The archives date back to 1497, but hold important lessons for policy-makers todayby Nick Thomas-Symonds / 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…