Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Read a first time

In the Old Testament, God creates the material world by speaking. In Parliament, by contrast, the act of creation is dependent on reading.

This may seem a strange assertion, given that the majority of what happens in the Commons and Lords involves speaking: whether that is maiden speeches by new MPs, the back and forth of Prime Minister’s questions, speeches for and against crucial votes, or cross-examination of witnesses in Select Committees. But it was a point that struck me a few months ago while sat watching the Commons debating a Bill. To begin its passage through each House, the House has to agree that the Bill “be read a first time”. Before a Bill can proceed to line-by-line scrutiny, it has to be read a second time. And to pass from one House to the other, a Bill has to be read a third and final time.

First Reading is a formality, without a vote, but Second and Third Reading most definitely are not. If either declines to give a Bill its Second Reading, it falls: likewise with Third Reading.  While rare, such refusals can happen. In the Commons, Thatcher’s Shops Bill was lost at Second Reading in 1986, and in 1977 Callaghan’s Local Authority Works (Scotland) Bill was defeated at Third Reading. More recently, in 1990 the Lords refused to give a second reading to the War Crimes Bill, and in 1999 did the same with an attempt to equalise the age of consent.

So reading is what brings laws to life, and the absence of reading is what prevents them from being born. The actual words of a Bill may technically have been drafted by lawyers, but as a text it does not exist until each House has read it. This should not be a surprise: book historians are well-used to conceiving of individual readers as engaged in a creative act. The author, if not dead, is nonetheless not the only person who creates meaning within texts. And yet I am not aware of anything that has been written about institutions carrying out similar acts of creativity through reading. Parliament is certainly not the only institution which does so: the Church of England reads banns to ensure a marriage is valid, the Riot Act 1715 had to be read by magistrates before protestors could be required to disperse, and royal proclamations binding a monarch’s subjects were publicly announced in order to bring them into force.

Paradoxically, what Parliament considers reading is not what most people would recognise as reading. First Reading consists simply of the clerk reading out the short title of the Bill, at which point a Minister stands up and nods. The Bill is then deemed to have been read a first time. Second and Third Reading are set-piece debates that mark the start and the end of a House scrutinising a Bill, and do not even involve the title being read out. Instead the House votes on a motion that the Bill be read a Second or Third time: if this is passed, then the Bill is deemed to have been read and can move to its next stage.

At some stage in the development of the legislative process, however, Bills were actually read out to MPs and peers. This was presumably a necessity until the point first at which members’ ability to read could be guaranteed, and second at which print technology could produce hundreds of copies of Bills at relative speed. In late Tudor Parliaments, for example, Bills still seem to have been read aloud at First Reading at least. Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) describe the procedure as follows:

There is another in the upper house called the clerke of the parlement, whose office is to read the billes. For everie thing that commeth in consultation in either House, is first put in writing in paper, which being read, he that listeth riseth up and speaketh either with it or against it.

The accuracy with which MPs’ diaries record the contents of Bills after First Reading debates, despite the slim chances of actually having scrutinised the manuscript version, confirms that Bills (or at least a summary of them) must have been read out. By the second half of the sixteenth century a practice had evolved of producing a “breviate” of the Bill: a brief summary prepared either by the proposer or the Speaker that was a forerunner of today’s explanatory note.

By the early Stuart Parliaments, so far as I can tell, the practice of reading Bills in full began to fall away, with debates starting with the clerk reading the title and the breviate. By 1640 the practice also seems to have emerged of reserving debate until the second reading, as with this incident in the Long Parliament on 24 December of that year;

Sir Robert Pye began to speak to the bill but he was told it was not to be spoken unto upon the first reading but after the second reading, and so he sat down.

Later the same day Sir Simonds D’Ewes checked himself from doing the same thing:

Then was read a bill about the assembling of a Parliament yearly though the King did not assemble it by writ. (This I misliked but did forbear to speak against it until the second reading).

