostility towards him, and, hopefully, open out explanations of his career. The view of Scot is taken though the lens of the remaining, somewhat problematic, evidence. The paper also proposed to explore Scot’s political ideas in the light of the various labels of ‘republican’ and ‘radical’ that had been placed upon him.

Certainly, Scot remains a somewhat undervalued, but interesting, figure in the era of the English republic – a man who stood at the nexus of the revolution over December-January 1648-49. He was prominent at the establishment of the early years of the Rump government – 1649-53, as well as at the republic’s collapse of 1659-1660. The subsequent debate following the paper on his status generally agreed that he could be considered a significant figure in this era.

Scot held somewhat conventional ideas: liberty, religion, and the threat of Popery were all, if still deeply held, values and concerns that led him to the Parliamentary side.  They were views based on his notions of the historical process, and upon the way he interpreted the history of the English state and its monarchy; as well as the very concepts, and history, of parliament itself- with parliamentary representation and sovereignty at their heart. Scot called himself the ‘Weathercock of reason’, and clearly knew both his Tacitus and his Livy very well, being fond of quoting them in his speeches and writings. He could be considered a ‘parliamentary republican’.

This paper’s reflection on Scot’s ideas also stemmed from a more specific interest on the impact of his main role in this period: Scot acted as a government intelligencer, ‘spymaster’ for the Rump parliament.  This raised questions as to why was he given this commission? Was he any good at it?  And what did he actually do -practice wise- when in this role? More significantly, how did this role relate to the processes of government and the actual linkage of contemporary intelligence material to the floor of the House of Commons and to policy?

Furthermore, a long-term view of Scot’s ‘intelligence routine’, and his techniques, reveal that that unlike Oliver Cromwell’s famed ‘Spyder’ John Thurloe, who succeeded him, or for that matter the Restoration spymaster Joseph Williamson, Scot generally endeavoured to work in collaboration with the other members of the Council of State and through its established committee systems on secret intelligence matters. It is very clear from the evidence that Scot himself never seems to have had any particular qualms about the spirit of co-operation that was firmly entrenched in the republican intelligence system. His earlier work in the Buckinghamshire County Committee, and his subsequent parliamentary background of extensive committee work since 1645, as well the evidence of his frequent speeches on the floor of the House of Commons, had made him very used to working in this manner. Quite naturally Scot brought this philosophy into his secret intelligence work, where it provides a very strong theme to his daily routine. Clearly his attitude was distinctively noticeable in his work- a republican theme as it were -and it marked him out from his espionage peers in the early-modern English context.

Lastly, Scot was frequently derided in contemporary political satires as one of the major ‘hell-hounds that have preyed upon…[England] this 7 years’, and this hostility was linked to ideas of his deviant sexuality. Such ideas may have solely emerged from the ‘rough’ politics of the press of the day, to which he was ‘a continual perplexer’, rather than from any real sexual unorthodoxy.


Join us for tonight’s ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, where Gary Hutchison (University of Edinburgh) will speak on: ‘‘A distant and Whiggish country’: The Conservative Party and Scottish elections, 1832–1847’. Full details here.

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Voices from our Oral History Project: Tam Dalyell

Following the sad news last month of the death of the fondly remembered maverick MP Tam Dalyell, today we begin an occasional series exploring interviews with former MPs from our oral history project we have now lost…

Since his death, Tam Dalyell’s many obituaries have praised him as a politician of principle, if one of many contradictions. He was the socialist who went to Eton; the Labour Scot who opposed devolution; the courteous, likeable man who proved to be the thorn in the side of ministers from any party, including his own. He sat for West Lothian (later Linlithgow), the constituency of his ancestral home for 43 years, four as father of the house. He was respected as a tireless campaigner, a hard-worker, and a stubborn man best known mostly for the ‘West Lothian question’ and for hounding Margaret Thatcher about the sinking of the Argentinian warship the Belgrano during the Falklands War.

A former trustee of the History of Parliament, Dalyell was one of the first subjects of our oral history project. Even in the setting of an oral history interview he proved formidable: seizing our interviewer’s notes before starting, he often seemed to be conducting the interview himself! Yet the interview remains a lasting testament to his career and character.

Chief amongst the contradictions remarked upon after his death was how he turned from chairman of the Cambridge Conservative Association to the ‘darling’ of Labour’s left in the 1980s. In his words:

He later described the Egyptian President Nasser turning up at his hotel one night when he visited the country on honeymoon in 1963.

