The Commons’ People

Gordon Marsden on the origins and future of the project to chart the history of the Houses of Parliament.

Britain’s institutions may be world famous – but the pressure to examine how they tick and to update them grows apace. Since Diana’s death last year the debate on reinventing the monarchy has intensified and now runs in tandem with the new Blair government’s commitment to modernising Britain, seen most concretely in major constitutional changes – a parliament for Scotland (the first for nearly 300 years), assemblies for Wales and London (the latter with an elected mayor) and squaring up to reform – and potential replacement – of the House of Lords.

Alongside, the packaging of British traditions is gaining a modern edge. Parliament can now be viewed on video, and MPs and peers are discovering new audiences for their speeches via cable and satellite. Madam Speaker finds herself cult viewing world-wide. Internet websites allowed friends of mine to look up my parliamentary details while in the Seychelles. Now Parliament’s own ‘company history’ has gone hi-tech, with the launch on CD-Rom of all seven multi-volume sections of the History of Parliament so far published in book form.

Such a format – as well as bringing relief to groaning library shelves – also brings new ways to access patterns and connections from the History’s mass of material, just as computerising the Domesday Book has enabled historians to gain added value from that historical icon. The CD-Rom also reminds, and in many cases informs for the first time, the outside world of the existence of a project whose own ‘history’ offers insight into the changing historiography and self-image of a ‘Great British Institution’ over the past sixty years.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists take home ‘Wedgwood’ from Britain every year as a ceramic memento of Beefeater tradition. Appropriately it was a Wedgwood MP for Staffordshire and scion of the pottery family who inspired the History of Parliament project back in the 1930s.

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