Reformation to Referendum: a new history of Parliament

I’m lucky enough to be one of the four new British Academy / Wolfson Foundation Research Professors chosen in 2017. The arrangement provides us with funding for three years’ worth of uninterrupted research, a huge luxury and enormous privilege. I’m very proud and very grateful to the Academy and the Foundation for the opportunity, and also very grateful to the History of Parliament’s Trustees and Editorial Board who have enabled it to happen, and surmounted the challenges it presents for a small organisation. On Monday at the Academy, each of the new professors provided a brief introduction to the projects on which we will be engaged over the next three years, in front of a sympathetic and enthusiastic (and possibly slightly jealous) audience. This is what I said:

The constantly postponed parliamentary ‘Restoration and Renewal’ project offers an irresistible metaphor for the battered state of the Westminster Parliament. For over the last decade, if not more, Britain’s venerable legislature has been beset with a series of challenges to its reputation, authority and effectiveness every bit as dangerous as its mouldering masonry and chaotic cabling. The Scottish referendum of 2014, the rise of Momentum since 2015, and most of all the 2016 EU referendum, have revived in new and acute form ancient and fundamental questions about the relationships between the component parts of the United Kingdom, between Parliament, political parties and the people, and between the judges, Parliament and the popular vote. The expenses scandal of 2009 and the exposure in recent months of abuse and harassment in some quarters of the Westminster village have focused attention on the quality of the people who inhabit it and the culture to which they subscribe.

In all this, a link is frequently made with the past: with the antiquity of Parliament itself, of its buildings, of its customs, and of the attitudes of its inhabitants. Leaving aside for the moment the implication that these things are no longer fit for purpose, it’s a useful reminder not only that institutions – particularly the most basic institutions of the state – are products of history, but also that they tend to be largely defined by it. But even more than most institutions, this extraordinary and often faintly surreal place has the tang of a rich mix of contemporary cultures and behaviours and those of the past. Parliament is a palimpsest, whose history is deeply embedded in almost every aspect of its functioning.

It’s odd, then, that even though Parliament is the backdrop for countless histories of politics and biographies of politicians, and the idea of Parliament is central to our narratives of constitutional history, there have been remarkably few attempts to examine its history as an institution. Such institutional studies as there are tend to be limited in scope and administrative in focus; and such broader efforts as there have been tend to become relatively straightforward narratives of political history.

That means that we’ve never quite confronted the way in which Parliament is so interwoven into the history not just of the British state and its politics, but also of British society and culture. Parliament is usually thought of as a stage for a political struggle. We are diverted by the action, but give only occasional thought to the way in which the qualities of the stage or the conventions within which the actors and the theatre are confined operate to define and structure the action. The history of Parliament is often conceived of as the history of politics, or of a set of constitutional and legal structures. It is both of these. But it should also be the history of a set of cultural assumptions and conventions, of the processes of debate and negotiation through which we have sought to resolve differences and legitimise the result.

How should its history, then, be written?

There are many suggestions in a number of works published over the last two decades or so that have started to provide new perspectives in particular periods. Although it is often said that the history of politics has become unfashionable over that period, plenty of historians have been writing about politics in ways that are infused with the insights of cultural and social history. There is much to inspire, for example, in the work that has been done on print cultures and the openness of Parliament in the early and mid-seventeenth century by people like Jason Peacey and Chris Kyle; on the conventions of representation and on parliamentary oratory in the eighteenth century by Mark Knights or Chris Reid; on gender and politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth by Elaine Chalus, Ben Griffin and others; or on the Labour party and the Commons in the twentieth by Richard Toye.

And beyond that, there’s much insight to be had in writing from different scholarly perspectives. One example is Peter Hennessy’s classic work on the Civil Service, Whitehall. Hennessy’s way of doing institutional history – by exploring the relationships between institutional conventions and traditions and the people who worked within them – seems an enormously fruitful practical approach to apply to Parliament. One might say the same about the more recent work of political scientists Mark Bevir and Robert Rhodes on the state as cultural practice. And in the last few years, Emma Crewe’s ethnographies of both Houses of Parliament, as well as the work of a number of scholars on Parliament and gender, have shown up how a focus merely on constitutional structures and formal political decision-making at a party level misses out some of the most interesting aspects of political ecology.

If these approaches offer suggestions about the rich veins of inquiry that remain to be mined, the work of the History of Parliament, has already brought much to the surface that still lies insufficiently recognised on the bookshelves. Since the 1950s, the History – whose own history is part of the story in which I’m interested – has been producing biographies of members of Parliament that uncover enormous amounts of detail both about individual politicians and the operation of politics, from the fourteenth century to the nineteenth; and our current historians, whose expertise is unparalleled, are constantly bringing more nuggets to light. From time to time people complain that a history of Parliament cannot be constructed out of the collective biographies of its members: but on the contrary, Parliament is the collective of its Members, and there can be no richer seam of information about the institution than the lives of those who made it up.

So how do I plan to write it? For a start it has to cover a long period. Only with what historians like to call a longue durée approach is it really possible to see and understand the continuities and rhythms in parliamentary life: Reformation to referendum, a mere 500 years, it has to be. It also has to avoid approaching its subject through a simple narrative: telling a story would often mean missing those continuities and rhythms, or the multiplicity of different stories, in the effort to provide a sense of coherence and development. And therefore the plan is to engage with the history of the institution through a set of themes which best give a sense of how an institution not only works on a day to day basis but also creates a sense of identity and permanence.

Let’s start with Time. All institutions are defined by time, in one way or another: the ritual year for a church, or the annual cycle of teaching and examination for a school or university. Government and Parliament are driven by cycles of elections, annual sessions, and the legislative timetable. But a sense of the pressure of time is pervasive in legislative assemblies, reflecting the imperatives of legislating before the next election, and the availability of inertia as a political weapon for otherwise disempowered minorities. It’s no accident that Parliament’s most familiar symbol is a clock: time is the resource that Parliament spends; the opportunity both to spend it, and to stop it being spent, are the keys to control of what it does. Time both defines the institution and is central to the competition it enshrines.

Then Space. Institutions are often defined by their physical embodiment, even when they are in fact more conceptual than actual in nature: we talk, for example, about many political institutions through what are essentially topographical metaphors – Whitehall, Westminster, the ‘House’ of Commons or Lords. The same applies to political positions – ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘the other side of the aisle’. But the importance of space is not just metaphorical. Even if the idea that we can blame political problems on the shape of the chamber of the House of Commons, whose origins lie in a fourteenth century chapel, is largely fanciful, many feel acutely the way a mid-Victorian palace affects the atmosphere and practicalities of our politics. And access is of primary importance: physical proximity to power is a key determinant of influence; knowledge of a physical environment is an essential badge of the political insider. But the space is also constantly permeable, invaded by the excluded, from Gordon rioters in 1780 to Suffragettes in 1908: Parliament’s exclusiveness, its privilege, its specialness, falls apart at the edges.

Third: memory. Historical studies of memory over the past twenty years or so have been legion. Often they have focused on trauma, on ritual practices, and sometimes on place. But rarely, if ever, have they investigated the routine operation of organisations. This is surprising, for ‘institutional memory’ is a familiar phrase that encapsulates the truth that all institutions are built on some form of collective memory, both in terms of forging collective identities and mentalities, and in determining everyday practical responses to the demands that are placed upon them. Precedent, customary practices, ritual, shared exercises and celebrations play a crucial role in forming perceptions of an institution and moulding cooperation and joint enterprise. But memory is always contested, its authority never quite secure: precedent may be seen as a straitjacket as often as a guide; and memories are apt to be interpreted in ways that can tell very different stories.

The fourth of my themes I’ve called culture; but perhaps communities, or even tribes, might be more apposite. Parliament is above all a place where different cultures meet and clash. Most obviously these are political cultures; and the MP for Durham North West, who recently caused a minor storm when she said she could never befriend a Tory, neatly illustrates the question of whether Westminster tribalism precludes a sense of parliamentary corporatism: whether new tribes are easily assimilated, or ‘socialised’, into the Westminster culture. And underlying that is the question of whether an inclusive parliamentary culture becomes, in its face to the world, exclusive, the political class: whether the representers either are representative of, or truly try to represent, the represented. And that question spreads beyond political tribes into the many cultures that struggle for dominance: the masculine and gentlemanly culture of seventeenth and eighteenth century politics, the ‘club culture’ of the nineteenth century, the more professional culture of the late twentieth, especially with the growing numbers of women arriving. There are fascinating sub-cultures which profoundly affect the way the institution operates and develops: cross-currents of class, gender, nationality and education, the subtle changes of attitude and behaviour that still marks the transition from the House of Commons to the House of Lords.