Conservative MP Sir David Madel, in his interview for the project, described Dalyell as a “the most devastating questioner in the House.” His reputation for awkwardness was certainly well-earned; he was thrown out of the House on several occasions for calling Margaret Thatcher a liar over the sinking of the Belgrano, and became known for his campaigning on issues, particularly in foreign policy. In his interview, he described how this began:

I was never ever awkward for the sake of being awkward. I’ll tell you where it started, in a sense. I became Dick Crossman’s PPS when he was minister of housing… In February 1965 it became apparent that there was not the resources to carry out the housing commitments the Labour party in opposition had given. He thought and I thought that a lot of the trouble was this huge defence budget, and that was all east of Suez. So, I started asking questions about the Borneo war [British involvement to help support the creation of Malaysia against opposition from Indonesia, 1963-66].

Despite opposition from his party’s front bench he went on an official visit to Asia soon after, which included an argument at dinner with Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore. He returned to London “very critical of the Ministry of Defence” ready to ask “a whole battery of questions” about defence issues, including the plan to turn the atoll of Aldabra into a military airport. This campaign reached as far as the White House, and Dalyell was successful in preventing it going ahead.

Despite his recognition of the need to be “awkward”, he many remarked on his courtesy to his colleagues. In his words:

He was also aware of the implications being awkward could have for him in his constituency, and made sure to keep up good relations with his party and constituents:

He later stated that his constituency party never succeeded in changing his mind: “If an MP argues a case strongly and on principle, his constituency will on the whole give him the benefit of the doubt.”

As for the ‘West Lothian question’ – the problem of devolution where Scottish (and Welsh) MPs could vote on issues in England that they had no power over in their own constituency – he would not take credit for coining the term, despite his continual questioning of the policy during the 1978-79 debates on the Scotland Bill. Here he describes how the term came about:


The full interview with Tam Dalyell is available to hear as part of the British Library’s sound archive.

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Edmund Burke and the Brexit debates

For the second week in a row, parliamentary business is dominated by the government’s ‘Brexit bill’. For many, this bill rekindles the dilemma – put so famously by Edmund Burke – of what an MP should do when their opinion differs from that of their constituents; an issue discussed here by our Director, Dr Paul Seaward…

It didn’t take long for Edmund Burke to be mentioned last Tuesday during the debate on the bill to authorise the government to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and kick off the process of leaving the European Union. And it’s not surprising, because Burke’s description in his speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774 has become the classic statement of the relationship between Members of Parliament and their constituents, brought out whenever the debate on whether an MP has an obligation to directly reflect his constituents’ views is rekindled. The text of the speech, delivered on 3 November 1774, after his victory, with Henry Cruger, in the poll, is available here. The famous passage comes as a response to Cruger’s reference to ‘the topick of instructions’ (the attempt by constituents to prescribe the way in which their representative should vote in Parliament on certain issues) and how it had ‘occasioned much altercation and uneasiness in this City’. Two paragraphs of Burke’s response are usually cited:

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of Constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a Representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; Mandates issued, which the Member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgement and conscience; these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental Mistake of the whole order and tenour of our Constitution.

Parliament is not a Congress of Ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an Agent and Advocate, against other Agents and Advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative Assembly of one Nation, with one Interest, that of the whole; where, not local Purposes, not local Prejudices ought to guide, but the general Good, resulting from the general Reason of the whole. You chuse a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not Member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament. If the local Constituent should have an Interest, or should form an hasty Opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the Community, the Member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it Effect.

The history of the election is fairly well known, and is described in our article on Bristol in the period. Burke’s candidacy for Bristol had been discussed for some time, the aim being to establish a joint ticket between Cruger, the local radical, and some representative of the Whig opposition to the existing ministry (with which the opposing candidates, Matthew Brickdale, and Robert Nugent, Viscount Clare, were vaguely associated). But the Burke and Cruger camps were not close, and negotiations broke down before the election began. Cruger initially entered the contest as a sole candidate; it was only after Clare’s withdrawal that Burke finally entered the race. An agreement was finally made between Cruger and Burke though there was very little cooperation between them over the course of the election.

