Fill(et)ing the Lords – 1

It is only a few months since we were comparing the House of Commons to its behaviour before the Civil War. Now we have a Cavalier Parliament in the Commons, but with Cromwellian disdain for the House of Lords.

It is not that the Lords are positively rebellious, blocking the Commons, but they are either potentially threatening or useless. The live question is whether to attempt to reform it. The last person who did was Tony Blair, and while his changes looked as if they could shrink the House to a manageable size and fill it with experts, it has swollen even more and been filled with cast-off cronies. That was always going to be the end of the Blair reforms: William Hague said as much in an infamous speech he made at the time.

The remedy is harder, because no one can agree on what the ideal House of Lords would be.

We in the general public may see it the way Oscar Wilde did in A Woman of No Importance: “We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body.”

That is not a satire though: it is the ideal. In America, the Senate was devised to be the elder, learned body restraining the passing enthusiasms of the popular house; the “fickleness and passion” as Madison put it. Bagehot thought it valuable as “formidable sinister interest may always obtain the complete command of a dominant assembly” needing a second chamber of an opposite sort to oppose the captive chamber; but he also observed that “The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”

Idealism fails. The Commons may be captured by an enthusiasm for a few years, and often are, but in the Lords it may be embedded for a generation. The best characterisation of the House in its reality is one of Tony Benn’s observations: The House of Lords is the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians.

The Liberals wanted to replace the Lords with an elected chamber back in Gladstone’s day, and it has never happened, because MPs will not brook a rival set of chancers like themselves. Every parliament has those promising unspecified reform, or abolition, election or goodness knows what.

Until the ideal is determined, the remedy cannot be. Most other countries have a second chamber, because they follow at a distance the Westminster model. We can look at what they have done, and that is enough to put us off reform. No other though has our Outer Mongolia for retired or failed politicians (Outer Mongolia by the way has no second chamber).

Pound-shop peerages handed out like toffee have made the House of Lords intolerable or embarrassing. Boris Johnson has promised to consider reform, but did so just after handing out more toffees.

What to do? Another article, I feel.

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Mill, Calvin and Hobbes

John Calvin, and Calvinism, have drawn many interpretations, few recognisable to the Great Reformer himself. Our vision is shaped by the sight of dour ministers of the Kirk pronouncing thundering condemnations from the pulpit, and those schismatic free churches which shake the dust of their feet when they leave divide from the Church of Scotland and its over such matters as scandalously allowing music in worship. The word “Calvinist” is associated with joylessness and Christianity stripped to bare essentials.

However in theological terms Calvinism is just one of the branches of the Reformation, sitting beside Lutheranism. The Thirty-Nine Articles which define the doctrine of the Church of England, with its robed priests and mitred bishops, is Calvinist.

John Stuart Mill in On Liberty wrote of his idea of it:

It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable is comprised in obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise: “whatever is not a duty, is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. This is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority; and, therefore, by the necessary condition of the case, the same for all.

….

It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.

He got it wrong – he hits the mark on how many ministers treated morals, but that is not Calvinism, properly defined. The idea Mill identifies is “whatever is not duty is sin”, and duty is in the eyes of the minister. There is no such doctrine in the Scriptures. I have not read in intense detail Calvin’s own Institutes of the Christian Religion, but though it frequently mentions duty, and it certainly emphasises the total depravity of mankind (with which Thomas Hobbes would not dissent), I can see no suggestion that he believed that a Christian must follow a script – he contradicts it.

The problem, the prescriptive idea, comes from after Calvin- from a distortion brought by fanatics so convinced of the reform that they wanted to take it further, like riding to the destination and then riding fast beyond it and away from it.

Hobbes lived through the Puritan revolution. He observed:

these took upon them not only a Divine right, but also a Divine inspiration. And having been connived at, and countenanced sometimes in their frequent preaching, they introduced many strange and many pernicious doctrines, out-doing the Reformation, as they pretended, both of Luther and Calvin; receding from the former divinity or church philosophy (for religion is another thing), as much as Luther and Calvin had receded from the pope; and distracted their auditors into a great number of sects, as Brownists, Anabaptists, Independents, Fifth-monarchy-men, Quakers, and divers others, all commonly called by the name of fanatics

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Books

Titus Oates

Titus Oates was in a short time the most feted and hated man of his time. Few would understand him today, apart from Tom Watson.

In Good King Charles’s Golden Days there was an infamous scandal brought about by the abiding fear of the age, and promoted by one man into a frenzy alleging a sickening conspiracy suffusing the corridors of power.

He was a man whose manner made men listen, as he told them what they wanted to hear, what they wanted to believe, and he gave a justification for their darkest desires for blood. In the end he fell from his lofty perch and met a form of justice, but only after many innocent men had suffered the destruction of their reputations and death.

