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Throne forsaken, seats at risk

12 September 2014

Bernard Palmer finds much to enjoy in this saga of Westminster

private collection/bridgeman images

Commons v. Lords: a Liberal Party poster for the General Election of January 1910 reflects David Lloyd George's fight with the Conservative-dominated House of Lords over his so-called "People's Budget". This illustration is from the book under review

Commons v. Lords: a Liberal Party poster for the General Election of January 1910 reflects David Lloyd George's fight with the Conservative-dominate...

Parliament: The biography.
Volume 2: Reform
Chris Bryant
Doubleday £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT263 )

PARLIAMENT nowadays is less a legislature or a vent for the people's grievances than a "gene-pool" for government. That is the conclusion reached by Chris Bryant at the end of this second volume of his history of an institution that, over the cen­turies, has witnessed dramatic and often turbulent change.

Bryant is only too familiar with that of which he writes. He is the Labour MP for the Rhondda and was Deputy Leader of the Commons in the previous Administration. He is also a born historian with an elegance of style which won him de­­served applause for volume one ( Books, 18 July). He agrees with recent polls that suggest that the poor turnout at elections has been driven down not so much by apathy as by anger with MPs and parties for breaking electoral promises.

This second volume reflects on the changed conditions under which MPs now operate. Whereas a Victorian needed a significant private income or additional job to be able to sit in Parliament, the vast majority of today's MPs rely entirely on their Commons salaries - and, as a result, have become more pro­fessional and career-orientated. And, in a media-dominated age, clever interviews on television have become as important as speeches in the Chamber.

Church Timesreaders are likely to be especially interested in Bryant's views on the significance of the House of Lords - and in how the number of bishops with seats there came to be pegged at 26. Bryant - who served as a priest of the Church of England before his election to Parliament - has no space in which to discuss specifically church events (there is not a word about the Prayer Book debates of 1927 and 1928), but occasionally he dips his toe into ecclesiastical waters.

He has harsh things to say, for instance, about the part played by Archbishop Cosmo Lang in the Abdication crisis of 1936. Before the publication of Robert Beaken's book on Lang in 2012, the popular per­ception of the Archbishop had been that of an uninvolved bystander. Beaken revealed that Lang had in fact played a crucial part in the affair, and had urged the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to ensure that the King abdicated in favour of his younger brother Bertie. Bryant paints poor Lang in stark colours. He claims that the Archbishop waged a "particularly vicious campaign" against Edward, "dripping poison" into Baldwin's ears by suggesting that the King was an alcoholic, mentally ill, and suffering from persecution mania.

Bryant is more sympathetic to Lang's successor, William Temple, who, he considers, advocated in his speeches and writings a socially responsible version of Christianity which chimed in with Labour values - and whom, incidentally, he credits with having first coined the term "Welfare State". Bryant shares the widely held view that on Temple's premature death in 1944 the succession to Canterbury should have gone to the Bishop of Chi­chester, George Bell, but that Bell was ruled out by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, because of his opposition to "obliteration bomb­ing" by the RAF as an unjusti­fi­able act of war. An "irritated Churchill" appointed Geoffrey Fisher instead, and Bell was not even allowed to replace Fisher as Bishop of London (William Wand was translated from Bath & Wells). Bryant sticks out, however, in suggesting that this was "one of the few cases of Churchill's vindic­tive­ness".

Today's bishops are far less affluent than their Victorian counter­parts, and hardly any of them now live in palaces. But many people would be sorry if they ceased to sit in the House of Lords.

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.


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