By the early eighteenth century, set rules had emerged about the number of copies of a Bill the clerks had to arrange to be printed at each stage of its scrutiny. This presumably put an end to the need to read Bills out loud, but the formal procedure of reading Bills remained (despite the meaning of that process having changed entirely). This is still reflected in the formal language that Ministers used to open Second and Third Reading speeches:

I beg to move, that the Bill be read a Second/Third time.

It may simply be down to the persistence of tradition that First, Second and Third Reading have survived. But I wonder if there is also something about the constitutive power of reading, as MPs, peers and the rest of us experience at a personal level, that has also contributed to it surviving at an institutional level.

This post is my first in a very long time, and is (I hope) the start of a return to blogging slightly more regularly. It was inspired by a conversation with @njstevenson, whose own blog I thoroughly recommend.

Books with names but no bodies

In recent days I have been enjoying Adam Smyth and Gill Partington’s edition of Critical Quarterly on missing texts. As the title of their introduction asks, what is the material history of books with names but no bodies?

As it happens there is one particular book for whose body I have been searching recently: To Your Tents, O Israel by Henry Walker. The events which prompted its writing are well-known: on 4 January 1642, Charles I had made famous attempt to arrest five leading opponents in the House of Commons: arriving at Parliament only to find, in his own words, that ‘all the birds are flown’. Charles was determined to track down the rogue MPs, and believing that they were still in hiding in the capital, he decided to confront the Corporation of the City of London.

At about ten o’clock the following, Charles was taken by coach up the Strand towards the Guildhall. By the time he got there, a substantial crowd had assembled to meet him. After addressing the Corporation, Charles dined with London’s Sheriff, George Garrett, at his house in Aldermanbury Street next door. After their lunch was finished, he emerged and made his way back to his carriage. At this point the crowd surged and shouts went up of ‘privilege of Parliament’. This was the moment that Henry Walker, a 29-year old ironmonger turned writer and bookseller decided to throw a self-penned text into Charles’s coach.

The text has become known as To Your Tents, O Israel because of the passage in scripture it is supposed to have alluded to: 1 Kings 12:16, which told the story of King Rehoboam’s tyrannical rule over Israel. Rehoboam was a tyrant who imposed heavy taxes and harsh punishments on his people. In response, the ten northern tribes of Israel rebelled and formed their own nation. In alluding to these events, Walker was making a fairly heavy handed comparison to the extra-Parliamentary taxation that Charles had introduced under his period of Personal Rule in the 1630s.

However, it’s not actually clear if To Your Tents, O Israel was the title, or even if the text had a title. Nor is it clear what form the text took. It is described variously in contemporary accounts as a “Pamphlet”, “Petition”, “Paper” and “Sermon”. No copies survive and it’s not clear how many were made. We do know, though, that it was printed rather than hand-written. The only direct account we have of the text’s production is by a hostile witness, John Taylor:

He plotted and contrived with a Printer, the said night before to write and print a perrillous Petition to his Majesty, and borrowed the Printers wives Bible, out of which he tooke his Theame out of the first of Kings, Chap, 12. ver. 16 part of the verse; To your Tents O Israel. There was writing and printing all night, and all the next day those Libels were scattered, and when his Majesty had dined, and had taken Coach to returne to White-Hall, Walker stood watching the Kings comming by amongst the Drapers in Pauls Church-yard, and having one of his Pamphlets in his hand meaning to have delivered it to his Majesty, but could not come at him by reason of the presse of People, insomuch as Walker (most impudently sawcy) threw it over the folkes heads into his Majesties Coach.

John Taylor, The whole life and progresse of Henry Walker the ironmonger, E.154[29].

However, details in this account can be checked and verified. The printer was Thomas Payne, whose shop at the sign of the sugar loaf in Goldsmith’s Alley was a stone’s throw from Walker’s establishment in Butler’s Alley in St Giles Cripplegate. It was Payne who, having thought better of his role, shopped Walker to the authorities. In 1650 he received a belated reward of £20 from the Commonwealth’s Council of State ‘‘as a gratuity for his sufferings by printing a book for the cause of Parliament, written by Mr. Walker”. So it does seem clear that the text was in printed form, although it whether it was a book or a sheet is open to question. And it was written and printed overnight, which suggests it cannot have been that long or had a significant print run.

