1945 Election: A political awakening

Clement Attlee, Labour Prime Minister 1945-51

Clement Attlee, Labour Prime Minister 1945-51

Seventy years ago yesterday the results of the 1945 General Election were declared. Although the poll had been held on 5 July, the results were only announced on the 26th because of the time needed to return the ballots of service men and women from overseas. The result – a Labour landslide – had a dramatic impact on British politics. The new government led by Clement Attlee introduced legislation to extend the welfare state (including the creation of the NHS) and to nationalise many British industries. This programme defined British politics until 1979. The election result was a considerable shock to many political commentators at the time, few expected wartime leader Winston Churchill to lose so decisively, including Churchill himself.

For many of the MPs interviewed for our oral history project, the 1945 general election was a significant event in their political lives. For the generation born before the Second World War the election not only defined the political landscape that they grew up in but – as the first general election held in ten years – stood out for many as a major event in their developing political consciousness.

In some ways our interviewees’ reaction to 1945 mirrored that of the wider country. There was shock, from those of all political views but especially from those on the right, that Churchill had lost the election. Our interviewees were ‘absolutely stunned’ (Robert Maclennan, later leader of the SDP), or ‘astounded’ (Sir Edward du Cann, future Chairman of the Conservative party) that Churchill had been ‘rejected’. Several who would later become Conservative MPs were serving in the army as the votes were cast, which gave them a different perspective. The future peer Peter Carrington was unsurprised at Attlee’s victory because he knew how the men in his squadron felt about the election. Sir Philip Goodhart, later MP for Beckenham, remembered the split between officers and men when the results were announced:

Having been commissioned, I went to the regimental depot in Winchester when the war came to an end, and there was the election result some weeks’ later. When the result came through the whole of the depot echoed to unceasing chants of: “move to the left in threes, left turn”. This happy view was not reflected in the officers’ mess.

Some Conservative MPs remember that they soon consoled themselves by criticising the government’s mistakes, for Patrick Ground (MP for Feltham & Heston, 1983-1992) ‘they soon became a laughing stock in our household’.

For those on the left of British politics, they remembered the excitement around the election victory, as well as the impact that it had on their political consciousness. John Cartwright, Labour MP for Woolwich East (1974-1983) is one example:

I remember 1945 very sharply – the Labour landslide of 1945 – and the sense this was a new start, a new beginning, something very dramatic and unusual, and that the world would never be quite the same again. That really had an impact on me I think because I would be, what? 12 I suppose…There wasn’t any politics in the war in any sort of meaningful way, so it was a sudden release of the tensions in 1945.

Ivor Richard, MP for Baron’s Court (1964-1974) also enjoyed his first experience of an election, playing truant from school to see what was happening:

For many MPs across the political spectrum the 1945 election was the first time they remembered having an active involvement or interest in politics. For some this was through school, for example David Mudd, Conservative MP for Falmouth and Camborne (1970-1992) remembered both organising and standing in his school’s mock election (under a ‘patriotic’ banner and using the slogan ‘don’t be muddled, be Mudd-led’!) Dick Taverne, Labour MP and Liberal Democrat peer, remembered being one of only three boys in his school pleased with the result of the election.

Others took an active part in politics for the first time. Peter Pike, Labour MP for Burnley (1983-2005) remembered that his aunt told him, aged 8, that he should go in to parliament because of his interest in politics. The Labour MP and journalist Richard Leonard acted as a teller at his local polling station, aged just 14 he was delighted to be mistaken for someone old enough to vote. Labour, SDP and Liberal Democrat Bill Rodgers remembered how heckling the Tories led to a surprising invitation:

One of our interviewees – the former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey – was old enough to stand in his first election in 1945, in the safe Conservative seat of Pudsey and Otley. He may not have won the seat, but his standing was indicative of the result across the country, reducing the Conservative majority from over 11,000 in 1935 to just 1,651.


You can also read about the 1945 election in Devon on our ‘From the Grassroots’ website, also using extracts from oral history interviews.

For more on our oral history project, visit our website or read some of our oral history project blogposts.

Posted in 20th century history, Elections, oral history, Post-1945 history | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer Events at the History of Parliament

ICHRPI group at Magna Carta memorial

ICHRPI group at Magna Carta memorial

It’s been a busy summer already at the History of Parliament. As I’m sure you know during the course of 2015 we’ve been celebrating, along with many others of course, a number of important anniversaries in parliamentary history. The two most important of these – the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 and Simon de Montfort’s 1265 parliament – formed the inspiration for two major events for us in June and July.

