High Taxes, Bad Times

John Pemble

  • The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1820-32 by D.R. Fisher
    Cambridge, 6336 pp, £490.00, December 2009, ISBN 978 0 521 19314 6

In 1834 a spectacular fire destroyed the House of Commons. No one was sorry. More than 60 years later Gladstone still remembered the building’s lack of ‘corporeal conveniences’: there was nowhere even for ‘washing the hands’. The latest volumes of The History of Parliament confirm the slumminess of late Georgian Westminster. While Windsor Castle and Buckingham House were being transformed into sumptuous royal residences, while the Bank of England was being enlarged and embellished and vast edifices were under construction for the General Post Office and the British Museum, the supreme council of the realm made do with poky, ill-ventilated and hazardous quarters in the medieval Palace of Westminster.

The Commons occupied a building of timber and plaster above a stone crypt. The debating chamber, converted from St Stephen’s Chapel by Wren in 1692, measured 15 metres by ten and had 348 seats for the 658 MPs. Dark narrow passages and staircases gave access to committee rooms (half of them unfit for use or used for other purposes), a library and a smoking room. MPs overflowed from the floor of the chamber into the side galleries. The back gallery, intended for visitors, was mostly taken up by the press. Dickens remembered wearing out his knees ‘by writing on them on the old back row of the old gallery of the old House of Commons’. Women visitors (a maximum of 14) were banished to the attic, which had a small circular opening in the floor. They could hear voices from below, but when they peered over the parapet into the chamber, all they could see were two clerks and the Speaker’s feet. During important debates crowds of members had to stand both inside and outside the chamber. You had to be early to be sure of a seat. Colonel Sibthorp, MP for Lincoln, was always there first. He slept at a brothel round the corner and salved his conscience by arriving before breakfast and reserving places for the evangelicals. In winter, when the chandelier was burning and the windows were closed, the crush and the heat were suffocating – and made worse by the dress code, which required members to keep their hats on when not speaking. The fire risk was very high and security very low. In 1812 the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, had been assassinated by an intruder.

Yet the Commons had never been, and would never again be, so important. The era of court politics was over; that of party politics had not yet arrived. There were Whig and Tory clubs, but no party manifestos and no party discipline. Even party colours varied from constituency to constituency. Prime ministers (Liverpool, Wellington, Grey) still routinely sat in the House of Lords, but it was in the lower house that measures and ministries were made and unmade. Furthermore, during this period the House of Commons was the Grand Inquest not just of the Nation, but of nations. Having taken over the affairs of Scotland in 1707 and of Ireland in 1801, it now arbitrated the affairs of Europe and oversaw a global empire. Members were voting on issues as diverse as juries in New South Wales, slave trials in Jamaica, mutiny in Bengal, courts of justice in Bombay, canals in Canada and harbour amenities in Lyme Regis.

All this attracted men of brilliance, experience and venerability. MPs over the age of 40 far outnumbered younger men; 20 per cent were in their eighties and nineties. The House was full of people who’d shaped and shaken the world. They were accustomed to managing huge estates and plantations, running factories and banks, commanding fleets and regiments (22 per cent of MPs had military or naval backgrounds), trading across oceans and continents, litigating for the mighty, moving multitudes. They’d led a religious revival; abolished the slave trade; governed Asian provinces; subjugated Indian princes; written bestselling novels and groundbreaking treatises; set up the Concert of Europe; been blown up at Trafalgar; had limbs amputated at Corunna; been struck down, ridden over and left for dead on the field of Waterloo. Their names resonate still: Canning, Castlereagh, Peel, O’Connell, Brougham, Ricardo, Macaulay, Bulwer Lytton, Jeffrey, Wilberforce, Mackintosh.

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