Something which may help resolve the question of what form of printed text it was is a reference two and a half years later in another of Walker’s works: an edition of his newsbook Perfect Occurrences for 30 August to 6 September 1644. At this point Walker was not acknowledging himself as the author of Perfect Occurrences, hence the references in the third-person:

Here followeth a true copie of Master Walkers petition to the king, for which he suffered.

To the Kings most Excellent Majestie.

Humbly beseecheth that your most Excellent Majestie, would be graciously pleased to meditate on that place of Scripture written, 1 Kings. 12. 15. 16. Wherfore the King hearkned not unto his people, for the cause was from the Lord, that he might perform his saying, which the Lord spake by Ahijah the Shulanite, unto Jeroboam, the Son of Nebat, So when Israel saw that the King hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king saying, what portion have we in David, Neither have wee portion in the son of lesse: To your tents O Israel, now see to thine own, &c. The Lord blesse guide and direct your gratious Majestie, and encrease the number of your faithfull loyall Subjects. Amen.

Perfect Occurrences, 30th August-6th September 1644, E.254[28].

So if we can trust Walker’s reprint, it seems that the text was more akin to a printed version of the manuscript petitions that were common for the king and Parliament to receive at the time. And a text of this length would barely take up half a side of quarto, so it seems unlikely that it was a pamphlet or other book: more likely, a single sheet with some copies taken to distribute to the crowd or paste up on walls, and which Walker was fortunate enough to have the chance to thrust upon Charles.

And so this particular missing text is perhaps not as missing as it seems. A version of it turned up, and is still extant, in a later text – and even if it is a summary or rewrite of the original, it does give some suggestions about what the text said and what form it took. Similarly, an apparently unreliable account in a work by one of Walker’s enemies turns out, when checked against other evidence of the London print trade, to have more in it than first appears. There is something quite satisfying about the fact that it is the material traces of other texts that allows at least a partial reconstruction of another text.

Asperity of speech

Imagine that you are a peer in the House of Lords. Another peer stands up in the chamber and says something that you feel is inappropriate. What do you do?

If this was the House of Commons, the Speaker would judge whether what was said was out of order, and intervene if it was. However, the House of Lords is self-regulating. There is no concept of “out of order” (the equivalent phrase is “undesirable”), and the Lords Speaker has no power to judge what is undesirable or to take action as a result. Instead this is the responsibility of the entire House.

So as an offended peer, it is up to you to draw the House’s attention to what has been said, and to use the right procedures to deal with it. If you are both offended and well-versed in parliamentary procedure, then you will remember the House’s Standing Order on Asperity of Speech.

This is one of a number of orders that have been agreed by the House over the centuries as a way of managing their business. This particular standing order – currently number 33 in a list of 86 – is one of the oldest, and dates back to 1626. It has its origins in an incident on 12 June in the Lords Committee for the Safety and Defence of the Kingdom, which was so shocking that the Lords Journal does not report it:

That an Accident happened at that Committee, of some Sharpness of Speech between two Lords; which the Committee thought fit to be reported to the House, that an Order might be settled, to avoid all Asperity of Speech at Committees hereafter.

The House thought it not fit to have the Words related, or the Lords named between whom they past; but referred it to the Lords Sub-committees for Privileges to set down an Order to prevent the like hereafter.

It is worth noting, though, that the Committee was considering Charles I’s requests for new supply amidst calls in the Commons for the duke of Buckingham to be impeached – and that Charles had alienated much of the Commons and the Lords in doing so. Whichever two peers were quarreling, it came only a few days before Charles dissolved Parliament altogether, so ‘sharpness of speech’ is probably a rather muted description of what was said.

