Parliament and the 1965 Race Relations Act

Passing legislation with a small majority is an ongoing problem for our current government, but this not an unusual parliamentary position. In today’s guest blog, Dr Simon Peplow discusses the difficulties faced by Labour in passing the first Race Relations Act in 1964-5 with a small majority …

When Labour returned to power in 1964, they did so with a manifesto pledge to legislate against racial discrimination. This resulted in the 1965 Race Relations Act, the first legislation in Britain to address racial discrimination, outlawing ‘discrimination on the ground of colour, race or ethnic or national origins’ in ‘places of public resort’ such as hotels and restaurants, and punishing incitement to racial hatred. However, it has been almost universally criticised as ineffective and too narrow, failing to address the main areas of discrimination within employment and housing. For example, during its passage through Parliament, leaders of the standing conference of West Indian organisations in London considered it ‘well-meaning but virtually useless’.

The Act was presented as part of a ‘package deal’, which allowed the passing of harsher immigration controls whilst appearing to combat discrimination against those already settled within Britain. Successive governments during the period believed that a numerical limit on immigration would itself improve race relations, as famously summarised by Roy Hattersley: ‘I believe that integration without limitation is impossible; equally, I believe that limitation without integration is indefensible’. Through explicitly linking a reduction in immigration with improving racial harmony, it characterised immigration as a problem and, by extension, so too immigrants and their descendants themselves. This thus made the job of such anti-discrimination legislation immediately more difficult.

When it came to drafting the legislation, the Society of Labour Lawyers recommended that it be in the form of conciliation machinery combined with civil remedies. This followed observation of North American experiences, where it was believed that local law officers and juries were reluctant to prosecute and convict under the criminal law. Such proposals were widely circulated, through groups such as the newly-established Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, and therefore most MPs who favoured anti-discrimination legislation were convinced that this was the best form for it to take in order to obtain convictions and positively influence public opinion.

Nevertheless, when Home Secretary Frank Soskice introduced the Race Relations Bill into the Commons on 9th April 1965, it included punishments under the criminal law. This was due to the belief that criminal sanctions would be a more significant indication of public disapproval, and ‘considerable anxiety’ that conciliation proposals would ‘give rise to a great deal of conflict and complaint which otherwise might not find expression’. Whilst punishment under criminal law would indeed seem to be of greater force, it was at odds with what available evidence suggested would be most effective – and, more importantly, also with the general political consensus at this point. Soskice, suffering increasingly ill-health and struggling with the demands of the role, was later described by successor Roy Jenkins as ‘a remarkably bad home secretary’. Certainly, the air of defeatism that encapsulated Soskice’s tenure is summarised by his internal memo that lamented: ‘Poor old Home Office. We are not always wrong, but we always get the blame’.

The Bill thus faced great resistance from the House. Supporters bemoaned that the criminal-law approach would make obtaining convictions more problematic, whilst some Conservatives objected in principle to the perceived restrictions upon free speech. Most of all, the lack of possible conciliation between involved parties prior to conviction was criticised. Opposition Spokesman on Home Affairs, Peter Thorneycroft MP, claimed that many Conservatives had previously favoured conciliation and Labour MP Bernard Floud stated that, without such machinery, it ‘does not make the positive contribution to the solution of the problem which could be made’.

Due to Labour’s 1964 victory returning a majority of just four seats, any Bill required either full Labour support or cross-party backing to pass through the Commons; and it was clear that the present Bill would not receive such without the inclusion of conciliation machinery. Therefore, in order to push the Bill through the House, Soskice announced plans during its second reading to incorporate conciliation machinery and it duly passed by the narrow margin of 261 to 249 votes. The Bill accordingly underwent great changes during the committee stage, to a degree that Erik Bleich described as ‘virtually unknown in Britain’.

Maurice Foley, Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs, believed that a conciliation commission would be most effective with wider powers extending into housing, employment and education, and Soskice himself recorded that such a commission required this extension to be successful. Nevertheless, Foley convinced Soskice that it was ‘important tactically’ to establish conciliation machinery ‘within the terms of the present Bill’.

