After the Levellers: On the Non-Mysterious Disappearance of Parliamentary Reform in England

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 posted on 23 November 2021, written by Mark Goldie, Professor Emeritus of intellectual History, University of Cambridge and Honorary Professor of History, University of Sussex.

The dog that did not bark. It is one of the mysteries of the history of English thought on parliaments and representation that between the era of the Levellers in the 1640s and the Wilkesite movement in the 1760s the question of the franchise disappeared almost entirely. The franchise remained narrow and was not overhauled until the Reform Act of 1832. The Levellers have often been called ‘the first English democrats’, and, while there remains room for dispute about the extent of their commitment to adult male suffrage, it was surely an epochal moment when rank-and-file soldiers sat down in Putney Church, after the defeat of the king in the Civil War, to debate a new constitution. But, after the Levellers, silence. Neither the radical Whigs nor the neo-republicans of the late seventeenth century showed much interest in the franchise. And, when fleetingly the Whigs did do so, it was to propose reducing it, on the grounds that only a substantial income gave a man enough sturdy independence to resist the bribery of courtiers and the bullying of caucuses.

The Putney Debates (1647). Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo.

The silence is the more strange when we remind ourselves that in this same period the idealisation of parliament as the embodiment of the nation reached its apogee. Unquestionably central to the Revolution of 1688 was the claim that Stuart monarchs posed a mortal threat to parliaments. The idea that legislative sovereignty lay with parliament and that parliament was the nation became dogma.

And yet we surely wish to avoid the condescending anachronism, which filled twentieth-century democratic textbooks, that dismisses pre-1832 Britain as the era of the ‘Unreformed’ House of Commons. Finding the post-Leveller period wanting by the standards of the modern mass franchise won’t do as intellectual history. So, rather than dwell on the silent franchise question, I’d like to highlight four themes that ran through Anglophone debate and practice after the Levellers.

The first is the weight given to the doctrine of virtual representation. The few were taken to stand for the whole. (Before the Civil War, sometimes a person was made MP by public acclamation, without a poll and without ascertaining the voting rights of those who gathered to ‘huzza’.)  We are apt to boggle at the elasticity of the doctrine of virtual representation in the eighteenth century. But all electoral systems in modern democracies still rely unavoidably on the notion. Everybody is deemed represented even when the turnout is tiny (one ward in Hull had a turnout of 12.7% in the 2019 general election). And everybody is deemed represented even when most people voted for different candidates.

Petitioning parliament, from: Philip Loft, ‘Petitioning and Petitioners to the Westminster Parliament, 1660-1788’, Parliamentary History, 2019.

This first doctrine, virtual representation, entrenched and underwrote the alchemy by which parliament represented even though the franchise was small. The second theme pushed in the opposite direction…

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

Mark Goldie

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