I drafted a post recently on a debate at Lancaster University in which I participated, on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. Because I drafted it ahead of some of my more recent posts, it appeared before those posts when I published it. If you missed it, you can scroll down or simply click here. You get the chance to watch a video.
I thought I would add a little more, further to my previous post on the youngest MP. R. G. Thorne in The History Parliament: The House of Commons 1790-1820: I – Survey (1986) provides data on MPs elected under age in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. As he writes:
“There were at least 29, possibly 30, new Members who had not attained their legal majority (21 years) when elected to the House in this period – omitting the 15 or 16 Members who were minors when first elected before 1790 and were still in the House. Only one of the new minors, Sir Thomas Mostyn elected for Flintshire in 1796, was unseated on account of his minority”.
As he notes, the others sat despite minors sitting in the House being prohibited by law.
Three minors were elected in 1790, three in 1796, three in 1802, three in 1806, five in 1807 (one of whom was first returned in 1806), three in 1812 and one in 1818. Another 11 were returned at by-elections. Of particular note was the fact that Viscount Jocelyn, returned in 1806 as the MP for county Louth, “was barely 18 years old”.
Thorne notes that most did not vote or speak until they attained their majority, but Viscount Milton was under age when he spoke against the slave trade in 1807.
As the prohibition on minors sitting was enforced after 1832, we can conclude that Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, is not the youngest MP since 1667, but the youngest since the early 19th Century.
The BBC this morning was reporting that Mhairi Black, the SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, is, at the age of 20, ‘Britain’s youngest member of Parliament since 1667′. The problem with this is that it is incorrect by a wide margin.
Prior to the Parliamentary Elections Act 1695, those aged under 21 were disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons by, according to Sir Edward Coke, the law of Parliament. Coke, however, conceded that several had sat ‘by connivance’. A number who sat in Charles II’s Pensioner Parliament are said to have been 14 or 15 years of age. A clause of the 1695 Act strengthened the stringency of the law against the election of minors. The disqualification was extended to Scotland by the Union with Scotland Act 1706 and to Ireland by the Parliamentary Elections (Ireland) Act 1823. Despite these measures, the sitting of some minors ‘by connivance’ continued.
In the period from 1734 to 1832 some 81 Members were elected while under age, all bar one of them being allowed to take their seats. Among their number was Charles James Fox (pictured). As Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke recorded in The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1754-1790: II Members (1985):
“Charles James Fox was his father’s favourite child; caressed, adored, and spoilt; and treated as a man when he was little more than a boy. When only nineteen he was brought into Parliament for Midhurst by an arrangement between Lord Holland and Lord Montagu, patron of the borough. Following the line marked out for him by his father, he voted steadily with Government, and as a speaker became noted for his self-assurance and aggressiveness. In February 1770, a month after his twenty-first birthday, he was given a place at the Admiralty Board…’ (p. 455)
There are no instances of minors sitting after the Reform Act of 1832. Only in 2006, by the Electoral Administration Act, was the qualifying age for election to the House of Commons lowered (from 21 to 18 years), thus enabling those aged 18-20 years to seek to emulate Fox.
For other sources, see those cited in Philip Norton, ‘The Qualifying Age for Candidature in British Elections’, Public Law, Spring 1980, pp. 55-73.
The BBC News website carries a briefing on Election 2015: Q&A – what happens if no one wins? Although useful, it contains a few errors or questionable interpretations. In particular, it says ‘The prime minister could resign, after being defeated on the Queen’s Speech for example, and hand power to the leader of the opposition, who would attempt to govern until 2020. This raises the prospect of a change of governing party without an election – something that has never happened in Britain and would be likely to trigger a constitutional crisis.’
A switch of government, with no election, following defeat on a Queen’s Speech – something that has never happened?
In the December 1923 general election, the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin lost seats (having had a clear majority in the previous Parliament), but remained the largest single party. (The Conservatives won 258 seats, Labour 191, and the Liberals 158.) Rather than resign, Baldwin decided, as we entitled to do, to face the new Parliament and introduce a King’s Speech. An amendment was moved from the Opposition to add the words : ‘But it is our duty respectfully to submit to your Majesty that your Majesty’s present advisers have not the confidence of this House’. (For the debate, see HC Deb. 21 January 1924, vol. 169, cols. 532-685.) The amendment was carried, Baldwin resigned, and the King invited the Labour leader, J. Ramsay MacDonald, to form a Government, which he did. The country thus acquired its first Labour Government. Labour governed as a minority. The Liberals did not seek any agreed terms for supporting the government. As Robert Blake wrote, ‘As it was they supported Labour from an entirely independent position, with no written treaty, not even an informal understanding. Those Liberals who hoped for tacit, unspoken cooperation were soon disillusioned. There was none.’
The Government did not last long. In the October, it decided to treat an amendment to a motion of censure on the Campbell case as a vote of confidence and, when it was carried, MacDonald was granted a dissolution. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, that would no longer be possible. The PM could still tender the Government’s resignation, but he could not request a dissolution. The House could still express its lack of confidence in the Government in the same way that it did in January 1924 in that the wording of the amendment to the Queen’s Speech would demonstrate a lack of confidence, but would not trigger a general election as the wording is not that stipulated under section 2(4) of the Act. The wording has to be precise to count.
Much of the current debate about what may happen in the general election and in its wake lacks historical depth. Lack of knowledge of what happened in 1924 is just part of it.
Eighteen months ago I took part in a debate, held at the University of Lancaster, on the motion ‘This House regrets the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’. I spoke against. I recently came across a video of the debate. My practice is not to post anything, either here or on Twitter, that may be considered partisan. I see my role as educative. However, I thought I would post the video. It gives both sides of the argument and I thought my contribution may be of interest because of the distinctions it draws between the policy and the style of government and between Thatcherism and Thatcher and how one evaluates the impact of a government. My speech starts at 11.30 minutes in.
An indicative vote at the beginning showed a clear majority in support of the motion. At the end of the debate, the motion was defeated by 83 votes to 81.