Feature: Ahead of his time

The new backbench business committee holds its first ever debate in the Commons today – 400 years after the idea was first floated by a visionary political thinker.

By Joe Egerton

As Natascha Engel, the chair of the backbench business committee, has said, “this is a historic occasion – for the first time backbenchers have decided what we want to debate in government time”. And it is only the first stage in a reform that will hand control over Commons business to a business committee.

It’s not a new idea. The suggestion that the Commons should control its own timetable was first set out by the Jesuit priest Robert Parsons (or Persons) in the 1590s.

This was part of a comprehensive set of proposals in The Memorial on the Perfect Reformation of England. He urged: “For that the English Parliament, by old received custom of the Realm, is the Fountain, as it were, of all publick Laws, and settled Orders within the Land, one principal care is to be had that the high Court and Tribunal be well reformed.

A business committee (Parsons proposed that it be chaired by the Speaker) was only one of a number of reforms. Elections were to be free, rotten boroughs should be suppressed, towns given proper representation. The importance of proper scrutiny and an opposition were argued for the first time.

Parsons was building on his reading of English history, and particularly the powerful parliaments of the 15th century ruthlessly emasculated by the Tudors. A few years earlier, in 1594, he and others had published the Conference on the Next Succession. This added to a tradition of government being established by the consent of the people – the then revolutionary idea, based on a reading of English history shared with Shakespeare in Richard II, that the English people could revoke their consent. Parsons thus has a strong claim to be the father of constitutional political thinking.

He added to this political thinking advanced social policies: among Parsons’ proposals were universal secondary education, a major expansion and reform of university education, property right for women and the establishment of local banks to offer a substitute for money lenders. This was to be financed by a levy on the 16th century equivalent of our Russian billionaire oligarchs and bloated bankers – the possessors of the Abbey Lands.

Parsons is now largely forgotten, except perhaps as the most sinister Jesuit of his and any age. The rich and powerful have never been enthusiastic for giving up their wealth and power and vehemently opposed Parsons’ plans for social reform implemented by a democratic parliament that would have achieved what Lloyd George’s 20th century reforms eventually brought about – the eclipse of the oligarchy that first established itself under the Tudors. But for a century after his death he remained the embodiment of constitutional government – and as such was denounced vehemently both by the Whigs who represented the oligarchy and by defenders of royal absolutism.

Parsons’ ideas survived. His books – particularly The Conference – were reprinted in the 17th century by the democratic radicals suppressed by Cromwell. He was linked to the Calvinists, thus influencing the democratic left-wing tradition in English politics. And
Disraeli read him in his father’s great library – the political theory that Disraeli sets out in Coningsby and Sybil is that of Robert Parsons.

Under the first Elizabeth, England was in a state we can recognise as that of England in 2009: the public finances in disarray, the prosperity of one half of the nation bought by the misery and oppression of the other half, and a Commons so dominated by the executive that is was unable to protect those it was intended to represent.

But there was one difference. Parsons’ call for the Commons to take control of its agenda and assert it historic role as the fount of all public law fell on largely deaf ears. The call of Tony Wright has been listened to, with the formation of the backbench business committee. It’s been a long time coming.

Joe Egerton is a regular contributor to Thinking Faith