Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Edward Hicks, ‘The importance of character: Spencer Perceval and the early nineteenth century House of Commons’

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics & People‘ seminar of lent term, Edward Hicks (University of Oxford) spoke on: ‘“The best regulated ambition I ever witnessed”: Spencer Perceval and the Importance of Character in the Parliaments of the Napoleonic Wars’. Here he reports back on his paper…

The death of Pitt the Younger in 1806 left a void in the political world of late Hanoverian Britain, the lack of a dominant personality who could lead the Commons, manage the finances, and the steer the ship of state through the trouble waters of the Napoleonic Wars. Four prime ministers followed in six years. Ultimately Lord Liverpool cemented Pitt’s friends and followers into a strong government that lasted until 1827. But Liverpool’s rise was facilitated by the assassination of Spencer Perceval, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1807-12) and Prime Minister (1809-12). Even with his short career Perceval still earned the praise of Romantic poet Robert Southey as ‘the best minister we have ever had’. My paper sought to explain Perceval’s success in the tumultuous years of 1807 to 1812. I drew on Paul Langford’s idea that politicians of the late Hanoverian era became less flashy, more sombre and aloof in their public image than had been the case with the corrupt and showy Robert Walpole or the morally dubious Earl of Sandwich in the eighteenth century. I began by arguing that contemporaries saw character as an important political asset, before contending that Perceval’s reputation for integrity, honesty, his well-regulated ambition, personal piety and amiability abetted him in the struggle for political power. This contrasted with George Canning’s struggles to overcome a reputation for excessive ambition and insincere views.

Canning declared that ‘my road must be through character to power’. Drawing on contemporary correspondence I noted how MPs and peers observed the growing importance of ‘the character which a Statesman bears in the relations of private life’, to judge amongst politicians repeatedly engaged in party disputes and changes of government. A politician’s character could come to aid of a weak speech in the Commons, or make a great oration seem unprincipled. The important characteristics for success were ideas of honesty and integrity, an idea of manliness that was probably especially pertinent during a global war, and a controlled ambition.

Perceval’s success rested on several important character traits. Firstly, contrary to Langford’s claim that aloofness was politically beneficial, I suggested that Perceval also gained through his perceived openness and friendly disposition. His plain dealing brought political rewards. George III, who appointed Perceval prime minister in October 1809, called him ‘the most straightforward man I have ever met’. Secondly, his reputation for piety, which caused him to support the abolition of the slave trade, and endeavour to strengthen the Established Churches in Britain and Ireland, meant, as the diarist Sylvester Douglas noted, Perceval’s ‘reputation stands high as a worthy, friendly, and generous man, of real piety and orthodoxy in religion.’ Thirdly, this was combined with a sincerity which palliated, even for political opponents, his staunchly anti-Catholic views. The opposition MP John Ward acknowledged that Perceval ‘was a man of the most perfect honour and disinterestedness’. Fourthly, despite being physically unimpressive – he was nicknamed ‘Little P’ – Perceval had a reputation for being hard-working and capable of withstanding constant parliamentary assaults. As his fellow Pittite Charles Long put it ‘He is as hard as Iron.’

These traits came to his aid during the Regency Crisis of 1810-11. With the new Regent expected to dismiss Perceval and bring in his Whig friend, Perceval’s decision to proceed with proposing restrictions on the Regent’s power seemed foolhardy yet also courageous. The MP and diarist Robert Plumer Ward recounted several parliamentarians disagreed with him but ‘devoted themselves to him on account of his manly firmness, his integrity, honour and courage’. Even political opponents apparently cheered him as he carried Parliament with him in passing his restricted Regency bill. Plumer Ward reckoned Perceval’s success was ‘all owing to his personal character’. Lord Liverpool, in a most revealing comparison written to the Duke of Wellington in Portugal, stated that Perceval’s ‘character is completely established in the House of Commons; he has acquired an authority there beyond any minister in my recollection, except Mr Pitt.’ Indeed such was Perceval’s standing that the Prince Regent ultimately decided, both in 1811 and 1812, to retain him as prime minister, helping entrench the Pittite dominance that would persist throughout George IV’s reign.

Perceval’s success contrasted with George Canning’s failure in this period. Charles Arbuthnot declared Perceval had ‘the best regulated ambition I ever witnessed’, and Wilberforce even claimed his political ‘eminence was not of his own seeking.’ Conversely Canning’s reputation was sullied by bouts of political chicanery, notably in 1809 when his attempt to remove Lord Castlereagh from office led to Canning and Castlereagh fighting a duel on Putney Heath. Lord Malmesbury claimed that Canning had ‘too much restless ambition, too much arrogance’. This meant that when Canning took a principled stance against the government’s plan for a restricted Regency in 1811, which broke with Pitt’s own approach in 1788-9, he was denounced as ‘playing a game’.