The relationship between Burke and Cruger was indeed an uncomfortable one, and a large part of the awkwardness between them lay in precisely the point Burke laboured in his famous speech. The two must have known each other reasonably well, for Burke, as the paid agent looking after New York’s affairs in London, had had frequent dealings with Cruger’s uncle John, the Speaker of New York’s Assembly. But the two were scarcely on the same side. Burke had been a key voice in the campaign of the aristocratic Whig opposition to the government over its efforts to prevent the radical journalist, John Wilkes, from taking his seat in the House of Commons. But their support for the firebrand Wilkes was initially lukewarm, though they fell behind him as they sought to sink a government they felt to be corrupt and hostile to constitutional (and particularly aristocratic) liberty. Cruger, however, was an ardent Wilkite enthusiast, who with his father-in-law, a Quaker Bristol merchant (and slave-trader) had been a leader of the city’s Independent Society, which had followed the example of Middlesex, Westminster and the City of London, in seeking to ‘instruct’ its Members of Parliament to vote against Wilkes’s expulsion from Parliament, and to demand the redress of other grievances. In London the movement had been led by Alderman Beckford; in a speech in March 1769 in the Commons on the payment of the Crown’s debts, he made it clear that he was speaking on the instructions of his constituents, a statement that produced considerable scorn from many members, Burke included, who had commented that if the practice was not ‘put down’, it would ‘destroy the constitution’.

The campaign to instruct MPs gathered momentum in advance of the 1774 election: it became a demand that candidates sign up to a series of ‘pledges’, including a promise not to take office from the government, to vote for Wilkes to be allowed to sit in Parliament, and for a programme of ‘country’ measures, including ‘more equal representation’. It was a strong call in the great cities: Cruger offered pledges at Bristol; Burke had toyed with the idea of standing in Westminster, but Wilkes himself had told him that he would need to take the pledge for any chance of success. When the pledge was demanded of one of the candidates in London, William Baker, Baker wrote a letter insisting on a member’s freedom to act, a letter in which, it was argued by Dame Lucy Sutherland (a great historian of the eighteenth century, and a former member of the History of Parliament’s editorial board), Burke had a considerable hand.

Much more could be written on the subject of instructions, an issue which had a history extending back at least a century before Wilkes and Burke, and which might perhaps be the subject for a future blog. For now, suffice it to say that Burke’s argument in his speech to the electors of Bristol therefore had a very specific context, and one, as Dame Lucy argued in the article in which she excavated much of it, that was very different to the modern-day argument: no-one in Burke’s day, she pointed out, had yet thought of the possibility of a political party fighting an election on a programme announced to the electorate in advance; she herself probably never considered referendums as a serious prospect for Britain.


Further reading

  • Lucy Sutherland, ‘Edmund Burke and Relations between Members of Parliament and their Constituents’, Studies in Burke and his Time, x (1968), 1005-21. (Reprinted in Lucy Sutherland, Politics and Finance in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Aubrey Newman (1984)).
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A ‘Glorious’ Revolution?

This week the BBC’s new series ‘British History’s Biggest fibs’ tackles some of the myths surrounding the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-1689. Dr Robin Eagles casts a glance over some aspects of the revolution’s commemoration…

In July 1789 the House of Lords considered a motion introduced by Earl Stanhope for a day of national commemoration to be instituted marking the anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. A similar measure was introduced to the Commons by Henry Beaufoy. Arguing against Stanhope’s proposal, the bishop of Bangor objected that a day of commemoration already existed as 5 November was taken to mark both the discovery of the Gunpowder plot and William of Orange’s arrival at Torbay. Following a few more speeches, Stanhope’s motion was voted down in a fairly empty House by six to 13. Stanhope’s failure to convince the Lords apparently confirmed his original concern that not enough attention was being paid to a moment of such significance in Whig mythology. While notices in the contemporary press make it clear that the centenary at least was observed with considerable gusto, Stanhope’s concern is supported in part by John Wilkes’s disappointment when he visited William’s landing place at Brixham in the summer of 1772 ‘ready to fall on my knees on the sacred spot’ only to find little evidence of commemoration there either.

The Glorious Revolution has always had a contested historiography and its memorialization helps to underline a number of reasons why that might be the case. At the very outset, William of Orange had been just as unimpressed by the very modest number of those willing to invite him to England – and then by the rather slow response to his invasion from those whom he had expected to rally to his cause. The so-called ‘Immortal Seven’, who put their names to the letter of invitation, also appeared to emphasize the underwhelming appeal on which he was depending for his legitimacy. However, while their numbers may have been slight, it should not be forgotten that each promised influence over an important constituency and had greater symbolic appeal than a mere seven signatures might otherwise suggest.

