The Westminster parliament, 1832-68 – a four nations institution? Some thoughts at the outset of a PhD
This week, James Smith (University of York) sets out his initial thoughts on a four nations history of the nineteenth century Westminster parliament.
In his editorial introduction to Parliaments, nations and identities in Britain and Ireland, 1660-1850 (2003), Julian Hoppit pointed to a surprising omission in the historiographical literature associated with the so-called ‘new British’, or four nations, history. Though frequently namechecked alongside the armed forces, the Empire and the monarchy as one of the few truly ‘British’ institutions, the Westminster parliament had received scant attention from the breed of ‘new British’ historians keen to identify episodes in which the interactions of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales produced a holistic ‘British’ narrative substantively different from their separate national histories combined.[i] As the forum in which legislators from the four nations were literally forced together cheek to jowl during the long nineteenth century, was not Westminster the ideal arena in which to seek out such ‘new British’ history narratives?
That nineteenth-century historians have been largely reluctant to take heed of Hoppit’s observation should perhaps not cause surprise. Sat on the banks of the Thames and comprised (between 1832 and 1868) of just under three English MPs to every one from the rest of the United Kingdom, the Anglo-centricity of the Westminster parliament belied its imperial epithet. Whilst the unions of 1707 and 1800 undoubtedly overhauled the Westminster legislature, the underlying institution, to which Scottish and Irish legislators had now to decamp, remained that which had lain at the heart of English government for over five hundred years. In his seminal article of 1973, which arguably sparked the ‘new British’ history movement, J.G.A. Pocock observed that, ‘The conquering culture … sets the rules of the game … [it] speaks a language and preserves a history so powerfully effective that it obliges others to act in the same way’.[ii] No one would claim that the creation of the imperial parliament after 1800 was an act of governmental ‘conquest’; nevertheless one might reasonably conjecture that the apparent reluctance of the ‘new British’ history to engage with happenings at Westminster lies in the sense that therein English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh legislators were playing an essentially English ‘game’ according to long-held English ‘rules’.
The upshot, of course, is that any attempt at a genuine four nations history at Westminster risks degenerating into little more than what John Morrill famously termed ‘enriched English history’.[iii] That is, an essentially English master narrative interspersed with Scottish, Irish and Welsh storylines only in so far as it was effected by them. Indeed, the traditional ‘high political’ parliamentary narrative of the 1830s and 1840s rarely even reaches the stage of ‘enrichment’: the key parliamentary flashpoints – the Great Reform Act, ecclesiastical reform, the Municipal Corporations Act, the new Poor Law, education and free trade – can be told without any explicit recourse to consideration of Westminster as a four nations forum. Ireland, of course, loomed large throughout, but less in the position of one component of a unitary multinational legislature and more as a case consistently, and troublingly, sui generis.
My research, which focuses on the period between 1832 and 1868, does not attempt to deny the pre-eminence of England (frequently used synonymously with ‘Great Britain’) as a political unit within the walls of Westminster, nor to transform ministers and backbenchers alike into rounded four nations legislators pursuing clear-sighted four nations programmes. Instead, it is premised on a notion much more basic: namely, that, for better or worse, interest or indifference, Westminster remained the unrivalled machine of legislative business for a united polity that stretched from Penzance to Letterkenny to Thurso, and from Tralee to Holyhead to Great Yarmouth. Legislating for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well as the United Kingdom as a whole, required parliamentary sanction, and it is the processes by which such sanctions were sought, and the ideas, arguments and discourses prompted along the way, that I am interested in exploring.
Here, then, lies one possible method for recovering the four nations dynamics at Westminster: to consider parliament not by way of the ‘grand narratives’ concerned with the rise and fall of administrations and the great Commons’ set piece battles, but rather by precisely what it was doing in terms of prosecuting business across the United Kingdom.[iv] As Maurice Cowling observed exactly half a century ago, ‘Parliament was at least as much a place where business was conducted as a place where oratory was displayed’.[v] In particular, I am interested in exploring how national agendas and debates at Westminster were materially affected and shaped by their occurrence in a multinational legislature peculiarly susceptible to arguments of uniformity and assimilation whilst at the same time alert to patriotic cries of safeguarding national distinctiveness. As Joanna Innes has perceptively noted, one of the most interesting consequences of the four nations character of the imperial parliament was that it presented legislators with an array of ideas and practices to draw upon in making decisions, just as it posed problems of reconciling such choices against larger philosophies of policy across the United Kingdom as a whole.[vi]
To my mind, exploring the four nations contours of the Westminster parliament is especially pertinent in the aftermath of the 1832 reform acts. These measures – too often reduced to the Great (that is, English) Reform Act – were at least in part motivated by the Whig government’s desire to bind England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland more closely together in a harmonious, integrated political nation, epitomised in the reformed imperial parliament itself. In the decades that followed, social, ecclesiastical, economic and political reforms, all orchestrated from Westminster, swept across the entire length and breadth of the United Kingdom, transforming its institutional landscapes. Tracing the interconnected parliamentary narratives of these reform projects within and across the four nations will hopefully not only prove instructive in determining how policy was formulated at Westminster, but also, ultimately, the role that the imperial parliament played in the construction and deconstruction of identities and interests, whether English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh or ‘British’.
[i] Julian Hoppit (ed.), Parliaments, nations and identities in Britain and Ireland, 1650-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 2-3.
[ii] J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British history: a plea for a new subject’, in The discovery of islands: essays in British history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 33.
[iii] John Morrill, The nature of the English Revolution (Harlow: Longman, 1993), 246.
[iv] This is not a new idea, of course. Historians of the eighteenth century, led by Paul Langford, Julian Hoppit and Joanna Innes, have long stressed the importance of studying this functional side of parliament. The work of Peter Jupp on the Duke of Wellington’s administration, 1828-30, and the ongoing research of the History of Parliament Trust takes forward such pioneering approaches into the nineteenth century.
[v] Maurice Cowling, 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 317.
[vi] Joanna Innes, ‘What would a “Four Nations” approach to the study of eighteenth-century British social policy entail?’ in S.J. Connolly (ed.), Kingdom’s united? Great Britain and Ireland since 1500: integration and diversity (Dublin: Four Courts, 1998), 184.
James Smith is a first-year PhD student at the University of York under the supervision of Miles Taylor. The working title of his thesis is ‘A four nations history of the Westminster parliament, c.1832-c.1852’. His research is funded by the AHRC via the WRoCAH Doctoral Training Partnership. He would be delighted to hear from anyone with thoughts on any of the ideas discussed above, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.