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MPs: Right Honorable Historians

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The current House of Commons is notable for the number of members who are also historians. Will Robinson welcomes this trend, while reminding us of Parliament’s sometimes troubled relationship with its own past.

Etching of the House of Commons in the 19th century

Readers of History Today need no reminding that the result of last May’s election was historically peculiar. It gave us the first hung parliament in over a generation, the first peacetime coalition in almost a century and the youngest chancellor of the exchequer since Winston Churchill. Yet in the deluge of commentary and political gossip that has inevitably followed an arguably more significant fact has hardly been examined at all: the contest returned the largest cohort of serious historians in living memory.

In absolute terms their numbers may not be great. Even if the respected authority on the British labour movement Tony Wright had not taken 2010 as his cue to give up his Cannock Chase seat in favour of academia, they would easily be able to fit into a single taxi or share a table in the House of Commons bar without unintentionally clashing elbows. But the upsurge is nevertheless perceptible and, some would say, entirely welcome. Erudite, cultured, Oxbridge-educated, Benedict Gummer, Tristram Hunt, Chris Skidmore and Gregg McClymont seem to mark the revival of a species of politician – or, should one say, of historian? – that has hardly been in evidence since the Liberal Party was universally known as the Whigs and counted Macaulay among its MPs.

That is not to say that they are the first parliamentarians to write books about the past since George Otto Trevelyan (1838-1928) and John Morley (1838-1923) sat on the Liberal benches at the dawn of the last century. Churchill is an obvious example of a writer in their tradition, but like several other ‘lay’ historians of more recent times, including the current Foreign Secretary William Hague, it is impossible to imagine that he would ever have contemplated retiring to become a full-time writer.

The same cannot be said of the prolific biographer Roy Jenkins (1920-2003), who published a study of Attlee shortly before entering Parliament in 1948 and another on the Victorian radical Sir Charles Dilke on the eve of his promotion to the Wilson Cabinet in 1964. This makes him an unusual figure in the history of Parliament, at least of the last hundred years or so, during which time there has been a well-documented rise of a more professional kind of politician. It would be hard to imagine any aspirant prime minister from David Lloyd George onwards claiming, as Jenkins did in his disarming memoir, Life at the Centre (1991), that he would have enjoyed leading the government ‘more when it was over than while it was taking place’. Somewhat malgré lui, the bookish Welshman was a consummate man-of-letters, whose divided loyalties between politics and history seem redolent of another era altogether.

In many ways this makes the qualified success of Jenkins’ career, as architect of the ‘permissive society’, all the more remarkable. The names of most other historian MPs of the last century are almost totally forgotten; few have joined him in becoming chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary and the leader of a party. One of the most notable, Josiah Wedgwood (1872-1943), a descendant of the Staffordshire master-potter, can virtually be dismissed with his own rather ill-judged boast of spending more time in the Public Record Office than in the House of Commons, where he served periodically as the Labour member for Newcastle-under-Lyme between 1906 and 1942.

In fairness to Wedgwood, he was actually a prolific parliamentary orator whose obscurity has to be attributed to something more than his scholarly predilections. Like so many other historian MPs, including Jenkins, he could not easily reconcile himself to compromise – the lifeblood of politics – and had a paralysing sense of how every decision might be judged by future generations. But as the founder of the monumental History of Parliament project in 1928, which is now in its seventh decade of compiling biographies of almost every MP to sit in the House since the 13th century, he was well aware that there have been times when historians were not just numerous in the Commons, but highly influential.

By coincidence, the period in which the predominance of historians in Parliament was arguably greatest, the reign of James I (1603-25), is subject of the latest offering from the History of Parliament. This was a time in which an extraordinary group of rational and far-sighted MPs made the case for a limited form of parliamentary monarchy in the face of the absolutist tendencies of James I. Their number included men of such unrivalled learning as Sir John Spelman (1594-1643), Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), John Selden (1584-1654) and Robert Cotton (1570-1631), the last of whom created Britain’s first serious private archive of the nation’s records in Cotton House adjoining the House of Commons so that MPs could freely access them. During the reign of James’ successor, Charles I, this library was confiscated in order to suppress what was in effect an early ‘think tank’ bent on clipping the king’s wings with their own interpretation of historical precedent. This incautious act, reminiscent of the systematic destruction of the Scottish archives by Edward I, could well have contributed to the next generation’s less historically minded decision to finish off the job with an axe. As hardly needs emphasising, no English king had previously been put on trial and condemned to death by his own subjects.

From that point onwards history and politics increasingly came to occupy distinctive spheres, at least as long as Crown and Parliament enjoyed the cordial relations that had marked the pre-Stuart period. One of the unintended consequences of this was that the national records fell into an unprecedented state of disrepair, with few MPs sufficiently interested to preserve them. After decades of neglect, most of the contents of Cotton’s library, which he had bequeathed to the nation, were destroyed in a fire in October 1731.

