The History of Parliament, 1832-1868: a four nations project

The History of Parliament, 1832-1868: a four nations project

This week, Kathryn Rix, the Assistant Editor of the History of Parliament’s ‘House of Commons, 1832-1945’ project, discusses the progress of the project and its relation to Four Nations History.  Rix elaborates on the project’s need to be sensitive to differences in political culture in the Four Nations as well as some of the project’s recent findings for the mid-19th century.

The History of Parliament’s ‘House of Commons, 1832-1868’ project is now well underway, with drafts of over 1,000 articles completed. From the outset, this has been very much a ‘four nations’ project, as we aim to produce biographical profiles of all the 2,589 MPs who sat at Westminster between the First and Second Reform Acts, together with accounts of the elections which took place in all the 401 constituencies in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We will also be writing a survey volume, interpreting the findings of our research and examining the institutional operation of the Commons during this period.
As we have discussed in posts on our own Victorian Commons blog, our project needs to be sensitive to the significant differences in political culture in the constituent nations of the British Isles. The electoral systems of Scotland and Ireland had their own distinctive features, notably in relation to the franchise. When it came to Ireland, for example, the 1850 Franchise Act passed in the wake of the famine had a far greater impact on the size of the county electorate than the 1832 Reform Act had done. Nor was the franchise the only area in which the four nations diverged. Whereas the majority of English and Welsh constituencies in this period were double-member seats, each of Scotland’s constituencies (barring Edinburgh and Glasgow) returned a single MP, with the potential to create a very different electoral dynamic. Another difference was that in Scotland, unlike England, Ireland and Wales, there was no property qualification for MPs. Gordon Pentland’s excellent recent essay on ‘By-elections and the peculiarities of Scottish politics, 1832-1900’ has suggested several fruitful lines of inquiry for historians of Scottish politics.[1] As we continue our research, the impact of these distinctive national characteristics – and of other dissimilarities, such as in the system of voter registration or the role of religion at elections – can be assessed more thoroughly.
Yet while remaining alive to the differing electoral structures and political framework of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, our project also seeks to integrate these parliamentary biographies and electoral histories into a wider (British) national picture. It is not possible to study the four nations in isolation: to take but one example, at the most basic level, Scottish men did not sit exclusively for Scottish seats, nor Irish men for Irish seats. In the 1832-68 period, 221 different individuals sat for Scotland’s 51 constituencies; what we have yet to calculate is the number of Scots who sat for English, Irish or Welsh seats. When it came to the composition of select committees, inquiries into Scottish or Irish matters were not exclusively the preserve of their countrymen, and the interactions between the representatives of the four nations when it came to particular issues are of considerable interest. One important resource being developed as part of our 1832-68 project is a database of parliamentary divisions, which will make it possible to break down MPs’ voting habits for analysis by country. It will therefore be possible to assess how far Scottish, Welsh or Irish MPs followed a distinctive line in the division lobbies at Westminster.
Our project would not be possible without assistance from historians working outside the History of Parliament, and we are particularly fortunate to have been able to draw on the expertise of colleagues working on Scottish, Welsh and Irish political and electoral history. Our contributors to date include Dr. Andrew Shields, of UNSW, Australia, who has written on members of the Irish Conservative party, and Dr. Gordon Pentland, of Edinburgh University, who has written constituency articles on Edinburgh and Edinburghshire, as well as several biographies of Scottish MPs. We are always keen to hear from other potential contributors, on any of the four nations: details of how to get in touch with us can be found on our blog, www.victoriancommons.wordpress.com, which also has information on how to access the draft articles available on our preview site. Finally, ‘four nations’ historians may also be interested in the posts on Anglo-Scottish relations currently running on the main History of Parliament blog, www.thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com.

Dr. Kathryn Rix is Assistant Editor of the History of Parliament’s ‘House of Commons, 1832-1945’ project, and is currently working on biographies of MPs and constituency studies for the 1832-68 period. Her own research interests are party organisation, electoral corruption and political culture.

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