The clue is in the name. Parliament is designed for talk – for the expression of opinion and criticism. Pundits, particularly in the 19th century, wrote about ‘parliamentary government’ as the nation’s pride and Britain’s gift to a less fortunate world, but they did not mean that Parliament should actually govern. It would zealously check an overmighty executive, and scrutinise hasty ideas, but was not in itself a decisive body. Only when its members were whipped into parties and marshalled by a government could it ever become so. The historical role of Parliament is as a brake on precipitate action, a mechanism for delaying laws and change until they seem likely to command consent and benefit the polity. Delay was also thought to minimise the risk of subsequent repeal. In 1864 Gladstone claimed that was why ‘we always progress, never retrace our steps.’
This was a conservative definition of progress. Parliament’s deliberative function was exercised by a social elite: MPs needed a substantial private income in the years before salaries were introduced in 1911. The main aim was to prevent destabilising radical initiatives. Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1867), the most famous defence of parliamentary government, was quite explicit about that. Written during a fervent campaign for parliamentary reform, it was intended as a warning against the implementation of abstract constitutional theories on American or French lines, which had led to civil war and revolution. Instead Bagehot showed the practical benefits of the apparently illogical mix of crown, cabinet and parliamentary authority. In 1860 he described Parliament as ‘the most efficient instrument for expressing the practical opinion of cultivated men which the world has ever seen’. This was not because MPs were intellectually gifted: they were ‘common Englishmen’. It was the process of debate between them, not their individual merits, that produced good sense. Their diversity, and the diversity of the interests they represented, ensured that Parliament would mirror the nation. The Victorian invention of the lobby correspondent, a role filled by men like William White or Henry Lucy, brought parliamentary debates alive for the newspaper reader. The correspondents usually did this by dwelling on the MPs’ individuality: their mannerisms, their dress, their hobby-horses. This humanised the institution and undermined radical stereotypes of it as a remote bastion of propertied privilege.
The delaying, scrutinising role of Parliament has acted as protection against recklessness or utopianism in the body politic. It is a reminder that the basic aim of the representative process is the resolution of sometimes intense social tensions and clashes of opinion, so as to preserve political stability. The 19th-century boast of British political exceptionalism rested on the belief that the parliamentary system was better than any other at restraining governments on the one hand, and utopian movements on the other, from extreme actions that would jeopardise national order and harmony. That claim of exceptionalism may seem self-satisfied and insular now, but it rested on an assumption that social peace was hard won and that human sinfulness, as Gladstone put it, was ‘the great fact in the world’.
Parliament’s function was not just to block rash policies; it also had a responsibility for ‘educating the nation’, in Bagehot’s phrase, persuading the people out of utopian ideas, however attractive in theory. For Bagehot, Gladstone and many others over the last two centuries, the most urgent educative task was to puncture the balloon marked ‘socialism’. Hardly less threatening was the notion that the political establishment was a cesspit of ‘Old Corruption’ – so rotten and self-serving in its greed for power and money that it must be purged. This was really an English variant on Jacobinism. A vast amount of government activity over the last two hundred years is best viewed as a slow, stealthy attempt at outsmarting these two always latent utopian cries, through shrewd adjustments to economic policy and state activity.
Not surprisingly, many have criticised Parliament’s consistent caution and refractoriness. Complaints about MPs’ unrepresentativeness and careerism are perennial. Consequently, some of the most important moments in British political history have taken the form of successful insurrections against parliamentary sluggishness. This fact is often missed because most history teachers and students deny the literal meaning of the phrase ‘parliamentary reform’. Students are taught to see the widening of the franchise as a heroic popular struggle for democracy, but, in order to be successful, agitators needed allies within Parliament. None of the three 19th-century Reform Acts which dramatically extended the right to vote would have succeeded without a strong feeling inside the House of Commons that it was failing the country. In 1830 there was a widely held conviction that government without more popular legitimacy would lack the strength, confidence and expertise to manage a turbulent, complex and increasingly urban society. In 1865 and again in 1880 most Liberals could not tolerate the idea of governing with the parliaments they’d inherited, which under Palmerston and then Disraeli had been comatose, plutocratic and complaisant in misgovernment. In all three cases, the promoters of reform naturally hoped that a more democratic parliament would benefit their party electorally, but this was not just a cynical calculation: it depended on political leaders engaging actively with the newly represented forces.
