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.

1 thought on “Reformation to Referendum: a new history of Parliament”

  1. Reblogged this on The History of Parliament and commented:

    Our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, is leaving us for three years to become a British Academy/Wolfson Foundation Research Professor in January. Here he blogs about his new project: ‘Reformation to Referendum’

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