The archives date back to 1497, but hold important lessons for policy-makers todayby / January 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
Sometimes the finest things are on our doorsteps and we risk taking them for granted. That was my feeling when I visited the Parliamentary Archives with some fellow parliamentarians earlier this month. Located in Victoria Tower, the tallest tower on the parliamentary estate, the archives are held above the Sovereign’s entrance where the carriage brings the Queen to deliver her speech at the start of each law-making session.
As an historian who has written biographies of Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan, chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History is a great honour. It is a group that promotes both the importance of studying our past and the material needed to do so: those who write our history are dependent on the painstaking work of archivists all around the country.
Those who work in the Parliamentary Archives certainly show great attention to detail, as was made evident at the group’s recent visit to the facility. The floor-to-ceiling shelving held the rolled-up Acts of Parliament, carefully catalogued and organised: even in the age of the iPad, the nation’s Statute Book is contained in a stone tower in parchment rolls, often with only tissue paper protecting the surfaces.
The archive stores Acts of Parliament back to 1497. It is reasonable to ask, in the busy lives parliamentarians lead, why they should take time out to view such items: certainly they are of historic interest, but are they of direct relevance to a modern-day legislature? When the group was shown an Act regulating cross-bow use during the reign of Henry VIII, this question appeared even more pressing.
This is not to say, however, that the archive is not a crucial historic resource for the whole of the country. Whilst security concerns dictate that members of the public have to make appointments to view records, people are welcomed into the research room to browse the wide range of original documents available. The group were shown notes passed in the Liberal Cabinet in 1914 between David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill: the kind of material any biographer thrives on.
But the Parliamentary Archive is much more than a record of times past in the House of Commons and House of Lords. This point struck home when the group was shown the original copy of the European Communities Act 1972: the Act is in the process of being repealed by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in this current parliamentary session. The lesson here is that distant parts of the Statute Book may not seem obviously relevant, but events can once again make them central to our politics. Acts that seem only relevant to historians suddenly become crucial for today’s parliamentary draftspeople and policy-makers. Moreover, with the digitisation of archived material underway, these documents can be utilised on a local level through a public digital platform: giving access of our people’s history to the people.
“The group was shown an Act regulating cross-bow use during the reign of Henry VIII”
There is a broader point here, too. Each parchment roll is also a microcosm of our legislative process. Amendments to Acts of Parliament were sewn on to original copies of Bills: a physical record of the changes made during its passage through Parliament. Further amendments were sewn on top of existing amendments. This is instructive for anyone with an interest in our legislative process, at both national and local levels.
Today’s law-makers are faced with the same decisions when looking at provisions of Bills in their original form: consideration needs be given as to whether clauses should be deleted and replaced, or re-cast in a different way. How Bills change as they are considered by both Houses of Parliament tells us about the politics of the day.
In short, it is time we saw the Parliamentary Archives not only as a research centre—albeit a remarkable and atmospheric one—but as a resource to enrich today’s democracy and to add to our everyday parliamentary debates. Newly-elected Members of Parliament could do much worse than make their way to the Parliamentary Archives as soon as possible