And finally I want to attempt to bring all this together by looking at the business of politics as carried out in Parliaments, which I’ve referred to as power, but perhaps needs a different title to convey just how very contingent and negotiated and unpowerful it often is. Parliament, unlike normal institutions or organisations, has no real head: it has never been subject to a single controlling influence which can simply decree outcomes. An arena of competing tribes, it’s an institution governed by the collective assumptions encapsulated in my other themes. Waging politics is at best a messy and improvisational process of organisation, persuasion, manipulation, negotiation – something this image of the Members’ Lobby in 1880s shows going on. The history of that process is usually seen as a story about the development of political parties, and that is indeed part of it; but it is only within the last 130 years or so that parties have been able to exercise the level of discipline known to modern politics; and even now (as recent experience shows), political organisation has always been a far more provisional process than most critics of the parliamentary process acknowledge.

What might such a history tell us? First, I hope it will both think harder than we are accustomed to do about institutions in general, and take apart the idea of Parliament, in particular, as an institution. For as those attempting to deal with it at an institutional level have often understood, Parliament – the National Palaver as it was colourfully called in the nineteenth century – more frequently appears to be an incoherent collection of individuals and cultures with competing and often incompatible aims and objectives, underlining a sense of chaos and confusion.

But it needs then to work out what are the structures, if they exist, that makes it into more than that: whether the shared experience and culture of Parliament and politics brings it together into something that is more than the sum of its highly atomistic parts: whether and how this miscellany of notions and understandings about the rhythm of their business, about the spaces they collectively occupy, about the past and their understanding of the past, and the cultures they share, can add up to the still enormously resonant idea of Parliament.

And then it needs to consider some of the implications of that: on the one hand the desirability of a mutually respectful, cooperative and collaborative political culture, sharing a set of values about the enterprise its professors are collectively engaged in; on the other the danger that this becomes a self-regarding and inward-looking political elite, whose language, vocabulary and preoccupations are poles apart from those of their voters and communities. It’s a question, I think, of some urgency. The events of the last few years have shown the dangers of complacent elites losing their legitimacy, and the condition of politics in the United States, particularly in Congress itself, is already providing an early warning of the dangers of a corrosion of parliamentary culture. I don’t suppose my project will come up with an answer to one of (among many) the most worrying questions of our times. But I hope that it might provide at least some sense of how we have got to where we are.

Posted in Reformation to Referendum | 1 Comment


I is for impeachment, a parliamentary prosecution in which classically the lower House of the legislature acts to present the alleged malefactor for trial, and the upper House sits in judgement. 

Much has been heard about the procedure in recent years, first because of its deployment in Brazil against the President, Dilma Rousseff, resulting in her removal from office in August 2017, and secondly because of the much-discussed (but remote) possibility of impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump in the United States. In both the latter cases, impeachment has been embedded within a written constitution and recognised procedures. Although the origins of impeachment lie in English politics, impeachments were highly unusual, and always subject to intense political and legal argument about procedure and fairness. In almost each case the procedures were reinvented and argued over (a summary of the procedure here reasonably explains the broadly outlines, but conveys a rather too schematic view of something that was rarely so straightforward). Eventually, the cumbersomeness of the process meant that only the most committed, able to mobilise an unusual level of consensus across the political system, were able to bring it to a successful conclusion.

The origins of impeachment are usually dated to the prosecution in the ‘Good Parliament’ of 1376 of Edward III’s adviser Baron Latimer by the ‘clamour of the Commons’, though it has been cogently argued that the Commons was simply appropriating a practice of a community demanding redress against powerful individuals outside the ordinary common-law courts (often before the council) that was increasingly used in fourteenth century England. Even in the fourteenth century, there was an obvious tension between such a process and the normal rules of legal procedure, and these were much in evidence during the Latimer impeachment and subsequent examples. But after the middle of the fifteenth century the practice fell into disuse: although ministers were prosecuted and removed in the sixteenth century, it was never as a result of an impeachment. But in 1621 politicians pursuing the corrupt lord treasurer, Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk, rediscovered it and employed it to set a seal on his fall, as Andrew Thrush explains in an earlier piece on the History of Parliament blog.  Sir Edward Coke then developed it into a weapon to pursue his bete noire, Francis Bacon, earl of St Albans and Lord Chancellor – ultimately successfully.

But as Thrush points out, impeachments against high-profile individuals who enjoyed the favour of the king (which was often their point) were rarely effective: the prosecution was either blocked in the Lords, or, if successful, the supposed malefactor was pardoned. And in any case, politically motivated prosecutions struggled to meet the common-law standards of evidence which were insisted on in the Lords. The highest-profile impeachment of the seventeenth century, that of Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, in 1641, got bogged down in the attempt to secure two witnesses to any act that could be claimed to be treason. Only one prosecution before 1689 really had the backing of both king and Commons, that mounted against Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, in 1667: but it was strongly fought in the Commons by Clarendon’s allies, and it too became quickly stuck in the Lords as the peers insisted on procedural fairness and weighing of the evidence. Arguments about justice in the face of political hostility were powerful ones: ‘though I know not what the legislative power of a Parliament cannot do’, argued one of Clarendon’s prominent supporters in the Commons, ‘yet it is not in the power of the Parliament, King, Lords, nor Commons, to declare anything to be Treason which is not in the Common-Law Felony before’ [Sir Heneage Finch, in The Proceedings in the House of Commons Touching the Impeachment of Edward, late Earl of Clarendon (1700), p. 9] . One initial demand, that ‘common fame’ was a sufficient basis on which to commit Clarendon to custody while the allegations were investigated echoed some of the origins of the impeachment procedure, but was quickly shot down by the peers as fundamentally unjust.

Despite their drawbacks, impeachments would become a tool of the vicious party politics of the late 1670s to the end of the 1710s, perhaps as much in the hope of increasing political pressure on the king and his ministers as in the expectation of securing a guilty verdict from the Lords. The impeachment of Jacobite lords involved in the risings of 1715 and 1745 stand out as something of an oddity in this context, though they match the impeachments in 1689 of a trio of suspected supporters of James II after the Revolution, and perhaps reflect a perceived need for Parliament to collectively assert itself against offences which were aimed at toppling the whole regime. The 1715 Jacobite impeachments were initiated by the prominent Whig lawyer and former solicitor-general Nicholas Lechmere, who had also been deeply involved in the impeachments by the new Whig government of former Tory ministers Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, and Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Lechmere’s speech when moving the impeachments indicates that the prosecution was intended to link the Jacobite Rebellion to the record of the previous Tory government and the actions of Oxford and Bolingbroke and their colleagues. He also revealingly betrayed some anxiety about the behaviour of the law courts:

Everybody knew to what hazards prosecutions in the ordinary course of justice were liable, tho’ they were never so well concerted by those whose business it was to carry them on: But how sure soever the success might be, in a case so notorious as this, yet it was obvious to every Body, of what different weight and influence the prosecutions of Parliament were, from those in the ordinary forms. [The Speech of Mr Lechmere in the House of Commons, Occasion’d by the Rebellion in the Year 1715, p. 15.]

The most famous British impeachment, the proceedings against Warren Hastings begun in the Commons in 1786 and concluded with an acquittal in the Lords ten years later, also moved rather beyond the early eighteenth century style of party political impeachments. The impeachment of Hastings, Governor General of Bengal, had its origins in policy disagreements and rivalries within the government-appointed supreme council of Bengal, and reflected worries and concerns about the inefficiency, injustice and corruption of British government in India that were widely shared in London. But getting the House of Commons to agree to promote an impeachment before the Lords was the work of the political obsessive and (then) vigorous reformer Edmund Burke, supported by a few others, among them William Pitt’s Scottish ally Henry Dundas. Burke was concerned to avoid the attack on Hastings becoming a matter of party politics, and indeed hoped that the opposition leader Charles James Fox should support it not as a party chief, but as an individual member of the Commons. The decision of Pitt’s government not to oppose the impeachment was crucial; but equally important was the fact that it made no effort to overcome the increasing difficulties the impeachment ran into in the Lords. These were largely the result of the insistence of the upper House on maintaining common-law standards of proof and procedure. The debate over whether an impeachment was bound by those standards became crucial to its success or failure. Its managers argued that the difficulty of securing convictions or realistic penalties in the English courts over offences committed in India made it necessary to operate to different standards than the common law. The Lords, increasingly dominated by senior lawyers, demurred. In response the managers pursued Hastings with an aggression that Burke felt entirely justified by Hastings’ conduct and unavoidable given Hastings’ ability to fund an articulate defence both in Westminster Hall and in print. To many others it seemed to be vindictive, vicious and dangerously populist. Painfully long-drawn out though the trial in Westminster Hall was, the judgment – not guilty on all of the 16 charges – was long predicted.

