When Sir Lewis Namier was lying on his death-bed, he is said to have looked up radiantly at his wife and declared: 'What a pity! Yesterday was the first time I saw in my mind's eye the Survey of Parliament as a whole.' A pity indeed, for the insight allegedly offered to Namier on the point of death has never quite been afforded to any of his disciples and successors. Ever since the appearance in 1964 of the first section of the History of Parliament (devoted to the House of Commons from 1754 to 1790 and edited by John Brooke and Namier himself), admiration for the scholarship of that and subsequent volumes in this extraordinarily learned enterprise has regularly been accompanied by acute uncertainty as to what purpose it is supposed to fulfil. How far the painstaking reconstruction of the careers of the Members of the Commons might explain political action at the highest levels is a question that has divided opinion for at least half a century. Even Namier himself apparently began to envisage the History of Parliament, which he did so much to create over a generation ago, as less of a 'living sky-scraper' than a mausoleum. Nor would it be too difficult to argue that the volumes scrupulously sponsored by the History of Parliament Trust have done less to write the history of Parliament than to prove that its history may be too complex and amorphous to write at all.
LRB 24 February 1994 | PDF Download