One man who was no admirer, but gives an important and amusing account as to why Perceval was so successful, was the Whig wit, cleric, and satirist Sydney Smith. He recounted in 1831 that Perceval was

The most mischievous little man that ever lived – just every thing that John Bill likes, – moral, and religious, with a wife and ten children, quiet and meek, with the heart of a lion – and always in the wrong, – always flattering some rascally prejudice, always oppressing and humbugging – and hang the fellow! – making oppression and humbug respectable by his decent character and his admirable demeanour, and his skill in debating.

Though he did not live to see the conclusion of the Napoleonic War or govern through the post-war upheaval that ensued, Perceval’s character did help ensure it was his fellow Pittites who ruled. It also gives a telling example of how the late Hanoverian period was already fashioning an image of the heroic, principled, and industrious statesman that the Victorians would later develop.

‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ returns in May for a new programme for the summer term. Full details available here.

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‘Time, that great discoverer of truth and falsehood’: the calendar change of 1752 and the dating of Easter

As Easter weekend – late this year – approaches, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the timing of Easter and the 18th century change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar…

On 25 February 1751 Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield, introduced into the House of Lords a bill for amending the calendar after he had, as he put it, ‘consulted the best lawyers, and the most skilful astronomers, and… cooked up a bill for that purpose’.  At that point Britain still retained the Julian calendar, having avoided adoption of the revised calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which was employed by the majority of western Europe. The situation was further complicated by the use of 25 March rather than 1 January in England as the beginning of the year. By 1752 dating in Britain was out of step with the continent by eleven days, an inconvenience which Chesterfield, a man who had acted as ambassador at the Hague twice and served as one of the secretaries of state dealing extensively with foreign affairs, was eager to do away with.  While the two systems were in operation, correspondents in Britain and much of Europe needed to give two dates to each letter or indicate which system was being used with the addition of O.S. (Old Style for the Julian) or N.S. (New Style for the Gregorian) after their heading. While much of Chesterfield’s focus was on the annoyance this caused in terms of diplomatic and commercial traffic, a further consequence of Britain’s separate dating system was that the country was also out of step in the calculation of Easter.

Easter, unlike Christmas, and to the intense confusion of some, is a moveable feast. Whereas 25 December was fairly early on adopted as the day of Christ’s birth in the western church, thanks to the different systems of dating in operation when Jesus was alive (and ongoing uncertainty regarding the years in which he was born and died) establishing the day when Easter should be celebrated can be worked out in a number of different ways. Rules for establishing the dating of Easter were laid down in late antiquity and subsequently reformed in the 16th century by Pope Gregory XIII as part of his general reformation of both civil and ecclesiastical calendars. However, as not everyone adopted the Pope’s reforms, not all churches observed the festival of Easter at the same time. The most obvious disparity lay between the western (Catholic) and eastern (Orthodox) churches, but before Easter 1753 Britain, too, was distinct from the majority of western Europe thanks to its continued use of its own system of calculating Easter based on ‘golden rules’ laid down in the Book of Common Prayer. The vagaries of these were such that in some years Easter in Britain did coincide with Easter as celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church, but as often as not the two occurred at different times.

Reform of the calendar in England proved long in coming. Within a few years of the Gregorian calendar being introduced Elizabeth I indicated her support for England adopting the new system, but although a bill was presented to the House of Lords on 16 March 1584/5 it fell after its second reading, thwarted by the bishops. Another century was to pass before discussion of reform of the dating of Easter was again raised with any degree of seriousness. In 1699 Dr John Wallis, professor of Geometry at Oxford, responded to the latter by warning:

That there is, in our Ecclesiastical Computation of the Paschal Tables, somewhat of Disorder, is not to be deny’d. But I am very doubtful, that, if we go to alter that, it will be attended with greater Mischief, than the present Inconvenience. It is dangerous removing the Old Land-Marks. A Thing of Moment, when once settled… should not be rashly alter’d. [Wallis to Archbishop Tenison, 13 June 1699]