Two were top-rank politicians, Henry Compton, bishop of London – who thereby brought with him a degree of support from the Church of England – and Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, former principal minister of Charles II and a powerful figure in the north of England. Charles Talbot, 12th earl of Shrewsbury, was famous for a number of reasons – not least as a convert from Catholicism to Anglicanism – and Henry Sidney was well-known as brother of the martyred Algernon (executed in the wake of the 1683 Rye House Plot). Lord Lumley (another convert) was relatively junior but brought with him impressive influence in the north-east of England and a number of army connexions. William Cavendish, 4th earl of Devonshire, brought with him greater experience as well as a similar level of prestige in the midlands. Finally, like Sidney, Edward Russell represented another great noble family who had suffered at the hands of the Stuarts, and who could also offer significant influence in the Navy. Besides, in addition to the ‘Seven’, there was an array of colourful hangers-on who helped drive the plot forward: men like the alarmingly unpredictable Lord Lovelace or the rakish duellist, Thomas Wharton. Lovelace was a former friend of the dissolute poet earl of Rochester, and said never to have been sober since his days as a student at Wadham College, Oxford. His house at Ladye Place was used for at least some of their plotting and retained its mystique as one of the hideaways of the revolutionaries long afterwards. Wharton, composer (or rather librettist) of ‘Lilliburlero’ later liked to boast of having sung James II out of three kingdoms, and his role in the Glorious Revolution was made much of during his later career as lord lieutenant of Ireland.

Ladye Place.

If William’s level of support in England has been questioned, the very phrase ‘Glorious Revolution’ has also been the cause of dispute, partly because for some it is a distasteful epithet for a period that involved lengthy and bloody civil war. However, there is good evidence for it having been in use very soon after William’s successful invasion, so it can at least claim a certain contemporaneity. The man generally reputed to have coined the phrase was John Hampden, while speaking in a parliamentary committee in November 1689. He was not, though, the only one attempting to fashion the proceedings of the previous autumn into a manageable ‘sound-bite’. The following month Sir Henry Capel dubbed it ‘this great Revolution’ and Sir William Leveson Gower ‘this happy Revolution’: though neither caught on in quite the same way. Painting William’s triumph as ‘glorious’, however, was in no way original. The term called to mind past events – after all this was a revolution, a turning of the wheel, and thus as much a restoration as an innovation. A work of 1680 had, significantly, referred to Charles II’s return to the throne in 1660 as a ‘Glorious Revolution’; perhaps more obscurely another of 1653 had made the same claim of the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. Whether or not Hampden was conscious of these allusions, what is clear is that the phrase was current long before November 1689 and it is a mark of the special place of the 1688 Revolution that it is to this rather than to those earlier examples that the title has stuck.

The mythologizing of the Glorious Revolution is the less remarkable when one considers how other comparable events had been similarly incorporated into the nation’s ‘rich tapestry’.  But equally important too was the need to forget or at least quietly amend certain aspects of what had occurred. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Viscount Say and Sele – prominent parliamentarian and known for his slippery politicking as ‘Old Subtlety’ – had had an inscription carved at his seat of Broughton Castle bearing the legend ‘Quod olim fuit, meminisse minime iuvat’ [There is no pleasure in the memory of the past]. After 1688 there was similar erasing of memory. James II’s former chief minister, the earl of Sunderland, wrote to William III from exile claiming boldly that the Revolution had been his doing all along – and how by his furthering James II’s unpopular policies he had ensured James’s rapid dismissal.

It is all too easy to dismiss such blatant repositioning for the fiction it was, and it is certainly true that many other false or misleading descriptions have attached to what happened in 1688/9. It was not, for example, in any way ‘bloodless’.  But for the people who risked their necks to bring over William, as well as for those who worked to oppose him, this was an historic moment – good or bad – and this is perhaps reflected in the way that it continues to resonate into modern times. Thus when in November 2008 the House of Commons debated the establishment of a ‘British Day’, Paul Holmes, the then Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield, when suggesting a number of events that might form the basis for commemoration included 1688 among them. Reflecting the complex nature of the event, though, he added the all-important qualification: ‘History is a bit more complicated than simple labels, such as “the Glorious Revolution”.’