The last British impeachment ironically had as its target one of those who had helped the Hastings impeachment to proceed, Henry Dundas: by then he had become Viscount Melville. Like Hastings’ impeachment, that of Melville was the work of a driven campaigner for reform, in this case Samuel Whitbread, who was incensed by the revelation of corruption in the Navy, of which Melville had been Treasurer, revealed by the Tenth Report of the Commissioners of Naval Enquiry. As with the impeachment of Hastings, the attitude of William Pitt – once more Prime Minister – was significant in determining whether it should go ahead. Pitt was determined to protect an old friend and key ally; but in this case, Melville had too many enemies. The Commons vote on his impeachment on 8 April 1805 was tied – 216 on each side – and only proceeded by the agonised casting vote of the Speaker, Charles Abbott. One of the History of Parliament’s undergraduate dissertation prize winners, Gary Hutchison, explored the Melville impeachment in his entry to our competition, which he usefully summarised in a History of Parliament blog. The impeachment process was ultimately unsuccessful – the Lords would eventually dismiss all of the charges. But as Hutchison argued, the political significance of the impeachment was enormous, drawing immense attention to the issue of corruption and competence in British naval administration.

But never again has it been possible to muster the sort of energy, determination and political skill, or the complex combination of circumstances, required to mount an impeachment, let alone to prosecute one successfully. Impeachments have been mooted many times since, but never actually brought to the House. When in 1823 individual members, particularly Spring Rice, demanded action against the Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer for taking excessive fees, the government (which plainly disagreed with the outrage felt by some) responded that it was up to individual members, not them, to take action on the complaint, which they might do either by impeachment or an address of both Houses for the removal of the judge. A petition from the Dublin Protestant Operative Association and Reformation Society demanded the impeachment of Sir Robert Peel in 1845 when he proposed a considerable increase in the grant going to Maynooth College, the then Catholic seminary  A motion in 1848 to require the production of papers concerning British Foreign Policy since 1830 was designed to be preliminary to an impeachment of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston. Promoted by one Member (David Urquhart) who was somewhat of an obsessive, and his compliant sidekick (Thomas Anstey), it was never likely to succeed (the debates can be seen here, here and here).

Impeachment lives on elsewhere of course, having been transplanted to North America via the colonial legislatures of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and from there it has spread to other countries (The Philippines and Guatemala are currently in the throes of discussions around impeachment). Even in Britain it still occasionally raises its head: as a response to individual cases where a prosecution seems difficult (as Robin Maxwell-Hyslop argued in relation to the case of the Soviet spy Sir Anthony Blunt in 1979); and best-known, as an expression of extreme frustration at the difficulty of bringing a prime minister effectively to account for actions of enormous political significance — the case of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, in connection with the war in Iraq of 2003 (for details see the House of Commons Library briefing). The fate of the latter motion, tabled on 25 November 2004, but never debated, is an indicator of the political obstacles in the way of an impeachment. As for the legal obstacles, the authors of a legal opinion preparative to the motion (Rabinder Singh and Conor Gearty)  pointed out that they did not address the issue of whether there was any way of ensuring that an impeachment trial could be conducted in a way which infringes the defendant’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, though a subsequent case over the removal of the Lithuanian President in 2004 may shed some light on the point.

Yet as they point out, the power of impeachment has never been formally abolished. A report by the Commons committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1967 recommended abolition, saying that legislation would be needed to extinguish it, but no legislation has ever been presented. The most recent report on privilege, that of a joint committee in the session of 1998-9, was curiously silent on the matter (especially in the context of a discussion of the law relating to bribery and corruption), referring just to the ‘abandonment of impeachment early in the last century’ (para. 144). As Maurice Macmillan said in a debate on the Privileges Committee Report (rather relevantly more than ten years after the report was actually made), ‘I realise that no-one has been impeached for 150 years, but that is not all that long in the history of Parliament’.


Further reading

Gabrielle Lambrick, ‘The Impeachment of the Abbot of Abingdon in 1368’, English Historical Review April 1967.

P.J. Marshall, The Impeachment of Warren Hastings (OUP 1965)

For the development of impeachment in the United States before Independence, see Peter Charles Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, Impeachment in America 1635-1805 (Yale, 1984)

Posted in A to Z | 1 Comment

Henry VIII Clauses

H is for the Henry VIII Clause, a nickname given to a provision in an Act of Parliament that delegates to a minister the power to modify the Act itself, or other Acts of Parliament. The delegation by Parliament of various powers to ministers – ‘delegated legislation’ or ‘secondary legislation’ – became common during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; indeed the increasing complexity of government business meant that it was unavoidable. For many, however, it was associated with the growth in a powerful and unaccountable bureaucracy, and the Henry VIII clause, apparently conferring a sovereign legislative authority on the government itself, was both symbolic of that growth and a dangerous step towards eroding the ability of Parliament to rein it in.

The tag seems first to have been referred to in a parliamentary debate by Lloyd George in the highly controversial National Insurance Bill in 1911. The nickname associates the power with a king whom the 1931 report of the ‘Donoughmore’ Committee on Ministers’ Powers – set up to examine the controversy – talked of as the ‘impersonation of executive autocracy’, and more particularly with ‘the famous Statute of Proclamations, 1539, which gave the King power to legislate by proclamation until it was repealed on Henry’s death in 1547’. The comparison, the report soberly added, is ‘certainly far-fetched’.

It did, however, build on a long tradition of English historiography concerning the 1539 statute, in which it was seen as an attempt to bring in an English ‘lex regia’, entrusting to the king all power, just as the ancient Romans were said to have done when their early republic was superseded by a monarchy. Even James I was quoted as referring to Henry VIII’s ‘tyrannical’ ambition ‘to make his proclamation a law’. In the words of one eighteenth century legal commentator ‘Such an unnatural scheme was indeed really affected, for a short time, in the bloody and tyrannical reign of Henry VIII, when the parliament awed into subjection by the frowns of a monster, passed a kind of “lex regia” in those unpopular and disgraceful statutes, wherein the king’s proclamations were indulged with the full force of regular laws’. (Thomas Bever, A Discourse on the Study of Jurisprudence and the Civil Law, Oxford, 1766, p. 88). The great eighteenth century jurist William Blackstone suggested that the ‘royal prerogative was then strained to a very tyrannical and oppressive height; and, what was the worst circumstance, its encroachments were established by law, under the sanction of those pusillanimous Parliaments’ (Commentaries, iv. 424). A.V. Dicey wrote that the statute marked ‘the highest point of legal authority ever reached by the Crown’. (Law of the Constitution, p. 49).

Modern scholarship has become more sceptical about this lurid account of the meaning and purpose behind the statute, but has struggled to interpret the limited and complex evidence relating to it. The first more scholarly approach came in a 1917 article by E.R. Adair, which argued that it had no significant impact on the nature or force of royal proclamations, and certainly did not give them the force of law. It glossed the statute as ‘a rather bungling attempt on the part of the Commons to mend the executive machinery’. The distinguished Tudor historian G.R. Elton took further the debunking of the statute as an instrument of tyranny in a piece published in 1960. He argued that the most significant element of the statute was the fact that it took an unquestioned royal prerogative – the power to issue proclamations concerning religious doctrine, the preservation of unity and concord in the realm and the ‘advancement of the commonwealth and good quiet of the people’ – and backed it by the authority of parliamentary statute. The statute explicitly said that proclamations could not be used to modify property rights or penalties extending to life, existing statutes (though this did leave open the possibility of affecting new ones), the common law, or the customs of the realm. Its main purpose, he argued, was to create a complex machinery to enforce proclamations. Nevertheless, Elton accepted that the passage of the statute was controversial, with the very limited record suggesting intense debates in both the Commons and the Lords, and that the provisions restricting its effect were the result of a series of amendments made in both Houses. It suggested that the original ambitions of the government may well have been for a more extensive power than that eventually achieved, although he played down the significance of that fact, arguing that the history of Henry VIII’s government ‘makes it difficult to suppose that anyone wished to govern by ordinance or tax without consent’.

