The ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’: quantifying parliamentary debate in 1833

The influx of new members into the House of Commons following the 1832 Reform Act prompted considerable disquiet within established political circles about the effects which this would have on the day-to-day business of Parliament. The Times reported fears that ‘the ascendancy of the mouvement faction’ of MPs drawn chiefly from the newly-enfranchised constituencies would result in ‘noise and swagger’ overwhelming ‘the good sense’ and sound principles of the Commons.

Commons 1834 a

The Chamber of the House of Commons before the fire of October 1834

In order to combat complaints that the House’s time would be consumed by ‘unprofitable talking’, and that ‘low bred mob orators’ would obstruct parliamentary business, the Spectator decided to analyse all the spoken contributions, excluding mere matters of form, made in the Commons and recorded by the Mirror of Parliament, then the most full record of parliamentary proceedings, as discussed in one of our earlier blogs. Paying particular attention to the utterances of the 51 new Members who could be fairly assumed to owe their return to the changes effected by the Reform Act, the paper hoped to silence the ‘unfair and carping attacks of the Anti-Reformers’.

When the paper’s first analysis appeared at the end of March 1833 it concluded that ‘the old stagers’ were, after all, the most prolific talkers. However, the new reform MPs, who comprised less than 8% of the House, were also reckoned to have made 320 (or 18%) of the 1,776 contributions to debate recorded up to that time. Their speeches had filled 185 of the Mirror’s 1,057 columns, each of which contained about 1,000 words. Significantly, the paper argued that it was not these new MPs who were responsible for the delay which had taken place in the conduct of public business. Instead the ‘everlasting harangues’ over Irish policy were identified as the main obstacle to progress.

By the time the Spectator produced its analysis of the 11,709 speeches made in the 1833 session that December, it had abandoned separately classifying speeches made by the new reform MPs. Understandably, the most frequent speaker by some margin was Lord Althorp, the chancellor of the exchequer and leader in the House of Commons. Other leading orators included the Irish chief secretary, Edward Stanley, and the secretary to the treasury, Thomas Spring Rice. Senior Conservatives such as Sir Robert Peel, Sir Frederick Shaw and Sir Robert Inglis also weighed in substantially by logging more than 500 speeches between them.

(c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Cobbett (c) Museum of Farnham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

However, the paper’s ‘Parliamentary Speechification Table’ revealed that the new reform MPs continued to make a disproportionate contribution to proceedings. The 51 MPs analysed in March had made a total of 1,594 speeches, occupying 815 (or 16%) of the 5,094 columns recorded in the Mirror. The most prolific MP was the veteran radical William Cobbett, who sat for the newly-enfranchised borough of Oldham, and made no less than 261 contributions to debate. The Irish radical MP for Drogheda, Andrew Carew O’Dwyer, spoke 111 times – more frequently than Sir Robert Peel. Indeed, when one adds to these speeches the huge contribution to debate made by more seasoned radicals such as Daniel O’Connell, who spoke the greatest number of words in the session (his 647 speeches covered 338 columns), and Joseph Hume (601 speeches in 253 columns), not to mention other reformers such as Henry Warburton (143 speeches), Colonel De Lacy Evans (111 speeches), and Edward Southwell Ruthven, the repeal MP for Dublin (98 speeches), it was clear that radical views were given a very full airing in the newly reformed House of Commons.

Despite all their efforts to exonerate new MPs from the charge of  ‘noise and swagger’, the Spectator could not resist agreeing with other critics of post-reform debates, when it noted that ‘out of the eleven thousand and odd speeches delivered … at least ten thousand were not worth delivering or hearing’.

Sources: The Times, 11 Feb. 1833; Spectator, 30 Mar., 28 Dec. 1833.

Further reading:

  • P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911’, in A Short History of Parliament, ed. C. Jones (2009), 248-69 VIEW
  • J. Meisel, Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the age of Gladstone (2001)
Advertisements
This entry was posted in Parliamentary life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s