The recent stream of votes in the Commons surrounding Brexit has thrown into relief the practice of ‘whipping’ MPs into supporting their party line. Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section examines the emergence of an early prototype.
In the summer of 1647 several years of escalating faction-fighting in Parliament came to a head. With Charles I now defeated and in captivity, those MPs who favoured a swift peace settlement with the king, prompt demobilisation of the armed forces and (in some cases) a monopolistic Scottish-style state church, rallied around a group recognised as the ‘Presbyterians’. They drew support from demonstrators on the streets of London and from civic authorities and others with an interest in a swift return to normal commercial life. On the other hand, those MPs who distrusted the king and wanted permanent guarantees that Long Parliament legislation that curbed the royal prerogative and asserted subjects’ liberties would be respected, gravitated towards those dubbed the ‘Independents’. They made common cause with the New Model army, which was fighting against its dissolution and its redeployment in Ireland, and – albeit warily – with the radical agitators in and around it.
The parliamentary leaders on both sides were identified in the press, and included Denzil Holles, Sir Philip Stapilton and Sir William Waller among the Presbyterians, and Sir Arthur Hesilrige, William Pierrepont and Nathaniel Fiennes among the Independents. Manifestoes can be reconstructed from their public utterances and the writings of journalists and preachers within their orbits. But there was no formal party organisation or long-standing membership in the modern sense. There was no officially-recognised mechanism for marshalling support for particular votes as in the current Whips Office system. Whereas usually MPs now are expected to toe the line of the party under whose colours they were elected and only occasionally – as sometimes recently – accorded a free vote, in the mid-seventeenth century they were constrained only by their own consciences and any pressure exerted by their constituents or patrons (although that might be considerable).
Yet out of the crisis of 1647 comes evidence that a prototype whip was already operating unofficially, to the outrage of the opposition. On 16 June that year a delegation from the New Model presented to Parliament articles of impeachment against the Presbyterian leadership, which it accused of conspiring to overthrow liberty and justice. Twenty-five articles detailed allegations against the so-called ‘Eleven Members’ – Holles, Stapilton, Waller, John Glynne, Sir John Maynard, Sir William Lewis, Sir John Clotworthy, Edward Massie, Walter Long, Edward Harley and Anthony Nichol. Numbers 23 to 25 related exclusively to Walter Long – the last of them, and the culmination of the document, to his activities around the Commons. ‘On purpose to drive on the designes in the said generall Charges expressed’, Long had ‘for the space of two yeares last past usually pressed and urged severall Members to give their Votes such wayes as he pleased’. To accomplish this, he
doth constantly place himselfe neer the doore of the House, that when any debate is concerning any designe wherein his party is ingaged, he … hath used much tampering and violence to such of his owne party as would goe out of the House, and hath perswaded them to continue there for their Votes, and hee … in case any such have gone out of the House, hath been verie inquisitive where they may be found, that so he may goe for them when the businesse in debate comes neare to be put to the Vote, and when they come not according to his expectation, doth ordinarily run out of the House himselfe to call them, and drive them in again.
As a result, declared the Articles
he hath been commonly called (by those that are without the House, and have taken notice of his actions) the Parliament-driver, whereby the freedome of Members is taken from them, the manner of Parliaments proceedings is much scandallized, and many times evill and dangerous designes drove on in a faction by Votes, to the great prejudice of the Common-wealth. [A particular charge or impeachment, in the name of His Excellency Sir Thomas Fairfax, and the army under his command (1647), 28 (BL, E.397.17)]
Walter Long (1592-1672) had form as a controversial MP and experience of pushing particular business in the House. He had sat in three Parliaments, for Salisbury (1625), Wiltshire (1626) and Bath (1628), before being returned to a fourth for Ludgershall at a by-election in November 1641. In the former, he had been a prime mover in promoting the impeachment of the royal favourite George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham. Selected for exemplary punishment for his conduct in the 1629 parliamentary session, he spent the next four years in prison, a circumstance which increased his indebtedness and stiffened his resistance to royal policies both in the years of Charles I’s personal rule and during the Long Parliament. When in July 1642 the Commons considered a message from the king seeking a last-minute ‘accommodation’ to avert civil war, Long reportedly announced that he would ‘as soon come with a halter about his neck as yield to those things that are propounded’ [BL, Add. MS 18777, f. 173]. He had become, and continued to be, a member of important parliamentary standing committees – including those for informations, advance of money, sequestrations and excise – and, at least until chasing his colleagues into the lobby occupied his time, was a teller in key divisions and a regular messenger taking bills and orders to the Lords for endorsement. But far from cultivating persuasive arts which might have increased his effectiveness, he remained combative and confrontational. In January 1646 he was temporarily under a cloud after having lost his temper and struck newly-elected MP Francis Allein. This stood in marked contrast to his conduct on the battlefield. According to number 23 of the articles of impeachment against the Eleven Members, having taken up a military command at the start of the wars, he had absented himself out of cowardice and neglected his command.
Having been granted permission to withdraw from the House (26 June), the Eleven Members returned on the wave of support from the City of London in the Presbyterian ‘coup’ of 26 July. Their triumph was short-lived, however. Following the army’s march on London, they fled and were disabled from sitting in the House. Long took ship for Holland on 16 August, and although his disablement was revoked during a Presbyterian resurgence in the summer of 1648, his parliamentary career was over, apart from a very brief appearance in February 1660 on the eve of the Restoration.
The practice of ‘driving the Parliament’ lasted much longer, of course, though to the degree practised by Long it may have gone into abeyance for a while. The phrase applied to his activity may conjure up an image of a coachman. Certainly, by the early eighteenth century, and quite probably earlier, the dominant image was derived from hunting: Long’s successors were the huntsmen’s assistants who kept the hounds under control by whipping them into the main body of the pack.
- For an account of the development of the Whip’s Office, see https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN02829
- A search for ‘whip’ on our website yields many examples of the person and the practice.
Biographies or further biographies of the Eleven Members, including Walter Long, and of Independent leaders William Pierrepont, Sir Arthur Hesilrige and Nathaniel Fiennes are being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.