It was, thus, not until the middle of the eighteenth century that reform of the calendar finally arrived on the political agenda with any expectation of success. Even then, Chesterfield’s 1751 proposal had to contend with opposition from one of the chief ministers of the day, Thomas Pelham Holles, duke of Newcastle, who declared his reluctance to ‘stir matters that had long been quiet’. Chesterfield was himself far from a technical expert, as he was only too willing to confess. Writing to his son he admitted having been obliged in the course of proceedings, ‘to talk some astronomical jargon, of which I did not understand one word’, in which he seems to have been joined by the majority of his colleagues: ‘I could just as soon have talked Celtic or Sclavonian to them, as astronomy, and they would have understood me full as well.’ If Chesterfield’s grasp of the finer points of the issue were in doubt, however, the same could not be said of his associate in pressing the changes, George Parker, 2nd earl of Macclesfield, whose coruscating denunciation of the drawbacks of the older systems appear to have left the rest of the Lords unwilling to say one word against it: ‘how perfect soever this method was at first believed to be; time, that great discoverer of truth and falsehood, has shewn it to be very erroneous’ [Cobbett, Parliamentary History, xiv. 989]. Despite this, it seems to have been Chesterfield’s performance rather than Macclesfield’s that swayed the chamber. This, at least, was Chesterfield’s take on the matter as he was convinced that he had spoken so much more clearly than his more erudite ally:

This will ever be the case; every numerous assembly is mob, let the individuals who compose it be what they will, Mere reason and good sense is never to be talked to a mob; their passions, their sentiments, their senses, and their seeming interests, are alone to be applied to…

Whichever was the case, whether through Macclesfield’s scholarly delivery or Chesterfield’s oratory, the consequence was that the people of Britain went to bed on Wednesday 2 September 1752 and woke up ‘eleven days later’ on Thursday 14 September. In popular memory the confusion gave rise to riots with people demanding the return of their eleven days, though doubt has since been cast on the extent to which there was truly any popular disturbance over the adoption of the measure at all. At most it may have been confined to a few examples, principal among them the Oxfordshire election of 1754 when Macclesfield’s son, Thomas Parker, Viscount Parker, was opposed by some Tory supporters apparently bearing placards with the legend ‘Give us our Eleven Days’ – evidence for which is based largely on Hogarth’s famous series celebrating the poll.

William Hogarth’s ‘An Election Entertainment’ 1755 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The ’11 days’ banner is in the bottom right

If 1752 brought Britain at last into line with Europe and resulted in Easter 1753 being celebrated in Canterbury and Rome at the same time, disputes about the moveable nature of the feast have continued to cause dissension. In the 1920s the matter was raised in the League of Nations and in 1928 an act for settling the date of Easter passed both Houses of Parliament, but failed to be enforced. Subsequent efforts to have the 1928 Act adopted in 1948 (when Henry Wilson Harris, MP for Cambridge University, urged adopting the measure ‘to arrest the vagrant tendency of Easter’) 1970, 1984 and 1999 all met with similar lack of success. Perhaps the most optimistic aspiration of the planned harmonization was expressed by Lord Airedale when the question of activating the 1928 Act was debated in 1984. By locating Easter permanently to a date in April, he argued, one might avoid March, a month which was notorious for being ‘too fickle and can never make up its mind whether it is a lamb or a lion’ and be better assured of fine weather for what ‘is regarded by many people as the first outdoor holiday of the year’.


Further Reading

  • Cobbett, Parliamentary History, XIV
  • Hansard Online
  • Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, ed. David Roberts (Oxford 1992)
  • Malcolm Freiberg, ‘Going Gregorian, 1582-1752’, Catholic Historical Review, 86:1 (2000)
  • Robert Poole, ‘ “Give us our Eleven Days!”: Calendar Reform in 18th-century England’, Past and Present, 149 (November 1995)
Posted in 18th Century history, 20th century history, Early modern history, religious history, social history | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Voices from our oral history project: Sir Clive Bossom, Bt.

Sadly last month another of our oral history project interviewees passed away: former Conservative MP Sir Clive Bossom. Here we take a look back on our interview with him…

Sir Clive Bossom, taken during our interview with him in 2012

Sir Clive Bossom, who died last month aged 99, was one of our older interviewees. He has been fondly remembered both as a hardworking backbench MP for Leominster (1959-74) and for his involvement in motorsport.

Bossom was born in New York in 1918, although his father – architect and later politician Sir Alfred – brought the family back to England when Bossom was a child. It was as a teenager that the “great sadness” of Bossom’s life occurred: the loss of his mother and older brother in an aeroplane crash.

That changed my life in a way, because I became much closer to father, and I was a type of wife and a PA for the rest of his life.

During his interview Bossom explained how his early ambitions to become a diplomat changed due to World War II. He served in Europe and the Far East in the Royal East Kent Regiment, and on leaving the army in 1948, with the rank of Major, he decided to enter politics.