The Lords Committee for Privileges came up with the following standing order in response:

To prevent misunderstanding, and for avoiding of offensive speeches, when matters are debating, either in the House or at Committees, it is for honour sake thought fit, and so ordered, That all personal, sharp, or taxing speeches be forborn, and whosoever answereth another man’s speech shall apply his answer to the matter without wrong to the person: and as nothing offensive is to be spoken, so nothing is to be ill taken, if the party that speaks it shall presently make a fair exposition or clear denial of the words that might bear any ill construction; and if any offence be given in that kind, as the House itself will be very sensible thereof, so it will sharply censure the offender, and give the party offended a fit reparation and a full satisfaction.

In other words, clarify what you said or take it back and apologise. Note that you should not actually stand up and read this standing order. You have to move that the order be read by the clerk, and this motion is debatable. It’s this debate that gives you your chance to challenge the offending peer. It is, however, a nuclear option to be used with care: as far as I can tell, there have only been five times in the last 200 years or so at which it has been debated.

In 1833, during Third Reading of the Local Jurisdiction Bill, Lord Wynford attacked the Bill but was accused by Lord Brougham (the Lord Chancellor) of getting his facts wrong. Wynford objected strongly:

I have submitted to this for a long time, but I will not be held up to ridicule in this way any longer. [Cries of "order."]

The reading of the order did prompt an apology of sorts from Brougham, although he was able to use the wording of the order to supply his own ammunition:

The Lord Chancellor would confine himself, as far as modern usages would permit (for modern practice had somewhat modified it), to this order, and would avoid most carefully the example set by the other side, of making offensive, sharp, and taxing speeches. He trusted, that while he complied with one of the exigencies of the order, his noble and learned friend would comply with the other exigency, namely, that as “nothing offensive is to be spoken, so nothing is to be ill-taken.”

The next seems to have been in 1871, when the Earl Granville described some remarks made by Lord Oranmore and Browne as impertinent. Asked to withdraw his remark, Granville came back with this gem:

I am not unwilling to withdraw the word ‘impertinent;’ but I must say it was not pertinent.

Oranmore came back on another day and moved that the standing order be read, then addressed his objections to Granville:

Having used the strongest and most offensive expression that could be used—one that would not be permitted in any private society of gentlemen—I ask your Lordships is it becoming to use it in your Lordships House? I hope the noble Earl will not hesitate to state that he withdraws the word “impertinent,” as applied to anything I said, and which I submit he is called upon to do.

A year later the standing order was read again during Committee stage of the Parliamentary and Municipal Elections Bill, which proposed creation of a secret ballot. Many peers objected to the creation of culture of secrecy in elections, and the Duke of Richmond, who was leader of the Conservative Opposition in the Lords, led criticism of the Bill. The debate became very heated, and the Earl Granville accused the Opposition of wanting to wreck the Bill:

Noble Lords opposite are so accustomed to have their own way in matters of this sort, that they cannot conceive any course being taken except for us to vote and be beaten on every Amendment they propose.

The Marquess of Clanricarde objected and moved that the order on asperity of speech be read, which the clerk duly did. Outside observers do not seem to have been impressed. Here is the Spectator:

In a burst of petulant discontent, they tore the Ballot Bill to fragments, and then, excited by their achievement, danced a war dance over its remains, flourishing their tomahawks at each other, till Lord Clanricarde, of all human beings, was obliged to recall them to decorum and sense by asking the Clerk to read a sort of private Riot Act, which the Peers, it would seem, keep up to prevent themselves from becoming too disorderly.

The next occasion the order came up was in 1950, when in a debate on “communists in public service”, Lord Vansittart criticised the Bishop of Bradford for writing a pamphlet in which he was alleged to have argued that Soviet Russia was spreading Christ’s message, and described a socialist vicar as a potential killer. The Bishop was not in the chamber at the time, and a couple of months later Viscount Stansgate moved that a motion of regret be agreed:

That this House, ever jealously regarding the Privilege of Parliament, is no less zealous to provide against its abuse, and regrets that the Lord Vansittart, in the speech which he made in this House on March 29 last, did not use due care in the exercise of the Privilege of Parliament.

