Monday 12 November 2007

Tradition- Sometimes, It's Silly

Tradition may be a wondrous thing. Sometimes, to do a thing and know it was done the same by those of another age makes us feel they live yet.

Sometimes, it can be pretty silly.
Prior to 1832, the House of Commons in the UK, had the distinction of having its members chosen in a LESS rational way then the House of Lords.

Tradition, as ever, was behind the most completely ludicrous representative system the world has seen, yet it called itself the popular chamber. This was the chamber that fought Charles I and won.

Parliament actually really means a talking shop, and Edward I founded it for that purpose.
A place where he could hear all the opinions of all sections of society whose voice he needed to hear. Once they'd talked, they could then vote as he told them. And in those days, they did.

So he invited all the Lords, all the Bishops and all the Abbots.

Kinghts, well there were a lot of those, so he'd just get a few to come. Two from every county. That give him a chance to see what knights in ALL parts of his land thought.

But towns were important. Towns were where the wealth was made and traded. The guildsmen who ran those towns and contributed lavishly to his treasury, must be there too. And so a list of towns was drawn up, each of which would choose two of their burgesses to go to parliament. How they chose them was up to them.

And the list of towns often changed. But the key cities and ports were always on the list.

During the seventeenth century, when Kings excluding towns which argued with him became contentious, a law was passed saying that a town or city that had been issued a writ to return members, could not cease to hold that privilege.

And at that point, the list was frozen. The last town added was Newark in 1670.

However, the list was already a bit odd. Some of the towns which sent members were not quite what they once were. Some were already mere villages.

Over the eighteenth century, with the massive changes in population, the situation got worse.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the two members of parliament for Yorkshire (representing ALL Yorkshire, bar those towns not sending their own members, a list NOT including Leeds, Bradford, Halifax or Sheffield), represented over a million people.

The two members for the Borough of Old Sarum represented- well, nobody.
The population was nil.

Whoever owned the land got to chose the MP- he just rented seven properties before polling day to seven nominees, who nominated his candidates to duly serve as members for a town whose population had long gone.

Gatton in Surrey had a population of two squires, father and son, who simply elected themselves.

Birmingham, with 50,000 souls, had no members at all. Its electorate (a fraction of the actual population, only those who owned the amount of land that would have made them a knight in the middle ages) were represented by the Members for Warwickshire.

In some places, such as Taunton, the Members were elected by those with fireplaces above a certain size. In some, by the owners of certain buildings. In most places, the Corporation (a self elected Town Council) made the decisions.

This is true. This was obstinately defended year in, year out, by politicians. Of course. Places like Old Sarum- rotten boroughs, as they were known- were the safe seats of their day.

Buy one, it was yours. Pitt represented one, so did Fox in spite of his revolutionary fervour.
Oddly Burke, who defended them, did not. He sat for Bristol.

In 1832 the Whig government finally passed the Great Reform Bill.
It didn't bring democracy, but at least it decided that Manchester and Birmingham were better places to have representatives in the House of Commons than Gatton and Old Sarum.


Anonymous said...

Tradition is a funny thing and not always good. A lot of it has become outdated and irrelevant. But still, it's nice to have have that kind of sentimentality sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Monday is voting day. You can't break from that tradition. Where is the poll? I want to vote. I have to vote. I need to vote.

Anonymous said...

Excellent roundup of the arcane ways of the old House of Commons, CBI. Probably just as well Australia waited till 1901 (when you had developed a pretty good representative system for us to copy)before putting our own Federal system in place. Mind you, property ownership was still a requirement for local council voting in Victoria up until 1988!

Anonymous said...

Interesting history lesson Crushed. Having lived in two very young countries, I have found Tradition has not been such a big influence, although to be sure we did follow some brought by Brits to Australia.
In countries with long time traditions it is not so easy to change them, although some are falling by the wayside due to the need, or desire or whatever you want to call it, to be politically correct.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if we have better MPs with more democracy ? Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, Crushed. you're right - sometimes tradition is just plain silly.

Anonymous said...

Oestrebunny- It is- to a point. But places with no inhabitants having 2 MPs was perhaps goinh too far.

22 Cornish towns sent Members to parilament. Most were only villages.

16 Wiltshire towns did, one being Old Sarum. Some again, were large(ish) many weren't.

In Lancashire only six did- Manchester not being one of them.

Alexys- Ah, somebody noticed! I had hoped my breal with tragiion would pass unnoticed.

I thought more people needed to affirm life on the current one first. 30% Pesimists. Thats gloomy :(

Lad Litter- the Secret Ballot was first used in Australia, before being used here. Is it a good idea? I have mixed felings.

Local elections in the six Counties had ratepayer only franchise up till 1969- with extra votes allocated to limited companies.

Its one of the reasons (the other being straight gerrymandering) Derry always used to have a Unionist council.

jmb- There was the idea, I think, that somehow England had the perfect constiution. Members for rotten boroughs had led the fight for freedom against Kings- several of the five members Charles I wanted to arrest represented such seats. Pitt sat for a village in cornwall called Bossiney, Fox sat for Midhurst in Sussex, again, a tiny place.

Mutley- Well, possibly not. I think the late nineteenth century marked the peak, the early days of 'democracy'.

Welshcakes- More so than people accept. Sometimes it means people don't look objectively at things.

War, Poverty and Ignorance are traditional, as as Racism.

Much else we also think we need in our society is also just tradition.

Anonymous said...

I love watching the Parliment in session on CNN The way everyone os all hollering and accusing and pointing fingers... looks like a brawl about to happen and then they all get quiet and then it starts up again! LOL I guess I have a stereotypical view of Enghlishmen as being all stoic and not saying all that much so it always surprises me to see them so animated! FI FIE FO FUM!