The elder Bossom’s political influence in Kent helped him become a Councillor and then Conservative candidate for Faversham, but after two narrow defeats the 1950s he found a seat in Leominster, Herefordshire. He entered the Commons as his father, already a Baronet, was made a life peer. Bossom recalled feeling “overawed” when he became an MP, but reflected that his father’s reputation, as a well-liked Conservative backbencher, had “left a nice feeling” for him as he entered Westminster.

Many of Bossom’s obituaries described his family’s close relationship with a rising star of the Conservative party at the time: Margaret Thatcher. Here Bossom describes his father’s role in encouraging the young Margaret Roberts, as she was when they first met, into politics:

Thatcher, who had entered the Commons first, chose Bossom to be her PPS when she was first made a junior minister. This, Bossom remembered, was in part to “please” Sir Alfred.

Bossom’s interests in Westminster included agricultural matters, largely due to his large rural constituency, and transport issues. He will also be remembered for the Antarctic Treaty Bill, Bossom’s private members’ bill which ratified the 1964 agreement by 12 countries to protect the continent’s environment. Bossom told our interviewer that the initiative for this bill actually came from the sitting Labour government, running out of parliamentary time to pass the measure. He had to convince his own party’s whips to let him take it on, but once he did so he received the full support of the Foreign Office. He told us he was “thrilled” to have been responsible for such a “serious bill”, and because of it was later invited on to the council of the Royal Geographic Society who arranged for him to visit the continent.

Bossom has been remembered as being ‘devoid of personal ambition or intrigue’ [Times, 15 March 2017]. In our interview he described being content with life as a backbencher and PPS, modestly remarking that he “knew [his] capabilities”. He also reflected that with a young family he did not want to live the busy political life his father had followed. He chose to stand down in 1974 and pursue a business career to support his family, although he retained a “love of talking politics,” if not “giving speeches”.

Bossom is survived by four children and his wife, Lady Barbara (née North). At many points in our interview he acknowledged the support she gave him throughout his career, and that she would have made a good MP herself. Here he describes his, perhaps unconventional, proposal to her during the 1951 campaign, one which the couple “never looked back” from:


The full interview with Sir Clive Bossom is available to hear as part of the British Library’s sound archive.

Posted in 20th century history, oral history, Politics, Post-1945 history, social history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mutton addressed as Stamp (or, The precursors of the electronic signature).

In recent years electronic signatures have been given the same recognition as a hand-written version. This change has an early modern precedent, as Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow in our Commons 1422-1504 project, explains…

Since 1 July 2016, European Union rules have given electronic signatures the same legal weight as their hand-written counterparts, and it is to be expected that these rules will in the near future be incorporated into English law, where the admissibility of an electronic signature is at present governed by the provisions of the Electronic Communications Act 2000.

There is a neat irony in this, since in the last years of Henry VIII England led the way in allowing for the authorization of government papers in the King’s absence. Like rulers elsewhere, the Kings of England had long used a variety of seals to add their authority to official documents. If the royal seal had originally travelled with the monarch, over the course of the medieval centuries an evolving bureaucracy saw first the Great Seal of the realm and subsequently also the King’s privy seal become stationary at Westminster. In the fifteenth century, it became increasingly common for the King to add his monogram to the impression of his signet, and ultimately to dispense entirely with the seal in favour of his signature. Thus, even the original acts of parliament of the Yorkist and Tudor kings received the formal royal assent by the monarch’s signature.

At the same time, the volume of papers the King was required to read and sign grew. Henry VII was an avid administrator and peruser of papers, but his son – in his own grandfather’s, Edward IV’s mould – rather less so. Particularly in his final years, Henry grew increasingly reluctant to sign documents in large numbers, a state of affairs which led to the introduction of the ‘dry stamp’, a stamp of the monarch’s signature which could be affixed to official papers. The documents in question were then recorded in a special register that was placed before the King for approval.

The dry stamp was placed in the care of the King’s favourite, Anthony Denny and his brother-in-law, John Gates, and was used by them to authenticate the will of the King. In view of the will’s implications for the succession, this proceeding caused much subsequent controversy, which continued into the reign of Elizabeth I when it was revived in the course of Anglo-Scottish diplomacy concerning a possible Stuart succession.

More general, also, the use of stamps in favour of signatures continued to be disparaged and mistrusted. In a speech in the House of Commons on 5 April 1624, the prominent lawyer and former Speaker Sir Edward Coke attacked the lord treasurer, the earl of Middlesex for allowing the use of a dry stamp of his signature on his official letters. Peter Mutton, the newly elected Member for the Caernarvon boroughs, rose to the treasurer’s defence, claiming that ‘he had heard before he was born [sic] that stamps were used here in this kingdom’. At this unfortunately phrased claim ‘the whole House laughed and hissed’, and Coke pressed his advantage home, addressing the hapless Mutton as ‘Sir Peter Stamp’.