Adair and Elton’s reinterpretation of the statute contributed to a new scepticism about the ‘despotism’ of the Tudor regime. But as M.L. Bush subsequently pointed out in a forensic study of proclamations issued under the statute, although the statute did not provide the government with an across-the-board despotic power, it did allow a considerable power to enforce proclamations against heresy (even if, in the end, these were barely used); moreover, the powers it conferred could be used in very specific circumstances to legitimise temporary changes to the provisions of a number of statutes, particularly to drastically increase penalties in cases where the government clearly felt dramatic action was necessary. It was only certain proclamations that the statute backed with statutory authority, not all, and it did extend the range of what royal proclamations could do without offending the law. The complexity of the statute’s provisions were part of the reason why it was little used in practice, and were a result of its controversial passage through Parliament. Bush argued that the government initiated the legislation because it did want to make some proclamations enforceable in the same way as statutes were, in particular proclamations relating to religious policy, and those concerned with economic regulation – though more as a rather clumsy response to an immediate political problem than as a deep-laid plot to undermine parliamentary power.

A postscript to the statute of proclamations controversy is the so-called ‘second act of union of Wales and England’ of 1543, 34 and 35 Henry VIII c. 26, which conferred on the king powers to amend or repeal the act either in whole or in part and to make laws and ordinances for Wales with permanent effect without recourse to Parliament, a provision which was sometimes regarded as even more extreme than the earlier statute. The provisions of the act of union were, however, closely related to the former status of Wales as a separate dominion, governed by separate laws, in particular the 1284 Statute of Wales, which the act in many ways echoed. As with the statute of proclamations, the powers in the act of union were rarely used, and while the former was repealed after Henry VIII’s death, the latter was held to have lapsed at the same time, though it was formally repealed in the reign of James I.

In fact the actual details of Henry VIII’s legislation were pretty irrelevant to the twentieth and twenty-first debates about delegated legislation and ministerial powers: the polemical use of the name of one of England’s most notorious monarch harked back to the idea of the ‘Lex Regia’ and not to any real knowledge about his legislative policies. The Donoughmore committee dismissed the comparison with the Statute of Proclamations: ‘the purpose of Henry VIII was to enlarge his powers to make proclamations having the force of law. The sole purpose of Parliament on the nine occasions when it passed the modern enactment [known as a Henry VIII clause] was to enable minor adjustments of its own handiwork to be made for the purpose of fitting its principles into the fabric of existing legislation, general or local, and of meeting cases of hardship to local authorities’.

The Donoughmore Committee’s list of instances of Henry VIII clause went back to 1888, a provision in the Local Government Act which enabled the Local Government Board to make amendments to the Act in order to settle problems experienced in first elections to the new county councils. It was its use in the National Insurance Bill (only the fourth instance listed by the Committee), in order to deal with unanticipated problems in bringing the new structure into effect, that seems to have brought the Henry VIII clause to more general attention. The Donoughmore Committee dismissed the claim, made in the debates on that bill by Reginald McKenna, then Home Secretary, that Henry VIII clauses had been used ‘again and again’ previously [10 Nov. 1911, c. 2011, clause 57]. This was due to an overly restrictive idea of the Henry VIII clause, for others had found many other, albeit less precise, examples of powers conferred on ministers to modify legislation which the committee ignored. The committee regarded the 1911 case as highly political: the bill needed to be passed that year – presumably before all of the details could be sorted out – otherwise it might not have been passed at all. Despite the spat over the 1911 Bill – one of the most dramatic extensions of the power of the state – the occasional use of the clause in subsequent Acts, and an undeniable growth in delegated legislation during the First World War and after, concern about it was muted until the late 1920s. By then a more general complaint about the growth in bureaucracy and the extension of the control and influence of Whitehall into all aspects of everyday life – or ‘officialism’ – was becoming a strong polemical theme among both senior lawyers and mainly conservative politicians.

The debate took fire with the essay written by the lord chief justice, Gordon Hewart (Lord Hewart) in 1929, The New Despotism. Hewart, widely considered to be one of the least distinguished members of the senior judiciary of modern times, had been a liberal MP and minister, closely associated with Lloyd George, solicitor general and attorney general during the War. Hewart’s powerful, and much-discussed polemic claimed that ‘for some years past’ there had been ‘a persistent influence at work which… has the effect of placing a large and increasing field of departmental authority and activity beyond the reach of the ordinary law’ (p. 11). Hewart complained of ‘bureaucratic encroachment’ (he was well-known for his suspicion of the civil service) and a ‘persistent and well-contrived system, intended to produce, and in practice producing, a despotic power which at one and the same time places Government departments above the Sovereignty of Parliament and beyond the jurisdiction of the courts’ (p. 14) – the ‘New Despotism’. The Donoughmore Committee was the government’s response to Hewart – apparently organised by Hewart’s bête noire, the permanent secretary of the Lord Chancellor’s department, Sir Claud Schuster, whom Hewart referred to as ‘Shyster’ – and its careful report gave deep and serious consideration to the complaints raised by the Lord Chief Justice while offering a series of specific responses which would allow the existing system to continue. It acknowledged the ‘extreme convenience, from the point of view of those charged with the duty of bringing into effective operation a far reaching measure of reform, of a dispensing power such as that contained in the so-called “Henry VIII clause”.’ But it concluded that ‘it cannot but be regarded as inconsistent with the principles of Parliamentary government that the subordinate law-making authority should be given by the superior law-making authority power to amend a statute which has been passed by the superior authority…’. As far as the run of delegated legislation was concerned, they proposed a structure of parliamentary scrutiny which would only be properly implemented after the Second World War.

In the debates following the report, some voices emerged that were prepared to defend delegated legislation as essential tools of a progressive-minded state, most notably the legal academic, John Willis, whose The Parliamentary Powers of English Government Departments was published in the USA in 1933. Eventually even Hewart would come to accept the necessity of delegation in order to build a welfare state. By the end of the twentieth century delegated legislation had become a normal and accepted feature of the business of Parliament, with much of the machinery eventually set up in response to the Donoughmore report either routine or ignored. Surprisingly, few seem to have complained at the time that the European Communities Act 1972 contained a Henry VIII clause, giving ministers wide powers to amend UK law to make it consistent with the requirements of EU law – Hansard records very few uses of the word in either House during the 1970s. But the concern about Henry VIII clauses would come back with a vengeance in the 1980s and 1990s, largely under conservative administrations this time, and often connected with attempts to remove or tinker with aspects of the regulated state, rather than to build it. Again it was often lawyers who fought it most vigorously: the conservative politician Geoffrey Rippon made it a particular issue in 1988 and 1989, criticising its use in The Children Act, the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, and the Local Government Finance Act 1988. It was the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act of 1994 that brought out the issue most strongly, followed by the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 (under the Labour Blair government), which in its pre-enacted form, was widely seen as giving outrageously wide powers to the executive. Both Acts eventually involved the concession of safeguards including new machinery for parliamentary scrutiny of orders made under them. It seems likely that the introduction of the European Union (Withdrawal) bill will continue and extend the debate.


Further reading

E.R. Adair, ‘The Statute of Proclamations’, English Historical Review no. 125 (January 1917).

G.R. Elton, ‘Henry VIII’s Act of Proclamations’, English Historical Review no. 295 (April 1960).

M.L. Bush, ‘The Act of Proclamations: A Reinterpretation’, The American Journal of Legal History 27 (1983).

P.R. Roberts, ‘The Henry VIII Clause: Delegated Legislation and the Tudor Principality of Wales’, in Legal Record and Historical Reality, ed. T.G. Watkin (1989).

Michael Taggart, ‘From “Parliamentary Powers” to Privatization: The Chequered History of Delegated Legislation in the Twentieth Century’, The University of Toronto Law Journal 55 (2005).