Consequently, the Act that subsequently passed included conciliation and civil remedies addressing racial discrimination in some, but not all, places of public resort and did not include those areas where discrimination was most apparent, namely housing and employment. It was recorded that this was due to ‘compelling reasons’ from those Ministers directly concerned – such as that special measures for certain sections of society would increase discontent and that ‘nobody can be said to have a right to a particular employment or to the purchase of a particular house’ – although public explanation for these significant omissions did not occur.

Despite losing the severity of original criminal sanctions, it could be argued that conciliation and civil remedies improved the chances of the Act functioning effectively to reduce levels of racial discrimination in Britain; however, the failure to extend its scope into the areas where these would be most effective resulted in extremely weakened legislation. To illustrate, out of the 327 complaints that the Race Relations Board, established to enforce the Act, received in its first year, 238 (73%) were deemed to be outside the scope of legislation.

Later discussions regarding extended legislation revealed that areas such as housing and employment had been excluded from the 1965 Bill to keep its additions to the criminal code ‘as limited as possible’. When criminal punishments were replaced with conciliation and civil remedies, however, the Act was not broadened into such areas and was consequently significantly constrained in its ability to tackle racial discrimination. It would take until the 1968 Race Relations Act before those areas demonstrating the worst excesses of racial discrimination were addressed.


Further reading:

  • Simon Peplow, ‘The ‘Linchpin for Success’? The problematic establishment of the 1965 Race Relations Act and its Conciliation Board’ Contemporary British History (available here)
  • James Hampshire, ‘Immigration and Race Relations’, in The Labour Governments 1964–70, edited by Peter Dorey, (Oxford: Routledge, 2006) pp. 309–29.
  • Gavin Schaffer, ‘Legislating against Hatred: Meaning and Motive in Section Six of the Race Relations Act of 1965’, Twentieth Century British History, 25, no. 2 (2014), 251–275.
  • Keith Hindell, ‘The Genesis of the Race Relations Bill’, The Political Quarterly, 36, no. 4 (1965), 390–405.

Dr Peplow is a historian of modern British race and immigration history currently based at the University of Exeter.

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The Prime Minister in the House of Lords: Gladstone and the Irish Church bill, 1869

For the past month the government’s Brexit bill has been back and forth both Houses of Parliament, re-awakening old debates on the roles of the Commons and Lords. Here our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses a similar controversial bill 150 years ago…

Theresa May’s remarkable appearance in the House of Lords on 20 February, at the beginning of the debate on the bill triggering the Brexit process, raised eyebrows all round. A number of newspapers and others referred to it as unprecedented: May was said by some to have been the first prime minister to have sat on the steps of the throne during a debate in the Lords.

In fact, it has been pointed out by Matthew Purvis at the House of Lords Library that there are a number of precedents, including Clement Attlee in 1947, Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and David Cameron in 2013, though the latter two visits – to honour particular peers – were of small political significance. But one previous visit to the Lords by a serving prime minister took place in circumstances that have many more resonances with the debate around the Lords’ role in relation to the Article 50 bill, albeit a century and a half ago.

William Gladstone laconically recorded in his diary his visit to the House of Lords on 15 June 1869; what he did not record was that it was on the second day of the second reading debate of the Irish Church Bill, the major measure of the new liberal government elected the previous year of which he was the head. The disestablishment of the Anglican Irish Church had risen to the top of the British political agenda over the period following the Fenian rising of March 1867. The circumstances of the first half of 1868 were extraordinary. Benjamin Disraeli had replaced the ailing Lord Derby in February as prime minister of a minority conservative government. Though embattled, he managed to avoid resigning until new electoral registers could be prepared on the basis of the greatly enlarged electorate created by the Second Reform Act of 1867. The period enabled Gladstone to gather together the fissiparous liberal party to secure the passage through the Commons of the Irish Church Suspensory Bill, a measure that would pave the way to full disestablishment. During the debates in the Commons conservatives protested that so major a step could hardly be taken without the sanction of an election: Palmerston, who had led the liberal party at the last election in 1865, had, they pointed out, made no reference to the Irish Church at the time. Any decision on the issue must, they argued, be left to the new Parliament.

In the Lords, those points were reiterated in the debate (25/26 June 1868) on the bill’s second reading. Liberal spokesmen responded by insisting that if the Lords did not accept the Commons’ will – and public opinion – on such major issues, the consequences might be dire. The earl of Clarendon, for example, argued:

I think it undesirable that on the hustings men should be tempted to speak, and pledge themselves to act, against the House of Lords, as they will if you reject this measure. I am the last man to wish that the independence of this House should in any respect be abridged; but I think we might exhibit our independence by marching with and not lagging behind the House of Commons.