It is impossible to put a character on Titus Oates as he was above all an actor and dissembler.  We know he was born in Rutland and after the Restoration was educated in Cambridge for a while. He followed the wind: when the Puritans were in the ascendant he became a Puritan, but when they fell he reconciled to the Church of England. Like some in our time he rose to public office despite his obvious unsuitability; in the manner of his time it was within the Church. He had no reputation for intelligence, which has never been a bar to public office, but could speak.

Oates was a survivor on the edge; on one occasion as his career stalled he sought advancement by accusing a fellow cleric of abusing young men in his care, which was a gross slander and he fled London to avoid charges. Soon he was himself accused of a capital offence, and survived the noose only by the privilege attaching to his position. He joined up with a popular actor in a new enterprise, and failed at that also.

In 1667 came the turning point for Oates: this former Puritan Baptist and Protestant preacher embraced the enemy and was received into the Roman church. He left for France to enter a Jesuit College, and was in Spain also. The next year he was back in London, renouncing Rome and with a list of names.  These were men from the cream of society whom he accused of a foul and widespread conspiracy of which he had learned amongst the Jesuits.

This was an unsettled time – the Restoration was only eight years in an those who led the Civil War and Cromwell’s dictatorship were still there, but in the reaction to the Puritans was another danger, of emboldened papists drawing strength from Louis XIV revitalising France and the Roman clergy across the Channel. In 1666, London burned and some were quick to blame a papist plot (which was even inscribed on the Monument). The fate of the nation was in the balance as three factions circled the seat of power looking for advantage. There were plots of some sort, but no excuse as yet to strike with deadly force against the rival.

In stepped Oates with his revelation of a Popish Plot he learned of in France and a list of names.

Oates spoke well before the Privy Council, which was always on the look-out for conspiracies against the realm. They wanted to believe him. By chance, one of the names he first put forward, Edward Coleman, was found to have corresponded with King Louis’s personal priest, which gave credibility to the tale. Colman was hanged. Oates knew that the more he accused, the longer his fortune would last. More names followed and more elaborate plots were ‘revealed’.

Oates suffered an early check when he had an education from King Charles – the King was no fool and when he examined Oates he saw through him at once and locked him up – but Parliament wanted to believe in the Popish Plot and forced his release.

There were well-publicised raids on the homes of accused men and anyone in the public eye could be accused, and no doubt some stood by Oates to avoid accusation. The gallows began to fill. In the meantime, Oates was given an apartment in Whitehall, a noble coat of arms, and rumours of a marriage into nobility.

After three years of blood and destroyed reputations, the acquittals began and it became clear that Titus Oates was spinning fantasies. His fall was rapid and brutal, and his final wild accusations against the King himself let to prison and poverty, and this as the reign of King Charles II was drawing to a close and the heir was known to be a papist himself, and the new King James II had Titus Oates dragged back before a judge, to be stripped, pilloried, whipped through the streets and thrown in prison (where he remained until the papist King was himself chased off the throne in 1688).

It could happen today. We have seen it, when a politician without principle of discernment makes wild, unfounded allegations about the frenzy of the age. The question for us is how we deal with it, to resist or be driven along with the popular mood of hatred and accusation.

One thing for the immediate moment – such a man as Oates, and we know who stands in his shoes today, must never be feted or honoured. Now one such has been put forward for elevation to the House of Lords, where he would have honours, titles, arms and lifelong privilege to accuse whomever he wishes without consequence. It does not matter what his party leader promised him in return for resignation: no such man should be considered for that place.

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Books

Treaties bedevil a wayward parliament, 1644

In this same year the Parliament put to death Sir John Hotham and his son, for tampering with – the Earl of Newcastle about the rendition of Hull; and Sir Alexander Carew, for endeavouring to deliver up Plymouth, where he was governor for the Parliament; and the Archbishop of Canterbury, for nothing but to please the Scots; for the general article of going about to subvert the fundamental laws of the land, was no accusation, but only foul words.

They then also voted down the Book of Common-prayer, and ordered the use of a Directory, which had been newly composed by an Assembly of Presbyterian ministers.

They were also then, with much ado, prevailed with for a treaty with the King at Uxbridge; where they remitted nothing of their former demands.

The King had also at this time a Parliament at Oxford, consisting of such discontented members as had left the Houses at Westminster; but few of them had changed their old principles, and therefore that Parliament was not much worth. Nay rather, because they endeavoured nothing but messages and treaties, that is to say, defeating of the soldiers’ hope of benefit by the war, they were thought by most men to do the King more hurt than good.

