Thursday, January 12, 2012

England, not Westminster is the 'mother of parliaments'

The Eurosceptic Conservative MP Bill Cash has written a biography of the Victorian radical statesman John Bright, of whom he is a distant relative.

Although there is no obligation on authors to write about subjects whom they find politically sympathetic, this might seem a bit of an odd match. Yet Bright's resistance to social and welfare legislation would no doubt stand him in good stead with some modern Conservatives. And he did end up as a Liberal Unionist party (after the 1886 split over home rule) which was in an electoral alliance with the Tories.

George Eaton's review in the New Statesman makes a point that is a familiar bee in my own bonnet - namely the way politicians and others so often refer to Westminster as the 'mother of parliaments'. In fact this is a misquote of a famous phrase of Bright's that described England as the mother of parliaments. (See this Guardian editorial on the point'). In other words England gave birth to parliaments. Whether this is a historically accurate observation is open to question. Bright used the phrase rhetorically to promote extension of the franchise.

I would like to be say that I knew this as a result of voluminous reading of Bright's speeches. In fact it's because I remember Norman St John Stevas ticking off Shirley Williams  for her misquoting of Bright on an edition of Question Time in the early 1980s. For some reason it has stuck with me.

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