The peroration of the previous Prime Minister, Lord Derby, on the other hand, amounted to a passionate defence of the peers:

Your Lordships are perfectly well able to judge for yourselves what course will be most consistent with your principles, your position, and your dignity as an independent branch of the Legislature; and I do not think that your Lord ships will be affected by the declaration that by rejecting this measure you will be seeking a cause of quarrel with the other House… if you were … simply to register the opinions of the House of Commons, it would be better not to be than to exist under such a slavery.

The bill was rejected at the end of three nights’ debate, on 29 June 1868.

Parliament was dissolved in November. In the subsequent election the Irish Church was a major issue. The liberal victory was clear enough for Disraeli to take the highly unusual step of resigning the premiership before the new Parliament met. Gladstone was famously at his estate at Hawarden, chopping trees, when he heard that the Queen’s private secretary was on his way to discuss forming a new government with him: after a period of silence he pronounced that ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland’, and then resumed chopping.

A new Irish Church bill, disestablishing and disendowing the Church from 1871, was introduced into the Commons on 1 March 1869 and passed the lower House by the end of May. Gladstone was well aware of the possibilities of trouble in the Lords, though it would come not so much from the official opposition, as from the conservative backbenches. Earl Granville moved the second reading of the bill on 14 June. On the next day, 15 June, Gladstone visited the Lords. Some of the most important speeches, though, were made on the 17th, the third day of debate. One of them was Lord Derby’s, in which he spoke of the bill as a ‘revolution’, and argued that it was tantamount to a dissolution of the 1800 Union with Ireland. He muttered darkly about a renewal of rebellion in Ireland. The other was the marquess of Salisbury’s. Salisbury (who would become conservative prime minister in 1885) conceded that the election had been decisive as far as the principle of the bill was concerned. He expanded his remarks into a summary of what he regarded as the proper role of the House of Lords in the constitution more generally:

It has been represented that, in admitting it to be the duty of this House to sustain the deliberate, the sustained, the well-ascertained opinion of the nation, we thereby express our subordination to the House of Commons, and make ourselves merely an echo of the decisions of that House. In my belief no conclusion could be more absolutely inconsequential. If we do merely echo the House of Commons, the sooner we disappear the better. The object of the existence of a second House of Parliament is to supply the omissions and correct the defects which occur in the proceedings of the first. … In ninety-nine cases out of 100 the House of Commons is theoretically the representative of the nation, but is only so in theory … because in ninety-nine cases out of 100 the nation, as a whole, takes no interests in our politics, but amuses itself and pursues its usual avocations … In all these cases I make no distinction—absolutely none—between the prerogative of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Again, there is a class of cases small in number, and varying in kind, in which the nation must be called into council and must decide the policy of the Government. It may be that the House of Commons in determining the opinion of the nation is wrong; and if there are grounds for entertaining that belief, it is always open to this House, and indeed it is the duty of this House to insist that the nation shall be consulted … But when once we have come to the conclusion from all the circumstances of the case that the House of Commons is at one with the nation, it appears to me that—save in some very exceptional cases, save in the highest cases of morality—in those cases in which a man would not set his hand to a certain proposition, though a revolution should follow from his refusal—it appears to me that the vocation of this House has passed away, that it must devolve the responsibility upon the nation, and may fairly accept the conclusion at which the nation has arrived.

It was a key formulation of what would become known as the ‘Salisbury doctrine’, the idea that the Lords’ role was that of an equal partner with the Commons, except on points where the verdict of the Commons and the verdict of the nation was clearly the same.

That view did not necessarily extend to the detail of any bill, and the devil, on the Irish Church bill, would indeed be in the detail. Gladstone would expend enormous energy over the next month or so on the struggle to prevent the Lords from unravelling the bill’s provisions line by line, and Salisbury, for one, would be much less cooperative than he had been on the principle. He put the government on notice in his speech that the debate on the detail would be the Lords’ chosen battleground, and that if Gladstone wanted ‘arrogantly’ to resist any amendments in the Commons, he thought the Lords, and the conservatives, would come out the better. Salisbury would make the allegation again, in the debate on 20 July on the Commons’ response to the Lords’ amendments:

Do not tell me it is the verdict of the nation. I will try it by a simple test. Suppose the Prime Minister had proposed that your Amendments should be accepted, would they have been refused by the House of Commons? It is not the verdict of the nation, it is not even the verdict of the House of Commons, it is the will—the arrogant will— of a single man to which you are now called upon to submit.