Firstly, we launched our latest book: ‘The Story of Parliament: Celebrating 750 years of Parliament in Britain’, published in collaboration with St James’s House. The book explores the history of the British Parliament from its medieval origins (including the role of Magna Carta) until the present day, with sections written by leading historians of political and parliamentary history – including of course many of our research fellows! It aims to bring together the extraordinary story of Parliament’s development, and its involvement in all aspects of life: society, the economy, culture and belief.

The book was launched in a very apt venue – the cloisters of Westminster Abbey – on June 22nd. It is available to purchase through the Houses of Parliament shop, priced at £14.99.

Reception in the Old Rolls' Chapel, KCL

Reception in the Old Rolls Chapel, KCL

Only a week later we were delighted to host the annual conference of the International Commission for the History of Parliamentary and Representative Institutions. Following the themes of the two anniversaries, ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments: Constructing Representative Institutions, 1000-2000’ explored the origins and developments of parliaments across the world in venues at King’s College, London, Royal Holloway, University of London and in Portcullis House, UK Parliament.

One of our sessions at Portcullis House

One of our sessions at Portcullis House

Nearly 150 speakers from Europe, the US and Latin America gave papers on their specialist research and we held round tables on digitisation of parliamentary archives, oral history and parliamentary research, analysing parliamentary discourse and national parliamentary projects such as our own. Our two fantastic plenary lectures – Professor David Carpenter (KCL) on ‘Simon de Montfort, Magna Carta and the development of Parliament’ and Professor Colin Kidd FBA (University of St Andrews) on ‘Founding myths and their Discontents: the British and American Constitutions compared’ were enjoyed by both delegates and members of the public.

peaker's House reception

Speaker’s House reception

Professor Adam Sutcliffe welcomed us to King’s College at a reception in the Old Rolls Chapel (now party of the Maughan Library, KCL); Professor Jonathan Philips welcomed us to Royal Holloway with a reception on the hottest day of the year following our plenary lecture; Professor Lord Norton of Louth, one of the History of Parliament’s trustees welcomed us to Parliament at a reception in the Speaker’s House by kind permission of Mr Speaker (and we were lucky enough to have an impromptu talk from Pugin expert Rosemary Hill). The conference-goers had the opportunity to benefit from tours of the picture gallery at Royal Holloway, Runnymede meadow and the Palace of Westminster. We ended the conference on Friday night with a dinner in the Members’ Dining Room, Palace of Westminster.

Many thanks indeed to all who contributed to both our latest publication and to a fantastic conference. Special thanks to all at the History of Parliament, KCL, Royal Holloway, UK Parliament 2015 Anniversaries and the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Organisational Committee for their support. With these events done we’re now back to normal – and preparing for our next publication!

Conference dinner in the Members' Dining Room, Palace of Westminster

Conference dinner in the Members’ Dining Room, Palace of Westminster


Thanks also to our conference delegates for these photographs!

Posted in Events, historyofparliamentonline.org, Conferences/seminars, Magna Carta & Simon de Montfort | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Alex Middleton, ‘The idea of Whiggism in mid-Victorian politics’

In an excellent conclusion to this term’s seminar programme, Dr. Alex Middleton of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, discussed Whiggism in nineteenth century British politics. He blogs for us about his paper…

This paper examined how the mid-Victorians understood Whiggism and the Whigs. It started from the premise that despite Whiggism being one of the defining creeds in British political history, little attention has been paid to its decline – and virtually nothing has been written on how that decline was handled intellectually, and in public political debate. The paper dealt specifically with the period between the collapse of the last ‘Whig’ government in 1852, and the Home Rule crisis of 1886. It argued that Whiggism, and its cognate terms Whiggery and Whig, remained vitally important parts of the later-nineteenth-century political lexicon, and had a much more complex history as political words than the existing literature indicates.

Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox

The first part of the paper introduced the basic discursive frameworks within which mid-Victorian debates about Whiggism and Whigs were set. It suggested that the dominant narratives attached to Whiggism in this period were about anachronism and exhaustion, and looked at how contemporaries sought to account for Whig decline. It noted the absence of any significant international context for the discussion of Whiggism, and highlighted the profound significance of the British political past in arguments about the nature and future of the Whigs. Commentators did not forget 1688, but in these decades Whiggism was seen to be defined rather by events in the age of Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, and Earl Grey.