The Marquess of Exeter intervened to move that the standing order on asperity of speech be read instead, anticipating an ill-tempered debate. Stansgate focused in particular on the accusations against the socialist vicar:

I am not a lawyer, but I cannot imagine a grosser criminal libel against any man. Yet we are asked (for we are all judges—we are all sitting Speaker to-day) to give the privilege of Parliament to the noble Lord in the use of words of that kind against a man with whose political opinions and beliefs most of us in this House disagree.

The Bishop of Bradford also weighed in against Vansittart with some choice words:

The fact of the matter is that if you disagree with the noble Lord you must expect some epithets quite soon, and the fact that they may be mutually contradictory epithets does not matter. I should like to end by suggesting that before he next selects his epithets, the noble Lord should ask himself rather carefully whether they do not come under the ban of the Ninth Commandment.

Vansittart was not restrained in his response:

Well, the noble Viscount has come out and called me, in the most ostentatious manner, the equivalent of a liar. I shall, of course, retort to that by saying that by so doing he has taken his ticket and labelled himself as a fellow passenger of fellow-travellers.

Viscount Addison, the Leader of the House, eventually intervened to ask that Viscount Stansgate not pursue his original motion, using a procedural device of a question on whether Stansgate’s motion should be moved:

There is no Speaker. We rule ourselves. We rule by the good will and common consent of every individual Peer, and we have no other rule. I think that that is one of the reasons why the debates of this House are so highly esteemed. Therefore the careful refraining from any misuse of our privileges is, I think, a stern duty that falls upon every one of us… With the greatest possible respect to my noble friend Viscount Stansgate, whom I have known and loved for forty years, I am going to ask him not to press his Motion. I want this House to shut this business down.

Stansgate was unrepentant:

My Lords, we Nonconformists have a hymn: Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone. That is what I propose to do.

The House then divided on the question of whether Viscount Stansgate’s motion should be put, but a majority disagreed – so neither Stansgate’s motion nor the standing order were agreed or read.

The last time the order was actually read was in 1998, during a debate on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. Amongst other things, this Bill established the current system of student loans. Lord Whitty, the Government Whip leading the Bill in the Lords, accused a number of peers of hypocrisy in purporting to represent students’ views. The Earl Russell – appropriately enough, given his life outside the Lords as a historian of the seventeenth century – moved that the order be read. On this occasion it wasn’t debated but immediately pushed to a division, which was passed by 169 votes to 98. The clerk then read the order.

Immediately afterwards, Lord Richard – who was the Leader of the House – suggested that the House adjourn for a short break. This is the Parliamentary equivalent of a pub landlord saying “come on mate, you’ve had a good night but it’s time to go home”. When proceedings resumed, Lord Whitty clarified that he had not intended any personal attack by what he had said, and the House got on with the business before it.

Check your privilege

Another post where I bemoan the fact that it’s been too long since I’ve written anything for this blog. But I thought I would spend the next few posts looking at the procedures of Parliament during the seventeenth century, and how they have influenced Parliamentary procedures today. This first post is about the roles of the House of Commons and the House of Lords in matters of spending and taxation.

Most bills that pass through Parliament involve some sort of public expenditure of one kind of another. They might require Government to fund a service to the public or a particular group, for example, or to finance a regulatory framework that applies to business or charities. For this sort of bill, the Commons will agree a “money resolution”. These tend to follow a standard format along the following lines:

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the bill, it is expedient to authorise—

(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown by virtue of the Act, and

(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.

Some bills are so-called “money bills”, which deal solely with national taxes or loans. Some are “supply bills”, dealing with changes to taxation or public spending. In practice these two categories can overlap, but for Bills that fall into either category, the Commons will agree a “ways and means resolution”, which authorises any charges or taxes made on the public as a result of the Bill, and the payment of any sums into the Consolidated Fund (the Consolidated Fund is essentially the Government’s current account, managed by the Treasury).

For bills that start in the Lords and then transfer to the Commons, rather than the other way round, this causes a potential difficulty. A bill that is passed from the Lords to the Commons may well involve matters relevant to financial privilege, and in constitutional terms it will have been the Lords which has agreed them and suggested them to the Commons. The Lords get round this difficulty by agreeing a “privilege amendment” to a bill just after it has had its Third Reading – the point just before it is taken to the Commons. These follow a standard format:

Nothing in this Act shall impose any charge on the people or on public funds, or vary the amount or incidence of or otherwise alter any such charge in any manner, or affect the assessment, levying, administration or application of any money raised by any such charge.

