Priscilla Baines has recently published a new book, ‘Colonel Josiah Wedgwood’s Questionnaire: Members of Parliament 1885-1918’. Her work analyses the replies to questionnaires sent in 1936 by the History of Parliament’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood, to gain personal reflections from his fellow MPs on their experiences in the House. This is the first of a series of blogs that will share some of her findings.
‘Colonel Wedgwood’s questionnaire’ formed a small part of the life’s work of Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme from 1906-1942, then briefly Lord Wedgwood of Barlaston before his death in 1943. First elected as a Liberal, he joined the Labour Party after the First World War. He served on the Labour front benches in the early 1920s and in the 1924 Labour government but otherwise spent his parliamentary career on the back benches. He became widely known for his energetic and enthusiastic support of numerous causes, probably the most lasting being his desire to record the history of members of parliament from the earliest times which ultimately led to the History of Parliament project.
His questionnaire was not part of a systematic survey. It was intended to elicit contributions to two planned volumes of the History of Parliament project covering members of parliament who had served in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wedgwood wanted those who had served between 1885 and 1918 and who were still alive to write their own biographies. He was anxious to ‘get inside their minds’ and gain a ‘personal touch’, so he made ‘a bold attempt at political psycho-analysis’. The questionnaire was supposed to provide a list of the topics he wanted to be covered. He did not attempt to achieve a representative sample of members but simply concentrated on getting as many replies as possible.
He achieved a high level of response and many of the replies contained the ‘personal touch’ that he sought, although he largely failed to get his colleagues to write their own biographies. He captured a wide range of respondents in terms of both party distribution and over time, but the questions were not well drafted. They often overlapped and many were open-ended so the answers could be confused and confusing. Despite that, there appears to have been relatively little re-writing of history in the responses and most of the answers have the ring of truth.
The replies and associated correspondence provide a rich source of information about their subjects, especially their attitudes to their political and parliamentary careers, at a time when the House of Commons was going through a period of transition: the socio-economic composition was changing rapidly, party discipline was becoming firmly established, government activity was growing, and the outside world was increasingly uncertain and turbulent. The historian in Wedgwood meant that he was very conscious of those changes and the importance of recording them for the benefit of posterity. In this series of blogs, I will share some of the more interesting responses to the questionnaire, and some of Wedgwood’s insights into this period of parliamentary history.