This loss would have affected Spelman and his circle like the death of a child, but the statesmen of the new era felt little need to grieve. Cultured politicians like Bolingbroke spoke contemptuously of ‘learned lumber’, while the most famous historian MP of the 18th century, Edward Gibbon (1737-94), saw no need to create a national archive. History had become a philosophical rather than a political art and its greatest practitioners largely pursued their interests beyond the stultifying remit of the clique-riven upper house. To the men of the Enlightenment most English history could be dismissed with their favourite pejorative: it was ‘barbarous’. 

This unhappy situation was partly a consequence of the deplorable state of historical scholarship at the universities. True, the 18th century saw the introduction of Regius Professors of Modern History at both Oxford and Cambridge, but these were political appointments and few incumbents before the 19th century were known to lecture, let alone publish work of any historical importance. As long as these institutions were the breeding grounds of statesmen, it is unsurprising that few of them had any interest in the records of the past, which continued to moulder in the damp repositories in and around the Palace of Westminster.

It was only in the first decades of the 19th century, when the resurgence of the Whigs ushered in a new generation of enthusiastic historian MPs, including Thomas Macaulay (1800-59), that the pendulum began to swing back the other way. They were not all the greatest of antiquarians: most of their writings were designed simply to undermine the Tory-leaning histories of the previous decades, notably David Hume’s monumental History of Great Britain (1754-62). But they were more subtle in their whiggism than their predecessors, such as Charles James Fox, Sir John Dalrymple and James Macpherson, who made little attempt to disguise the partisan nature of their writings. When Macaulay chastised Fox for his ‘vehement, contentious, replying manner’ he was not suggesting that history be divorced from party, merely that it be composed as if for delivery from the dispatch box rather than the backbenches.

Nevertheless the Whig Parliament was much more receptive than its predecessors to the entreaties of conscientious antiquarians, who succeeded in their campaign for a thorough overhaul of the national records. The select committee founded for this purpose produced a report in 1836 which pulled no punches. Rolls and manuscripts were found ‘in a state of inseparable adhesion to the stone walls ... so coagulated together that they could not be uncoiled’. More shockingly, bundles appeared to have been looted by MPs and officials eager to augment their libraries and salaries with documents that were still prized by collectors and, alarmingly, glue manufacturers. Seven ‘perfect skeletons’ of rats, one dead cat and innumerable nesting birds were found strewn throughout the chaos.

Recovery was slow and expensive, not least because the parliamentarians involved were often dabblers, who preferred to employ favourites rather than experts to carry out the necessary work. For all the editions produced in these years, such as Sir Francis Palgrave’s bulky Parliamentary Writs (1832), it would be ludicrous to compare these half-hearted attempts with the dynamism of the early 17th-century, not least because many of the techniques employed to improve legibility – such as immersing damaged folios in acid – were irresponsible in the extreme. It was only with the emergence of the ‘professional’ historian slightly later in the century that the work was continued in a systematic way. This had the unfortunate effect of making the concept the ‘historian MP’ something of an anachronism. Serious scholars were no longer attracted to, or deemed especially suitable for, service in Parliament.

With a few notable exceptions this situation has continued up to our own times. MPs who have seen themselves primarily as historians in the 20th century tended to be rejects of the university establishment, notably Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), whose embittered scribblings can be read as a long letter of protest to the Fellows of All Souls College who passed him over for a fellowship. Even the ostensibly scholarly Josiah Wedgwood was denounced by Lewis Namier (1888-1960) as an incompetent amateur, making his History of Parliament project impossible to begin in earnest until he was safely in his grave.

This divergence between lay and professional history became more extreme in the latter half of the 20th century. Hugh Trevor-Roper foresaw the dangers of this, prophesying that history would follow Classics into obscurity if its practitioners forgot that their principal function was to enrich society, not to fester in learned isolation.

Only in recent years does this situation appear to be changing. Two decades ago the satirical title of an academic article invented by Kingsley Amis in his 1954 novel, Lucky Jim, – ‘The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485’ – seemed to David Cannadine almost recklessly hermetic. This is less so today. Gradually the rift that long ago opened between professional history and public interest appears to be closing, a development highlighted by the new influx of historian MPs, all of whom could have pursued academic careers had they so wished. It is a good sign, which one hopes will be followed by the appearance of more economists, scientists and mathematicians in politics, who have traditionally shown a similar tendency to withdraw from public life in favour of specialism.

This trend may have the beneficial effect of helping to smash the virtual monopoly that special advisers seem to have over candidates’ shortlists. For, if being a consultant or a pollster becomes the only prerequisite for going into politics, Parliament will fast become as narrow and self-effacing as the kind of scholarship mocked by Amis. Both professions may be enriched by specialisation, but the danger is always that such activities become their sole function. Whether the new historian MPs will herald a return to the noble traditions of Spelman and Cotton, or a regression to the partisan scholarship of the Whigs, remains to be seen. They could do worse than to ensure that Wedgwood’s epic project edges closer towards completion despite the cuts to public spending.

Will Robinson is working on a biography of the Victorian investigative journalist W.T. Stead, for which he was recently shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Biographers’ Club Prize.



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