Parliament: The Biography by Chris Bryant, book review: Secret side of history's lawmakers


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The Independent Culture

It is hard to think of a more important parliament in the history of this island than the so-called Reformation parliament, which met under Henry VIII. After the MPs convened in 1529, in the space of only a few years they did much more than do away with the Pope and approve of the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. They cut a thousand-year-old tie to the Continent – effecting a profound cultural and political as well as a religious shift whose consequences can be felt even today in the anguished debates on Britain’s place in Europe.

Did the MPs know what they were doing? From this vantage point, it seems clear that they must have been aware they confronted an historic choice. But, perhaps not, for, as Chris Bryant notes, the MPs of the Reformation Parliament had other priorities besides terminating papal power. They also passed a bill against crows, another about foreign hats and a third about buggery - making it a hanging offence.

I would have liked rather more off-stage, or backstage, stuff about the life of this ancient institution that we all too often take for granted - but Bryant is too busy covering the big debates to deliver such treats often. Attempting a biography of something that has been around for centuries is a tough assignment. However, the result, at least for the first 200 pages, is a mass of overwhelming detail. There is a lot of information about who sat for which seat in the 1300s, how many “proctors”, or proxies, the bishops had in Parliament and which “mitred abbots” were entitled to sit in the Lords in the Middle Ages - the number fluctuated wildly, apparently.

One problem with his approach is that Bryant does not subscribe to any grand theories about the development of Parliament over the ages. MPs came to London, outlawed crows, foreign hats, or whatever else bothered their constituents, and went home. One forgets they often assembled infrequently. In Bryant’s view, they were rarely aware of having bit parts in a great play whose final act would see the creation of a democracy. Not much sense of destiny, in other words. Nor did Parliament accumulate power in a linear fashion, he says. It waxed and waned - and in some ways was not much more powerful under George III than it had been under Edward III.

Bryant is probably right to take aim at whatever remains in people’s minds of Victorian myths about the Mother of Parliaments marching onwards and upwards, steadily accumulating a sense of its own importance - but this isn’t groundbreaking. The result is a dense account that lacks much of a narrative arch. In this “biography”, Parliament emerges as little more than a series of meetings of burgesses, lords, bishops and abbots, all squabbling madly with the King and each other about posts and about the money supply. Another problem, which will certainly irritate some readers, is that the stories of the Scottish and Irish parliaments are compressed into a few pages.

The story gains pace and direction in the second half, when Bryant lets go of the fine detail and delivers some witty, sympathetic sketches of the great figures of the 18th century. It would be good if he were to maintain this more fluid approach in Part 2, because this is only Part 1, ending with the Act of Union with Ireland. Hopefully, when dealing with Parliament in the last two centuries, he will come up with more than just a lot of argumentative men haggling over posts.