Book review: Parliament: The Biography by Chris Bryant


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The Independent Culture

Chris Bryant, a former deputy leader of the House of Commons and a Labour MP since 2001, recently tweeted in praise of a "splendid" speech by Hilary Benn dedicated to his deceased father, Tony. MPs burst into applause, which, Bryant reminded his 34,000 followers, is "unparliamentary".

A humorous addendum to the compliment, but also a reminder that Bryant wants to be recognised as the foremost expert on Parliament among those who are elected to work there.

His avatar is the cover of Parliament: The Biography, Ancestral Voices - a doorstopper of a book that is only the first of two volumes that seek to dispel the myths that cloak our great political institution.

Disappointingly, these myths include quirky little historical nuggets that are part of the Palace of Westminster's charm: the red lines in front of the Government and opposition benches are not two swords' lengths apart, while "the Mother of all Parliaments" was founded nearly 300 years after the Icelandic Althing and the Isle of Man's Tynwald.

More importantly, some of these myths affect the way we look at certain fundamental issues that face us today: the Scottish nationalist belief that the 1707 Act of Union was "bought for filthy lucre" is, as Bryant puts it, "difficult to substantiate".

The attack is often based on the words of George Lockhart of Carnwath, later arrested as a Scottish Jacobite leader in 1715. He claimed that an English payment of £20,000 to various Scottish politicians was bribery to push through union.

Bryant argues that most of them already supported union and were owed the money. However, he concedes that Scotland had "fallen foul of English commercial jealousy" with the establishment in 1695 of the Company of Scotland, which looked to create trading monopolies with Asia, Africa and the Indies.

This chapter on Scotland is perhaps the best in a volume that traces the heart of our body politic's uncertain origins in the 13th century - "parliament's evolution in the maelstrom of royal demands, baronial complaints and feudal grievances had no single moment of conception" - to 1800, when financial inducements most certainly led to Ireland joining the United Kingdom.

The advantage of this dense but fairly pacy first part is that it covers territory that is relatively uncharted - and political anoraks will undoubtedly enjoy Ancestral Voices, maybe even because it gets bogged down in extraneous detail at times.

In the second, Bryant will have to compete with a number of distinguished parliamentarians who have tackled the major characters and events of the past two centuries, from Douglas Hurd's own mythbuster, Disraeli: or, The Two Lives, to Roy Jenkins's epic Churchill.

As one Labour frontbencher said to me of Bryant (who also holds the not insignificant shadow immigration brief): "How on earth does he find the time?"