A later tradition recalled this as pure theatre: Gladstone standing on the steps of the throne while Salisbury denounced him and everyone turned to the prime minister to watch his reaction. That perhaps is a conflation of two different events; but it underlines the drama of a confrontation that helped to define the British constitution, and caused doctrines to be enunciated that are still key to our debates on democracy and the role of Parliament and its two Houses.


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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Gary Hutchison, ‘‘A distant and Whiggish country’: The Conservative Party and Scottish elections, 1832–1847’

At our last ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar, Gary Hutchison (University of Edinburgh – and former winner of the HPT’s undergraduate dissertation prize) spoke on his research into the Conservative Party and Scottish elections after 1832. Here he gives an overview of his paper…

The Reform Act(s) of 1832 had far-reaching effects on the practical politics of elections, as well as the wider political culture of the United Kingdom.  These effects, however, varied across Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales.  Indeed, the need for separate acts was itself a recognition that elections throughout the UK, though all sending MPs to Westminster, could vary wildly from country to country.  This was especially true of Scotland; not only did it possess a separate legal framework, it also had distinctive ideological concerns and cultural traits, resulting in a unique partisan landscape.  Scotland was, in the words of Norman Gash, a ‘distant and Whiggish country’ to contemporary party observers, a place particularly hostile to Conservatism whose best interpreters were politicians with native connections.

The purpose of the paper was to examine just how Whiggish Scotland actually was between 1832 and 1847, and to what extent this affinity for Liberalism was due to the distinctive structure of Scottish electoral politics, as amended by the 1832 Scottish Act.  In doing so, it looked at the Scottish Conservative party’s experiences of traditional (and, to Scotland, somewhat novel) election rituals.  These included canvassing for votes, treating, the hustings, and transporting voters to the poll.  Treating, which involved entertaining voters, was a relatively unpractised custom in Scotland before 1832; it was adopted enthusiastically by Conservatives attempting to throw off the stigma they had acquired in opposing the expansion of the electorate.  Scottish constituencies, unlike England, were almost monolithically single-member, with only Edinburgh and Glasgow electing two MPs.  Not only did this make Scottish elections more starkly partisan, it also helped to make canvassing a more dominant feature of electioneering.

The new (and shoddily drafted) legal framework of elections created by the Scottish Act both helped and hindered the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives.  Much like in England, registering voters was a time-consuming and expensive process, requiring extensive party involvement on both sides.  This, however, was even more true of Scotland.  Conservative penetration of the Scottish legal system in fact gave them an in-built advantage in this area, as registration courts worked the party’s advantage.  The Conservatives were particularly active in this area across Scotland, doing much to politicise and expand the political nation; even in constituencies which they never formally contested, across burgh and county, the Scottish Conservative party acted as a catalyst for politicisation.  Similarly, they had previous experience of creating fictitious ‘parchment’, or ‘faggot’ votes before 1832; the bad drafting of the 1832 Act opened whole new vistas for the creation of dubious votes, allowing both parties (though largely the Conservatives) to capture several counties and make them safe seats.

The party thought that through canvassing, treating, registrations, and vote-making, they could rebuild their position – if, that is, they could also harness traditional deference and influence amongst the rural electorate.  They employed various positive and negative means to influence electors, ranging from financial inducements to outright coercion, in the form of the threat of eviction or the calling-in of debts.  These methods, though partially effective, were not central, and moreover, declined over time.  Scottish electors (and, more so, non-electors), having lived under the exceptionally oligarchic Scottish system of management, were markedly independent; a trait no doubt reinforced by the polarised structure of the new electoral system.  Though they maintained their hold in some of the counties, their attempts at exercising influence were regularly denounced by the Liberal-dominated Scottish press, and were very unpopular in the burghs.