Geoffrey Rippon, ‘Henry VIII Clauses’, Statute Law Review 10 (1989)



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G is for gallery, where since at least the seventeenth century the presence of members of the public, looking on to the Houses’ debates has been connived at by Members, officially forbidden and in practice tolerated, before, much more recently, it has been actively encouraged. The history of the galleries is closely bound up with the history of the reporting, and the reporters, of parliamentary proceedings.

The House of Commons

Andrew Thrush has described the construction of the first permanent gallery in the House of Commons in 1621.  An earlier gallery had been built in the 1560s, it was said to accommodate members who would insist on wearing the latest fashion of stuffed breeches which took up an inordinate amount of room. It was taken down by the end of the reign of Elizabeth I. The gallery built in 1621, at the western end of the chamber, facing the Speaker’s chair, and reached by a set of stairs referred to as a ‘ladder’ in the 1640s, was intended for the use of Members. It became the favoured outpost of an unruly element in the House. In 1670 the stairs were rebuilt. In the extensive remodelling of the building overseen by Christopher Wren in 1692, new galleries were built along the side walls of the chamber as well as the western end. The side galleries were widened and supported with iron columns topped with Corinthian capitols.

It is probable that even though they were not meant to, ‘strangers’, or members of the public, found it quite easy to get into the galleries (as they did, from time to time, into other parts of the House). As David Hayton describes, although the House forbade the presence of strangers and frequently passed orders concerning their removal, their presence most of the time was tolerated. The gallery was cleared during divisions, or when the speaker’s attention was occasionally drawn to their presence. A more restrictive approach to the admission of strangers to the galleries resulted from the battle with newspapers over reporting the House’s proceedings. Once the House had lost its battle to forbid it, a number of members did their best to prevent it during the 1770s by removing reporters’ access to the gallery. But their views were far from universally held, and some members argued that there were plenty of benefits from public access to the debates: one member commented in 1777 on how valuable it was to step for a minute into the gallery where they could consult with visitors with expertise on whatever subject was currently under debate.

An American visitor in 1805 (Benjamin Silliman) thought the gallery could hold around 150 or 200. The normal way of getting into the gallery was by producing a note signed by a Member – by 1834 Members were said to be able to admit two members a day. The other means of entry was by providing a bribe to one of the doorkeepers, usually 2 shillings and sixpence (half-a-crown). The late eighteenth century German traveller Philip Moritz, describes how he was initially turned away, disappointed, and did not understand the doorkeeper’s comment about a bottle of wine, which his landlady explained when he got home as a request for the half-a-crown pourboire.  A Frenchman living in New York, Louis Simon, described his visit in 1810:

I had an order of admission from a Member of Parliament, but it was easy to perceive that a bank-token (a silver piece worth 5s 6d.) was more welcome to the door-keeper. This payment is done openly, and you may change a bank-note at the door of the gallery of the House of Commons as you would at the door of the playhouse. There is in this an appearance of indelicacy certainly, but the object is to throw some difficulty in the way of mere idle curiosity, and check the concourse of the lower class. This payment of money answers the purpose nearly as well as the necessity of obtaining an order from a member.

Newspaper reporters were usually given favoured treatment, at least by the doorkeepers, paying a guinea or so to secure their places for the whole session. Being in the gallery was clearly a popular entertainment, and the demand for seats was often very high. Silliman commented that the gallery could sometimes be full by 7am even when the House was not expected to meet till 4pm, and might then be sitting all night. ‘After you have once taken your seat, you must actually occupy it all the time, or you are considered as relinquishing it’, he commented, though he said that it was possible to reserve your place by placing a hat on it.

The obligation to keep your seat for so long, or lose it, was no doubt the explanation for the incident in 1743 reported by one member: ‘On Monday, some gentlewomen in our gallery not being able to hold their water, let it run on Mr Dodington, and a Scots member who sat under. The first had a white duffel frock spoiled, the latter almost blinded’ (Thomas, House of Commons in the Eighteenth Century, 148-9). Women were certainly among the people routinely admitted to the gallery in the eighteenth century. It is possible their presence was at least initially regarded as surprising, if not improper, judging from the Speaker’s reaction in 1675: some women being seen in the gallery, ‘peeping over the gentlemen’s shoulders’, he remarked, ‘What Borough do those ladies serve for?’, inviting the response that ‘they serve for the Speaker’s Chamber’, and presumably a jocular suggestion that he had mistaken them for gentlemen with fine sleeves.  The ‘banning’ of women from the chamber in 1778 was a complicated affair, explored by Elaine Chalus in Elite Women in English Political Life c.1754-1790. It came in the context of the battle against publication of parliament’s proceedings by the newspapers and the efforts of several members to exclude the public in order to exclude the reporters. On 2 February a crowd, frustrated by their removal, virtually forced their entry to the gallery; the Speaker ordered them to be cleared, though the women (apparently about 60 of them, including the duchess of Devonshire and the Speaker’s wife, Lady Norton) were initially allowed to stay. But the member who initiated the clearance insisted on their removal as well, and it seems to have been the reaction of the women in the gallery at the time to their eviction, leading to two hours’ uproar and interruption of business, that prevented their readmission, along with the men, afterwards. Though there was no formal order for their exclusion, the clerk of the House John Hatsell wrote in his procedural manual, probably in the 1790s, that subsequent speakers Charles Cornwall and Henry Addington had ensured that they were not admitted. This was not quite true: a handful of elite women did, from time to time, secure entry to the gallery without being ejected, but it seems to have been shortly after the incident in 1778 that the space above the chamber, looking down through the ventilator, was made available for women to use, as described in Amy Galvin-Elliot’s blog for the Vote 100 project.

There are a number of accounts of eighteenth century visits to the gallery of the Commons, including the well-known one of Moritz. The earliest I’ve found is in Eliza Haywood’s satirical political novel, The Invisible Spy of 1754, in which one cynical character, Careless, describes how he had ‘an hour or two upon my hands, and went thither merely to kill time: — but was never more diverted in my whole life, than to see how some young members, who had got their heads together, and were giggling over a copy of verses inscribed to Fanny Murray [the notorious London courtesan], were put to silence in an instant, and look’d as silly as a school-boy under the lash of correction, on the speaker’s crying out with an audible and austere voice, — “To order, gentlemen, — for shame, — to order.” ‘ Careless may have found it amusing, but other visitors were distinctly unimpressed by their view from the gallery. The radical agitator Samuel Bamford described a visit one evening in 1816:

After a tough struggle at elbowing and pushing along a passage, up a narrow staircase, and across a room, I found myself in a small gallery, from whence I looked on a dimly lighted place below.  At the head of the room, or rather den, for such it appeared to me, sat a person in a full loose robe of, I think, scarlet and white.  Above his head were the royal arms, richly gilded; at his feet several men in robes and wigs were writing at a large table, on which lamps were burning, which cast a softened light on a rich ornament like a ponderous sceptre of silver and gold, or what appeared to be so.  …  On each side of this pit-looking place, leaving an open space in the centre of the floor, were some three or four hundreds of the most ordinary-looking men I had ever beheld at one view.

The Scottish army officer, writer and traveller Pryse Lockhart Gordon, recorded frequent visits to the House of Commons around the time of Pitt’s ‘coming into office’ (actually, probably after 1789, as he refers to Addington as Speaker). Having bribed the doorkeeper with a guinea and ‘now and then a bottle of wine’ he found it easy to gain access, and struck up a friendship with the other regular gallery attendees – the journalists, especially the Scotsman James Gray and James Perry, joint owners of the Morning Chronicle. He told a story of one of their reporters, which indicates not just that heavy drinking was a reporters’ stock-in-trade as early as the late eighteenth century. The reporter concerned was Mark Supple, an Irishman who ‘generally drank his wine at Bellamy’s’, and was known for gingering up members’ speeches into flowery prose.

