Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 July 2014
The study of the nineteenth century British Parliament cannot be limited to the institution itself, nor to the constitutional relations of its par ts. The great electoral reforms of the century increased the importance of the electorate in political decision-making. Coupled with these changes, the vast transformations of economy and society altered the very functions of Parliament. Thus nineteenth century parliamentary history requires an understanding of the whole political system, as well as the events within the House. Many of the recent works bearing on the history of Parliament reflect these facts. While good narrative history of parliamentary events continues to be needed and produced, the most innovative recent work raises different kinds of problems entirely and is not limited to affairs at Westminster. The newer types of work can be viewed as coming in two waves: first, a detailed analysis of political structure, utilizing traditional kinds of sources; and second, a proliferation of analytical approaches, using new sources and methods. Both waves are basically analytical, but they differ in questions asked and in routes to the answers.
The analysis of political structure has been inspired by the questions, if not the methods and interpretations, of Sir Lewis Namier. The best of many examples are still Norman Gash's Politics in the Age of Peel and H. J. Hanham's Elections and Party Management. The main questions asked in such works are: What was the real, as opposed to the theoretical, framework of politics? How were politics actually conducted outside the House of Commons? How did the various reform acts affect the functioning of the electoral system? These works stress, in Gash' terminology, the “medium” in which the ordinary politician operated. In each case, they seem to emphasize continuity rather than change, and the enduring power of bribery, corruption, and influence. They have added a great deal to what the narratives tell us about Victorian politics, especially in regard to the realities of constituency operations, the origins and workings of party machinery, the problems of party finance, and the cost of elections. Structural investigations of parties, like Conor Cruise O'Brien's Parnell and His Party and E. J. Feuchtwanger's Disraeli, Democracy and the Tory Party have given a new dimension to party history. Perhaps most important, the structural studies have established the crucial significance of local factors and the comparative inconsequence of national issues in most elections.
Paper read at the Conference on British Studies Sessions, American Convention, New York, December 1971.
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