(Behemoth)

Books

Brexit moment 1714

Britain was at the moment when a great change, believed to be settled some years earlier, might be overturned. It would only take a little push, and all those years of effort, and the confidence in peace, would be cast down. Freedom was in peril, a foreign power across the Channel waited, social and political unrest could break out. The nation was on edge. The year was 1714.

The Settlement to end the crisis

The healing peace of King Charles II’s reign was followed by three years’ turmoil and the Revolution of 1688, as I recalled in a previous article. The settlement of 1688 was solid in establishing the balance of authority and rights, but fragile as King William and Queen Mary were childless and the hopes of the nation rested on Mary’s sister Anne, who was fertile indeed.  However although she was almost constantly pregnant, Anne lost all but one of her children in childbirth or infancy. In 1700, Anne lost her one surviving child at the age of 11: she was the last Protestant of the House of Stuart and now she was a dead-end. At her passing, Anne’s deposed father would cross the Channel again and reverse the revolution.

There was time yet – the King and Parliament looked for an heir and found that the nearest Protestant heirs had inexplicably turned Papist, so they turned to a granddaughter of King James I, Sophie of Hanover, and the Act of Settlement was passed in 1701 to settle the succession on her. King James II died in exile in the same year, but was succeeded by a son, born the year of the Revolution, bred a Frenchman and a Roman Catholic and looking to reclaim his father’s throne. William died a few months later and Anne succeeded to the throne.

Queen Anne

Queen Anne was a popular queen (and was nothing like her portrayal by Olivia Coleman).  She achieved the union between her two realms and presided over a flowering of culture.  Hers though was a barren throne with no son to succeed her.

All surely was settled by the Act of Settlement?  An Act though is only as strong as the next election and the willingness of the establishment to uphold it.

By 1713 the Queen was ailing.  Those who supported the exiled king and his line, the Jacobites, had been quiescent while his daughters and his son-in-law sat on the throne, but as the end of their line approached, they began to move.  Suddenly the issues of the Revolution and even of the Civil War all those years ago were appearing again.

Queen Anne’s own thoughts are uncertain: she refused to allow her Hanoverian cousins to move to Great Britain, but we cannot know if that was to avoid an intimation of mortality or because she had sympathy with the idea of letting her half-brother’s succeed her, or if it was her Tory ministers who insisted on it.

The government and the Commons were dominated by Tories and the leading Tories were certainly playing both sides. It is known that there were contacts across the Channel. The War of the Spanish Succession was ended precipitously to make a rapprochement with France and Louis XIV. Harley and Bolingbroke were both in contact with the Jacobites and Bolingbroke had even met the Pretender in person. Outwardly they stood for the Settlement and the Hanoverian succession, but they were open to renouncing their pledges to the people and handing the Crown to the young James Edward Stuart.  If only James would renounce the Church of Rome and become Protestant, then the Tories in Parliament would most likely have repealed the Act of Settlement at once.  They also knew that as soon as the new Hanoverian monarch succeeded, they would be out of office and the Whigs would supplant them, and this, ambition for office, outweighed in some the public good.

The Settlement was looking very fragile indeed.

1714

In 1714, there was an alehouse in Stamford known as The George Tap, which was kept by a Mr Bolton, who had Jacobite sympathies.  The Jacobites had a custom of drinking to the Queen kneeling and bareheaded, which was a harmless defiance, but these were not normal days.  A dragoon was in The Tap, and when he saw Bolton on his knees and uncovered; his anger burst forth – he drew his sword and ran the man through.  A riot broke out, a mob surrounded the house and threatened to tear it down unless the soldier were handed over to them – he fled through the back gate.

The nation was on edge.  The little, bloody vignette in Stamford was just one eruption amongst the dramas played out up and down the land. Parliament had pledged to the Hanoverian succession, and spoken for it, both sides, but they were not trusted: the Tories were suspected of playing both sides and they were, or at least some were.

In June, the Electress Sophie of Hanover died; the heir was now George Louis of Hanover, one step further from the Stuart House.

On 29 July, Queen Anne was on her deathbed: this was the moment on which all would turn. The Queen realised it and acted:  she dismissed Harley and the next day appointed the Duke of Shrewsbury as Lord Treasurer; effectively as prime minister. Shrewsbury had been instrumental in the overthrow of James II and so was to be relied upon to support the Settlement. Two days later the Queen was dead and Shrewsbury held supreme power, and he ensured that the Settlement was honoured, and that King George succeeded peacefully.

It was a month and a half before the new King arrived in London, and he was a hated foreigner, but he was received and took the throne.

There were riots on the day of the coronation and the next year a rebellion was put down in the Highlands, and other risings that were snuffed out before they began. The Hanoverian succession and the rights enshrined in the settlement of 1688 were secured, but it all turned on a moment at the Queen’s death-bed.

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