A Talented Past

Linda Colley

  • The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1790-1820. Vol. I: Survey edited by R.G. Thorne
    Secker, 400 pp, £225.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 436 52101 6
  • The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1790-1820. Vol. II: Constituencies edited by R.G. Thorne
    Secker, 704 pp, £225.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 436 52101 6
  • The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1790-1820. Vol. III: Members A-F edited by R.G. Thorne
    Secker, 852 pp, £225.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 436 52101 6
  • The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1790-1820. Vol. IV: Members G-P edited by R.G. Thorne
    Secker, 908 pp, £225.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 436 52101 6
  • The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1790-1820. Vol. V: Members P-Z edited by R.G. Thorne
    Secker, 680 pp, £225.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 436 52101 6

This anatomy of the membership of the House of Commons is the sixth such work to issue from the History of Parliament Trust. Previous volumes in the series have covered the years 1509 to 1603, 1660 to 1690, and 1715 to 1790; and if the Treasury and private donors continue to be kind, the identity, interests and influence of MPs in this country will be chronicled from 1386 to 1832 and possibly (and desirably) up to the present century. Devotion to the legislature on this heroic scale has a predictable appeal for the more serious-minded of its personnel. The project was championed in the past by Harold Macmillan and is protected now by the enthusiasm of men such as Roy Jenkins and Robert Rhodes James. But why should those of us who are excluded from this desirable club at Westminster want such an extended work of collective biography?

In the case of these volumes one obvious reason lies in the period that they cover. They begin one year after the outbreak of the French Revolution; they include Britain’s wars with France which lasted, almost without a break, from 1793 to 1815; they end just 12 years before the Great Reform Act. At no other time has Parliament experienced such a concentrated amalgam of trial, triumph and sheer, exhilarating talent. No fewer than 13 prime ministers – Addington, Canning, Goderich, Grenville, Grey, Liverpool, Melbourne, Palmerston, Peel, Perceval, Pitt, Russell and Wellington – sat in the Commons at some time during this period; and so did men of the calibre of Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, Henry Grattan, David Ricardo, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and William Wilberforce. ‘What a mercy to have been born an Englishman, in the 18th century,’ mused the latter, and if one had the right class and gender and a taste for rhetoric, flair and professionalism in government, that was probably true.

Yet complacency characterised political life in this period less than violence and fear. Fear of events in France, fear of military defeat, fear of radical domestic change, fear of debt – over two hundred of the 2143 MPs got into serious financial difficulty – and fear of not being able to sustain the burden of office, runs through many of the biographies in these volumes. Charles Abbot, Speaker of the House of Commons from 1802 to 1817, estimated that the amount of business carried on there had quintupled between 1761 and 1813. A succession of politicians were killed by overwork, Pitt and Canning among them. Overwork undermined Lord Castlereagh, Samuel Romilly and Samuel Whitbread II, who committed suicide, as did 16 other MPs in this period. Spencer Perceval, however, was shot by an unbalanced debtor, so becoming the first and thus far the only British premier to be assassinated.

MPs perpetrated violence as well as experiencing it. One in five of them saw military service; many more took part in civil defence activities and several fought duels. Like the London clubs which were coming into their own at this time, such behaviour reflected a more self-conscious and assertive masculine style. But this brittle machismo did not express itself in stiff upper lips, which were a Victorian and not a Georgian invention. Think of Burke in December 1792 flinging a dagger onto the floor of the Commons as a symbol of his departure from the Foxite Whigs, and of Fox bursting into tears in response; or of Castlereagh, political hardliner though he was, sobbing convulsively as he eulogised Perceval, and leaving scarcely a dry eye in the House. The emotionalism of Parliamentary debate in this period was part of its power and another facet of violence. Yet despite unprecedented pressure from without and marked anxiety within, Parliament by 1820 was still in control of events and still able easily to resist demands for its reform.