Earl Grey

Earl Grey

The second part of the paper sought to draw out the main conceptions of what ‘Whiggism’ actually meant in this period – while recognising that different conceptions were not mutually exclusive, that some were considerably more partisan and politically charged than others, and that the categories presented could be extensively finessed and subdivided. It discussed in turn the ways in which Whiggism was presented as a distinct, defined, positive political creed; as an essentially pragmatic political middle ground; as a politics of oligarchy and/or property; and as a synonym for Liberalism, or at least as Liberalism’s main progenitor.

The last part of the paper examined how contemporaries saw the Whigs as a parliamentary force within the mid-Victorian political order. Both Conservatives and Radicals increasingly sought to assert that there were fundamental distinctions between the Whigs and the rest of the Liberal party. Conservatives endeavoured to prove that the Whigs’ natural home, as defenders of the constitution, was with the Conservatives; Radicals and advanced Liberals tried to show that modern Liberalism left no room for the apparently effete, aristocratic, short-sighted Whigs of the present day. Yet the counter-argument was also made that Whiggism remained a distinctive creed, that it belonged in the present, and that it belonged in the Liberal party – and furthermore that Whigs remained the natural and necessary leaders of the Liberal party. All these different positions were backed up by distinctive readings of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century British political history. The paper concluded by suggesting that paying more systematic attention to mid-Victorian conceptions of Whigs and Whiggism can help us with specific questions about the Home Rule crisis and the foundation of Liberal Unionism, and with broader debates about the mutation of political language, the structures of party politics and partisan debate, and the nature of British political modernity.

The discussion which followed raised important issues about the significance of religious questions, about leadership and leaders, about Irish policy, and about when precisely we should see Whig decline as having become terminal. Electoral politics, and especially electoral geography, were identified as crucial areas for investigation as the research progresses.

Thanks to Alex and to all the speakers who have contributed such a variety of interesting papers to our 2014-15 programme. The ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar will return in the autumn term.

Posted in 19th Century history, Conferences/seminars | Tagged | Leave a comment

The battle of Northampton and the strange death of Sir William Lucy MP

This week 555 years ago one of the significant Wars of the Roses contests, the battle of Northampton, took place. Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, reveals a dark love story behind the battle…

On 10 July 1460 there was a brief but decisive battle just outside Northampton. A Yorkist army, commanded by Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, defeated a smaller Lancastrian one. Henry VI fell into Yorkist hands, and although fatalities were light they included the principal Lancastrian commanders, most notably Humphrey Stafford, duke of Buckingham. The battle marked a remarkable recovery in Yorkist fortunes. In the previous October, having failed in humiliating fashion to give battle when faced with a superior Lancastrian army near Ludlow, the Yorkist lords had fled into exile in Ireland and Calais. An Act passed in the Parliament of November 1459 confiscated their estates and briefly all seemed lost. On 26 June 1460, however, the earl of Warwick and the duke of York’s son, the earl of March, landed at Sandwich from Calais. They quickly gathered support as they marched through Kent, peacefully entered London and then travelled north to confront a Lancastrian army that had moved from its stronghold of Coventry to Northampton. Their victory set the course that, after various vicissitudes, was to lead to Henry VI’s deposition and the accession of the earl of March as Edward IV in the following March.

Two contemporary chroniclers preserve a story that gives the battle an interest beyond its place in the narrative of national history. One of those who fell on the Lancastrian side was Sir William Lucy, an elderly knight of long military experience in France who had represented Buckinghamshire in the Parliament of November 1449. The apparent circumstances of his death were so remarkable as to attract the notice of the chroniclers. The London chronicle identified with William Gregory, mayor of London in 1451-2, provides the best account:

And that goode knyght Syr Wylliam Lucy that dwellyd be-syde Northehampton hyrde the goone schotte, and come unto the fylde to have holpen the kynge, but the fylde was done or that he come; an one of the Staffordys was ware of hys comynge, and lovyd that knyght ys wyffe and hatyd hym, and a-non causyd hys dethe.

There are some curiosities in this account of Lucy’s death. Why, for example, was he, a prominent Lancastrian, not in the King’s army at the outset of the battle, coming there only when he ‘hyrde the goone schotte’ and arriving only after the conflict was over?   The story of the Gregory chronicler is probably not to be taken literally, but is rather intended to emphasise the element of treachery in the knight’s death. That death occurred after the battle was over; and it was provoked not by the differing political allegiances of killer and killed (although they were on different sides) but by a base personal motive on the part of the former.