One evening, as Mark sat at his post, during a long conversation on some trifling business not worthy of his notice, there was a long pause in the House. Mr Addington was Speaker; and Supple, who had taken an extra dose of Bellamy’s bee’s wing port, thinking that business ought to be going on, hollowed out lustily—‘Mr Speaker, give us a song.’ Conceive such a man as Addington, whose long, grave, perpendicular countenance was never seen to alter a muscle! Imagine his astonishment and indignation at such an indignity offered to the orders of Parliament, and from the gallery! The House was in a roar, and it was said that both Pitt and Dundas joined in the laugh. When the consternation had a little subsided, the Speaker ordered the mace-bearer to take the audacious culprit into custody, and he came into the gallery for this purpose. Supple sat coolly on the hindmost bench, confident that no one would betray him. The enquiries were fruitless, till the offender pointed with his finger to a fat fellow… sitting on the lower benches. The hint was sufficient; the innocent man, to his great surprise, was taken into custody forthwith; but he vehemently pleaded “not guilty,” and upon the testimony of those who sat near him, was released.

The House of Lords

The gallery in the Lords is another story, though very much a parallel one. The peers were clearly deeply divided about whether to welcome non-members,  though as in the Commons they were much in evidence in and around the chamber – welcome or not – just as commonly as they were in the lower House. The House first erected a gallery in 1704 at the north end of the chamber, opposite the throne, to accommodate people on occasions when the monarch attended. They found it inconvenient, encumbering the entrance to the chamber, and had it removed in 1711. After a number of debates, they eventually agreed in 1737 to reinstate it. Notoriously, the gallery was invaded by a group of very highly-placed women in May 1738, famous from the story in the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The Lords set up a committee in March 1739 to consider the ‘manner in which persons are admitted into the gallery’, and although this does not seem to have reported, in January 1741 it ordered that the gallery be locked up and taken down after the end of the session.

The gallery was indeed removed, but there were plenty of members who wanted it reinstated. On 7 June 1778 the House ordered a new gallery to be erected. In a confused debate on 7 December 1778 it decided not to do so after all. In 1782 a Committee was set up to consider building one. It which recommended a gallery for members of the public, including ladies who applied to the lord great chamberlain, people who had an interest in hearings on private business, MPs and Irish peers . But when the report was debated by the House itself all of its recommendations are rejected. It seems to have taken nearly forty years, a move to another chamber, and a royal divorce before a gallery was established. In 1820 the House agreed to address the king to build galleries for the ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline within the larger chamber to which the House had moved after the Act of Union. Temporary galleries were certainly built (visible in the famous painting by Sir Charles Hayter) . In 1831 the House agreed to replace it with something more permanent. It was probably at this date that special provision was made for women. The journalist Archibald Grant wrote about the arrangement – and the rather more refined atmosphere than in the Commons gallery – in his Random Recollections of the House of Lords: from the Year 1830 to 1836, though by then the chamber had been destroyed by the fire of 1834:

Immediately above the bar was a gallery for the public and the press. It consisted of four seats (i.e., benches) and was capable of accommodating about one hundred persons. The front seat was appropriated exclusively to the reporters. The others were for the public indiscriminately, who had procured Peers’ orders—the only means of admission. Half a crown will procure any one admittance to the gallery of the House of Commons. Fifty pounds will not effect the same object in the gallery of the House of Lords. Gentlemen and others, not knowing the existence of the rule—or not aware of its strict enforcement—have, on various occasions, offered considerable sums for permission to enter; but the decided manner in which the first offer has been refused, has always prevented a second. It was only on the occasions of the trial of Queen Caroline, in 1820, that the gallery of the House of Lords was erected. Previous to that time, strangers stood below the bar; and there the reporters, at great inconvenience, took their notes of the speeches of the members of the House. Some four or five years ago, a small part of the gallery was, by means of a division, allotted exclusively to the ladies. It was only capable of accommodating about twenty with any degree of comfort. On all important occasions it was well filled, chiefly by the immediate relations of Peers…

In speaking of the gallery of the House of Lords, it would be unpardonable to omit the mention f the remarkably obliging disposition, and urbanity of manner, invariably shown towards all who have occasion to be in it, by Mr Maggs, who is entrusted now, as he was in the old edifice with the care of that part of the House. Strangers, when visiting other places sometimes experience uncivil treatment from the officers; but anyone who has been in the gallery of the House of Lords must have quitted it with a grateful sense of the kind and polite deportment of Mr Maggs.

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‘The Frank’, the privilege of free postage for Members of Parliament, became during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries notorious for its abuse, not just by Members, but by virtually everybody else as well.

Royal officials would always have been able to use the crown’s own servants to send messages; but the formal postal system dates from 1635, when Parliament was not in being, and the Civil War in the 1640s would have been difficult ground for the establishment of anything other than very informal arrangements for Members to communicate with their constituencies. The establishment of a free postal service is probably to be dated to the 1650s, when the line to be drawn between state officials and parliamentarians was blurred by the very nature of the parliamentary republic. The lease of the Post Office to John Manley from June 1653 – achieved finally, following long debate, after Cromwell’s dismissal of the Rump Parliament – was confirmed in an ordinance of September 1654. The ordinance made Manley responsible among other things for carrying ‘all ordinary and extraordinary Letters and Dispatches to or from His Highness, and to or from his Council, or Secretary of State, or any of them; and to and from all Members of the Legislative power’, and various other officials. The ordinance specified that such franked letters should  be endorsed with the words ‘These are for the service of His Highness, or for the service of the Common-wealth, together with the names of such persons or their Secretaries or Clerks, who attend them or those services respectively’. Members of Parliament were clearly meant to be included. An order of the House of Commons of 29 September 1656, early in the subsequent Parliament, asserted the continuance of the right.

When, following the collapse of the republic and the Restoration of the Monarchy the post office was placed on a statutory footing, in 1660, there was a debate in the Commons on whether the Act for establishing a post office should include a provision for free postage for Members. The remaining account of the debate makes it clear that some Members were embarrassed about it: Sir Walter Erle, who had been a Member during the 1650s, had introduced the proviso, but the solicitor general, Heneage Finch, thought it a ‘poor mendicant provision, and below the honour of the House’. The proviso was apparently left out by the Lords. However, it seems that assurances had been given that the privilege should continue: in the eighteenth century, the Post Office produced before a committee of the Commons what they called a ‘warrant’ dated 14 May 1661, in which Charles II recognised ‘that the Members of Parliament seemed unwilling to pay for the postage of their letters during the sitting of Parliament’, and permitted their letters (but not packets) to go free of charge. The privilege seems to have applied to both Houses, although there was an assumption that initially at least it was not intended to apply to the Lords.

Abuses were being raised in the House as early as 1666: it was already well-known that other people would use Members’ names on their own letters in order to make them go free. In 1715 the Commons agreed that Members’ letters had to be authenticated in their own handwriting, and (on division) that letters to Members would only be accepted as free if they went to their place of normal residence. The practice of using the privilege to send newspapers was also well-established by then, though why is unclear: perhaps Members had become used to sending manuscript newsletters, a common seventeenth century means of distributing news, to their constituents, and this had been extended to the printed newspapers that became common in the 1690s.

Twenty years later, the House again discussed what was by now a serious problem for the royal revenue. On 16 April 1735 a committee reported to the House on the privilege. The Committee quoted what Edward Cave, who held the office of supervisor of franks, had told them about how he tried to distinguish between legitimate and fraudulent uses of the privilege. He told them that franks were increasing in each Parliament, ‘that as the new Members do, and have a Right to, frank Letters, those who were in the last Parliament do not willingly part with that Privilege, and, by the Acquaintance they still have in the House of Commons, they get blank Franks’ – presumably covers for letters pre-signed by current Members. The Post Office then estimated that it was losing around £38,000 a year – much more than double the loss in 1716 – against a gross revenue of about £91,000, though it conceded that some of the loss was the result of franking in other public offices. The House came to various resolutions asserting its privilege and condemning the abuses of counterfeiting, but took no serious action to regulate it, save specifying that letters should be taken to the lodgings of Members, or to the Lobby of the House, in order presumably to prevent counterfeited franks being picked up by those for whom they were actually intended.

Things had, predictably, got no better by 1764, when another committee on the subject reported that the loss of revenue by 1761 amounted to more than £170,000, with a huge increase in the last two years: ‘while the produce of the pay letters has in the space of fifty years, increased only in the proportion of one to one and an half, the amount of the franks is now sevenfold what it was in the year 1714’. They cited the still growing practice of counterfeiting Members’ signatures; and the trick of sending letters to members of Parliament at fake addresses, where they were picked up by the intended recipients. The secretary to the Post Office complained that it was hampered in its efforts to pursue these frauds ‘for fear of giving offence to the Members’. There was, he said, a trade in the signed covers for letters. The report led to the first statutory regulation of franking, the 1764 Act (4 Geo. III, c. xxiv) limited franked letters to those less than 2 ounces in weight, sent during the sitting of Parliament or for 40 days either side of it, either signed in the Member’s own handwriting (for letters going from the Member), or directed to his usual place of residence, to him directly, or at Parliament, or at the lobby of the House.

The new regulations seem not to have improved things very much. From the 1780s campaigns for economical reform stimulated demands for the abolition of franking. Sir Cecil Wray proposed in 1783 that the recipients should pay for letters sent from Members (‘why should they indulge themselves in the vanity of saving others from paying their taxes?’), though he insisted that Members should not have to pay for the letters they received from their constituents. William Pitt attempted a further regulation in his budget of 1784, trying to prevent anyone other than Members of Parliament benefiting. Sir Edward Astley’s complaint that the reform would be an attempt to ‘render their privilege of sending letters free, sacred to themselves [i.e., to Members of Parliament], and, consequently more invidious and unjust’ seemed rather to identify the problem than contradict it. The end result seems only to have been a modest attempt to tighten the rules, which naturally made little difference.

Another effort to do something about franking was made in 1795, and sparked considerable controversy. Mr Windham insisted that the privilege ‘gave to members a very desirable power of conferring favours on their constituents, and tended to keep up those reciprocations of civility and endearment, which greatly sweetened the intercourse of private life’. In the course of the 1795 debates the old war hero, General Tarleton, attacked another member, the city alderman and banker, Sir Benjamin Hammet, who had delegated his right to sign franks to his son while he was too infirm to do so himself (which was permitted under the 1764 Act). Hammet was in fact notorious for using the privilege to send bills of exchange duty free, and making £2,400 out of it: in the course of the debate it was suggested that some bankers entered Parliament mainly for the purpose of exploiting the privilege. One of Hammet’s defenders, who is inaccurately named in the source as Alderman Newton, but may have been the banker Nathaniel Newnham, questioned  whether ‘other gentlemen had confined themselves strictly to the constitutional object for which the privilege of franking was allowed. For himself, he would own he certainly had not, nor did he believe anyone had; there were many Members of that House who had frequently delegated the privileges of franking to their wives, daughters and other ladies occasionally, and he saw no greater crime or offence in one case than in the other.’ The Act that resulted (35 Geo. III, c. 53) further limited the privilege.

The privilege of free franking would survive until 1839, when its suspension was authorised under 2 & 3 Victoria c. 52, slightly preceding the creation of the penny post system. But its memory lingered on, and when Members began to argue in the 1890s that they ought to be allowed to send letters free to their constituents, the abuses of franking were often referred to as a way of combating the proposal. It took years, and the hugely rising volume of constituency correspondence, before memories of the franking system faded sufficiently for it to be possible to restore a (rather different) right of free postage.


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E is for Estimates: though nothing could be more central to the role of Parliament, the approval of government expenditure by voting the Estimates has never been a process to make the hearts of Members of Parliament beat faster.

Edmund Burke, who was given to histrionics, once flung a copy of the naval Estimates across the floor of the House of Commons, aiming at the Treasury bench, complaining that ‘it was treating the House with the utmost contempt, to present them with a fine gilt book of Estimates, calculated to a farthing, for purposes to which the money granted was never meant to be applied’. As Peter Thomas observed, in his The House of Commons in the Eighteenth Century, his outrage was also a bit fake: for the gap between the Estimates (especially the naval Estimates) and the reality of government expenditure had long been recognised and tolerated, by Burke as much as anyone else.

Indeed, few things which are so fundamental to the business of an institution have been of so little importance in practice to the vast majority of those involved in it. The Estimates – the planned budgets for government activity in the following year presented annually to the House of Commons – continue to be the basis on which the whole system of parliamentary control of government expenditure rests. The sittings of Parliament have been built around the annual process of agreeing the Estimates in the committee of supply, and voting supplies (i.e., taxes) to cover the cost in the committee of ways and means, with finance bills and appropriation bills brought in to authorise the taxation and expenditure accordingly. But the whole process is a highly complex and technical one, properly understood by only a handful of people in the Treasury, the National Audit Office and the Commons’ Legislation Office. Even in the eighteenth century, the process of voting the Estimates was a routine matter which aroused little interest, and while the debates on supply were throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among the main arenas for highly-charged political confrontations, the actual detail of the expenditure was almost never the point at issue.

That this was so is in many ways odd, for suspicion that the money voted by Parliament was being misappropriated to purposes other than those intended was frequently an enormous bone of contention in parliaments before the Revolution of 1688-9. The surrender by Parliament to government of just about all initiative in financial matters is one of the most distinctive features of the British post-1689 constitution. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the process of debating and agreeing the Estimates had settled into a pattern which would remain unaltered until well into the nineteenth century, and of which many traces remain today. The royal speech at the beginning of the session would be responded to by an address from the Commons and a formal vote for granting supply. The House would order that estimates be presented for the navy, the army and the ordnance, usually divided further into an ordinary standing charge and various extraordinary charges (especially during a time of war), and specifying among other things the numbers of troops, sailors and ships to be provided. The estimates duly presented, they were referred to the committee of supply; over a few days the committee would discuss the estimates and pass a series of votes usually specifying that sums ‘not exceeding’ those requested be granted. The resolutions of the committee would be confirmed by the House; and then it was the job of another committee of the whole House, the committee of ways and means, to consider how to raise the money to cover them. The taxes voted would be formally earmarked, or appropriated, to the purposes for which they were requested, in what would eventually become an annual Appropriation Act. The whole process was largely controlled by ministers or those close to them.

Both the accuracy of the estimates and their relationship to the government’s actual expenditure were highly questionable, but rarely investigated. The committee of supply’s scrutiny of the Estimates appears normally to have been desultory. Attempts by the opponents of Sir Robert Walpole to refer the Estimates to a select committee for more detailed scrutiny than they ever received in committee of supply got nowhere in 1730 and 1736. The control of ministers over the process of supply and ways and means had been tight since the mid-1690s, when (as David Hayton has shown in the introduction to The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715) attempts by ‘country’ party politicians to claim some toehold over it were squeezed out. The insistence that no request for expenditure would be entertained unless it was recommended by the Crown, first enunciated in a resolution on 11 December 1706, but more familiarly as a standing order passed on 11 June 1713, was a key principle. The reluctance of parliamentarians to exercise any serious control over the Estimates was remarkable, and the reasons for it difficult to pin down. There was, no doubt, an acceptance that governments needed operational flexibility, and (among a House largely composed of landowners) a lack of appetite for the hard work and information required properly to scrutinise the figures. But overall it shows how deeply imbued the House of Commons was with the idea that it was not their role to second-guess the work of a government that commanded the consent of a majority in the House of Commons, however much they might be content to criticise it afterwards.

Crucially this approach has meant that the process of debating the Estimates, at least on the floor of the House, has rarely been used as a means of exercising pressure to increase departmental budgets. It would not be surprising if politicians sought to use the estimates process to argue for parliamentary-funded spending within their constituencies, as certainly happens in the United States. In the early years there is some evidence of that pressure building up. In the 1705-6 Estimates round, for example, the only matter of controversy, or certainly the only division, was over an amount included for replacing army officers’ horses killed in the war. An amendment that the replacements should be as good as those lost – rather than, presumably, any old nag – was defeated. The 1706 resolution and 1716 standing order have effectively closed off the possibility of seeking to get favourable treatment through the Estimates process (though they have not closed off the possibility of lobbying ministers to include expenditure within the Estimates before they ever reach the House of Commons).

