‘A collection of unruly gentlemen?’: explaining the English Parliament’s functioning, 1660-1702

by Kara Dimitruk (Stellenbosch University)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.

 

Houses_of_Parliament,_St._Stephen's_Hall_(Interior),_London,_England-LCCN2002696922
Houses of Parliament, St. Stephen’s Hall (Interior), London, England. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

How organised are legislatures in their work and policy-making? Does the organisation change and does it matter for economic activity? These questions may make you think of finding out more about the US congress or Westminster Parliament today. My work asks similar questions but looks to the past for answers.

The research, presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, studies members of the English parliament and their committee work before and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which altered fundamental rules influencing parliament’s organisation. This is important because, prior to the Industrial Revolution, countries in Europe with functioning parliaments saw greater economic growth than those without.

Using an interdisciplinary approach and set of tools, my study helps to reconcile different views on parliament’s functioning. It reveals that Members of Parliament were not ‘a collection of unruly gentlemen’ during the period, but MPs with local interests, experience and expertise, and interests in high politics came together on private bill committees. The evidence supports the idea that the Glorious Revolution made, as previous historians have characterised, ‘parliament useful to the nation’.

From 1660 to 1702, constituents introduced projects to Parliament to reorganise their property rights. Each project had to be approved by a committee and then by the entire House of Commons and Lords. Parliament saw about 900 such projects during this period.

The projects, formally called private bills or estate bills, presented a problem for parliament because each one cost the legislature time. The committee stage was crucial to ensure that projects were approved. It gathered information about the quality of the project to present to the rest of the House. The specialisation could allow parliament’s time to be used to discuss a variety of other issues.

My study collects data on MPs and their committee work for these projects. The data collection was made possible because of improvements in the accessibility in historical data made available by the British History Online, the Institute for Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust.

Figure 1 shows the MP-committee network in two sample legislative sessions. Squares are bills; circles are MPs. The size of the squares represents the size of committees; the size of the circles represents how important MPs are to the network based on their committee connections.

DimitrukImage

I find that MPs with constituent interests were significantly more likely to work on committees, but were not central in the network for the entire period. A ‘quiet source of stability’ for parliament’s functioning, these MPs were the more likely to be the small circles or spokes in the network.

The Glorious Revolution changed institutional rules relating to government finance and parliamentary meetings, which in turn altered the value of experience and interests in high politics for committees. Committee experience became more valuable to parliament. MPs with previous committee experience were 11% more likely to work on projects and were more central.

MPs with interests in high politics, such as chairs of government finance bills, with connections the monarch, and affiliated with political coalitions or parties, were more likely to work or hold central positions in the committee network from 1660 to 1689. MPs with these interests were no more or less likely to work on committees or be central in the network after the Revolution.

The evidence suggests that the Glorious Revolution may have made parliamentary organisation relatively more efficient than in the previous era. Studying organisational changes to parliaments in the past not only provides insights into the links between functioning parliaments and historical growth, but can also provide important lessons for our understanding of the operation and organisation of modern legislatures.

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