Other evidence indirectly implicates Lucy’s wife Margaret in the murder. Another chronicle account specifically identifies the killer as John Stafford, who, very soon after the battle, took Lucy’s widow as his wife. Thus one likely explanation for these events is that Lucy’s wife, who was some 40 years his junior, had begun a liaison with Stafford and that Stafford had then taken advantage of the chaos of battle to remove her troublesome husband.

Stafford’s interest in Margaret may have been as much financial as emotional. On his marriage to Margaret, his third wife, in 1457, Sir William had settled upon her a life interest in a valuable part of his extensive estates. As Stafford had few lands of his own, her hand promised him the acres he lacked. For Margaret the advantages of the match are less obvious, and, in any event, their marriage was to be very brief. A marriage that began with death in battle quickly ended in the same way. Stafford enjoyed a brief period of prominence due to Margaret’s lands, sitting as MP for Worcestershire in the Yorkist Parliament of October 1460 before being killed in the Yorkist ranks at the battle of Towton in the following March.

Margaret’s own subsequent history was also short.   Having lost two husbands in the space of eight months, she found herself under pressure to marry again and took as her third, Thomas Wake of Blisworth (Northamptonshire), a servant of the earl of Warwick. She has also been tentatively and probably mistakenly identified as one of Edward IV’s mistresses.

Her eventful life ended on 4 August 1466 at the age of only about 28, and the probability is that she died of complications arising from childbirth. A son, John, had been born to her and Wake only three months before she died. A brass to her memory survives in the church of Ingrave in Essex. She may also have a unique claim to fame as the wife of two MPs, the second of whom was responsible for the death of the first.


For further details of Margaret’s life: S.J. Payling, ‘Widows and the Wars of the Roses: the Turbulent Marital History of Edward IV’s Putative Mistress, Margaret, daughter of Sir Lewis John of West Horndon, Essex’, in The Fifteenth Century XIV, ed. L. Clark (Woodbridge, 2015)

Posted in medieval history, military history, social history | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Job opportunity: research assistant/research fellow, House of Commons 1832-1945 project

The History of Parliament has a vacancy for a research assistant / research fellow on its 1832-1945 House of Commons project. The successful candidate will have a PhD (or be close to completing one) in a relevant area of history or a related field and will join a small team of professional historians writing articles for the 1832-68 volumes and undertaking research on the period after 1832.

Further particulars are available here and an application form can be downloaded here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Kayleigh Milden, ‘From the Grassroots: An oral history of community politics in Devon.’

Reporting back from our latest ‘Parliaments, politics and people‘ seminar – our ‘From the Grassroots’ project co-ordinator, Dr Kayleigh Milden, shared some of the new archive’s secrets…

In this seminar I explored approaches in oral history and how this related to the research undertaken for the HLF-funded History of Parliament project ‘From the Grassroots: an oral history of community politics in Devon’. Oral history is most powerful when exploring peoples’ ‘emotional engagement’ with political history. Taking inspiration from oral historians such as Alessandro Portelli, Luisa Passerini, and Alistair Thomson, I argued that oral testimony is more than just a method to find out facts about the past, and that ‘deeper resonances’ often emerge from how the past is adapted by individuals in order to construct their own historical ‘truths.’

Throughout the paper I discussed a selection of interview excerpts from the project archive. This included Joan Morrish, a former Liberal Party councillor in Exeter. This clip strongly revealed the salience of the links between religious nonconformity and Liberalism in Devon’s rural districts, such as the South Hams, which continued well into the post-war period.

An excerpt from Anita Long’s interview, a Labour activist in Exeter, showed the power of family history in the construction of political identity. Anita’s narrative demonstrated how some of the ‘big’ events in twentieth-century British history, such as the First World War and the birth of the NHS, reverberate down the generations and continue to influence political beliefs.

I then played two interview clips relating to politics in North Devon. Mary Warman, a Conservative Party activist, recalled her involved as a young woman in the 1958 Torrington by-election. Mary remembered the excitement around the election and how the public meetings were always full, contrasting this with the apparent political apathy of today. That said, there is evidence from other interviews that suggest the ‘spirit of the hustings’ (to use historian Jon Lawence’s phase) continued until at least the early noughties in some parts of Devon. The second clip relating to North Devon was from David Verney’s interview (former Liberal councillor) who recalled working as an activist on Jeremy Thorpe’s campaign for the 1959 election. David related that through his “almost aggressive” determination and natural charisma, Thorpe reignited Liberalism in North Devon, confirming the Party’s revival in the region by the end of the decade. This excerpt led into a discussion of how Thorpe, despite not being local, was able to become integrated within the distinct culture of this part of the county; indeed, for many people, he had become an icon of North Devon.