The Scottish Conservative party fared badly for a number of reasons, and their tactics must rank as a prominent one of these.  A constituency framework of binary choices left the party without hope of benefitting from split votes, as they might in England.  Similarly, as the heirs of the detested old Dundas-managed Tories, they were unlikely to win hearts and minds.  But in concentrating on influence, coercion, registrations and vote-making, they only served to reinforce negative stereotypes.  Moreover, the apparent initial success of these methods sapped motivation to evolve; Peel’s moderate Liberal Conservatism, popular south of the border, was never convincingly espoused by the party north of it.  This failure, among others, resulted in a Scotland that was, indeed, distant and Whiggish.


This paper forms part of Gary’s ongoing PhD research, which is funded by the Wolfson Foundation.

Join us for tonight’s ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, where Edward Hicks (University of Oxford) will speak on: ‘The importance of character: Spencer Perceval and the early nineteenth century House of Commons’. Full details here.

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Lords and Commons in Late Medieval England

As the government’s bill to trigger article 50 and leave the European Union progresses through the House of Lords, the relationship between the Lords and the Commons is once more under discussion. In today’s blog, Dr Simon Payling, Senior Research Fellow on our Commons 1422-1504 project, discusses the relationship between the two houses in late medieval England…

The relationship between the Lords and Commons in late-medieval Parliaments has often been characterised as one of subordination and dependence, with the Commons looking to the Lords for political leadership.  There is a strong case for such a view.  There can be no doubting the superiority of Lords to Commons in social status and individual wealth. Indeed, on the part of the greatest lords the social divide was enough to breed condescension: according to the monkish chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, described the county MPs as ‘those degenerate knights of the hedgerows’.  Nor can it be doubted that, as the natural counsellors of the King, the Lords were very much closer to the great affairs of state than the social ranks – principally the gentry elite of the shires and the mercantile elite of the boroughs – from which the Commons were drawn.  It was, after all, from the Lords that the great officers of state, the leading military commanders and most of the royal council were drawn.  Add to this the consideration that a significant number of MPs in each Parliament were the retainers and servants of individual lords and it is hard to see that the Commons could have been otherwise than subordinate to the Lords.  The Commons themselves might even assert their inferiority and dependence: the Anonimalle chronicler, perhaps drawing on an eye witness account, has the first speaker, Sir Peter de la Mare, saying, ‘We [the Commons] are so simple of wit and of wealth that we cannot redress [the important matters facing us] without the counsel of wise folk [in other words, Lords]’.

Yet this picture of subordination is too simple.  It rests on the assumption that the community of interest between Lords and Commons was unvarying.  Certainly, at times of great political crisis, the Commons looked to the Lords for support and advice as Parliament sought to impose reform on an errant executive, as they did famously in the ‘Good Parliament’ of 1376 when de la Mare was the first speaker.  On others a faction of powerful lords could exploit for their own ends the Commons’ desire for better government, as the Lords Appellant did in the Merciless Parliament of 1388.

None the less, the Commons also spoke with a voice that was manifestly their own.  In the fields of local government, the administration of justice and the distribution of royal patronage, they often forcefully expressed views that stood in contradiction to those of the Lords.  One such example is the electoral legislation passed between 1406 and 1445, sponsored by the Commons and designed to restrict the influence of Crown and lords upon county elections; another is their campaign in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV against the unbridled distribution of livery badges by which lords could quickly recruit large followings to the detriment of local order.  But it was in the central field of finance and taxation that, constitutionally at least, the most important of these points of divergence lay.  The Commons had a far greater interest than the Lords in the Crown’s fiscal economy.  They represented constituents on whom the burden of parliamentary taxation fell; the Lords represented only themselves.  It was for this reason that, in the mid-fourteenth century, it became the accepted practice that the Commons alone should adjudicate the level of taxation to be granted to the Crown (and that this grant could be reduced but not increased by the Lords).  It was an apparent challenge to this established practice that lay at the heart of a clash between Lord and Commons in the Parliament of 1407: the Lords contravened the established custom by unilaterally making a grant of taxation to the Crown; and the Commons responded by successfully asserting their right to make such grants, a right that was not subsequently challenged.

There can thus be no doubt that the Commons were capable of asserting their own interests without the support, or even against the interests of, the Lords.  This independence was yet too reactive and too occasionally manifest to translate into an initiatory role in national politics; even so, it is not fanciful to discern, in the parliamentary history of the late middle ages, the future primacy of Commons over Lords.


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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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