This is only one of the paradoxes which haunt these volumes. As a product of the History of Parliament Trust, they owe their existence to one of the most bizarre scholarly collaborations ever, between the conservative, Jewish and Polish-born Lewis Namier and an English country gentleman of advanced Fabian opinions, Josiah Clement Wedgwood MP. In the late 1920s both men were made profoundly pessimistic by the rise of totalitarianism in Western and Eastern Europe. Namier sought refuge in 18th-century Britain, an era in which he believed ideology was peripheral and politics could be reduced to prosopography. His desire to dissect past Parliaments appealed deeply to Wedgwood, but for very different reasons. For him, Parliament was the only sure bastion against extremism abroad and ‘a safe and unjust society’ at home. In 1932, he and a committee which included the three big N’s – Namier, Sir John Neale and Wallace Notestein – submitted to Parliament a report on the possibility of a multi-volume history of the House of Commons: ‘We were the first people to govern ourselves through responsible representatives. We may be the last. The institution is so peculiarly English, has been so envied by other nations ... that the world has come to accept parliamentary government as a symbol of freedom.’ It was all splendidly ironic. For here was Namier, the great proponent of the Tory interpretation of history, being yoked to an exercise in unabashed Whiggism.

By the time the History of Parliament Trust was formally instituted, in 1951, Wedgwood was dead and Namier was very much in control. Yet the Trust’s subsequent productions still show signs of their schizophrenic origin. The private motives and business interests of individual MPs are scrutinised with cynical precision: but the importance of the institution that the MPs serve is taken reverentially for granted. Like their predecessors, these volumes also retain the mark of Namier’s peculiar genius. His interest in psychoanalysis explains why we are told how many MPs were formally insane in each Parliament (there were at least twenty such between 1790 and 1820). His belief that the House of Commons was uniquely a ‘microcosmos of the British political nation’ explains why the so-called History of Parliament Trust still ignores the House of Lords, and examines the Commons in terms of its personnel and not in terms of the business it carries out. Little attempt has been made in these volumes to scrutinise the Commons Journals to find out what committees MPs sat on, what petitions they presented and what private bills they sought to implement. This is bound to distort our understanding of the relationship between a Member and his constituents. Volume II cites many constituencies in which there was no contest in these thirty years, so it is easy to assume that their voters were tame. But if it turns out that many MPs were beguiling their constituents by strenuous activity in the House on their behalf, then we will have to form a rather different picture of the balance of power between the centre and the localities.

Namier’s peculiarities have also contributed to a paradox in historians’ responses to the work of the History of Parliament Trust. On the one hand, many social historians dismiss out of hand his contention that the social history of England can be written out of the history of its House of Commons; on the other, many conservative political historians are contemptuous of Namier’s approach to politics. Both lobbies have a case: but both can if they choose learn a very great deal from detailed scrutiny of these volumes.

All five of them make clear that this was a period of accelerating political and social change in Britain, while indicating why the political nation was able to sustain that change. Superficially, the élite remained a very narrow one. Between 1790 and 1820, 220 MPs succeeded to peerages; 215 MPs were younger sons of peers and 47 more were Irish peers; 764 MPs came from families with a Parliamentary tradition and over five hundred MPs married the daughters of other MPs. Superficially, too, the bulk of the electorate – such as it was – acquiesced in its own management and corruption. Twenty-two of England’s 40 county constituencies were not contested at all in this period or contested only once. But beneath this frozen surface, the ice was cracking, the glaciers were beginning to move, and Members of Parliament knew it.

One sign of change was that previously docile constituencies rebelled against patron control. Thirty-four English boroughs did so successfully and many more tried. Newcastle-under-Lyme, the Marquess of Stafford’s preserve, had been contested only once between 1734 and 1790; during the next 30 years its growing industrial proletariat forced no fewer than eight contests. Even the county seats, where the great landed families were firmly entrenched, became more insubordinate. In 1818 Henry Brougham challenged the Lowthers’ empire in Westmoreland. They beat him: but it cost them five times the money that he spent to do so. But the biggest change in the representative system came from the introduction of 100 Irish MPs after the Act of Union in 1800.

