Disorderly Houses

…Or, The Very Long History of British Parliamentarians throwing their toys out of the pram over foreign policy. 

The government’s defeat over its proposed intervention in Syria had political journalists scratching their heads to think of past precedents. Those with GCSE History managed to crawl back as far as Suez, 1956, and Norway, 1940, while those with A-level or even perhaps a History degree raked up Chanak, 1922 (a hypothetical prize to anyone who knows what that was all about without Googling it) or went back to good old Don Pacifico in 1850. In fact, the history of Parliament getting itself into an almighty tangle over war and foreign policy goes back much, much further. Parliament voting for war based on dodgy evidence, regretting it when that war went badly wrong, then launching various soul-searching investigations that satisfied pretty well nobody – all sounds familiar? But I’m not talking about Iraq and Tony Blair, I’m talking about the second Anglo-Dutch war and King Charles II.

For centuries, foreign policy and war were exclusively a part of the royal prerogative, and Parliament played no part at all in their direction. On the other hand, from its earliest days Parliament voted the taxes to pay for war, so it’s hardly surprising that MPs started to take an interest in how well or badly that money was spent. Charles I’s disastrous wars in the 1620s were heavily criticised in Parliament, while between 1649 and 1653 Parliament was the sole legislative and executive branch of government, so it directly controlled foreign policy – a power that it used to embark on the first Anglo-Dutch war. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II probably hoped that he could put the genie back in the bottle, but as it happened, it suited his purposes to let it out even further.

By the autumn of 1664, Charles was set on war with the Dutch. Parliament was carried along on a tide of anti-Dutch sentiment, and voted the then unprecedented sum of £2,500,000 for the war. The actual reasons for war were largely contrived – Dutch aggression against English overseas possessions and trade, ignoring the fact that much of the ‘aggression’ actually originated on the English side. Parliament’s support was sustained during the opening stages of the war, which went very well for England (notably in the stunning victory at the battle of Lowestoft on 3 June 1665, the centrepiece of the third Quinton novel, The Blast That Tears The Skies). But 1666 witnessed the calamitous defeat of the Four Days’ Battle – which I’m currently writing about in the first draft of ‘Quinton 5’ – followed by the Great Fire of London, and 1667 saw the utter humiliation of the Dutch sailing into the Medway, hoisting their flag over Sheerness and towing away the fleet flagship, the Royal Charles.

After the war ended, not long after the Medway debacle, an angry Parliament began to investigate what had gone wrong. The House of Commons appointed a committee of miscarriages on 17 October 1667. The next few months witnessed the unsavoury spectacle of admirals and administrators attempting to pin the blame on each other, while ministers sought to settle old scores with each other. (I covered these events in detail in my first book, Gentlemen and Tarpaulins: The Officers and Men of the Restoration Navy.) Meanwhile a separate body, the so-called Brooke House committee, pored over the navy’s accounts and caused many months of anxiety for Samuel Pepys – and as his wife died during the same period, the famous diarist probably never experienced a more traumatic period in his life. But all the various enquiries petered out. For example, the attempt to assign blame for the Chatham disaster culminated in the scapegoating of the naval commissioner at the dockyard, Peter Pett, a verdict so laughable that the poets had a field day: as I wrote in Pepys’s Navy,

‘[Andrew] Marvell captures perfectly the fate of the ‘little men’ who have always taken the blame for the incompetence of others far greater than themselves:

All our miscarriages on Pett must fall,

His name alone seems fit to answer all.

Whose counsel first did this mad war beget?

Who all commands sold through the navy? Pett.

Who would not follow when the Dutch were beat?

Who treated out the time at Bergen? Pett.

Who the Dutch fleet with storms disabled met?

And, rifling prizes, them neglected? Pett.

Who with false news prevented the Gazette?

The fleet divided? writ for Rupert? Pett.

Who all our seamen cheated of their debt,

And all our prizes who did swallow? Pett.

Who did advise no navy out to set?

And who the forts left unprepared? Pett.

Who to supply with powder did forget

Languard, Sheerness, Gravesend, and Upnor? Pett.

Who all our ships exposed in Chatham net?

Who should it be but the fanatic Pett?

Pett, the sea-architect in making ships,

Was the first cause of all these naval slips;

Had he not built, none of these faults had been;

If no creation, there had been no sin.

In fact, the outraged backbench MPs never cast a glance in the direction of a much more plausible batch of culprits, namely themselves. £2,500,000 proved to be a completely inadequate sum to finance three (or potentially more) years of naval war, and the essentially medieval revenue-raising methods of the state ensured that much of it never actually reached the Treasury. Even so, the MPs had dabbled in foreign policy and the conduct of war. They proved determined to do so again, even before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 established annual meetings of Parliament and gave the legislature much greater control over both spending and strategy – witness the so-called ‘Convoys and Cruisers’ Act of 1694, by which Parliament for the first time assumed the power to insist that a certain number of warships were deployed on particular kinds of mission. During the autumn and winter of 1673-4, for example, Parliamentary opposition to war proved crucial in forcing Charles II to abandon his unpopular alliance with the French and seek a unilateral peace with the Dutch.

So the Parliamentary rebellion over Syria is merely the latest manifestation of a tradition that stretches back to the seventeenth century. I doubt if that’ll be much consolation to David Cameron, but at least he now knows how King Charles II felt in 1667 and 1673: and as his children are direct descendants of the King, thanks to their mum, perhaps he’ll see the irony.


I’ve got an interesting week ahead. First up, I’m off to Portsmouth to speak at a conference on naval recruiting at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, although I also hope to find the time to pay my first visit to the new Mary Rose Museum. I then head directly for East Anglia to meet up with a Naval Dockyards Society tour that I helped to organise before standing down as chairman; I’ll be acting as their ‘tour guide’ around Dunwich, Southwold and Nelson’s birthplace, Burnham Thorpe. The dates mean that I won’t be blogging next Monday, but I’ll aim to put up at least one post about the museum, the conference and the trip by Tuesday or Wednesday.

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