For all its superficial stability, modern British politics has regularly been buffeted by disillusionment that has prompted significant change. The last two hundred years have been punctuated by several dramatic ‘resets’ of the system undertaken to restore popular legitimacy. All three Reform Acts were followed by major legislative initiatives which tried to meet perceived popular demands. Each time there was alarm among conservatives, but the overwhelming effect was to reform the party system along cleaner, more functional lines and thus to energise and validate the regime for a period. Between 1914 and 1945 there was an even more dramatic reconfiguration of the relation between state and people owing to the extension of the franchise to all men and women over 21, the growth of state activity as a result of two major wars, and the creation of a new partnership between the citizen and the state as higher taxes were levied in return for guaranteed health and welfare provision. Parliamentary government promotes stability not because it produces contentment but because it offers a way of handling discontent. And it is unworkable without party competition and self-interest; a coherent and well-functioning party system (which doesn’t always need to be reduced to two players) disciplines Parliament into effective action and represents and accommodates real social interests.
Since 1945 the biggest question facing politicians has been how to manage a political system which can’t achieve cathartic renewal through major constitutional reform. How to minimise the growth of tension and disaffection? How to manage eruptions of utopian sentiment constructively? The doubt is whether leaders have fully understood this. Have they governed prudently? Have they realised the risks of instability? Have they worked to defuse unreasonable expectations?
In the early postwar period the party system worked well. Labour and the Conservatives clearly represented different governing traditions as well as different socio-economic interests, and could engage in a theatre of ritual warfare. Yet both understood the limits of partisanship in policy, the need to encourage respect for institutions. Even so, after 1960 electoral support for the two main parties began to decline, a trend that continued relentlessly for fifty years and issued in the emergence of other parties and a fall in turnout at elections. Though there were several reasons for this decline, one primary cause was the increasing gap between what politicians promised and what they delivered. As the responsibilities of the state grew, politicians claimed to exercise more control over it and were naturally criticised for its lapses. Boasts that the economy could be managed for growth became more confident in the 1960s – yet growth was disappointingly patchy. Membership of the European Economic Community was proposed as one solution, partly in order to disguise the failure to find others – but subsequently, even if ‘Europe’ assisted growth, no major politician was prepared to give it any credit. Thatcherism was an attempted reset; its effectiveness can be debated but its polarising effects were clear. To declare war on trade unions and on local government was reckless politics. So was Blair’s Iraq War.
The decision to embark on an unnecessary war – based on a falsehood – also highlighted politicians’ increasingly cavalier use of language. Political communication was guided by advertising techniques and involved the constant repetition of tabloid-style slogans. Leaders convinced themselves that in the prosperous post-industrial West, politics could safely be reduced to the art of winning elections by targeting the swing voter’s preferences. The politician had lots to learn from marketing companies, because the voters who mattered inhabited a consumer society, so there was no need to provide them with anything more than a cosmetic choice. Displaying all the insouciant condescension of a Walpolean oligarch, Peter Mandelson mused that ‘the era of pure representative democracy is coming slowly to an end.’ Each party adopted the same techniques. If they were aware that they were making the political class look alien, uncaring and fake, there was no electoral mileage in saying so. Even the expenses scandal of 2009 – a revival of the crusade against ‘Old Corruption’ – did not change this perception.
Dissatisfaction with the two main parties also created political movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland with separate agendas. The electoral situation of the Scottish Nationalists requires them to oppose both Westminster parties; their success puts them constantly on the verge of holding the balance of power, but with little incentive to co-operate with either likely government. Polarised politics in Northern Ireland, with only one of the poles willing to sit at Westminster, created an inflammatory situation long before the emergence of the potentially devastating Brexit border issue. Either of these problems might disrupt British politics as completely as the Irish Nationalists did when they came to hold the balance of power at Westminster in 1885.
It is hardly surprising that political stability has been seriously jeopardised by the economic strains of the last decade: the global financial crisis, and the austerity, asset bubbles and generational inequality that have followed. Meanwhile terrorism and immigration flows have forced attention onto borders and questions of national security. The Brexit movement involves, among other things, a Powellite revolt against immigration, a neoliberal hostility to the big Continental state, and a kind of sub-political, traditionalist provincial patriotism. It obviously owes much to the perceived failure of politicians to address recent economic, cultural and constitutional tensions. There are sensible debates to be had about the wisdom of some EU policy aspirations and whether a continent-wide body so light on democracy is beneficial or even sustainable. But not all of these sentiments are held with equal fervour. What gives the Brexit cause its passion and staying power seems to be a ‘Jacobin’ animus against the remoteness, self-interestedness and unaccountability of the modern political class, and a feeling that taxpayers’ money should be spent only on causes demonstrably beneficial to national wellbeing. Brexit may eventually be found unfeasible, but it would be unwise to pretend that these underlying concerns don’t need addressing.
There were precedents for David Cameron’s decision to go to the people in June 2016: there have been 13 referendums in various parts of the UK since 1973; the Victorian deference to a parliamentary elite has gone, and with good reason. What was indisputably poor statesmanship was the failure to consider in advance how a ‘leave’ decision could be managed politically – something that must haunt Cameron and George Osborne, for all the latter’s daily attempts in the Evening Standard to peddle the idea that this is ‘May’s Brexit crisis’.
There is indeed a crisis, but it’s not unmanageable. In late March, Parliament voted to ‘take control’, in the hope of finding out whether any option other than Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement might obtain majority support. At the time of writing, two daily sittings have been devoted to this process and two series of ‘indicative votes’ have been held, but without finding that elusive majority outcome. If anything, this development has added to the popular criticism of the political class. But the parliamentary discussions have had definite benefits. Five points stand out.
The first is that the British constitution is more robust, flexible and capable of dealing with intensely difficult issues than excited media commentators suggest. There are deeply rooted checks and balances that work against the assumption of arbitrary power by anyone, and this is understood by all the major actors. Prime ministers have to respect the norms of Parliament, however frustrating that may be when they lack a majority. There are some compensations in this: parties are less likely to split when leaders can claim that they have to respect parliamentary majorities and so must avoid imposing divisive choices. Taking account of party interests is a necessity, not a sin – but it does not trump other realities. It has never been likely that the government would opt for a ‘no deal’ Brexit: there is no majority for it in cabinet or Parliament; there must be a mountain of official paperwork warning of its irresponsibility; it would destroy what remains of the Conservative Party’s reputation for economic competence. As for Parliament, ‘taking back control’ on a longer-term basis won’t be widely supported, not least because modern MPs don’t usually relish acting as free agents when they are dependent for reselection on party backing.
Second, Parliament is acting in line with its constitutional duties to delay while it searches for agreement and to prevent premature and catastrophic outcomes. Siren voices in the press push for a quick resolution on the grounds that people are fed up. Of course many are, but it’s also the case that a lot of ill-feeling attends each and every one of the likely Brexit outcomes, and politicians need to respond to that. The process of finding consensus partly involves educating the utopians about the limitations of realistic politics. The insistent dismissal by backbenchers and Conservative constituency activists of the Withdrawal Agreement as ‘Brexit in name only’ seems an instinctive, immature surrender to a conspiratorial belief in the untrustworthy nature of all politicians. It still seems probable that the likes of Steve Baker and John Redwood will vote against the agreement even if doing so destroys the government and the Brexit cause. Perhaps they seek a satisfying martyrdom as the only pure and incorruptible Brexiteers – the Robespierre and Saint-Just of our revolution.
Third, what the indicative votes have shown, usefully, is that there is more consensus than many assumed – against no deal and against revoking Article 50, and with stronger support for the customs union option than for single-market membership. This suggests approval for maintaining as close and ‘frictionless’ an economic relationship with the EU as possible, but a preference for compromise on the free movement of people. In other words, for interpreting the referendum result much as the prime minister did in 2016. The question is now reduced to a comparatively narrow one: whether to make a customs union, temporary or permanent, the main plank of the initial agreement with the EU, or to trust to the vaguer aspirations for trade embodied in the current Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. If there is no parliamentary majority for either option, we face a long delay, but the implication will be that Parliament does not yet believe that any of the Brexit options are acceptable.
Fourth, there is still strong pressure for a confirmatory public vote, whichever option emerges. Given that the customs union option (like the Withdrawal Agreement) has disadvantages compared to remaining in the EU, and has not been subject to much discussion, it may well be that another referendum comes to be seen as the most prudent option in the end. Support for it in Parliament shows that many MPs no longer want to exercise the absolute sovereignty the old constitution bestowed on them, and that they recognise the practical benefits of sharing responsibility for decisions with the people. Dominic Cummings, the Jacobin mastermind behind the Leave campaign in 2016, now claims that a second referendum would be a plebiscite on the failings of MPs and the party system, but it’s difficult to see how a question pitting the customs union against ‘Remain’ could be interpreted that way. It’s not clear either that it would bring ‘closure’.
Fifth, we are edging closer to tackling the broader question of how we reset the party system on a new basis more relevant to the country’s obvious needs, whatever happens with Brexit. The votes against ‘no deal’ provide more evidence that a passion for global free markets is unlikely to win majorities at elections anytime soon. There is dwindling appetite for the utopian notion that Brexit Britain can turn itself into a European Singapore by negotiating swift free trade agreements with the rest of the world. It also seems that governments looking for popular legitimacy will need to show an ability to control their borders. There is a highly plausible view that the democratic revolt of 2016 against oligarchical government and in favour of ‘sovereignty’ should be seen as a demand for a more active and sympathetic approach to the financial needs of localities across the country, and for what feels like a more honest form of interaction with the public. Current parliamentary disarray should be seen not only as an indication of our predicament but as an opportunity for democratic reinvention.
Searching for explanations for this crisis, we are naturally tempted to blame others. If we ask instead how many of us may share responsibility for it, a case can be made that those who teach and write political history shouldn’t get off scot-free. The account I’ve given here, emphasising the elite’s responsibility to respond constructively to assumptions and ideas that threaten stability, is not the way most of my colleagues present the subject. Political history is out of fashion in universities altogether. What’s more, conscious of its flagging appeal, academics tend to interpret past events in relation to issues that mean something to contemporary audiences. This is reflected in, for example, the large body of writing about the struggle for gender equality (in the workplace and home as well as the state), a growing interest in the political difficulties faced by BME communities (often tied to the aftermath of empire) and new research into environmental controversies.
This doesn’t have any long-term adverse consequences for the elite political history I am discussing here, though there might be some in the short term, because the initial step in all these inquiries is to posit the existence of a callous and self-interested political establishment. Subsequent work inevitably becomes more nuanced, as can be seen in the evolution of gender history over the last 25 years, or the handling since the 1960s of 19th-century working and middle-class political protest.
If we want to attribute blame for the unpopularity of elite political history, we should look at the historians who write about the political elite. In 1960 political history had three main concerns: the working of particular institutions (cabinet, civil service, press etc), the electoral activities of political parties, and the lives of politicians. One might have hoped for some change in this pattern over the last sixty years, but all three approaches are still pottering along. The first two appeal to the mechanical temperament of the political scientist, though in recent years – particularly during the Mandelson era – several historians have written with a new sophistication about electoral communication and language. Biography remains extremely popular, because humanising the political process is an effective way of communicating it to the reader. The genre favours colourful individuals and those who pit themselves against established structures and assumptions. In comparison with narratives of this sort, politics treated as a flexible arrangement for dealing with awkward problems, without many dramatic resolutions, is harder to sell, and those of us who have tried to analyse it that way haven’t been persuasive enough about what we have been doing, and why.
The new Oxford Handbook of Modern British Political History is centred to a striking extent on the activities of the elite. There are ten chapters on ‘institutions, structures and machinery’, and only five on ‘elections and popular politics’. There is only one chapter on women (an enormous field valiantly tackled by Jennifer Davey) and none on race, immigration or imperial identities. One of the editors, Robert Crowcroft, contributes a provocative chapter on the role of the politician in a democracy, which fizzes with ideas but goes to war against ‘left wing’ historians who moralise the political process. He claims it’s an insight of the right that ‘the key task of politicians’ is ‘to come to terms with, and control, an increasingly democratic system’. He then defines that control rather pejoratively (and thus moralistically) as the buying of votes, the cynical exploitation of issues and the construction of a public façade. He doesn’t seem to believe that real engagement with popular forces or ideological challenges comes into it and so concludes that the current discontent with democracy is inevitable and permanent. Perhaps this helps to explain the editors’ decision to accord all elite institutions separate chapters. This includes political parties, which are therefore never required to spar with each other, let alone with anything else.
Fortunately, the handbook has a few excellent contributions on how political elites have handled extraneous challenges. Another of the volume’s editors, Gordon Pentland, has a sophisticated chapter on parliamentary reform; David Craig and Jeremy Nuttall write with great skill about political ideas; and Angus Hawkins and Steven Fielding consider parties and high politics. There is now a good deal of detailed research on political strategies and ideological initiatives at different periods in the last two centuries, but we still lack a conceptual structure that might allow this work to be organised into an overview, and thus to undermine the neat assumptions about political history that still dominate textbooks: about the existence of an establishment bloc and a self-interested party system, and about the heroism of those who challenge these structures. The book can’t be blamed for failing to provide this – and each of its 33 chapters, all of them by historians of repute, can be read with profit. Still, it’s hard not to think that the prevalence of such assumptions has contributed to the view that politicians are a class apart.
The paradox of political history is the paradox of politics itself. Most of it is of niche interest because successful politics is a matter of the patient and careful handling of awkward issues by means of continuous compromise, combined with the use of plausible rhetorical and symbolic initiatives. Historians should award politicians marks, if at all, for their skill in the execution of a difficult art, like ice skating. But if people are to get on with the more interesting aspects of their lives, there needs to be a better understanding of what democratic politics can and cannot be expected to achieve. Crises are unsettling, but from time to time they are necessary. Sometimes politicians need a wake-up call to reset their system; sometimes historians do too.