In the second of her blogs inspired by her recent book, ‘Colonel Josiah Wedgwood’s Questionnaire: Members of Parliament 1885-1918’, Priscilla Baines looks at the backgrounds and parliamentary experiences of Wedgwood’s respondents.
Wedgwood’s questionnaire captured respondents from a wide range of party and personal backgrounds. The replies were revealing about attitudes to their parliamentary careers. Their interest in politics was sometimes triggered by the great issues of the day, but family background was the principal factor underlying an interest in a political career. Francis Mildmay, for example, a Liberal MP at the young age of 24, came from a family in which ‘active concern for National politics has long been a characteristic’. Many were committed to the ideal of public service; the affluent Conservative Philip Sasson wanted to ‘give something back’. Surprisingly few admitted to the ambition so often held to drive politicians; several claimed that they had not sought to enter the House of Commons but had been persuaded by others to stand, a claim that some would treat with scepticism if uttered by certain MPs today!
Family and local connections often helped initially to get selected as a candidate; inheriting a ‘family’ seat could lead to a long parliamentary career, as in Wedgwood’s own case. Lionel de Rothschild, a Liberal Unionist, succeeded his cousin at a by-election in 1899 in Aylesbury which ‘had been represented by my family since 1865 and when my cousin proposed to retire I felt I ought to offer myself as a candidate.’ By the early 1900s, getting started in a political career was more difficult and those with political ambitions often took the initiative and approached parties. Whilst for some selection was easy – Liberal Charles McCurdy claimed that he contested his first election on a friend’s ‘casual suggestion’ – for many it was both costly and could take several years.
Being a member of parliament was still seldom regarded as a full-time activity although there was a distinction between those who entered the House of Commons at an early age and went on to government office, and those who entered after a professional, business or commercial career or service in local government. Those involved in business or the professions, particularly among Liberals, were not invariably affluent and many needed to continue to earn after entering parliament. John Bigham, at 55 a late entrant to the House of Commons, was said to have been earning between £12,000 and £15,000 before entering the House, a very large amount for the time. Like many lawyers he was determined to keep up his legal practice, which meant he had neither the time nor the energy to be an active MP. Labour members often had to rely completely on financial support from their unions, although some, like Keir Hardie, could earn small amounts from writing and lecturing.
Unlike today’s parliamentarians, regularly visiting constituencies was not the norm. There were some assiduous correspondents but the more patrician members were open about disliking the demands of their constituents. Social functions in constituencies were unpopular; the Liberal Joseph Pease complained of ‘having to put my tongue in my cheek when suggesting to my constituents that I was “enjoying” myself in addressing meetings and opening bazaars.’
A significant minority were disappointed by their parliamentary experiences, mainly because of the strength of vested interests and the difficulty of achieving anything concrete. Those who entered parliament after a successful career resented being powerless and ‘mere voting units’. Realities of day to day parliamentary life were equally disliked: the physical conditions in the House, the food, and attendance at divisions. The long hours and late nights with nothing specific to do were unpopular, as were routine debates on mundane topics. The Liberal MP William Rees Davies’ worst experience was ‘probably a dull Scotch debate when the Whips decline[d] to allow their party to leave the House.’ Many actively disliked speaking in debates or, for another Liberal Malcolm Kincaid-Smith, ‘hearing someone else say what I wanted to say myself.’
Parliamentary life nevertheless very easily became addictive. The sense of comradeship, cross-party friendships and the general absence of snobbishness were highly valued, as was being close to those in power and the ability to influence events. Big set-piece debates were popular as a spectator-sport, especially when feelings ran high and there were opportunities to observe the debating skills of party leaders. Many did not want to leave, even when forced to; the Unionist James Craig described the ‘wrench of leaving’ when, after the Government Act of Ireland in 1920, he became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland!