Members’ Memorial

G.R. Elton

  • The History of Parliament: The Commons 1558-1603 edited by P.W. Hasler
    HMSO, 1940 pp, £95.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 11 887501 9

Has there ever been a theme as much studied by English historians as the history of Parliament? At one time, indeed, it seemed almost to stand in for the history of the country itself: history equalled politics, and politics equalled Parliament. Stubbs structured the 14th and 15th centuries around what were, after all, intermittent and occasional meetings of this supposedly representative body; the Tudor century received blame for not having a true parliament, one worthy of the name, since the monarchs were supposedly allowed to do as they pleased with it; the origins, history and consequences of the Great Rebellion were seen to revolve around Parliament; and after 1660 everything became Parliament and parties, leading on to the zenith of their history in the 19th century. If this was whig history it affected tories in quite the same way. The layman may well wonder why work should still be done on the history of Parliament, that olive whose oil has surely long since been pressed from its desiccated flesh.

There have in fact been three distinguishable phases in modern historians’ treatment of the institution. For a long time, the discussion centred upon Parliament’s supposed political role – on Parliament as the instrument of control over monarchic despotism. The story of Parliament was the story of constitutional liberty, growing steadily over the ages until conflict resolved the rivalry in the 17th century. We heard a good deal about the rise of the House of Commons, the growth of privilege, the control of the purse, the redress of grievances – a whole bundle of achievements all leading to the ultimate victory of the representative institution (and all, incidentally, now much in doubt). The only laws made in Parliament that received attention were those which could be accommodated in this history of constitutionalist politics (the landmarks of freedom), and the only business dealt with at length illustrated the growing independence of elected members. Such outsiders as legal or economic historians might busy themselves with other parts of the vast legislative output, but historians of Parliament focused their lenses very much more narrowly.

This rather cosy story of politics and parties received a severe jolt in 1929 when Lewis Namier posed the question why men entered Parliament and answered that, at least in the middle of the 18th century, they mostly did so for reasons that had nothing to do with party or politics. This opened the psephological era of Parliamentary history – the age which put its trust in the analysis of multiple biographies. Members of the Lower House revealed the secrets of their personal and family lives to a growing army of researchers who concluded that the role of Parliament lay in its social structure: it formed a microcosmic embodiment of the macrocosm dubbed the political nation. The politics of Parliament, it came to be thought, had nothing to do with constitutionalism, liberty, or even party (at least before about 1800), and everything to do with personal advancement and fortune: Westminster contained and reflected the realities of shire and family. Convictions and principles took a bad beating from which they are only now slowly recovering. Even those few acts of Parliament that the constitutionalists had emphasised tended to disappear from the discussion; what actually went on in Parliament seemed to matter so little that Namier could decide to ignore the Journal of the House of Commons, the official record of the institution supposedly studied, in his work on the Parliaments of George III.

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