Further reading:

  • Eric Ives, ‘Henry VIII’s will – a forensic conundrum’, The Historical Journal, 35 (1992), 779-804
  • R.A. Houlbrooke, ‘Henry VIII’s Wills: A Comment’, The Historical Journal, 37 (1994), 891-99
  • Suzannah Lipscombe, ‘Who Hijacked Henry VIII’s Will?’,BBC History Magazine, Dec. 2015 []
  • John Guy, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (2005)
Posted in Early modern history, medieval history, social history | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Parliament and the 1965 Race Relations Act

Passing legislation with a small majority is an ongoing problem for our current government, but this not an unusual parliamentary position. In today’s guest blog, Dr Simon Peplow discusses the difficulties faced by Labour in passing the first Race Relations Act in 1964-5 with a small majority …

When Labour returned to power in 1964, they did so with a manifesto pledge to legislate against racial discrimination. This resulted in the 1965 Race Relations Act, the first legislation in Britain to address racial discrimination, outlawing ‘discrimination on the ground of colour, race or ethnic or national origins’ in ‘places of public resort’ such as hotels and restaurants, and punishing incitement to racial hatred. However, it has been almost universally criticised as ineffective and too narrow, failing to address the main areas of discrimination within employment and housing. For example, during its passage through Parliament, leaders of the standing conference of West Indian organisations in London considered it ‘well-meaning but virtually useless’.

The Act was presented as part of a ‘package deal’, which allowed the passing of harsher immigration controls whilst appearing to combat discrimination against those already settled within Britain. Successive governments during the period believed that a numerical limit on immigration would itself improve race relations, as famously summarised by Roy Hattersley: ‘I believe that integration without limitation is impossible; equally, I believe that limitation without integration is indefensible’. Through explicitly linking a reduction in immigration with improving racial harmony, it characterised immigration as a problem and, by extension, so too immigrants and their descendants themselves. This thus made the job of such anti-discrimination legislation immediately more difficult.

When it came to drafting the legislation, the Society of Labour Lawyers recommended that it be in the form of conciliation machinery combined with civil remedies. This followed observation of North American experiences, where it was believed that local law officers and juries were reluctant to prosecute and convict under the criminal law. Such proposals were widely circulated, through groups such as the newly-established Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, and therefore most MPs who favoured anti-discrimination legislation were convinced that this was the best form for it to take in order to obtain convictions and positively influence public opinion.

Nevertheless, when Home Secretary Frank Soskice introduced the Race Relations Bill into the Commons on 9th April 1965, it included punishments under the criminal law. This was due to the belief that criminal sanctions would be a more significant indication of public disapproval, and ‘considerable anxiety’ that conciliation proposals would ‘give rise to a great deal of conflict and complaint which otherwise might not find expression’. Whilst punishment under criminal law would indeed seem to be of greater force, it was at odds with what available evidence suggested would be most effective – and, more importantly, also with the general political consensus at this point. Soskice, suffering increasingly ill-health and struggling with the demands of the role, was later described by successor Roy Jenkins as ‘a remarkably bad home secretary’. Certainly, the air of defeatism that encapsulated Soskice’s tenure is summarised by his internal memo that lamented: ‘Poor old Home Office. We are not always wrong, but we always get the blame’.

The Bill thus faced great resistance from the House. Supporters bemoaned that the criminal-law approach would make obtaining convictions more problematic, whilst some Conservatives objected in principle to the perceived restrictions upon free speech. Most of all, the lack of possible conciliation between involved parties prior to conviction was criticised. Opposition Spokesman on Home Affairs, Peter Thorneycroft MP, claimed that many Conservatives had previously favoured conciliation and Labour MP Bernard Floud stated that, without such machinery, it ‘does not make the positive contribution to the solution of the problem which could be made’.

Due to Labour’s 1964 victory returning a majority of just four seats, any Bill required either full Labour support or cross-party backing to pass through the Commons; and it was clear that the present Bill would not receive such without the inclusion of conciliation machinery. Therefore, in order to push the Bill through the House, Soskice announced plans during its second reading to incorporate conciliation machinery and it duly passed by the narrow margin of 261 to 249 votes. The Bill accordingly underwent great changes during the committee stage, to a degree that Erik Bleich described as ‘virtually unknown in Britain’.

Maurice Foley, Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs, believed that a conciliation commission would be most effective with wider powers extending into housing, employment and education, and Soskice himself recorded that such a commission required this extension to be successful. Nevertheless, Foley convinced Soskice that it was ‘important tactically’ to establish conciliation machinery ‘within the terms of the present Bill’.

