No, Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton were not great MPs

Matthew Engel in today’s Financial Times has a pop at our current MPs, saying:

The House of Commons used to be filled with men of renown. Sir Christopher Wren was an MP. So was Sir Isaac Newton – and John Stuart Mill.

It’s an easy jibe to make – ‘MPs aren’t as good as they used to be’ – but his examples seem to me to be rather badly chosen. John Stuart Mill, I’ll grant you, was a man of renown and an admirable, hard-working MP who used Parliament to promote the causes he believed in.

But Isaac Newton? He barely contributed to Parliament and indeed the most common account of his Parliamentary work is that he only spoke the once – asking for a window to be closed.

And Christopher Wren? Although he was more active in Parliament, he hasn’t left behind evidence of any real achievements and his elections were dogged by controversy, with Parliament twice voting to unseat him in favour of defeated candidates.

I don’t think either of them would be getting plaudits if there were MPs now, and nor did they get plaudits for their performance as MPs at the time.

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  • Nicholas James 16th May '09 - 12:41pm

    True, but isn’t the point that Matthew Engel makes is that people of renown actually WANTED to become MPs. Parliament was a place which attracted the very best and most acclaimed in any field – however they fulfilled their duties – and should be again.

  • Surely they are ‘people of renown’ because of how we view their achievments through the lens of history. At the time they wanted to become MPs because that was what gentlemen of their class did and it opened the way to more patronage oppertunities.

  • Sadly it’s not online, but Mr Engel got involved in a bit of a row with one of our local papers this week, over comments about a particular town in a travel book he’s written.

    He said this town was “third on [his] list of Britain’s vilest towns” (seizing in brackets the chance to run down two others), explaining:

    “The hotel was dire, the staff surly and ugly, and the breakfast inedible. Through the long May evening, the streets were full of pre-adolescent children, feral yet obese.”

    All the now traditional local outrage has been expressed, but I am struck less by unkindness or inaccuracy (there is a lot of the former and presumably at least some of the latter) than by the sheer laziness of writing such things…presumably while having some kind of travel-authorish tantrum. Laziness seems to be an emerging theme.

    Responding to being challenged on the town comments he seems to get more feeble by the minute:

    “I might have been unlucky that weekend…It can depend an awful lot on the circumstances…I suppose I’m one of these people who get cross and say what they think.” (save only that he doesn’t seem to have said anything at the time, just published most of a year later. Probably rightly, even if dishonestly, he claims to be unable to remember where he stayed.)

    He then excuses all this by adding that as a nation, “we don’t complain enough”. Is he serious?

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