The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1820-32 
by D.R. Fisher.
Cambridge, 6336 pp., £490, December 2009, 978 0 521 19314 6
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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.

The huge expansion of Parliament’s responsibilities had brought a five-fold increase in its business. In the 1820s alone, 3806 bills were enacted. Since mornings were set aside for correspondence and consultation, and committees met in the early afternoon, the House couldn’t assemble until four o’clock. Private bills were dealt with first and dinner breaks were taken between 6.30 and 9 p.m., so major matters often weren’t debated until after midnight. Charles Forbes, MP for Malmesbury, complained in 1825 that ‘bills which concerned India were constantly introduced at a late period of the session and were regularly passed at a late hour of the night’. The Commons sometimes didn’t adjourn until four o’clock in the morning, and sessions often continued well into the summer. The session of 1821-22 was the longest in 170 years, and during its busiest five months sittings averaged eight hours and 40 minutes. During the next session the sittings were even longer. ‘Ten hours a day for five days in the week for seven weeks,’ Canning wrote, ‘is hard work.’ The strain would soon kill him; it had already driven Castlereagh to nervous breakdown and suicide. Wilberforce managed to carry on only with the aid of a harness to relieve his haemorrhoids and crooked spine: ‘But for a machine of this sort I must have given up public speaking and indeed public life near thirty years ago.’

There was an urgent need for new premises, but Parliament was under heavy pressure to reduce public spending and there was no public sympathy for the plight of MPs. In fact, there was public hostility. The prestige of the House of Commons had probably never been so low – certainly not since the 1640s and 1650s. ‘The House of Commons,’ Sydney Smith said in 1819, ‘is falling into contempt with the people.’ Taxes were high and times were bad, and journalists like William Cobbett were radicalising popular opinion by lambasting ‘Old Corruption’. Parliament, Cobbett stormed, was ruining the nation it no longer represented. An oligarchy of aristocrats and financiers, having hijacked the Commons by means of electoral bribery and intimidation, were lining their pockets by awarding themselves government jobs, pensions, and contracts – and the newer the money, the older the corruption. Nabobs, repatriated servants of the East India Company, were buying their way into Parliament with their Asiatic loot and debasing it with their Asiatic morals. Since all these parasites invested heavily in the national debt, which paid them taxpayers’ money in the form of interest, they’d driven it to an all-time high by inflicting 23 years of war on the country. Week after week in the Political Register, Cobbett attacked the nexus of cash and patronage whereby the elite got their parliamentary seats and ministries got their parliamentary majorities. Fanned by the invective, a campaign for electoral reform was sweeping the country. The people wanted to end Old Corruption, not make it more comfortable.

These latest volumes of The History of Parliament are the fullest file on Old Corruption ever likely to be compiled, and they finally make it possible to decide how guilty the sweating night-toilers of St Stephen’s really were. They recapitulate everything we already knew and add a lot more besides about the anatomy of power and the mechanism of politics in that bizarre universe of rotten boroughs, pocket boroughs, hustings, open polls, potwallopers, burgages, scot and lot, split votes, straight votes and plumpers. Biographies of the 1367 MPs who sat in the Commons in these years, and histories of the country’s 383 constituencies, fathom the reality behind the polemics of Cobbett and the satire of Dickens and Thomas Love Peacock. These six volumes are crammed with comédie humaine and the parliamentary puppetry that seems, as Blake said, something other than human life. There’s also a masterly volume of summary and analysis by the editor, David Fisher, who dislikes paragraphs and believes in calling a bastard a bastard.

Inevitably, such an exhaustive work of reference answers questions nobody is ever likely to ask. As you leaf through the 6000 double-columned pages you are sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of prodigious but futile labour – ‘du temps perdu à la recherche’, as Gérard Genette mischievously put it. You might feel frustrated, too, by the editorial strategy of the project as a whole. The overall sequence is chronological, but each component period is treated alphabetically. This means that the constituency histories and the biographies of men with long parliamentary careers (Peel, Canning, Burdett, Huskisson, Brougham, Hobhouse) are fragmented and scattered. Nevertheless, Fisher’s volumes are an impressive achievement. They rectify old faults and avoid new problems. The first instalment of this series, The House of Commons 1754-90, published in 1964, was seriously skewed by the agenda of the editor, Lewis Namier. Since Namier wanted to demonstrate that Georgian politics was all about families and ‘connections’, he explained who individual MPs were but not how the Commons functioned as an institution, and he devoted much more space to the back than to the front benches. Fisher and his 11 contributors, however, pay minute attention to what Members actually did, both in their constituencies and at Westminster, and they give big names a high profile. The entries on figures such as Canning, Peel, Castlereagh and Hobhouse, which are up to 40,000 words long, are minor monographs in their own right – essential supplements rather than optional alternatives to the synoptic biographies in the ODNB.

