Following the election of Mhairi Black last week, many of you have asked us about young MPs! Over to our Director, Dr Paul Seaward…
Many have said that Mhairi Black’s election as the SNP Member of Parliament for Paisley and Renfrewshire South at the age of 20 makes her the youngest MP since the seventeenth century. It has already been pointed out (some have quoted the History of Parliament) that this is not quite true. Certainly Christopher Monck, then known as the earl of Torrington, was elected to the House of Commons in January 1667, about 7 months short of his 14th birthday.
But he is the youngest MP we know about, rather than the only one under 21. In fact, it’s already been pointed out that several rather high profile MPs in the eighteenth century were elected well under the legal age of majority, at 21, including Charles James Fox, elected for Midhurst at a mere 19.
So Mhairi Black is the youngest MP since when? It’s difficult to say definitively, as we don’t always know MPs’ dates of birth, and there are still some periods that we haven’t investigated fully. Kathryn Rix, in our sister Victorian Commons blog, has given details of the only MP who has so far come to light in the 1832-68 period who was elected when under 21 – although he had celebrated his 21st birthday in the month or so between being elected and taking his seat, so presumably no-one minded too much. It does look likely that there were no under-age MPs after the 1832 Reform Act, particularly as it seems that the age limit was being taken more seriously in the decade or so before 1832.
As Andrew Thrush’s introductory survey to our 1604-29 volumes shows, though it was assumed to be against the custom of Parliament, it was common in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century for young men under, sometimes well under, the age of 21 to be elected, a practice regarded with irritation by some older members, but vaguely amused tolerance by plenty more. Under-age members included, for example, 15 year olds like Lord Wriothesley and Sir Montagu Bertie; even Sir Francis Bacon boasted that he was an MP at the age of 17.
By the late seventeenth century (and perhaps spurred on by the example of Christopher Monck) it seems to have become a bit less acceptable: there was a debate on the subject in 1678 occasioned by the presence in the House of two relations of the Earl of Danby aged 17 and 18 and in 1685 a motion to expel two teenagers was effectively suppressed. One MP referred to the fact that the issue had ‘ever been industriously avoided’. The case of Monck produced a bizarre anomaly when he succeeded to his father’s title, Duke of Albemarle in 1670, when he was still under 21 and barred from taking his seat in the House of Lords because of his age. No-one could quite work out whether the seat was, as a result, vacant or not.
It was possibly the fact that the practice seemed to be getting more common, especially in the 1695 Parliament, that finally compelled some action. In the Elections Act (sometimes known as the Splitting Act) of 1696 (7 and 8 William III, c. 25, clause 8) a provision was included which made clear that only men (it actually said ‘person’, but meant men) over 21 could either vote or be elected to Parliament.
In fact, as our surveys demonstrate, the Act, though it may have had some impact for a few years, was largely ignored afterwards, and the practice continued, and it was rare for a candidate to be objected to on account of his age (as demonstrated in 1754-90 period and 1790-1820 period). Most of these men were elected for ‘pocket’ or ‘nomination’ boroughs, constituencies so tightly under the control of a wealthy and powerful local figure that there was little or no opposition to their nomination – which would often go to their son or other relation. Nevertheless, the practice does seem to have become seen as rather less acceptable by the end of the century. In 1796 there was a successful attempt to unseat a member (Sir Thomas Mostyn) because he was too young, and a sea-change must have happened around 1820.
In the period 1820-32 only three members were elected under age, and all of them were only just under age. The county Down election in 1826 was deliberately prolonged so that it finished after Lord Castlereagh’s 21st birthday. And as we’ve seen, we can (so far at least) only find one member elected after 1832 who was under 21.
So who was the youngest before Mhairi Black? It was almost certainly Robert Jocelyn, Viscount Jocelyn, who was only just 18 when returned for County Louth in the general election of 1806 when a suitable candidate had not been lined up. He gave up the seat at the election the following year, only returning in 1810, after he had attained his majority – an indication of the fact that his election was indeed regarded as a bit improper.