Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: On Writing the History of Parliament

This evening Dr Henry Miller of Durham University will give this term’s final paper to the IHR seminar Parliaments, Politics and People. Ahead of the session Paul Seaward, British Academy/Wolfson Foundation Research Professor at the History of Parliament Trust, revisits his paper on writing the history of parliament...

Parliament has been in the middle of narratives of the institutional development of the British state since discussion of the subject began in the late sixteenth century. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Macaulay was presenting parliamentary history as, in John Burrow’s phrase, ‘the folklore of the governing class’. A.F. Pollard, in his Evolution of Parliament written shortly before the First World War, wrote thatparliament had ‘been the means of making the English nation and the English state. It is really co-eval with them both.’ It is impossible to do justice to the vast range of historical writing dealing with Parliaments and parliamentary politics. David Jones’s bibliography of works covering the history of the parliamentary institutions of Great Britain and Ireland up to the end of 2009 includes more than 25,000 separate books and articles.

But despite this, there are very few histories of parliament as an institution, covering its existence. The most sophisticated attempt to work out what a history of parliament might look like remains, remarkably, Pollard’s, now over a century old. He described it as ‘less a history of parliament than a suggestion of the lines upon which it should be written, and rather an indication of the research that is still required than of that which has yet been done’. Thematic, rather than narrative, a good deal of it consists of quite generalized, though always interesting, reflections on the trajectory of constitutional development, rather than close engagement with the operation of parliament itself. Two recent books have provided important surveys: the 2009 Short History of Parliament, edited by Clive Jones, is a series of authoritative snapshots of the nuts and bolts of the institution over the course of its existence, but is perhaps just the beginning of an understanding of what it is and how it has developed; and Chris Bryant’s lively two-volume Parliament: the Biography of 2014 provides many insights into how Parliament has worked, but is as much a history of politics, as it is of Parliament as such.

You could argue that there does exist a very well-established characterisation of parliamentary history. The tradition of history writing we call Whiggism is all about (as George Watson called it) the ‘idea of liberty expressed through parliamentary institutions’  which were established earlier, and more strongly, in England than anywhere else; which developed through evolution, rather than creation, through habit and experience, rather than royal fiat; and which were defended vigorously against encroachment throughout hundreds of years. But even Whig histories weren’t so much parliamentary, as constitutional, histories. While parliament figured strongly in them as an idea, it was more weakly developed as a practice. None of them did much to engage with the details of how parliaments actually operated and what they did, at least beyond the high middle ages.

Why have historians been so wary of tackling parliament as an institution? In part, it’s because it’s so daunting a task: as Pollard and others implied, it’s almost impossible to disentangle the history of parliament from the history of the state, and the nation, as a whole. But in the recent past, it has much to do with finding a way of writing about it that is not inflected with the Whig narrative: not just because that narrative is soaked in the self-congratulatory nationalism of much nineteenth-century British (or English) history, but because, as the many critics of Whig histories have exposed, it exists on the basis of a central premiss that parliament as itself an agent: a person that acknowledges its own unity, takes its own decisions, has a mind that thinks about itself.

When the historian of parliament in the middle ages, Ronald Butt, talked of it ‘as an agent and instrument in the unfolding of political history’, or Pollard wrote of its failure ‘to nationalize liberty’, they implied that it should be regarded as a person that does things, or is expected to do things, in a consistent and planned way. The great nineteenth century constitutional historian Bishop Stubbs wrote about parliament’s ‘flashes of a consciousness that show the forms or national action to be no mere forms and illustrate the continuity of a sense of earlier greatness and of an instinctive looking towards a greater destiny.’ As the historian of the Whig tradition, John Burrow, wrote in 1981, ‘in history we often necessarily speak of, and tell the stories of, entities more enduring than individual human lives: crown, parliament, the constitution, the working class, ‘science’, or for that matter ‘the Whig tradition’. In doing so we postulate their identity: Whig history is a form of reification. In telling their history we try, presumably, to qualify; to show change-in-identity.’ Whig history makes parliament a character in its own story.

How would one write a history of parliament that avoids that? I think by recognising that states, and parliaments, are not simply formal structures, still less are they individual personalities; but they are complex interactions between different individuals, their beliefs, traditions and practices. It follows, therefore, that to write a history of parliament, we need to try to work out first not what parliament is, but what it has been understood to be; not simply to describe how it worked, but what numerous people, at any particular time and from multiple different perspectives thought, not only about the purpose of meeting together, but also why this meeting was different to other meetings, and what was (or was not) special about it; to try to understand how people were influenced by networks to form coalitions that sought to define what parliament was, or what it should decide to do at any particular moment. In other words, a history of parliament needs to look at it not as a sort of organism, with a form of life of its own, but an idea, that lives in the minds and practices of innumerable people.

PS

For full details about the PPP seminar click here.

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