Age concern and parliamentary political correctness

How one academic stood up for fact in an error-strewn world

May 21, 2015

Mhairi Black, the new Scottish National Party MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, is, at the age of 20, the UK’s youngest member of Parliament since 1667 – or so the media have claimed.

“The problem with this is that it is incorrect by a wide margin,” writes Lord Norton of Louth, Conservative peer and professor of government at the University of Hull, on his blog The Norton View.

There was no shortage of error-makers. As legal academic James Hand (@JamesAHand), associate senior lecturer in law at Portsmouth Business School, University of Portsmouth, pointed out on Twitter after reading Lord Norton’s post, “BBC, CNN, Guardian, The Hindu, Independent, Mail, Standard, Telegraph, LA Times…all wrong!”

It is probably important for us to point out that Times Higher Education repeated the error in its The Week in Higher Education column on 14 May (although we picked up the mistake before the article was published online).

Thanks to Lord Norton’s expert knowledge and steadfastness in the face of widespread media inaccuracy, the truth was finally unearthed.

“Prior to the Parliamentary Elections Act 1695, those aged under 21 were disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons by, according to Sir Edward Coke, the law of Parliament,” Lord Norton writes.

“Coke, however, conceded that several had sat ‘by connivance’. A number who sat in Charles II’s Pensioner Parliament [so-called because of the many pensions it granted to the king’s supporters] are said to have been 14 or 15 years of age.”

In a second blog post, Lord Norton cites The House of Commons 1790-1820 by R. G. Thorne (1986), part of the multi-volume History of Parliament project.

“There were at least 29, possibly 30, new Members who had not attained their legal majority (21 years) when elected to the House in this period – omitting the 15 or 16 Members who were minors when first elected before 1790 and were still in the House,” Dr Thorne wrote. “Only one of the new minors, Sir Thomas Mostyn elected for Flintshire in 1796, was unseated on account of his minority.”

“Of particular note was the fact that Viscount Jocelyn, returned in 1806 as the MP for county Louth, ‘was barely 18 years old’”, the blog continues.

Catherine Baker (@richmondbridge), lecturer in 20th century history at Hull, was unsurprised that her colleague had dug up the truth.

“Should have known @LordNortonLouth would be able to offer a definitive answer about Britain’s youngest MP,” she tweeted.

However, the peer’s determination to correct the claim, and his commitment to calling out on Twitter those guilty of the error, was not welcomed by everyone.

One tweeter, retired primary schoolteacher and keen gardener Ian Innes (@goldfinch1952), asked: “Are you sure your title ain’t Lord Pedantic?”

“Correcting a rather serious error of fact is not a matter of pedantry,” replied Lord Norton, but rather a “question of ensuring information is correct”.

Chris Parr

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