Parliamentary Humanism: The History of Parliaments as The History of Ideas

In our latest blog we’re returning to the ‘Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700’ project. Since late September, we’ve been working with the University of Oxford and the Centre for Intellectual History at the University of Oxford to put together series of blogs that explore European Parliamentary Culture. The series is focused on the Early Modern period – roughly 1500-1700 – but they have ranged more widely, seeking to bring in some scholars of the more recent past to provide different perspectives and insights that might stimulate new thinking. We’re reposting some of the blogs here, with thanks to the CIH and to our colleagues who have commissioned, edited and authored the blogs. To find out more about the exciting programme of work and conferences over the coming year, head to the CIH website.

This blog was originally published on 29 September, written by the History of Parliament’s director, Dr Paul Seaward.

Ideas, politics and institutions tend to go in separate intellectual boxes. Historians of politics bury themselves in the exciting histoire événementielle of national politics; historians of ideas go for the concepts and questions that loom over their arguments. Sometimes they mix them together, dipping into ideologies or sampling context. Institutional historians seem a sort of poor relation: smelling of archives and pipe tobacco, conducting a minute scrutiny of the stage, rather than what was actually going on upon it, or the arguments among the critics about whether it was any good.

The House of Commons in Session, Oil painting by Peter Tillemans c. 1710, © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2737.

Should this be so? It certainly hasn’t always been true. Indeed, the Whig tradition in England recognised little difference between them, for to its exponents the big ideas were embodied in institutional politics. Politics was about power expressed through constitutions, about freedom embedded in parliament, and about how ‘parliament’, acting somehow corporately, met threats to curtail it in a series of confrontations with Tudor, Stuart and Georgian kings. But the reaction in Britain against whiggism and its favourite tropes in the 1970s and 1980s made parliaments and this sort of constitutional history historiographically unfashionable, in the same way as the contemporary reaction against a series of canonical texts in the history of political thought made a ‘great men’ approach to the subject feel as dead as a doornail. As the history of political thought spread into a broader history of intellectuals thinking more or less politically and the history of politics moved, through several turns, to the less formal arenas of print culture, the public sphere or the agency of those excluded from mainstream engagement with the institution, institutions themselves felt unexciting and unloved.

Perhaps the separation of these spheres has not been quite so true in other countries in Europe, where ‘parliamentarism’ marked the elevation of the institution to an idea, even an ideal, and politicians and political theorists like the Abbe Sièyes, Benjamin Constant and Francois Guizot grappled with the relationship between representative and parliamentary institutions, democracy and monarchy; and German political scientists like von Gneist, Josef Redlich and Weber struggled to understand how history, procedure or sociology influenced their effectiveness. William Selinger has recently explored this world in Parliamentarism, bringing a welcome new recognition to parliaments as theory. But despite the greater interest in these matters abroad, they can still seem like an English, Whiggish obsession. While welcoming the transnational turn in the Anglophone history of political thought, Peter Ghosh in a blog for this Centre suggested that while ‘the term “parliamentarism” was a Continental neologism’, it was ‘designed to convey an alien English peculiarity.’ Of course it is true that the pattern that Sièyes and Constant had in mind, initially at least, was the mad bear-garden over the channel, and the context for the invention of ‘parliamentarism’ was the post-1789 conceptual difficulty of preserving an aristocratic style of government within an increasingly democratic framework. And yet the concept was freighted with a much broader baggage of ideas about national political assemblies, which, if it had survived in Britain, had once existed rather more widely across Europe.

The meeting place of the Diet in the Alten Rathaus in Regensburg, photographed in 2016 By Hajotthu, CC BY-SA 3.0.

That baggage has indeed been widely investigated by the historians of political thought. Always, though, it is investigated as individual abstract ideas: sovereignty, liberty, representation; aristocracy; mixed government; resistance theory; civic humanism; republicanism and so on. Parliaments themselves are treated simply as a vehicle, a mere mechanism, their significance as an idea often boiled down just to the notion of representation. But most of these ideas are embodied, in large part, at least, in the idea and practice of political assembly…

To continue reading this blog on the University of Oxford Centre for Intellectual History’s website, click here.

Paul Seaward

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