- The History of Parliament:Past, Present – and Future?*
The History of Parliament is an iconic British undertaking which, in its scale, scope and significance, may fittingly be grouped with such cognate co-operative ventures as the Dictionary of National Biography, the Survey of London, the Victoria County Histories, and the Buildings of England series.1 All of these great enterprises are multi-volume productions, inaugurated by dedicated and (sometimes, but not always) charismatic founders, which have subsequently evolved into major schemes of collective and collaborative inquiry, and all of them are (rightly and of necessity) still very much works in progress. Long may they continue to be so. From the outset, these massive projects have been informed by a strong sense of educational purpose as well as of academic aspiration, and across the decades since the late nineteenth century, when the earliest of them were first established, they have become increasingly integral to our national life and public conversations, encompassing (as they do together) London and the regions, the natural and also the man-made environment, people as well as places, power along with culture. As such, they combine perspective, popularity and prestige in a uniquely resonant way: they help us understand where we have come from, how and where we live now, and who we are today; they are the envy of many [End Page 366] other countries around the globe who lack such splendid series; and no serious library, anywhere in the English-speaking world, can afford to be without their magnificent volumes.
From this perspective, the History of Parliament is one among several great engines of national historical endeavour and collective historical memory, and in reviewing its past achievements, contemplating its present circumstances, and considering its future prospects, this broader general context should never be lost sight of. It is (to switch metaphors) not the only great beast that is roaming in our historical jungle, and all these mammoth endeavours have certain characteristics in common. (How often, I wonder, do the editors and directors of these mighty undertakings meet to discuss matters of common interest and mutual concern? Problems shared are not invariably problems solved; but it sometimes helps.) Moreover, in recent years, they have faced similar challenges and sensed common opportunities: concerns about levels of funding, whether derived from government, from the Heritage Lottery Fund., or from private sources; the need to re-think (and in some cases re-establish) their relations with a much-expanded higher education sector and with universities, both old and new; the imperative to widen access to a broader public audience that is more fascinated by history than ever before; and the challenge of combining an instantly-recognizable (and much-loved) physical product, beautifully bound between hard covers, with the growing demands for on-line publication and immediate availability.
Yet for all their common characteristics, these scholarly leviathans are also (and rightly) strongly individualistic enterprises, in their mission, their organization, their financing, and their personnel. One way in which the History of Parliament is thus unique is that it has been, from the very outset, an essentially official enterprise: supported by peers and M.P.s alike during the 1930s, and funded by the taxpayer since it was re-established in 1951. It also bears the stamp of the two remarkable men who were its inspiration: Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, M.P., and Professor Sir Lewis Namier, F.B.A. As their titles, their names and their post-nominal letters suggest, they could scarcely have been two more different begetters. Wedgwood was born in 1872 at the heart of England's entrepreneurial and intellectual aristocracy; he was a self-taught historian with a passion for genealogy and local history; he was a long-serving M.P. for Newcastle-under-Lyme, and he ended his days, ennobled by Winston Churchill in 1942, as Lord Wedgwood of Barlaston.2 Namier, by contrast, was born a Polish Jew in 1888 and was a disinherited landowner; he was subsequently exiled to England, where he studied history at Balliol College, Oxford, and where he fell in love with its traditional ruling classes and their great houses; but he was always a loner and [End...