Further reading:

  • Ulrich Niggemann, ‘Some remarks on the origin of the term “Glorious Revolution”’, The Seventeenth Century, xxvii (2012)
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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Alan Macdonald, The Rhetoric of Representation: Scottish Parliamentary Commissions 1638-41

Our Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar returns tonight with a new term’s programme – so to bring you up to date, Dr Alan MacDonald (University of Dundee) reports back from his paper last year: ‘The Rhetoric of Representation: Scottish Parliamentary Commissions 1638-41’…

When the burgesses and lairds of Scotland gathered for parliamentary elections in 1639, they were participating in one of the most important elections not only in the history of Scotland but in the history of the whole of Britain and Ireland. Between 1639 and 1641, that parliament would effectively establish parliamentary sovereignty, an example followed by the opposition to Charles I in England and a crucial stage in the spread of revolution and war to the rest of Britain and Ireland.

Argyll commission 1639 (Crown copyright, NRS PA7/25/3/1)

Argyll commission 1639
(Crown copyright, NRS PA7/25/3/1)

Commissioners from 53 burghs and 29 shires carried with them their written mandates (‘commissions’) issued in the name of the electors (the councils in the burghs, the lairds in the shires). Their commissions were letters patent, recording who had been elected, granting the commissioners full powers to act on the electors’ behalf, and promising to ‘hold firm and stable without again-calling’ whatever they did in parliament.

These documents are significant for a number of reasons. They provide some evidence of how, when and by whom elections were carried out, which is rare in the Scottish context for this period. These commissions are also the first complete set to survive for most of those from before 1639 were lost. This was probably as a result of Cromwell’s removal of Scottish records in the early 1650s: they were returned at the Restoration but one of the two ships carrying them tragically sank. Finally, the commissions contain rhetorical language which provides hitherto unnoticed insights into the mood of the localities and their response to the unfolding revolution.

Most incorporate what I have termed a ‘purpose clause’, a statement of the principles that commissioners were to uphold and these statements were much more elaborate than those found in earlier commissions. It isn’t easy to characterise them all as ‘royalist’ or ‘covenanting’, for every covenanter acknowledged the legitimacy, even the divine sanction, of monarchy, while many opposing the covenant were careful to adopt at least some of the covenanters’ language. There are, however, some striking phrases suggesting a willingness to stand up and be counted.

Since statute allowed shire commissioners to be elected annually at Michaelmas, it was customary to commission them to attend all parliaments and similar meetings for the next twelvemonth. The shire of Argyll used this to assert the sovereignty of parliament by empowering its commissioners to attend all parliaments and conventions of estates along with the king or his commissioner (as was normal), but also to sit in ‘all other lawful meetings of the estates among themselves’. In other words, they might meet even if the king hadn’t summoned them. In 1641 Argyll required a replacement commissioner, and the new commission went further by empowering those elected to meet ‘in absence of his majesty or his highness’ commissioner’: in 1640, Charles I had attempted to prevent parliament from meeting by refusing to send a representative but the estates carried on regardless. In 1641, the electors of Argyll were asserting the legitimacy of that action.

Examples of royalist sentiments are also to be found. Nairnshire described Charles I as ‘his sacred majesty our dread sovereign’, while the burgh of Selkirk’s commissioners were told that they ought to promote ‘God’s glory, our sovereign lord King Charles by the grace of God king of Great Britain, France and Ireland and defender of the faith, his majesty’s sacred will and pleasure’. Seven commissions gave prominence to ‘obedience’ to the king, although the electors of Peeblesshire must have debated what word was appropriate to place before ‘of our sovereign lord’: the commission was drafted with a blank space and ‘obedience’ was added later in a different hand.

Unsurprisingly, given the significance of the issue, religion is prominent in most purpose clauses, with almost every one asserting ‘the glory of God’ as the prime directive. Thirty-nine commissions contain augmented references to religion, suggesting deliberate emphasis on the issue, using phrases such as ‘the preservation of religion’, ‘the advancement of the kingdom of Christ’ and ‘the purity of religion within this kingdom’.

So why did the authors of the commissions choose to include rhetorical language in these documents and who did they think they were addressing. That most of them were letters patent and all but one were written in Scots (the other being in Latin), provides a good basis for believing that they were read out loud. One imagines the commissioners arriving to present them to the clerks of parliament and reading them out to the other burgh and shire commissioners, officers of state and peers in Parliament Hall, providing all who were present with some flavour of the mood of the localities.