From the 1780s onwards a series of reforms ensured that the Estimates gradually became a more accurate representation of the government’s planned expenditure. The development of appropriation accounts – formal government accounts that made it possible to see whether the money voted through the Estimates had been spent for the purposes specified – from the 1830s onwards was particularly significant in improving the quality of the Estimates themselves, and the reforms were clinched by the creation of the Public Accounts Committee in 1861, a body which became a vehicle for further systematic reform. What did not improve was the House’s scrutiny of the Estimates: debates in committee of supply continued to be an opportunity for either general or specific debates on matters within the remit of the department presenting the Estimates, whether or not they had much relation to the funding requested. As a consequence, the debates in committee of supply could become a bog into which the session sank, ministers struggling to hurry the House through and secure the routine, though key, business, before the onset of the summer holidays. The reforms initiated by Arthur Balfour, as chancellor of the exchequer, in 1896, would acknowledge that the process was no longer any more than formally about the detail of expenditure, beginning a process of conversion of the business of the committee of supply into the ‘Opposition Day’ debates that they subsequently became. Attempts to delegate to select committees a process of detailed scrutiny – such as had been rejected in the 1730s – would preoccupy parliamentary reformers in the twentieth century, and eventually bore fruit in the 1970s in the select committee ‘system’. This, and other changes, have considerably enhanced the transparency of government estimates and accounts, and the influence wielded by Parliament and its bodies on developing them. But the aim to enhance inspection of the Estimates continues to be less important for these committees than the opportunity to discuss departmental policy more generally; and Parliament’s control over government expenditure continues to be, in comparison to many other legislatures, relatively weak.

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D is for Doorkeepers, not only an essential oil in the wheels of the House of Commons, but also part of its collective memory. Today’s blog begins to pin down the history of a role that has become a Westminster institution.

Doorkeepers oil the wheels of the House of Commons.  The role is an ancient one, but impossible to pin down, and hardly unique: in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries most institutions or great establishments had a doorkeeper or porter, just as offices and buildings today have receptionists or caretakers. But doorkeepers in Parliament are an institution in themselves.  They complement the police in providing security for the chamber – their knowledge of Members crucial in knowing whom to exclude; they pass messages to Members; and most importantly, they are the repositories of gossip and the fount of wisdom on what is actually going on.

The role is referred to in the fourteenth century treatise on Parliament, the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, which remarks that ‘it is necessary that this doorkeeper should recognize those who ought to enter so that no-one shall be denied entry to parliament who ought to be in parliament’. In the small and chaotically organised pre-1834 Palace of Westminster ensuring that only Members had access to the chamber itself was a hard task for the two main doorkeepers who sat in the lobby and the lower doorkeeper who guarded the stairs leading up to it. Doorkeepers had to cope with volatile and potentially dangerous situations, such as the invasion of the chamber in January 1642 by the king and a band of soldiers, when they were roughly shoved out of the way, or the mass occupation of the lobby in 1780 by a mob egged on by Lord George Gordon.

Their crucial function of holding and passing on information is well outlined in the sketch of the legendary eighteenth century doorkeeper Joseph Pearson, published in the (possibly spoof) collection of his writings, Pearson’s Political Dictionary (1792), a vaguely Johnsonian series of brief essays providing a cynical commentary on current politics with sarcastic remarks on the major figures. Pearson was said to have had

such an astonishing portion of keen observation, that he could pretty nearly foretell the period of the termination of every debate, when once it commenced. By the thronging of the Members he foresaw, and nicely calculated its magnitude: By the opening of the first speaker, and the peculiarity of the subject, he guessed pretty accurately all the orators of the night; and knowing the time nearly that each would speak, he has often prognosticated to Peers, guttling Members, waiters, porters, &c. who enquired of him what time he thought the House would break up.

But eighteenth-century doorkeepers were known not so much for their remarkable prescience as for their shamelessness in asking for money. Doorkeepers had several sources of income. There was a salary, but more significant were the various fees payable on the introduction of bills, the delivery of messages on behalf of the House, and other functions. More important than any of these officially sanctioned sources were the gratuities that they requested from each Member at the beginning of the session, and the sums paid by members of the public for access to the gallery from where they could watch the debates. Neither exaction was authorised by the House, but both seemed to be hallowed by long practice. There may have been additional underhand payments too, which would probably have been less tolerated, perhaps for squeezing people into the lobby to get close to ministers, or for distributing certain papers (an example is the pamphlet which the House regarded as libellous that was ‘delivered at the door by the Doorkeeper’ on 14 May 1690).

Members seemed in general accepting of the sessional payment that was extracted from them by the doorkeepers, though some resented it and they could resist it, as in a story about the old Tory MP for Durham William Lambton, who died in 1724:

Once on the meeting of a new parliament, the door-keeper seeing him dressed in a plain, grey, home-spun coat, made of the wool of his own sheep, and thick shoes, would not admit him further than the lobby, where he sat quietly enough until a friend in a finer coat came up, who remonstrated with the door-keeper on his shutting out one of the most honourable and respectable members of the house of commons. The door-keeper changed his tone, and hoped his honour would give him something as a remembrance. Up started Will, more vexed at the fellow’s servility than at his former rudeness, and gave him a hearty box on the ear, saying, “there’s a god’s-penny for thee; I think thou’lt ken auld Will Lambton again!”

Rudeness was also thought to be a common trait of doorkeepers. An 1804 satire, designed as a political alphabet, shows a surly doorkeeper, ensconced in his  characteristic seat with its hood protecting him from draughts, and with his dog, expecting his ‘tenths’.  The perception may have been based on the legendarily rude Pearson, ‘a plain, blunt, honest man, … so far a leveller, that, if the proudest Peer in the realm addressed him with the smallest degree of haughtiness, he was certain, in return, to meet with a very sharp and ungracious answer’. He was said to use his powers over the seating in the gallery according to his own whim. He was notorious for outrageously embarrassing reluctant Members to cough up his gratuity, in which he seems to have had the sympathy of plenty of their colleagues.  A story was told of the Speaker, Sir Fletcher Norton, routinely referring to him as ‘the most impudent person breathing’; Pearson returned the compliment.

Nevertheless, doorkeepers could make a lot of money. An 1836 committee report itemised the income of the head doorkeeper, Mr Pratt, in 1835 as £1097, made up of a paltry salary of £50, £50 in perks and £85 in emoluments, plus £318 in (official) fees, and a whopping £593 in gratuities. The amount rivalled that of some quite senior government officials. Pratt’s colleague, Francis Williams, the second doorkeeper, received a lower salary, but the same amount in fees and gratuities. The 1836 committee had asked questions about the origins and status of the doorkeepers and found that they had usually been servants, which perhaps made the scale of their income harder to take. When one of their predecessors, a Mr J. Kennedy, died in 1825 at his residence in Marsham Street, he was said to have ‘amassed a considerable fortune, and had large estates in his native country in Wales’; the obituary remarked on his long-term friendship with the lord chief baron of the exchequer, despite the difference in their positions. Kennedy’s office, it noted jealously, was ‘a place of great emolument’. Kennedy had probably purchased his position from its previous incumbent, as certainly was the case with some doorkeepers still in post ten years later.

With the attack on the sinecurist state of the early nineteenth century, such an informal and potentially corrupt means of remunerating the House of Commons’ security service seemed no longer appropriate, and replacing the gratuity system with a better salary was high on the agenda of reformers such as the indefatigable scourge of waste and ‘old corruption’ Joseph Hume. With fees already transferred to a ‘fee fund’ which would support collectively the House of Commons staff, committees in the 1830s examined in some detail the appointment and emoluments of the doorkeepers, discussed the irritation felt by some Members at the request for gratuities, and proposed a new scale of salaries for the door keepers (their proposal, of £300 for the first door keeper, must have represented a considerable reduction in the income from the post.

The replacement of fees and gratuities for a simple salary may have resulted in a better reputation for the doorkeepers, who as a result of long service and the value of their collective memory and knowledge, were often much respected figures. William White (1807-82), who retired in 1875, remarkably from 1859 wrote a regular column for the Illustrated Times, later republished  with an introduction by the Irish Nationalist MP, Justin McCarthy, as The Inner Life of the House of Commons. The success of the column – one of the earliest efforts at regular ‘sketch writing’ – showed White as a generally fond commentator on the ways of the House, though some Members did not escape teasing. The later nineteenth-century doorkeepers indeed retained the ghost of Pearson’s contempt for his masters. On his retirement in 1896 (after a career going back to 1859) Mr Jennings gave an interview to the newspapers whom he told that though Members ‘may be got up more carefully than formerly… there is not that independence of thought and practical knowledge about them’ that there used to be. He ‘makes little attempt to disguise his conviction that the House is almost hopeless as a business body so long as it is run on its present lines’. It was a line that emphasized the role of the doorkeepers not only in providing information on what was going on, but also in acting as part of the collective memory of the House: a memory that often tended to hark back to the greater days, and greater Members, of the past.

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