bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Parliament and the Vellum Debate – the final word (for now)

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 23 April, 2016

On Wednesday, the House of Commons finally found an hour and half to debate whether to abandon the practice of printing the official copy of statutes on ‘vellum’. At the end of the ninety minutes, 155 MPs – just under a quarter of the House – voted on the issue with a large majority in favour of rejecting the move to change to printing on ‘archival paper’. As with my previous discussions on this issue, I do not want to dwell on whether this is the right resolution as much as on the reasoning given on both sides of the argument.

It is often said – most often by MPs, but also by others among Westminster’s village-people – that the level of informed debate held in the Commons is impressive. If that is so, then the Members of Parliament were having a collective bad day on Wednesday. Most of the interventions revealed ignorance, revelled in irrelevance and resorted to hyperbole. The item at the heart of the debate – ‘vellum’ – was not well understood by many who considered their opinion should be heard. As I have explained before, the terminology has an innate ambivalence and its history is the subject of debate. A small example of this is my own mention in an earlier post of uterine vellum, a particularly smooth surface because (it is said) it is made from the skin of an abortive or neo-natal calf. My friend, Mary Garrison at the University of York, dropped me a line to point out that recent research demonstrates that there is no reason to assume that what was called, in the Middle Ages, ‘abortive vellum’ did actually come from such young animals: it may well instead be a matter of how the skin was prepared. There is, in other words, some doubts over details in scholarly circles, but there is nothing like the confusion MPs showed. Vellum is not, as Sir Paul Beresford would have it, a ‘very similar material to parchment’ – vellum simply is parchment. The term, as I have explained before, can have special connotations and, indeed, at Parliament’s parchmenters, William Cowley, it is used particularly to signify a writing surface made of calf-skin (I thank Patricia Lovett, the leading calligrapher who has campaigned hard on this issue, for confirming this). Vellum – etymologically connected to veal – is the calf-skin sub-set of parchment. This eluded some of those who rose to speak who talked of laws being printed on goatskin. This was a claim made in the 1999 debate on the issue, and recently repeated on television by young Jacob Rees-Mogg, but is no more than an error: goats can be used for the making of parchment, as can sheep, and both are utilised at William Cowley’s but not for the highest-grade material that is sold to Parliament.

The ignorance about what they were discussing was not confined to one material. The putative replacement is ‘archival paper’ which, according to Paul Beresford, has been used by Parliament since 1510. This conjures up an image of a clerk to Henry VIII visiting a paper-maker and insisting ‘I don’t want any of your run-of-the-mill stuff…’ – except, of course, there was no such distinction between types of paper in the sixteenth century and, anyway, in 1510 a royal clerk could not have simply have walked across London to find a paper-mill: there was none in England at this point or until the middle of the reign of Elizabeth. We might wonder how many of the speakers relish the idea that those early paper records were all written on imports from our continental neighbours.

This is not to say that all historic paper is as liable to destruction as some of the speakers claimed. Chris Skidmore, himself trained as an historian (did I not teach you one term, Chris?) and author of history books, described his visits to the National Archives at Kew. He was right to say that many of the early modern records on paper are fragile and unavailable to touch – but he surely also knows that there are others of the same date which have survived and show no sign of disintegrating in the next few years. The quality of paper varied and what is perhaps surprising is that some of the more ephemeral records written on thin paper not intended to last are still with us. It is not the case, as was claimed in the debate, that paper cannot last 500 years – just as we can have no certain evidence that, as James Gray moving the motion to retain vellum claimed, parchment will last 5,000 years. We have no examples of that age and, indeed, the city of Pergamon, most likely did not exist and certainly had not invented parchment (the city’s name is the origin of our term) in 3,000 BC.

Exaggerated claims, however, were not the preserve of those wanting to continue the use of vellum. On the other side, the amounts of money to be saved do not bear scrutiny. In an impassioned speech condemning the motion as a ‘vanity project’, Paul Flynn claimed £100,000 a year could be saved by moving to paper copies. This is more than double the figure of the cost of the vellum in the year of highest expenditure, and the amount paid to William Cowley, by their reckoning, is usually closer to £20,000. Like so many predicted government savings, this is likely to be one which does not materialise and then requires the costs of an investigation to find out why it did not.

Other speeches combined mistakes with misdirection. Michael Ellis noted that ‘Torah scrolls are printed on vellum’, except that the Jewish tradition requires the handwriting of the Torah (not printing) and, as the MP himself later noted, the ‘vellum’ was not produced by England’s one commercial supplier. What would be valid is the larger point that parchment still has uses beyond the copies of record of statutes – but whether that is a point which would commend itself to those MPs in favour of continuity is doubtful.

The reason for doubt is the implication of the central argument used for continuing the practice: a resort to tradition. Ronnie Cowan spoke eloquently against this mantra, hinging his contribution on a quotation from Woody Allen: tradition is the illusion of permanence. For some in the debate, it certainly seemed that the construction of an illusion was the value of vellum. Several speakers referred to Magna Carta, presumably because it continues to be so much in the public imagination following the 2015 celebrations; the argument usually ran that it would not have survived if it had been written on paper – overlooking the copying and re-copying which has been part of its success. On the other side, the importance of the Great Charter was taken to stand in opposition to the tawdry mundanity of much latter-day legislation. In riposte, the wittiest intervention, by David Warburton, contrasted the importance of Domesday Book with the ‘equally wondrous’ Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2016 but by mentioning them in the same breath intended to emphasise a sense of connexion – they are all part of the legal fabric of our nation and so all deserve to partake in a tradition of respect. In this logic, one would expect the processes of respect to be shared by all elements of that fabric but also confined only to them. Might we hear next of an attempt to make the use of vellum exclusive to those products of the genius of our MPs’ minds, the statutes of the realm?

I have said before that the argument that parchment should be used for printing records because it evokes tradition and stability suggests something worrying about how we construct our state, with recourse to mystique rather than reasoning. The cause of law on ‘vellum’ seeks for the physical material itself to express something of the ineffable spirit of our unwritten constitution. Is there no better argument? There surely is, but it was not expressed on the floor of the Commons. If, though, Parliament, for its own ill-informed and illogical reasons, wishes to provide a small subsidy to keep alive Britain’s one parchment-maker, then that does some good. The Commons may have had the wrong reasons but it reached the right decision – this time.

Will this be the end? In the normal run of things, we might expect to be saved from another debate for at least a decade. But, then, these are not normal times. Imagine (if you dare) this scenario: the EU referendum is won by those who want Britain to leave the Union. As a result, that other Union, between England and Scotland (which, by all accounts is solidly in favour of remaining in the EU) collapses, since it would be tyrannous for one partner to insist the other be bound to its own descent into squalid isolation. In that context, the newly English Parliament, faced with not just a political but also an economic crisis of its own making, would need to consider all savings possible. In that context, what would the fate of ‘vellum’ be?


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