Consequently, the Act that subsequently passed included conciliation and civil remedies addressing racial discrimination in some, but not all, places of public resort and did not include those areas where discrimination was most apparent, namely housing and employment. It was recorded that this was due to ‘compelling reasons’ from those Ministers directly concerned – such as that special measures for certain sections of society would increase discontent and that ‘nobody can be said to have a right to a particular employment or to the purchase of a particular house’ – although public explanation for these significant omissions did not occur.

Despite losing the severity of original criminal sanctions, it could be argued that conciliation and civil remedies improved the chances of the Act functioning effectively to reduce levels of racial discrimination in Britain; however, the failure to extend its scope into the areas where these would be most effective resulted in extremely weakened legislation. To illustrate, out of the 327 complaints that the Race Relations Board, established to enforce the Act, received in its first year, 238 (73%) were deemed to be outside the scope of legislation.

Later discussions regarding extended legislation revealed that areas such as housing and employment had been excluded from the 1965 Bill to keep its additions to the criminal code ‘as limited as possible’. When criminal punishments were replaced with conciliation and civil remedies, however, the Act was not broadened into such areas and was consequently significantly constrained in its ability to tackle racial discrimination. It would take until the 1968 Race Relations Act before those areas demonstrating the worst excesses of racial discrimination were addressed.


Further reading:

  • Simon Peplow, ‘The ‘Linchpin for Success’? The problematic establishment of the 1965 Race Relations Act and its Conciliation Board’ Contemporary British History (available here)
  • James Hampshire, ‘Immigration and Race Relations’, in The Labour Governments 1964–70, edited by Peter Dorey, (Oxford: Routledge, 2006) pp. 309–29.
  • Gavin Schaffer, ‘Legislating against Hatred: Meaning and Motive in Section Six of the Race Relations Act of 1965’, Twentieth Century British History, 25, no. 2 (2014), 251–275.
  • Keith Hindell, ‘The Genesis of the Race Relations Bill’, The Political Quarterly, 36, no. 4 (1965), 390–405.

Dr Peplow is a historian of modern British race and immigration history currently based at the University of Exeter.

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The Prime Minister in the House of Lords: Gladstone and the Irish Church bill, 1869

For the past month the government’s Brexit bill has been back and forth both Houses of Parliament, re-awakening old debates on the roles of the Commons and Lords. Here our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses a similar controversial bill 150 years ago…

Theresa May’s remarkable appearance in the House of Lords on 20 February, at the beginning of the debate on the bill triggering the Brexit process, raised eyebrows all round. A number of newspapers and others referred to it as unprecedented: May was said by some to have been the first prime minister to have sat on the steps of the throne during a debate in the Lords.

In fact, it has been pointed out by Matthew Purvis at the House of Lords Library that there are a number of precedents, including Clement Attlee in 1947, Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and David Cameron in 2013, though the latter two visits – to honour particular peers – were of small political significance. But one previous visit to the Lords by a serving prime minister took place in circumstances that have many more resonances with the debate around the Lords’ role in relation to the Article 50 bill, albeit a century and a half ago.

William Gladstone laconically recorded in his diary his visit to the House of Lords on 15 June 1869; what he did not record was that it was on the second day of the second reading debate of the Irish Church Bill, the major measure of the new liberal government elected the previous year of which he was the head. The disestablishment of the Anglican Irish Church had risen to the top of the British political agenda over the period following the Fenian rising of March 1867. The circumstances of the first half of 1868 were extraordinary. Benjamin Disraeli had replaced the ailing Lord Derby in February as prime minister of a minority conservative government. Though embattled, he managed to avoid resigning until new electoral registers could be prepared on the basis of the greatly enlarged electorate created by the Second Reform Act of 1867. The period enabled Gladstone to gather together the fissiparous liberal party to secure the passage through the Commons of the Irish Church Suspensory Bill, a measure that would pave the way to full disestablishment. During the debates in the Commons conservatives protested that so major a step could hardly be taken without the sanction of an election: Palmerston, who had led the liberal party at the last election in 1865, had, they pointed out, made no reference to the Irish Church at the time. Any decision on the issue must, they argued, be left to the new Parliament.

In the Lords, those points were reiterated in the debate (25/26 June 1868) on the bill’s second reading. Liberal spokesmen responded by insisting that if the Lords did not accept the Commons’ will – and public opinion – on such major issues, the consequences might be dire. The earl of Clarendon, for example, argued:

I think it undesirable that on the hustings men should be tempted to speak, and pledge themselves to act, against the House of Lords, as they will if you reject this measure. I am the last man to wish that the independence of this House should in any respect be abridged; but I think we might exhibit our independence by marching with and not lagging behind the House of Commons.

