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'Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.'

Never has the bitter truth of this statement been better demonstrated than in our current national crisis.

There are many reasons for the shameful, three-year long paralysis of our politics, but the most fundamental is a misunderstanding of the history of the British Parliament...

MPs insist they've got history on their side - but they're wrong: DAVID STARKEY says Parliament has succeeded in thwarting the will of the voters


By historian David Starkey For The Mail On Sunday
8 September 2019



'Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.'

Never has the bitter truth of this statement been better demonstrated than in our current national crisis.

There are many reasons for the shameful, three-year long paralysis of our politics, but the most fundamental is a misunderstanding of the history of the British Parliament.


There are many reasons for the shameful, three-year long paralysis of our politics, but the most fundamental is a misunderstanding of the history of the British Parliament, writes DAVID STARKEY


Far-fetched? You don't believe me? Listen to this: 'This is the Crisis of Parliaments.

'We shall know by this if Parliaments live or die... we have beaten ourselves more than our enemies could have done.

'...If we persevere, the King to draw one way, the Parliament another, the Commonwealth [that is, the State] must sink in the midst.'

These words were first uttered in Parliament almost 400 years ago, in 1628.

But you only need to change two of them – replace 'enemies' with 'EU' and 'King' with 'Prime Minister' – and you have the most perfect description of our present plight.

Parliament has fought the Government to a standstill and so, disgracefully, has succeeded in thwarting the democratic will of the voters.

There is no shortage of individuals to blame for the mess. First in the dock is Theresa May.

Her grotesquely misjudged election campaign of 2017 cost the Government its majority.

Thereafter she was in office but not in power.

Still worse, her attempt to preserve party unity at all costs led to the collapse of party discipline as Leavers and Remainers alike defied the party whip and voted against the Government – and suffered no consequences.

Next in the line-up of guilty men is the smirking figure of Speaker Bercow.

His arbitrary tearing up of the Commons' rule book Erskine May can seem esoteric and inconsequential to the outsider.

In fact, it is a shocking act of constitutional vandalism that destroys the accumulated wisdom of 150 years. It is also deliberately and profoundly undemocratic.

Yet our current crisis is the direct legacy of another prominent figure, too, but this time one rarely mentioned on television and located firmly in the past: the great Victorian historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay.

It is thanks to Macaulay that we have an exaggerated and deformed doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty – a fetish so powerful that our MPs have been encouraged to defy the democratic voice they are supposed to serve.

To explain: Macaulay saw Parliament as the central thread of British history.

This he presented in highly coloured prose as a repeated struggle between King and Parliament in which the freedoms of Britain were forged.

The key events of our history were, in this interpretation, the Civil War of the 1640s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89, with the whole thing culminating in the Liberal perfection of his own Victorian Britain.

It is often known as the 'Whig theory of history'.

Today, echoes of this eminent historian roll like thunder across our current political landscape as almost everybody invokes the false image of Parliament he created.

I doubt if Jeremy Corbyn has heard of Macaulay, much less read him.

But the Left, with its love of struggle and revolution, lap it all up and add on, for good measure, the Chartists and Peterloo (which is why the BBC is making such a disproportionate fuss about the current 200th anniversary of the latter).


I doubt if Jeremy Corbyn has heard of Thomas Babington Macaulay, much less read him, writes DAVID STARKEY

The lawyers get in on the act as well. As, of course, does the absurd vanity and strutting self-importance of Speaker Bercow, with his repeated claim to be 'championing the rights of the House of Commons'.

But what if Macaulay is wrong? Then the whole edifice comes tumbling down. And Macaulay was wrong. Every detail of his interpretation is now rejected by historians.

Parliament was not a peculiarly British institution.

Almost all medieval states, big and small, had parliaments because the Middle Ages believed that 'that which touches everybody should be decided by everybody'.

