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Knowledge and Power

The Parliamentary Representation of Universities in Britain and the Empire


Joseph S. Meisel


Parliamentary History Texts and Studies, vol. 4

Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, for The Parliamentary History Yearbook Trust, 2011

Paperback. viii + 197 pp. ISBN 978-1444350203. 24.99


Reviewed by Robert Anderson

University of Edinburgh


As privileged corporate bodies, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were given separate representation in the House of Commons in 1603, and after the Irish union of 1801 similar representation of the University of Dublin in the Irish parliament was transferred to Westminster. Instead of being swept away by parliamentary reform, university seats were created for Scotland and London in 1868, and for the newer English and Welsh universities in 1918. The Oxford and Cambridge seats also became more genuinely representative of graduates after postal voting was introduced in 1864. Only in 1948 were university seats abolished. This unusual aspect of parliamentary history is the subject of Joseph Meisel's compact but comprehensive study, which also covers university representation in parts of the British empire. It includes appendices with full chronologies and listings of members. University MPs included a few leading politicians Palmerston for Cambridge, Peel and Gladstone for Oxford, Robert Lowe for London, Edward Carson for Dublin as well as some academic intellectuals like Richard Jebb, H.A.L. Fisher and the historian Charles Oman. But most university members were fairly obscure.

Meisel concentrates on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He argues that university seats were not a constitutional archaism, but part of the modernisation of representation, related to wider debates about reform, democracy, and the representation of women. When the franchise was extended in 1867-8, giving a second vote to university graduates was justified as a way of representing 'intelligence' in order to balance the dangers of democracy. It was more surprising that the university franchise was extended in 1918 despite the newly-accepted principle of universal suffrage. This was partly because most university MPs were Conservative, so that keeping them served that party's interests, but a new argument also appeared: the value of independent members in an age of tight party discipline. Members like the social reformer Eleanor Rathbone and the writer A.P. Herbert (who used his position to campaign for divorce reform) brought new perspectives to parliament. The writer John Buchan, a Scottish university member from 1927, was a Conservative, but an independent-minded one as well as a literary celebrity.

Although the debates analysed by Meisel are interesting, the core of his book has already appeared as an article in the journal History of Universities.(1)  Even with the additional material included here, is this more than a byway of history? The university MPs were too few to make much political difference, or to raise the intellectual tone of the House of Commons. A heterogeneous group, they never acted as a block to defend university interests, although they could make useful contributions to debates on controversial issues like medical qualifications or the late Victorian reform of the University of London. In the twentieth century, the House of Lords became a more effective channel for bringing scientific and professional expertise into parliament.

Two of Meisel's six chapters deal with overseas territories, but apart from a brief experiment in New South Wales, the only significant case was India, to which Meisel devotes a solid chapter. University representation was introduced in provincial legislatures from 1893 onwards, as part of the attempt to involve educated Indian elites in the administration of the empire. Because of the absence of other political opportunities, these seats attracted able candidates, some of whom went on to active public roles in independent India and Pakistan.

Meisel has used a wide variety of sources, including private papers as well as university archives and official publications, but he is perhaps weaker on Scotland than elsewhere. The scientist Lyon Playfair, elected in 1868, was unusual in moving from an academic base as an Edinburgh professor to make a career as a leading Liberal politician. His Victorian biography by Wemyss Reid, not used by Meisel, interestingly illustrates the tensions between a Liberal MP and his predominantly Conservative and medical electorate. Another significant figure was Henry Craik, who became a Conservative university MP after retiring as the civil servant who had directed Scottish educational policy for twenty years, and who continued to influence it from his Westminster seat.

Meisel approaches his subject from the point of view of parliamentary history, but it was also connected with the reform of the universities themselves, especially the movement (outside Oxford and Cambridge) to give graduates a role in university government; the privilege of a second vote would stimulate continuing interest in their alma mater, and encourage formal graduation. The Convocation of London University, the General Councils of the Scottish universities, and similar bodies in the newer English universities were the basis of the graduate electorate, and parliamentary representation gave them extra heft in their not infrequent conflicts with academics and lay governors. Thus more could be added to Meisel's account, but as a treatment of this question, and something of a labour of love in its attention to detail and completeness, it will be the standard work.


(1) A Magnificent Fungus on the Political Tree : The Growth of University Representation in the United Kingdom, 1832-1950. History of Universities 23-1 (2008) : 109-186.


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