The peroration of the previous Prime Minister, Lord Derby, on the other hand, amounted to a passionate defence of the peers:

Your Lordships are perfectly well able to judge for yourselves what course will be most consistent with your principles, your position, and your dignity as an independent branch of the Legislature; and I do not think that your Lord ships will be affected by the declaration that by rejecting this measure you will be seeking a cause of quarrel with the other House… if you were … simply to register the opinions of the House of Commons, it would be better not to be than to exist under such a slavery.

The bill was rejected at the end of three nights’ debate, on 29 June 1868.

Parliament was dissolved in November. In the subsequent election the Irish Church was a major issue. The liberal victory was clear enough for Disraeli to take the highly unusual step of resigning the premiership before the new Parliament met. Gladstone was famously at his estate at Hawarden, chopping trees, when he heard that the Queen’s private secretary was on his way to discuss forming a new government with him: after a period of silence he pronounced that ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland’, and then resumed chopping.

A new Irish Church bill, disestablishing and disendowing the Church from 1871, was introduced into the Commons on 1 March 1869 and passed the lower House by the end of May. Gladstone was well aware of the possibilities of trouble in the Lords, though it would come not so much from the official opposition, as from the conservative backbenches. Earl Granville moved the second reading of the bill on 14 June. On the next day, 15 June, Gladstone visited the Lords. Some of the most important speeches, though, were made on the 17th, the third day of debate. One of them was Lord Derby’s, in which he spoke of the bill as a ‘revolution’, and argued that it was tantamount to a dissolution of the 1800 Union with Ireland. He muttered darkly about a renewal of rebellion in Ireland. The other was the marquess of Salisbury’s. Salisbury (who would become conservative prime minister in 1885) conceded that the election had been decisive as far as the principle of the bill was concerned. He expanded his remarks into a summary of what he regarded as the proper role of the House of Lords in the constitution more generally:

It has been represented that, in admitting it to be the duty of this House to sustain the deliberate, the sustained, the well-ascertained opinion of the nation, we thereby express our subordination to the House of Commons, and make ourselves merely an echo of the decisions of that House. In my belief no conclusion could be more absolutely inconsequential. If we do merely echo the House of Commons, the sooner we disappear the better. The object of the existence of a second House of Parliament is to supply the omissions and correct the defects which occur in the proceedings of the first. … In ninety-nine cases out of 100 the House of Commons is theoretically the representative of the nation, but is only so in theory … because in ninety-nine cases out of 100 the nation, as a whole, takes no interests in our politics, but amuses itself and pursues its usual avocations … In all these cases I make no distinction—absolutely none—between the prerogative of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Again, there is a class of cases small in number, and varying in kind, in which the nation must be called into council and must decide the policy of the Government. It may be that the House of Commons in determining the opinion of the nation is wrong; and if there are grounds for entertaining that belief, it is always open to this House, and indeed it is the duty of this House to insist that the nation shall be consulted … But when once we have come to the conclusion from all the circumstances of the case that the House of Commons is at one with the nation, it appears to me that—save in some very exceptional cases, save in the highest cases of morality—in those cases in which a man would not set his hand to a certain proposition, though a revolution should follow from his refusal—it appears to me that the vocation of this House has passed away, that it must devolve the responsibility upon the nation, and may fairly accept the conclusion at which the nation has arrived.

It was a key formulation of what would become known as the ‘Salisbury doctrine’, the idea that the Lords’ role was that of an equal partner with the Commons, except on points where the verdict of the Commons and the verdict of the nation was clearly the same.

That view did not necessarily extend to the detail of any bill, and the devil, on the Irish Church bill, would indeed be in the detail. Gladstone would expend enormous energy over the next month or so on the struggle to prevent the Lords from unravelling the bill’s provisions line by line, and Salisbury, for one, would be much less cooperative than he had been on the principle. He put the government on notice in his speech that the debate on the detail would be the Lords’ chosen battleground, and that if Gladstone wanted ‘arrogantly’ to resist any amendments in the Commons, he thought the Lords, and the conservatives, would come out the better. Salisbury would make the allegation again, in the debate on 20 July on the Commons’ response to the Lords’ amendments:

Do not tell me it is the verdict of the nation. I will try it by a simple test. Suppose the Prime Minister had proposed that your Amendments should be accepted, would they have been refused by the House of Commons? It is not the verdict of the nation, it is not even the verdict of the House of Commons, it is the will—the arrogant will— of a single man to which you are now called upon to submit.