These men were mainly solid country gentry, but their arrival transformed political debate in two important ways. First, the Union disfranchised many Irish boroughs and – as Parliamentary reformers were quick to point out – this set a precedent for the abolition of rotten boroughs in Britain. Secondly, union with Ireland was bound to revivify the struggle for Catholic Emancipation. The analysis of division lists in Volume I tells its own story. In May 1793, opponents of Grey’s motion for Parliamentary Reform outnumbered supporters by seven to one; in July 1819, Sir Francis Burdett’s motion for electoral reform was defeated by less than three votes to one. In 1805, only 27 per cent of MPs would vote in support of Catholic Emancipation; by 1819, almost 50 per cent of MPs had been converted to its support.

There was change, too, in the sociological composition of the House of Commons. And these volumes’ attention to this process is a reminder that Namier was in many ways a social historian, concerned – as is the History of Parliament Trust – ‘to examine the connection of class with government’. This said, it would have been useful if the socio-economic findings of Volume I had been tabulated rather than loosely described, and to have been given some information on change over time. But it is abundantly clear that those scholars who believe that Britain’s élite persisted in this period primarily because it was closed, or because it was static, are in error. R.G. Thorne estimates that over a hundred MPs in this period were self-made men; 360 MPs – a sixth of the Commons – were embarked on capital enterprises other than drawing rents or investing in government stock. In each Parliament in this period there were on average 111 MPs who were merchants or bankers or industrialists. Compare this with the fact that there were only 54 merchants and bankers in the House of Commons between 1747 and 1754, and only 43 MPs were primarily engaged in industry between 1715 and 1754. It is also apparent that it was in this period that the Commons really became a British as distinct from an English-dominated institution. Between 1754 and 1790 sixty-odd Scotsmen sat for English and Welsh constituencies. During the next thirty years over 130 did so.

In other words, the ancien régime survived in Britain not because it was old but because it compromised with the new. As British political life in the 1980s only too clearly demonstrates, few individuals are more conservative than those who have made it from the bottom to the top. George Canning, the son of a radical barrister and a promiscuous actress, seems to have flirted with Jacobinism before becoming the Tories’ most pungent speaker and ultimately prime minister. The legal abilities of John Scott, son of a Newcastle coal-fitter, made him first an MP and eventually a high Tory Lord Chancellor, convinced that in unreformed Britain ‘an industrious man might rise to an honourable situation.’ Thomas Troubridge, son of a baker, became an MP and an admiral by Nelson’s patronage and a reactionary by his own efforts: ‘Whenever I see a fellow look as if he was thinking, I say that’s mutiny.’

Since these volumes and their predecessors are such a goldmine, why have so many social historians failed to plunder them? Partly, one suspects, because too many of them still shy away from material to do with power and the powerful. But mainly because the nature of British elections between the 17th and 19th centuries is not clearly understood. They were crowd events, quite as much as riots or strikes or demonstrations were. Both sexes could participate and so could the majority of unenfranchised males. An election was not just a device for controlling competition among the élite, it was a ritual, a rite of passage, in which the social order might be inverted, and a patrician could be humiliated and insulted by the mob before passing on to Westminster or oblivion. That, after all, is what William Hogarth’s cartoons of a mid-18th-century election are all about. If a candidate wanted popular support he had to beg for and incite it: the unsuccessful contender at Carmarthenshire in 1802 still purchased 11,000 breakfasts, 40,000 dinners and 25,000 gallons of ale. When candidates refused to play such games, the crowd would often retaliate. In Leicester in 1790 the two parties decided to compromise the election to save trouble and expense. The mob promptly gutted the town hall and public library and destroyed the quarter session books.

When the first volumes prepared by the History of Parliament Trust appeared in 1964, the late John Brooke expressed the belief that here was ‘a foundation on which other scholars will build’. The Trust has built on that foundation too, and has produced in these volumes a very splendid work indeed. Its wit, clarity and anecdotage would recommend it to the general reader – if only that reader could afford it. Its collocation of rich and suggestive material should make it invaluable to historians, social anthropologists and political scientists – if only they can approach it with an open mind. What a shame it is that our present House of Commons, so much more democratic and public-spirited and so much less corrupt than the one immortalised here, is also so much less impressive.