They would have heard rhetorical vocabulary selected from a common pool of traditional and innovative language, revealing the variety of responses of the burghs and shires to the revolution. Some asserted firm support for the revolution, others defiantly proclaimed their loyalty to the king, while others hedged their bets, by combining references to ‘free parliaments’ and ‘his majesty’s honour’.

Commissions are superficially formulaic documents but closer analysis reveals a much richer source than one might have expected. Finally, while Scottish commissions are less formulaic than English election indentures and were issued by the electors and carried by the representatives, rather than being issued by the sheriff and returned to Westminster, perhaps a closer examination of them might also lead to hitherto unrealised insights into English local opinion.


And join us tonight for our first Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of 2017, another with a Civil War theme. Alan Marshall (Bath Spa University) will speak on: ‘The political ideas and parliamentary career of Thomas Scot, regicide, 1645-1660’. Full details here.

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Votes for Women and the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17

January 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17, which first sat in October 1916 and reported on 27 January 1917.  Dr Mari Takayanagi, Joint Project Manager for the Vote 100 Exhibition Project, discusses the significance of the Conference for women’s suffrage.

The Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17 was the brainchild of Walter Long MP, President of the Local Government Board. By mid-1916, the House of Commons had been considering electoral reform for some time, without agreement. It was clear that some kind of franchise reform was necessary in order to allow men on military or naval service to vote at the next election. Many MPs were keen that men working in other militarily-useful industries should also be able to vote, and given the importance of women’s contribution to the war effort, it became necessary to at least consider whether some women should be included too. But the Commons could not agree, and Long suggested a cross-party, cross-House body to make recommendations. The Speaker was asked to chair it, which he agreed to with some reluctance, writing to Prime Minister H. H. Asquith,

I cannot pretend that I look forward to it with enthusiasm. I fear that the number and complexity of the issues, which will be raised as we proceed, will overwhelm us and it will be almost impossible to obtain anything approaching unanimity upon the more important topics which will come up for discussion. [Quoted in Rolf, p43]

Despite the Speaker’s misgivings, the Conference went on to meet successfully over 26 sittings throughout Parliament’s recess and through a change of government in December 1916. It was made up of 32 MPs and Peers, chosen by the Speaker to ensure party balance and also a balance of opinion on controversial issues such as women’s suffrage and proportional representation. As well as franchise reform, the Conference was asked to make recommendations on redistribution of seats, electoral registration, and method and cost of elections. Women’s suffrage campaigners including Millicent Fawcett lobbied the Conference members throughout, to ensure their cause was given proper consideration.

Although no formal record was made of the Conference discussions, the Speaker explained in his memoirs that he took less controversial issues first on which it was easier to get consensus, and then moved to more controversial ones, including women’s suffrage. It is also noticeable that when certain Conference members resigned who were known to be anti-suffrage (Frederick Banbury, Lord Salisbury and Robert Finlay) he appointed pro-suffragists.

A few Conference members wrote accounts afterwards, which give a flavour of the proceedings. These included Alexander MacCallum Scott MP, who gave much credit to the Speaker for his approach:

He told the Conference plainly that it was not a Parliamentary Debating Society… the Government had asked us to find a way, and we had got to find a way… From that moment he took the Conference in hand. When the two sides sat and stared blankly at each other he took the initiative and put proposals for their discussions… He had no political axe of his own to grind… and he succeeded in dominating the Conference. He created the atmosphere of conciliation. [Quoted in Pugh, p76]

One of the most dedicated women’s suffrage supporters at the Conference was Willoughby Dickinson MP. Dickinson was the only one of the Conference members with a perfect record of both attending and voting in favour in Parliamentary divisions on women’s suffrage [listed in Fair, pp294-5]. Dickinson recorded that on 10 and 11 January 1917 the Conference agreed to consider the question of women suffrage by 18 votes to 4; agreed there should be some measure of women’s suffrage by 15 votes to 6; but a motion was lost that this should be on the same terms as men, by 10 votes to 12. From his scribbled notes it also appears that they voted on motions that women should have the franchise at age 25 (no figures given), 30 (11 for, 8 against); and age 35 (12 for, 3 against). Then, by his own account:

I made my proposition that vote should go to occupiers or wives of occupiers, and this carried 9 to 8. Thus by a majority of one, suffrage clause went forward! [‘A veteran recalls the passage of the Franchise Act’, Willoughby Dickinson papers, London Metropolitan Archives F/DCK/027/28 & 29]

The Speaker duly reported that the Conference decided by a majority to recommend that the franchise be conferred on all woman who were on the local government register, or whose husbands were, provided they had reached a specified age ‘of which 30 and 35 received most favour’ [Conference report].  William Bull MP later remembered how age 30, rather than 35, was inserted during the drafting of the Representation of the People Bill in 1917:

As Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mr. Walter Long (now Lord Long), who was President of the Local Government Board at the time, I attended the meeting of the Drafting Committee. Lord Long took the Chair, and there were also present the Home Secretary and the draftsman. When we came to the question of the age, Lord Long said, “This is rubbish,” and he struck out 35, and put in 30. The Committee agreed to that. [William Bull, House of Commons Debates, 29 Feb 1924]

There was still opposition in both the House of Commons and House of Lords to women’s suffrage, but the Bill passed on a free vote in both Houses.  The Act as passed gave the vote to all men aged 21 years or older and to men on military or naval service from the age of 19. Women aged 30 or older who qualified for the local government franchise, or whose husbands did, were also given the vote. It was thought during debate that this would give the vote to about six million women, although the eventual figure was approximately 8.4 million women.  The Speaker explained later in the House of Commons that:

It was thought desirable that women and men should be somewhere about on a parity and we took the age of thirty which was the nearest we could get to make the number of women voters equal to the number of men. [The Speaker, House of Commons Debates, 4 April 1919]

The accounts of the Conference and the debates during the passage of the Act make it clear that it was not possible for Parliament to agree equal franchise in 1918 – that had to wait another ten years, until the Equal Franchise Act 1928. But despite the age and property restrictions on women, the 1918 Act was a huge concession of principle. Gender alone was no longer a barrier to voting.  As we move towards celebrating the centenary of the vote for all men and some women in 2018, we should also remember the crucial role of the Speaker’s Conference of 1916/17, which is not well remembered today, but without which the Act could never have happened. In particular credit is due to Conference members such as Willoughby Dickinson MP, and to Speaker Lowther.



This blogpost came from research for an article for a future edition of Parliamentary History, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 in February 2018; and in work done for a Vote 100 display, which can be viewed online here:

Further reading

  • Neal Blewitt, ‘The franchise in the United Kingdom, 1885-1918’, Past and Present, 32 (1965), 27-56
  • David Close, ‘The Collapse of Resistance to Democracy: Conservatives, Adult Suffrage and Second Chamber Reform, 1911-1928’, Historical Journal 20:4 (1977)
  • Conference on electoral reform: letter from Mr Speaker to the prime minister. Cd. 8463, 1917-1918
  • Hope Costley-White, Willoughby Hyett Dickinson 1859-1943: A Memoir (1956)
  • John D Fair, ‘The Political Aspects of Women’s Suffrage during the First World War,’ Albion, 8:3 (1976), 274-295
  • Millicent Garrett Fawcett, What I Remember (1924; reprinted 2004)
  • Nicoletta F. Gullace, “The Blood of our Sons”: Men, Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War (Basingstoke, 2002)
  • House of Commons Library, ‘Speaker’s Conferences’, Standard Note SN/PC/04426 (2009)
  • James William Lowther, A Speaker’s Commentaries (1925)
  • Homer Lawrence Morris, ‘Parliamentary Franchise Reform in England From 1885 to 1918’, no 2 vol XCVI in Studies in History, Economics and Public Law (New York, 1921), chapter ix
  • Martin Pugh, Electoral Reform in War and Peace 1906-18 (1978)
  • David Rolf, ‘Origins of Mr. Speaker’s Conference during the First World War’, History, 64:210, (1979) 36-46
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The election of debtors to the early Stuart House of Commons

Facing up to the consequences of Christmas spending is a common problem in January, but for some in serious financial straights the past, parliament provided a solution. Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1603-60 section, tells us more about early 17th Century debtors in the Commons…

