Wiith the nation reeling with shock at the revelations of our politicians’ venality, more than a few commentators, reflecting on the sad decline of standards since the great days of Gladstone and Disraeli, have reached for John Bright’s famous lines about the Palace of Westminster as “the mother of parliaments”.
How, they wonder, could the mother of parliaments have turned into the wicked uncle, the selfish teenager, the greedy infant? How could the institution that gave democracy, liberty and freedom of speech to the world have sunk so low?
Actually, John Bright never said that at all, but what he did say helps us to put the expenses scandal into a broader historical context. In the 1860s, he was one of the most controversial MPs in the country, a fiery radical and founder of the Reform Union, which agitated for triennial parliaments, secret ballots and the extension of the franchise to all adult men (though he wasn’t so keen on female suffrage).
Bright delivered his famous lines during his annual visit to his Birmingham constituency in January 1865. Reflecting on the final stages of the American Civil War, he asked why, when black slaves were being set free across the Atlantic and given the vote, it was still denied to the great majority of Englishmen.
When an Englishman went to Australia, Canada or South Africa, he could vote, but he could not vote at home. “It is only in his own country, on his own soil, where he was born, the very soil which he has enriched with his labour and the sweat of his brow,” said Bright, that he was denied representation. “England is the mother of parliaments… I ask you men of Birmingham… why should you be thus treated in your own land?”
The irony, therefore, is that while we quote Bright today to pat ourselves on the back for our democratic past, he was actually attacking Britain’s undemocratic present. And surely not even the most fervent patriot could deny that he had a point, as three books published this summer make clear. From Peter Kellner’s new book, Democracy, a splendid anthology of speeches and documents charting our history from Athelstan to Brown, the picture that emerges is one of a nation that talked and argued a great deal about democracy without putting its principles into practice.
In John Keane’s new global history of The Life and Death of Democracy, meanwhile, Britain plays only a walk-on part, with an index entry barely longer than Brazil’s. And in Edward Vallance’s riveting Radical History of Britain, which tells the story of radical movements from the Levellers and the Luddites to Chartism and feminism, the story is often one of division, repression and defeat, with Britain’s radical tradition often smothered by popular conservatism and a strong centralised state.
We should resist the temptation, I think, to push this argument too far: while free speech and democratic rights have often been repressed in Britain, they have never been extinguished, and we are right to be proud of our supremely rich, disputatious political traditions. But just as British politics have often been much less democratic than we might think, so they have frequently been much more corrupt.
Take the examples of James I’s lord chancellor Francis Bacon, one of the most gifted statesmen in English history, who ended his career accused of 23 separate counts of corruption; or Sir John Trevor, the hideously ugly speaker of the Commons in the early 1690s, forced to resign after pocketing thousands of guineas in bribes from the East India Company.
Take George Hudson, the ‘Railway King’ of the 1840s, who bribed fellow MPs to approve his railway projects and stole his own firm’s money to pay his hotel bills. Or take the great poster-boy for political corruption, David Lloyd George, who, not content with selling peerages for £50,000 each in the 1920s, had an affair with his secretary and may even have slept with his own daughter-in-law – a record that not even the most licentious modern MP could match.
The fact is that even before the current scandal broke, there were plenty of embarrassing stains on the escutcheon* of British democracy. That does not mean we should be any less angry, of course, but perhaps we should be rather less shocked – for the sad truth is that our political history has never been free of corruption.
*For those who don’t know, an ‘escutcheon’ is a shield or emblem bearing a coat of arms.