How the legacy of hereditary political power still shapes our political systems

Philip Manow In the King's Shadow - book coverThe Australian Parliament building in Canberra is a gem of democratic political architecture. Australia’s capital city was facing the need to expand and replace its existing Parliament building. But where to put the new one? The old one had deliberately been placed at the foot of the hill in Canberra, so that politicians would not be looking down on the public. Now the only suitable free space left was on top of that hill. The solution was clever: chop the top off the hill, build the new Parliament and then stick the top of the hill back on top of the new Parliament building. Though terrorism fears mean you can no longer scamper on the grass over the heads of Australia’s federal politicians, the symbolism remains – Parliament is not on the top of the hill looking down on all of us.

The Palace of Westminster offers similar examples of political theory shaping the physical appearance of our political institutions. The popular story to explain the layout of the House of Commons is that the two sides are two sword lengths apart – just keeping people out of duelling range. When Parliament was rebuilt in the nineteenth century following its destruction by fire, that motivation was already an historical anachronism – the political duels which did occur in the nineteenth century featured guns, not swords. More telling was the decision on how much seating space to provide for MPs. The new Commons benches, just like the old, did not have sufficient space for all – or even anywhere close to all – MPs to sit.

That was no case of architectural miscounting. It was deliberate and reflected what contemporaries expected of MPs. Turning up to listen to debates was not part of the role. It was frequent for MPs to barely appear in Parliament, rarely vote and hardly speak – and not be criticised for it. Being an MP did not have to mean wanting to be active in, or even a passive spectator of, national politics.

Years ago, when doing my history PhD, I spent some time trying to track down contemporary reactions to the MPs who did not turn up for the vote that saw the Great Reform Bill defeated by just one vote in 1831 – a defeat which plunged the country into crisis. Yet I struggled to find any examples of MPs who missed the vote being criticised for their absence from Parliament at such a crucial juncture or of their subsequent biographers to consider the event particularly worthy of mention or explanation.

Professor Philip Manow’s slim book In the King’s Shadow, published in 2008 and newly available in an English translation, takes a systematic approach to these questions of political imagery and architecture. He starts with the medieval idea of the monarch and its representation. The idea of regal political power may have been left behind but as the role of the King (or Queen) in representing the national interest has been handed over to Parliament so too has the imagery transferred.

His first area of study is the layout of Parliamentary chambers. “All political power – and therefore also democracy – requires and produces its own political mythology” as Manow puts it and, as he quotes Sir Giles Gilbert Scott saying, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”. The different choices of French semi-circular and British opposing facing benches in Parliament originated in different political power choices he says. “In the case of England … the monarch himself or herself remained [the symbol for the unity of the polity] … the monarch bestows on parliament a fiction of unity that does not have to be symbolized in its physical architecture, and particularly not in a seating plan.” In France, matters were different at the time of the French revolution,  with the removal of the monarchy requiring new ways of symbolising unity and so, Manow argues, the use of semi-circular Parliamentary seating arrangements.

The book goes on to look at a range of other topics, with a diverse and at times seemingly slightly random collection including Parliamentary privilege, secrecy of Parliamentary proceedings and the choice of cars in which to transport heads of state. France and Britain are the frequent case studies, with many other ‘Western world’ democracies getting a look in.

The diversity of topics considered makes the book interestingly varied but also makes for rather a pick and mix approach which does not provide a consistent support to the central argument about the legacy for our political system of concepts from the time of monarchs and divine right. Many of the issues raised are ones that do not have to have but the one cause. For example, there are a range of possible reasons for choosing a particular layout of a Parliamentary chamber, and with many people involved in making the decision, there is no reason to believe there can be only one explanation for the choice made. As result, the argument at times feels a little forced, and is not helped by the rather sudden ending of the book without any comprehensive conclusion. The text is at times slow going – German academic writing peppered with references to previous academic works.

Even so, there are many illuminating points of detail and the broad point about the continuing legacy of old political ideals is well made even if the reader is not left convinced that the legacy is quite as important as the author wishes you to think.

You can buy Philip Manow’s In the King’s Shadow here.

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