We’ve probably gone a bit too soft on Old Corruption. Outraged by the secrecy of modern corruption, and bored by the secrecy of modern ballots, we’ve relativised its brazen iniquities into carnival fun. Historians like David Cannadine and Boyd Hilton argue that the system made for political stability by turning the power game of the elite into a spectator sport, thus creating the illusion of popular participation. If this was so, it’s difficult to understand why there was such a clamour against it. But there’s something in what they say. Old Corruption wasn’t as dysfunctional as it should have been. It was largely self-correcting, and was offensive not because it didn’t work but because it did.

Macaulay was right when he claimed that the distribution of parliamentary seats and electors demonstrated ‘a disproportion between society and its institutions’. Decayed Cornish boroughs with two or three hundred inhabitants had the same level of representation (two members) as county constituencies whose population was more than a million. The Wiltshire borough of Old Sarum returned two members, but its only residents were sheep. Its 11 vote-carrying properties were owned by an absentee patron who granted leases for the duration of elections to friends and trusted tenants. The fact that he was a nabob redoubled indignation. Just over 3 per cent of the entire population had the vote, but the proportion varied erratically from constituency to constituency. Edinburgh, whose population was 136,000, had 33 voters. Preston, with a population of 33,000, had more than 7000. Westminster (population 200,000) had 9280.

The MPs returned by this antiquated machinery were irrefutably aristocratic: 83 per cent of them came from the territorial elite. Britain was ruled by its landowners, plus a few men from the City, the legal profession and industry. Nabobs were a dying breed, but there were still 26 of them in Parliament during this period. All these people spent lavishly to keep themselves on top. Money, not intimidation, was their chief resource. Elections were expensive to fight (which is why they were often settled without a contest) and constituencies expensive to nurture. Most of the money was spent legitimately, on canvassing, agents and on transporting, accommodating and ‘treating’ voters at election time; on donations to corporations, charities and good causes all the time. There were no convictions for bribery in this period, but ‘treating’ was pushed to and beyond legal limits. The word ‘tipping’ is reckoned to derive from Tipping Street in Stafford, one of the most venal (and violent) constituencies in the kingdom. ‘Having voted,’ the unsuccessful candidate in the 1826 general election claimed, ‘the voter had a card, which he carried to an adjoining public house, and which instantly produced him eight guineas.’ Rewards of between two and ten guineas were common; in some places a vote was worth 40 or even 60 guineas. The cost of all this could be astronomical, especially in the counties, where electorates were large. In 1826, two contests in Northumberland cost Lord Grey’s son £40,000 (£4 million in today’s money), and his father had to sell an estate to raise the cash. A by-election in Dorset in 1831 is reputed to have cost £80,000: the Whig spent £30,000 and still lost. The burden could be crippling. John Benett, MP for Wiltshire, was told by his brother in 1820: ‘The failure of the subscriptions at both the last elections has already thrown an overwhelming debt upon your property, and one that you will never see cleared as long as you live.’

And all for what? For profit, in a few cases. Proprietary or ‘pocket’ boroughs were enormously expensive (£42,000 was paid for Old Sarum, £81,000 for Stockbridge in Hampshire, £160,000 for Gatton in Surrey), but they were a tradeable asset and paid a good dividend as a buy-to-let investment. A parliamentary seat fetched a minimum of £5000 a session in rent, with pro rata reductions for shorter periods. Furthermore the salaries and perks of ministers were substantial. But the idea of a horde of gold-diggers with sights set on jobs, offices, pensions and sinecures is a long way from the truth. The vast majority of men who had access to the House of Commons, either directly or by proxy, were poorer, not richer, for the privilege. ‘Whoever goes there as a free man,’ Hudson Gurney wrote after eight years as an MP, ‘must dig deeply into his own fortune … He will be 20 or 30 [thousand pounds] the worse man for it after 10 or 15 years.’ It would be almost a century before all MPs drew salaries and even longer before they got allowances for second homes. ‘Members of your fortune,’ his father told Panton Corbett, MP for Shrewsbury, ‘live in cheap lodgings, dining in the coffee house of the Commons five days in the week and visiting their friends the other two.’ Even this was expensive. Bellamy, the catering manager of the Commons, charged 5s 6d (about £27.50 now) for a dinner of veal pie, steak or chops with salad, tart and savouries. Wine was extra.