But almost everywhere, such parliaments disappeared because they turned into mere talking shops (sounds familiar?) and got in the way of good, efficient government (sounds familiar again?).

The peculiar thing about Britain, therefore is that, with characteristic old-fashionedness, Parliament survived.

And it did so not because it was in a state of permanent struggle with the King, but because it was useful to him.

So it is the strong kings, not the weak ones, who extend the powers of Parliament.

The warrior kings Edward I and Edward III because Parliament was the least painful and most efficient way of raising the large taxes they needed for their wars of imperial conquest against Wales, Scotland and France.

And Henry VIII, 'the mighty Lord who broke the bonds of Rome', because only Parliament could get him his divorce and carry out the first Brexit.

Which means in turn that the Civil Wars of the 17th Century are not the culmination of British history but the exception.

Nor did Parliament win the Civil War of the 1640s, as every fool knows.

The Army did. And the Army first purged and then abolished Parliament soon after it had executed the King.

The task therefore after the death of the military dictator, Oliver Cromwell, and the collapse of his hated regime under his incompetent son Richard, was to put Humpty Dumpty back together again and reunite King and Parliament, legislative and executive.

This was achieved in the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89 and its aftermath. And Britain – now properly so-called after the legislative Union of England and Scotland in 1707 – embarked on a glorious age of imperial expansion abroad and spreading prosperity at home.

The result was that it remained largely immune to the destructive fervour of the French Revolution.

Even popular protest was different in Britain – which is where, properly, Peterloo and the Chartists come in.

They were not campaigning, as in Continental Europe, to bring down the ancien regime. Instead they wanted a voice and place in Parliament, too.

This was conceded, after sustained resistance from the minority already represented in Parliament, in the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884.

The latter ushered something like one man one vote, though one woman one vote had to wait until after the First World War.

Democracy, or something approximating to it, created its own dilemma: what was the relationship between parliamentary and popular sovereignty?

The question was never formally answered. Instead, a series of ad hoc changes in mid-Victorian Britain transformed MPs from Edmund Burke's representatives into something more closely akin to delegates.

Parties became stronger and won and lost elections on the basis of manifesto commitments.

MPs stood on a party ticket rather than as individuals and, once they were in the House, were whipped into following the party line.

At the same time and also to bind Parliament to the will of its new democratic masters, the conventions which give the Government control over the submission of legislation and the timetable of Parliaments developed and were codified by Thomas Erskine May, the clerk of the Commons in the crucial decades of the 1870s and 1880s, into the rule book which is now in its 25th edition.


There is no shortage of individuals to blame for the mess. First in the dock is Theresa May. Her grotesquely misjudged election campaign of 2017 cost the Government its majority.

This is the system that is now disintegrating before our eyes, thanks in no small part to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act which – as Boris Johnson is belatedly discovering – makes this stinking rump of a Parliament impossible to dissolve without its own consent.

Once again, it is the failure to learn from historical parallels that is so shocking. A very similar act – that 'Parliament could only be dissolved with its own consent' – was passed in 1641. And it had the same effect.

Then only Cromwell and his troops could get rid of the Rump Parliament. Now an immediate repeal of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is vital for the restoration of parliamentary sanity and good government.

But that, alas, would be asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

The result of all of these errors of commission, omission and downright ignorance is that we have gone back to the Crisis of Parliaments of the 1620s.

Relations between Government and Parliament have broken down.

Our enemies – I mean of course our EU 'partners' – laugh at our divisions and profit from them.

Above all Parliament is paralysed and, rather than helping to govern the country (its proper task), makes it ungovernable.

History – real history and not Macaulay's myth – has a simple and terrible lesson: Parliaments that obstruct good government rather than facilitate it do not last very long.

'This' – to repeat as history itself is doing – 'is the Crisis of Parliaments. We shall know by this if Parliaments live or die.'

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/columnis...ng-voters.html
Last edited by Blackleaf; 1 week ago at 06:08 AM..