05 Apr 2014 01:03:46
Those perceptions are rarely flattering. Chris Bryant, himself an MP, testifies to the disdain that greets politicians on the doorstep. He protests, rightly enough, that his colleagues are morally no more reprehensible than their long line of predecessors. But his book is not written to improve parliament's image. It joins the mood of disparagement, but directs it at the past rather than the present. "For much of its history," he declares, "the whole parliamentary system was soaked in corruption." "Hypocrisy", a vice Bryant is quick to sniff, has been a second defect. A third has been the "excessive patriotism" by which parliament has been "infected".
Instead of confronting such failings, we learn, parliament and public have indulged in a "self-regarding mythology". Proud of the nation's possession of "the mother of parliaments", they have congratulated themselves on our "effortless superiority" and on "the inalienable righteousness of British history". Consequently, "self-aggrandising exaggeration has been parliament's stock-in-trade for centuries".
He does allow that parliamentary history has brought "advances" of free speech and the rule of law, though a book so devoid of analytical capacity can give us little clue why they occurred or what they signify. But mostly the volume belongs to a long tradition of complaint, which contrasts parliamentary ideals with an unedifying reality. The case was better articulated in earlier generations, by the 17th‑century Levellers, by the 18th‑century country party – whose horror at "corruption", and whose plague-on-both-your-houses attitude to political parties, find present-day echoes – and by 19th‑century parliamentary reformers.
Through those protests there runs a tension that has subjected the institution to conflicting expectations, and to which Bryant is not alive. Are we to think of parliament as an instrument of power or as a restraint on it? Do we believe in the sovereignty of parliament, in which case we must expect it to exercise sovereign authority, or do we look to it to restrict the executive in the cause of liberty? Today we cannot decide whether to champion the House of Commons as the voice of the people's will, or to check or balance it by a second chamber or declarations of rights.
This volume, which is to be the first of two, is a narrative up to 1801, when Ireland was given the representation at Westminster that Scotland had attained nearly a century earlier; Bryant's account, though mostly about England, has chapters on the national assemblies whose union with England cost the Irish and Scots. The book is not short of vigour. It covers a lot of ground. Its author has dipped into primary sources and has occasionally found telling quotations.
Yet in none of the eras he covers can he establish a pattern. He seeks measurements of parliament's strength, by which he seems to mean strength in its relations with the crown. The criterion is too often anachronistic and too often simplistic. No one before the civil wars conceived of crown and parliament as competing rather than complementary institutions, and no one since them has achieved the straightforward separation of legislature from executive that would give Bryant a yardstick.
Without one he flounders. We are left to guess how it was that in the 15th century parliament came to "matter", when, at the same century's end, it "was less a fixed part of the constitution than it had been a hundred years earlier". In the Tudor age, MPs showed a spirit that surprises him. Logically, "Elizabeth's parliaments should have been completely inert", because "Tudor government still consisted in personal rule" and "the Queen still called all the shots". It does not seem to strike him that, by the same reasoning, medieval parliaments should have been equally inert.
The 17th century, which one might have expected to offer Bryant clear directions, defeats him, too. It was then that a parliament overrode the King's veto, went to war with him, executed him and governed in his place. In the Puritan revolution, new concepts of representation emerged and the electoral system was overhauled. That revolution was shortlived, but its successor of 1688-89 had enduring consequences. An institution, which until then had been an occasional body, summoned and dismissed at the crown's behest, has subsequently met every year.
Here as elsewhere, however, Bryant offers no coherent argument. Replete with opinions but unequal to thought, his prose lives on cliche: fusses are kicked up, change is in the air, things go from bad to worse, U-turns are performed, feathers fly, strings are added to bows, trump cards are held, dashes fail to be cut and tectonic plates shift massively. One learns to dread his similes. The 17th-century Howard family is "like a prop forward who deliberately collapses the scrum"; James I is "like a suddenly wealthy maiden aunt in a sweetshop"; in Ireland the Stuart Earl of Strafford is "given a pronounced migraine in the form of a Commons defeat by nine votes".
Yet what a theme Bryant has had before him. Whether we like or dislike the nation's history, parliament has made it unique. Our unwritten constitution, the product not of fresh design but of successive adaptation to practical pressures and needs, differs fundamentally from continental and American models. The thread of continuity, the authority of precedent and custom and the memory of ancient contests have built the past into the mind of parliament, where an informed historical consciousness has jostled with the "mythology" scorned by Bryant.
You would not guess from the book, which begins abruptly in 1258 and with Simon de Montfort, that the question as to whether the Saxons had parliaments, of a freedom-loving kind, has been a pressing issue for politicians and scholars alike. Likewise, you would not suspect that the revolutions of the 17th century involved intense disputes about the medieval relations of crown and parliament. It was the sense of the historical identity of parliament that in 1640-01, 1660 and 1689 gave England a mechanism, unparalleled on the continent, for the resolution of political crises.
Why has English parliamentary history taken a solitary path? Did the relative fluidity of the nation's social system prevent the monarchy from emulating monarchies abroad, which enfeebled representative institutions by setting the classes represented in them against each other? Has the Channel, by making foreign invasion difficult, allowed freer scope for national political conversation? Or have there been moments, especially perhaps in the 1640s and 1680s, when only contingencies of circumstance or personality have divided England from a European trend?
It is no good looking to Bryant for the answers. But at least we can sympathise with his dissent from the low public estimate of parliament today. The media foster the mood by treating a timeless truth about politics – that they are a dirty game whose participants will never be candid about facts or motives unless it suits them – as if it were the only truth. The responsibilities of legislation and policymaking, on which politicians should be concentrating, are bypassed in the hounding and interrupting of interviewees even on "flagship" TV and radio news programmes (Newsnight, Today).
The public's contempt for politicians is the partner of an ignorance that seems destined to grow: I know bright first-year students at university who were surprised to learn that the prime minister does not sit in the House of Lords. Even an author more capable than Bryant might struggle to bring the history of parliament alive to a readership starved of civic education.
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