For most bills this will very likely not be the case, but it is a convenient fiction that allows the Commons to pretend its privilege has not been infringed. The Commons then removes the amendment from the Bill at Committee stage – the first point at which the bill can be amended – which means that in theory they are the first and only House to agree provisions that relate to public expenditure or taxation.

In part the financial privilege of the Commons is enshrined in statute: section 1 of the Parliament Act 1911 provides that if a money bill having been agreed by the Commons is not passed by the Lords within a month, the bill receives Royal Assent regardless. In practice the Lords has never tried to amend a money bill, so this has not been put to the test. But the concept of financial privilege goes back a lot further than a hundred years. It has its origin in two resolutions made by the Commons in the 1670s.

The first was in April 1671, in the context of amendment made by the House of Lords to the Foreign Commodities Bill. The Bill sought to increase duties on tobacco and sugar imports. Owners of Barbados sugar plantations persuaded a number of peers that it would not be desirable to have duties on refined sugar, as otherwise they would have to export unrefined sugar and lose any profits they made from refining it before export. The Commons responded as follows to the amendment made by the Lords:

The House then proceeded to the Reading the Amendments and Clauses, sent from the Lords, to the Bill for an Imposition on foreign Commodities: Which were once read:And the first Amendments, sent from the Lords, being for changing the Proportion of the Impositions on white Sugars from One Peny per Pound, to Halfpeny half Farthing, was read the Second time; and debated.Resolution against Lords altering Tax Bills.

Resolved, &c. Nemine contradicente, That, in all Aids given to the King, by the Commons, the Rate or Tax ought not to be altered by the Lords.

Commons Journal, 13 April 1667.

The second was in July 1678, in a supply bill to pay off soldiers recruited by Charles II for a potential war with France that ended before it had really started, as a result of other European states (which had been at war much longer) beginning negotiations for peace treaty with Louis XIV. Twists and turns in the negotiations resulted in the Dutch asking Charles to put his plans for disbanding his troops on hold, and the Lords amended the dates in the bill accordingly.  The Commons responded as follows:

Mr. Solicitor General reports from the Committee to whom it was, amongst other things, referred, to prepare and draw up a State of the Rights of the Commons, in Granting of Money, a Vote agreed by the Committee: Which he read in his Place; and afterwards delivered the same in at the Clerk’s Table: Where the same was read; and, upon the Question, agreed; and is as followeth; viz.

Resolved, &c. That all Aids and Supplies, and Aids to his Majesty in Parliament, are the sole Gift of the Commons: And all Bills for the Granting of any such Aids and Supplies ought to begin with the Commons: And that it is the undoubted and sole Right of the Commons, to direct, limit, and appoint, in such Bills, the Ends, Purposes, Considerations, Conditions, Limitations, and Qualifications of such Grants; which ought not to be changed, or altered by the House of Lords.

Commons Journal, 3 July 1678.

It’s worth noting that the two scenarios had very different outcomes. In the second, the Commons solved the problem of its privilege being infringed by incorporating the Lords amendments into a new Bill. In the first, the bill fell because neither House could agree it. Both issues came up during the process of what is nowadays known informally as “ping pong” – or in technical terms, as Lords Consideration of Commons’ amendments (where the bill has started in the Lords then moved to the Commons) and Commons consideration of Lords’ amendments (where the bill has started in the Commons then moved to the Lords). Amendments made in one House can be batted back and forth to the other House, until the point both Houses are content.

Financial privilege can still cause issues at ping pong. There is a convention that if the same amendment is insisted upon twice by one House, and the other House rejects it, the entire bill falls. This is the case even if the disagreement is about a single clause. Financial privilege can be used by the Commons as a means of rejecting Lords amendments, although it’s also open to the Commons to waive their privilege if they choose to do so. Most recently, financial privilege caused issues for the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. When the relevant bill passed from the Commons to the Lords, the Lords made over 100 amendments. These then passed to the Commons to consider in the first stage of ping pong.

