Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939

Crowd outside meeting of Te Kotahitanga (the kupapa Maori parliament) at Papawai, 1897. Richard Seddon, Prime Minister of New Zealand is front row, third from left

David Thackeray (Exeter) and Amanda Behm (York) have been awarded a Research Project Grant by the Leverhulme Trust for their project ‘Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939’, which will run from 2021-24. We will shortly be advertising two funded PhD studentships and will be holding a conference at Westminster, which is planned to lead to a special issue of Parliamentary History. The project team are interested from hearing from colleagues working on topics in this field.

Our project examines the role of parliament and the parliamentary idea in civic life in the UK and the British settler colonial world. While we might take for granted constitutional history as the bedrock of historical and civic education across imperial countries from the mid-nineteenth century until 1945, our project proposes a more daunting problem. At the heart of constitutional history lay a reverence for parliament, which found its most celebrated expression in Walter Bagehot’s 1867 description of the Commons as a ‘mirror’ of the British nation, expressing the popular will, educating the people politically, hearing grievances, and legislating.

Yet for all its studied neutrality, parliamentarianism emerged and remained as a cipher at the heart of British imperial politics. In that ‘golden age’ of constitutional history writing, there simmered widespread anxieties about the ability of parliament to mediate the body politic while confronting questions of an expanding electorate and votes for women. Equally significant was the ferment pitting settler colonial groups against the legislative and moral claims of their fellow imperial subjects across a vast transoceanic space.

By exploring how a range of constituencies through and beyond the settler colonies appealed to values of British parliamentarianism, we shed new light on the connected debates about democratic governance and political inclusion that characterised the emergence of nations within a fractious British Empire. The late nineteenth century witnessed a flourishing of local parliaments, parliamentary debating societies, petitions to parliament, and women’s parliaments. This culture was not confined to ‘overseas’ Britons and masculine settler colonists. Maori parliamentary movements, in particular, indicate how indigenous peoples could adopt and adapt the practices of British parliamentary culture to seek redress and assert notions of sovereignty. Women’s mock parliaments, which spread across Britain and the settler colonies, satirised transimperial parliamentary culture and highlighted women’s exclusion from national bodies.

We look forward to exploring how being ‘parliamentary’ was central to diverse claimants’ appeals for political inclusion and authority as they contested  ‘British’ values and appealed particularly to those supposedly on the fringes of the political nation, such as working men, women, indigenous peoples, and foreign and intra-imperial migrants. Our focus is on how ideas of ‘British’ parliamentarianism were performedand contested: how some forms of popular parliamentarianism such as debating societies could promote reverence for the Westminster model while others rejected parliament as an adequate ‘mirror’ of nation and empire. These challenges to, and alternative models of, parliament’s role in public life shine new light on the transnational flow of ideas and networks which continue to connect and divide the British Empire through its tumultuous redrawing.

Our project will address the following questions:

– To what extent was the Westminster model integral to conceptions of the British ‘national character’ and how did this shape practices of British settler colonialism as well as key forms of dissent and resistance?

– Did parliamentary cultures in the British Empire promote or challenge imperial domination, and what do they reveal about the relationship between settler colonialism and democracy?

– How did ‘subject’ Pacific, Asian, African, and Caribbean populations support or subvert cultures of ‘British’ parliamentarianism?

– What initiatives forged an imperial community of interest among parliamentarians and the wider public? How did these efforts respond to the development of forms of international governance centred on the League of Nations after 1918?

– To what extent did imperial conflicts over parliamentary representation—instantaneous as well as theoretical—come ‘home’ to Britain?

The development of the League of Nations as an ‘international parliament’ serves as a particularly fitting endpoint for our study as it offered an alternative form of supranational authority challenging the authority of British parliamentarianism. The tense interplay between an empire in flux and the institutions of a supposed new world order presents still little-understood consequences that would reverberate after 1945.

Parliamentary Empire will offer a new understanding of the relationship between settler colonialism, imperial pluralism, and democratic governance. By studying how different constituencies interacted with the idea and practice of parliament, we will gain a better understanding of how democratic governance functioned and was reshaped historically.