This is a post by Paul Seaward, introducing the History of Parliament – of which he is the director – and its involvement in the project.
The History of Parliament has long been an established feature in the landscape of British history. The product of an initiative in the 1920s, since 1951 it has been at work compiling a history of the English, British and UK Parliament in the form of biographies of each of its many thousand members, together with accounts of politics and elections of each constituency that returned them to Parliament, with surveys analysing this information and providing additional material about the institution of parliament and its work. We are a small research institute, funded by Parliament and outside the university sector, though with many and very important links to it, especially through the Institute of Historical Research. So far we’ve published around 21,000 biographies, and well over 3,000 constituency histories – now all online.
Studying Parliament’s history through its members is an extraordinarily rich way of relating the political life of a nation not only to the lives of the individuals who were deeply occupied in it, but also to the lives of the many communities and individuals whom they represented. It provides a key to the infinite number of interactions between the national legislature and people whom it affected. We’ve long been keen on taking this further: by using digital resources to bring together in user-friendly fashion all of the sources that illuminate these complex relationships, to make it increasingly accessible for investigation the nexus between individual ambitions and local concerns and the records of what was done and said in Parliament; to make it possible to really represent the complexity of attitudes and activities in some physical form. We’ve long been working with many others on digitising the parliamentary record – most of all of course with our friends at the IHR, on British History Online (and the IHR also maintains our own website) – but also with the creators of the online version of ‘historic’ Hansard, and scholars at Harvard and the LSE who have taken our digital data on nineteenth century divisions and enhanced it – something we hope to make available more broadly soon.
Dilipad is a great way of investigating how we can try to bring a set of very diverse sources together – diverse both across countries, and within the parliamentary proceedings of each individual country – and maximise their potential for asking increasingly complicated and sophisticated questions about political activity and political life. How closely have MPs reflected the attitudes and concerns of their own constituencies, and how has this changed over time? Is there a visible difference in the way they represent their constituents between MPs who come from the constituency and ‘carpet-bagging’ MPs who come from elsewhere? What do MPs most talk about, and how do they talk about it? What is the relationship between what they say on a particular subject and how they vote? The questions are clearly endless, and they won’t all be answered by this project. But by the end of the project we hope to have a set of tools and resources that will enable us to enhance the History of Parliament’s own ability to engage more closely and deeply with all of them.