The only sure winners were the voters – except in Ireland, where they were bound to antagonise either their Protestant landlords or their Catholic priests. Elsewhere, again and again we read about venal voters ripping off candidates who were thinking less about getting richer than about swank, influence, social networking and noblesse oblige. ‘You did not seek the representation as a personal advantage,’ Corbett was reminded by his father, ‘but were willing to take it as a duty; and it is one of the duties of men of independent fortunes to serve in Parliament if called upon.’ Sir Francis Wood paid £4000 for a seat at Grimsby for his son Charles, since he had ‘not the slightest doubt of his … attending consistently and unremittingly to his duties’.

Some were more assiduous than others. Joseph Hume, MP first for Aberdeen then for Middlesex, spoke more than 4000 times in 12 years. Sir John Dashwood King, who sat for Chipping Wycombe, never once opened his mouth in a parliamentary career three times as long. It’s no surprise to come across some flashy, sordid and even sinister characters, but on the whole there seem to have been a lot more unfortunates than miscreants. Times were changing. The Pains and Penalties Bill of 1820, which entailed a ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline on charges of adultery, was the last big outing of royal sleaze for several generations, and after her death the following year Caroline slumped in popular estimation from persecuted sweetheart to public tart. MPs were embarrassed and even revolted at an electoral system that offended both Enlightenment thinking and evangelical scruples. ‘I cannot say that I was much attracted by the honour of representing the rottenest borough on the list,’ Canning remarked after he was returned for Old Sarum in 1828. ‘What a scene of disgust and horror is an election,’ Sydney Smith said. ‘Is it possible for a gentleman to get into Parliament … without doing things he is utterly ashamed of? … Hands, accustomed to the scented lubricity of soap, are defiled with pitch and contaminated with filth.’

In 1821, for the first time in 300 years, a borough (Grampound in Cornwall) was disfranchised for electoral malpractice. Sinecures and ‘placemen’ (government lobby-fodder rewarded with paid jobs) were rapidly being got rid of. Citizens who couldn’t vote could petition, and the Commons took petitions very seriously: they were the first item of business every day. Since their number was so great (it peaked at 5000 a year in 1831), a great deal of time was spent debating them, and they influenced legislation on major issues such as slavery and the East India Company’s trading monopoly. Reformers were regularly elected under the unreformed franchise, and after the general election of 1830 they took office under Lord Grey. One of them, George Philips, MP for Steyning, told his constituents that he rejoiced in ‘that act of political suicide which he was about to commit’. But there was no suicide, because the aristocracy pulled off the remarkable feat of winding up Old Corruption without voting itself out of power. At the end of 1832 the House of Commons was still Christian and male; but it was no longer exclusively Anglican or even Protestant, and it had rejected, by a majority of one the previous year, Wellington’s argument that ‘a legislature which answered all the good purposes of legislation’ justified the grubby electoral process. There had followed a measure of self-correction that increased the electorate by 40 per cent and transferred 130 seats from rotten boroughs to new towns and populous counties.

This legislation is known as the Great Reform Act; in fact, as Fisher points out, constitutionally it wasn’t all that great. It was part of a long process of adjustment rather than a sudden tactical concession to avert revolution – though that’s the way it was regarded at the time. The electorate still comprised only 5 per cent of the population and the clean-up had barely begun. ‘The boroughs of Onevote and Threevotes have been extinguished,’ Peacock wrote in the preface to the 1856 edition of Melincourt, ‘but there remain boroughs of Fewvotes.’ It would need a sustained effort, led by Gladstone, to turn the electoral system into something we might recognise. Yet the 1832 Reform Act was momentous, because it brought back into British politics the scented lubricity of soap. It didn’t make elections clean, but it did give MPs somewhere to wash their hands. With the bourgeoisie satisfied and radicalism marginalised, the House of Commons could finally indulge itself with new premises. When the old Palace of Westminster burned down, no one thought of rebuilding it, because the process of replacing it had already begun. During the next 30 years the view from Westminster Bridge made famous by Wordsworth was transformed by Barry and Pugin into a panorama of Gothic kitsch, and the taxpayer picked up a bill for £2 million.

The problem now is the old one in reverse. The House of Commons is a phantom of what it was. All that Victorian magnificence hangs loosely around its shrunken significance. So maybe Cameron-Clegg austerity will mean another relocation, with Parliament downsizing to somewhere more appropriate – the Hackney Empire perhaps, or a corner of Battersea Power Station. Barry’s palace will be converted into luxury apartments, and the famous debating chamber will become the swimming-pool of a Russian billionaire.

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