46 of these engaged financial privilege. The Commons agreed to 35 of them, but voted against 11 of them and passed the Bill back to the Lords without them. The reason they gave for rejecting them was that they:

would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient.

Commons Reasons and Amendment, January 2012.

It is the convention that where the Commons disagrees with an amendment made by the Lords, and that amendment invokes financial privilege, that this is the reason given in response – even if it is not in fact the actual reason that the Commons has disagreed. It is the Commons – in practice, its clerks – which decides whether an amendment invokes financial privilege, not the Government.

It is also the convention that the Lords will not insist on an amendment that is rejected for reasons of financial privilege: in other words, that they will not pursue “double insistence”, which results in the bill falling. But it is open to the Lords to send back a different amendment in lieu of the first, in the hope that the Commons will agree this instead.

When the Welfare Reform Bill was returned from the Commons citing financial privilege as the reason for rejecting the 11 Lords amendments, it caused some controversy and suggestions that the Commons was defining financial privilege extremely widely, and that the Goverment was able as a result to use its majority in the Commons to impose the will of one House. The debate in the Lords on this matter on 14 February 2012 is worth reading in this respect. The Lords ended up suggesting variations on the amendments, some of which were Government suggestions but two of which were not – the latter dealing with the “bedroom tax” reducing housing benefit for claimants considered to have a spare room.

The Commons then disagreed with these two further amendments when they were sent back to them by the Lords. The Lords in turn suggested another amendment in lieu, requiring the Government to review the provisions six months after implementation. The Commons accepted this, and the bill as a result was able to receive Royal Assent.

So 350 years or so on, the issues that were exercising MPs and peers during the reign of Charles II are still of significant constitutional importance to MPs and peers today. The comparisons with the 1670s were not lost on peers debating the bedroom tax, but nor was the potential to disagree about the extent to which there was a smooth line connecting one to the other. Here for example is Lord Strathclyde speaking for the Government in the debate on 14 February:

Even for a Conservative, the financial privilege of the House of Commons cannot be considered new. Its origins lie in the constitutional settlement that followed our civil war. The Commons agreed its first resolution on the subject in 1671, and in 1678 resolved that:

“All aids and supplies, and aids to his Majesty in Parliament, are the sole gift of the Commons; and all bills for the granting of any such aids and supplies ought to begin with the Commons; and that it is the undoubted and sole right of the Commons to direct, limit and appoint in such bills the ends, purposes, considerations, limitations, and qualifications of such grants, which ought not to be changed or altered by the House of Lords”.

And here is the response in the same debate from the Labour peer Lord Morgan, who is also (as will become clear) a historian:

Lord Morgan: My Lords, I will just say that I am afraid I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Tyler on this.

Noble Lords: He is not your noble friend.

Lord Morgan: Well, sometimes he is-but the view that we heard is historically flawed. The idea that there has been a seamless web since 1671 is quite unsound. As we know, the Parliament Act defined money Bills very precisely. It did so in the spirit of the resolutions of the 1670s. Distinctions were drawn between where the money came from, which was spelt out very clearly, the intended objective and the issues governing its expenditure. It was confirmed in 1911 by the great Prime Minister Mr Asquith that the money Bills provision applied to what he called “all matters of pure finance”. There was agreement across the House that it would not be applied to financial privilege more generally, particularly where issues of social policy were concerned. This is why very often House of Lords amendments had waivers in the House of Commons on many things-including, recently, university tuition fees, the savings gateway and child trust funds, all issues that I discussed myself. The principle that this should now be extended to any implications for public expenditure is far wider than the Parliament Act 1911, and adds a new and unwelcome principle to our unfortunately unwritten constitution.

Incidentally the exchange at the start of this last extract is because Lord Morgan got his forms of address wrong. In the Lords peers refer to each other in the third person as “noble Lords”. Members of the same political party call each other “my noble friend”. Lord Tyler, whom Lord Morgan was addressing, is a Liberal Democrat and so not – at least in the context of the Lords chamber – a noble friend to Labour peers.