A later tradition recalled this as pure theatre: Gladstone standing on the steps of the throne while Salisbury denounced him and everyone turned to the prime minister to watch his reaction. That perhaps is a conflation of two different events; but it underlines the drama of a confrontation that helped to define the British constitution, and caused doctrines to be enunciated that are still key to our debates on democracy and the role of Parliament and its two Houses.


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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Gary Hutchison, ‘‘A distant and Whiggish country’: The Conservative Party and Scottish elections, 1832–1847’

At our last ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar, Gary Hutchison (University of Edinburgh – and former winner of the HPT’s undergraduate dissertation prize) spoke on his research into the Conservative Party and Scottish elections after 1832. Here he gives an overview of his paper…

The Reform Act(s) of 1832 had far-reaching effects on the practical politics of elections, as well as the wider political culture of the United Kingdom.  These effects, however, varied across Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales.  Indeed, the need for separate acts was itself a recognition that elections throughout the UK, though all sending MPs to Westminster, could vary wildly from country to country.  This was especially true of Scotland; not only did it possess a separate legal framework, it also had distinctive ideological concerns and cultural traits, resulting in a unique partisan landscape.  Scotland was, in the words of Norman Gash, a ‘distant and Whiggish country’ to contemporary party observers, a place particularly hostile to Conservatism whose best interpreters were politicians with native connections.

The purpose of the paper was to examine just how Whiggish Scotland actually was between 1832 and 1847, and to what extent this affinity for Liberalism was due to the distinctive structure of Scottish electoral politics, as amended by the 1832 Scottish Act.  In doing so, it looked at the Scottish Conservative party’s experiences of traditional (and, to Scotland, somewhat novel) election rituals.  These included canvassing for votes, treating, the hustings, and transporting voters to the poll.  Treating, which involved entertaining voters, was a relatively unpractised custom in Scotland before 1832; it was adopted enthusiastically by Conservatives attempting to throw off the stigma they had acquired in opposing the expansion of the electorate.  Scottish constituencies, unlike England, were almost monolithically single-member, with only Edinburgh and Glasgow electing two MPs.  Not only did this make Scottish elections more starkly partisan, it also helped to make canvassing a more dominant feature of electioneering.

The new (and shoddily drafted) legal framework of elections created by the Scottish Act both helped and hindered the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives.  Much like in England, registering voters was a time-consuming and expensive process, requiring extensive party involvement on both sides.  This, however, was even more true of Scotland.  Conservative penetration of the Scottish legal system in fact gave them an in-built advantage in this area, as registration courts worked the party’s advantage.  The Conservatives were particularly active in this area across Scotland, doing much to politicise and expand the political nation; even in constituencies which they never formally contested, across burgh and county, the Scottish Conservative party acted as a catalyst for politicisation.  Similarly, they had previous experience of creating fictitious ‘parchment’, or ‘faggot’ votes before 1832; the bad drafting of the 1832 Act opened whole new vistas for the creation of dubious votes, allowing both parties (though largely the Conservatives) to capture several counties and make them safe seats.

The party thought that through canvassing, treating, registrations, and vote-making, they could rebuild their position – if, that is, they could also harness traditional deference and influence amongst the rural electorate.  They employed various positive and negative means to influence electors, ranging from financial inducements to outright coercion, in the form of the threat of eviction or the calling-in of debts.  These methods, though partially effective, were not central, and moreover, declined over time.  Scottish electors (and, more so, non-electors), having lived under the exceptionally oligarchic Scottish system of management, were markedly independent; a trait no doubt reinforced by the polarised structure of the new electoral system.  Though they maintained their hold in some of the counties, their attempts at exercising influence were regularly denounced by the Liberal-dominated Scottish press, and were very unpopular in the burghs.

The Scottish Conservative party fared badly for a number of reasons, and their tactics must rank as a prominent one of these.  A constituency framework of binary choices left the party without hope of benefitting from split votes, as they might in England.  Similarly, as the heirs of the detested old Dundas-managed Tories, they were unlikely to win hearts and minds.  But in concentrating on influence, coercion, registrations and vote-making, they only served to reinforce negative stereotypes.  Moreover, the apparent initial success of these methods sapped motivation to evolve; Peel’s moderate Liberal Conservatism, popular south of the border, was never convincingly espoused by the party north of it.  This failure, among others, resulted in a Scotland that was, indeed, distant and Whiggish.


This paper forms part of Gary’s ongoing PhD research, which is funded by the Wolfson Foundation.

Join us for tonight’s ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, where Edward Hicks (University of Oxford) will speak on: ‘The importance of character: Spencer Perceval and the early nineteenth century House of Commons’. Full details here.

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