Not all of those who entered the Commons in the early seventeenth century did so from the noblest of motives.  While many were undoubtedly eager to enter St Stephen’s Chapel because they wished to serve the interests of their constituents, or to promote religious reformation, others were rather more self-serving.  Some, desirous of employment, hoped that conspicuous service in the Commons would bring them to the notice of the crown; others merely sought to continue the family tradition of sitting at Westminster.  Among the least edifying reasons for seeking election was the need to escape debtors’ prison.  In order to prevent the business of either House from being disrupted, all members of Parliament enjoyed immunity from arrest.  However, this necessary privilege created a perverse incentive for election among those who were unable or unwilling to pay off their debts.  In the Addled Parliament of 1614, at least eleven members gained seats so as to defeat their creditors.  They included such notable figures as Sir William Cavendish, returned as junior knight of the shire for Derbyshire.  Heir to the future earl of Devonshire, Cavendish racked up enormous debts because he declined to restrict his spending to his formal allowance.  Other conspicuous spendthrifts who sought refuge in the Commons that year included both representatives for Lancashire, Sir Cuthbert Halsall and Sir Thomas Gerrard, 1st bt.  In 1625 the Devon gentleman Arthur Bassett was actually languishing in debtors’ prison when he was elected to serve for the Cornish borough of Fowey.

In theory, it was illegal for those who had been outlawed for debt to serve in the Commons.  As early as the mid fifteenth century the judges had ruled ‘that matter of outlawry was a sufficient cause of dismission of any member out of the House’.  However, despite the risk of damage to its reputation, the Commons consistently refused to expel outlaws.  In 1559, for example, they declared that John Smith, though outlawed, ‘should still continue a member of the House’, while in 1593 they refused to unseat Thomas Fitzherbert, even though he had twenty-two judgments against him for debt.  During the early seventeenth century the only debtors to whom the Commons denied admittance were Sir William Cope, elected for Banbury in 1625 despite having been put in execution for debt, and Sir Thomas Monck, returned for Camelford in 1626 while in prison.

The Commons’ reluctance to root out those of its members who had been outlawed for debt was not entirely unreasonable, as the case of Ferdinand Huddleston, returned for Cumberland in 1624 despite there being twenty-four outlawries against him, demonstrates. During the debates on this case in the Commons’ committee for privileges, it was observed that outlawry ‘may happen to the best man in a county’. Most men of means needed credit at some time or another, if only to tide them over until the next quarterly rents were due. Under such circumstances, it was understandable if payments to creditors were sometimes late and court action ensued.  Members of the committee also observed that it was wrong to deprive the commonwealth of the services of those deemed most able by their electors to serve in Parliament for something as trivial as debt.  They also noted that ‘outlawries … are for the most part gotten behind men’s backs and without their privity’.  This fear, that members ambushed by their creditors might find themselves expelled from the Commons, was of long standing, for in 1604 a bill to prohibit ‘lurking and secret outlawries’ received two readings.

In essence, the House of Commons believed that its composition should be decided by electors rather than by private moneylenders.  However, the crown took a starkly different view.  In 1604 the new king, James I, issued a proclamation forbidding the election of outlaws to the forthcoming Parliament, ‘for wee may well foresee, how ill effects the bad choice of unfit men may produce, if the House should bee supplied with Bankrupts and necessitous persons that may desire long parliaments for their private protections’.  James was almost certainly encouraged to issue this proclamation by the lord chancellor, Lord Ellesmere, who believed that outlaws were unfit to be lawmakers and that it was the role of Chancery, not the Commons, to determine who was eligible to sit at Westminster.  During the course of the ensuing parliamentary elections, Sir Francis Goodwin was returned for Buckinghamshire, only to be disqualified by the attorney general on the (mistaken) grounds that he was an outlaw and replaced by the privy councillor Sir John Fortescue.  However, in the ensuing struggle between the Commons on the one hand and the king and the privy council on the other, it was the latter who came off worse.  The Commons, horrified that ‘a chancellor may call a Parliament of what persons he will, by this course’, declined to turn their attention to the king’s plan to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland until their claim to jurisdiction was upheld. Faced with the prospect of unwelcome opposition to his pet project, an alarmed James was forced to concede that the lower House, as well as Chancery, was entitled to validate returns.  In so doing, he effectively handed victory to the Commons, whose right to determine the outcome of elections was never again challenged by Chancery.  The Commons thereupon quietly abandoned their promise to pass legislation that would prohibit outlaws from sitting in future.  To have done otherwise would have been tantamount to making a rod for their own backs.


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