The Perne and Ward libraries

The Perne and Ward Libraries is a new blog about the libraries at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

The Perne is one of the secret wonders of Cambridge. Based around the bequest left to the college by Andrew Perne, Master of Peterhouse from 1553 to 1589, it contains many other early modern books too, making around four thousand volumes in all. The books are housed in beautiful seventeenth-century shelving and furniture: to see quite how stunning the library is, read my previous post about the Perne here.

The Ward, apart from being where I spent every waking hour between March and May of 2001 frantically cramming for my finals, is Peterhouse’s undergraduate library, housed in Cambridge’s former Museum of Classical Archaeology. 

The first post is about Richard Crashaw, metaphysical poet and fellow of Peterhouse from 1637 until he was ejected in 1644. 

Clarendon

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Today is the anniversary of the birth of Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon: adviser to Charles I and Lord Chancellor under Charles II, and author of the History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England.

I first read bits of of Clarendon’s history of the civil wars while an undergraduate, returned to it again in extracts as a postgraduate, but became gripped by it when I killed some of my commute by reading it all the way through a few years ago, having downloaded a free version from Google Books. It remains one of the great narratives of England’s troubles during the mid-seventeenth century, and not just because of Clarendon’s ability as a writer to capture in a single phrase the essence of the period’s key figures: describing John Hampden, for example, as having ‘a head to contrive, a tongue to persuade, and a hand to execute any mischief’, or Oliver Cromwell as a ‘brave bad man’. It’s also because he managed that rare thing of being both protaganist and commentator, combining first-hand knowledge of the political intricacies of the period with a much wider understanding, inspired by his readings in Roman history, of the compromises inherent in any political regime. Of course his views are partial, and he makes that clear from his first sentence: expressing his intention that ‘posterity may not be deceived, by the prosperous wickedness of these times’. But it has taken modern historians a long time to rediscover some of Clarendon’s insights: for example, that ‘paper-skirmishes’ went hand in hand with actual combat, as in this passage:

There was one circumstance not to be forgotten in the march of the Citizens that day, when the shew by Water was little inferior to the other by Land, that the Pikemen had fasten’d to the tops of their pikes, and the rest in their hats or their bosoms, printed Papers of the Protestation which had been taken and enjoyned by the House of Commons the year before for the defence of the Privilege of Parliament; and many of them had the printed Votes of the King’s breaking their Privileges in his coming to the House, and demanding their Member.

As a pamphleteer for the royalist cause, of course, Clarendon was closer than most the world of ‘paper bullets’ that he foregrounds in his account of the outbreak of the wars. Perhaps it’s this that means the History is still remarkably fresh for a modern reader, much closer in spirit to contemporary political diaries like those of Tony Benn or Alan Clark than to a drier work of political commentary.

All of which means I thought I should break my rather long period of silence here to mark Clarendon’s anniversary. There are various free editions of the History on Google Books and the Internet Archive, as well as a modern selection of extracts edited by Paul Seaward. The best book about Clarendon’s own role in the English civil wars remains, 62 years on, Brian Wormald’s Clarendon: Politics, History and Religion. Wormald was a retired fellow at my college when I was an undergraduate: in retrospect I would rather my only encounter with him had been to talk to him about the book, rather than him catching me climbing over a wall taking a shortcut to the pub.

The engraving of Clarendon is a print by David Loggan after Sir Peter Lely, from around the 1660s or 1670s: AN394659001, © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Then and now

Westminster Hall on the first day of the legal year circa 1750, when the hall was still a courtroom:

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The same view yesterday, the day after Parliament rose for the Christmas break:

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First image is an engraving sold by the printsellers Robert Laurie and James Whittle of the Golden Buck at 53 Fleet Street in 1797, based on an earlier state dating back to c. 1750 or so. AN1082748001, © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Second image taken by me on my way through to the Commons gift shop to finish my Christmas shopping.

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