The final excerpt came from Jeff Coates’ interview, who is a former Conservative councillor and party official in Exeter. Jeff recalled his memories of Enoch Powell’s visit the University of Exeter in 1968, just a few months after his so-called ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Jeff’s interview described the protest that broke out when Powell was invited to speak on economic policy by the University’s Conservative and Unionist Association. This interview has not only unearthed a piece of Devon’s ‘hidden history,’ but also demonstrated the impact that both student activism, and party youth originations, had on the topography of Devon politics since the 1960s.

I concluded with the thought that the archive of 70 oral history recordings contain a fascinating insight into the modern political history of Devon, and hope that the interviews will be used for future academic research.


You can find out more about ‘From the Grassroots’, listen to extracts from the interviews and share your own memories on the project’s website.

The last ‘Parliaments, poltiics and people’  seminar of the academic year takes place tonight, as Oxford’s Alex Middleton will speak on ‘The idea of Whiggism in mid-Victorian politics’. For full details, see here – hope you can join us!

Posted in 20th century history, oral history, Politics, Post-1945 history, social history | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

MPs and Waterloo

To mark today’s anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the Victorian Commons, explores the the impact of the battle’s veterans on the House of Commons…

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, much of the focus inevitably centres on the duke of Wellington’s achievements as a military commander and saviour of the nation. His other extraordinary career, as a highly accomplished politician, party leader and prime minister, seems almost too much to take in, especially given that as a Tory premier he succeeding in passing a number of key liberal reforms, including the repeal of the Test Acts (1828) and Catholic emancipation (1829). Polymath, on this occasion, doesn’t quite seem to cover it.

Horace Seymour MP with his Waterloo medal

Horace Seymour MP with his Waterloo medal

As a ‘military politician’, however, Wellington was by no means alone. Many of those who fought alongside him at Waterloo also went on to pursue successful (though less spectacular) political careers, most notably in the Commons. Horace Seymour, aided by his unenviable reputation for having slain more Frenchmen than anyone else during the battle, clocked up almost a quarter of a century as an MP, sitting for a variety of English and Irish constituencies until his death in 1851. Veterans like William Browne MP, severely wounded in a Waterloo infantry charge, Lord Fitzroy Somerset MP, who had his arm hacked off, and Frederick Ponsonby, who was ‘pierced by lance and sabre, ridden over by Prussian cavalry and left for dead on the field, where he was twice plundered’, became a familiar sight in late Hanoverian and early Victorian elections.

Lord Fitzroy Somerset MP

Lord Fitzroy Somerset MP

On the hustings military credentials could even count for more than party allegiance, enabling veterans to make broad based appeals and even attract cross-party support. The independently-minded veteran Thomas Davies MP, for instance, refused ‘to act on the principle of party’ during his 21 year career representing Worcester, claiming to have kept himself ‘entirely free from every government’. The 1820s and 1830s witnessed the largest influx of MPs bearing Waterloo medals, but a surprising number also served well into the Victorian era. Henry Wyndham MP, celebrated for his daring but unsuccessful attempt to capture Napoleon’s brother Jerome during the battle, represented Cockermouth from 1852-60. Lord Hotham, who had first entered the Commons in 1820, was still in place in 1868.

In total almost fifty Waterloo veterans eventually made their way into the Commons, creating a cohort of army officer MPs whose political influence and ability to capitalise on their military experience has yet to be fully explored. (For related work on the ‘politics of patriotism’ see in particular J. Parry’s study below.) Distributed across both sides of the House, but also containing a striking number who refused to declare any party allegiance, these veterans undoubtedly helped to sustain cultures of backbench independence at a time of growing partisanship and government control. Along with the great commander himself, they serve as an important reminder of the enduring role of ‘military politicians’ well into the era of modern British politics


Biographies of the MPs mentioned here and other Waterloo veterans can be found in the History of Parliament’s 1790-1820 and 1820-32 published volumes and on the 1832-68 project’s preview site.

Further reading:

Parry, The Politics of Patriotism: English Liberalism, National Identity and Europe, 1830-86 (2006)





Posted in 19th Century history, diplomatic history, military history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment