Our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar was an internal affair, as Priscila Pivatto and Emma Peplow spoke on the History of Parliament’s own national oral history project, which is recording MPs’ memories in their own words. We began by introducing the project and our progress so far (you can find out more here), before discussing some preliminary findings from our project for post-war British political history.
We discussed both the positives and negatives of interviewing MPs for an oral history project – especially as it rather unusual for an oral history project to focus on a group already in the public eye rather than capturing the memories of ‘ordinary people’. However, on the positive side we noted that our project was uncovering new material and giving a different perspective on life at Westminster. For example, personalities and characters emerge from our interviews, and many were deeply emotional and reveal major issues, motivations and commitments that were not necessarily found elsewhere. The number of MPs who considered themselves ‘outsiders’ at Westminster is also striking in what is perceived to be an elite, homogeneous group: whether thanks to class, gender, access, party or religion, there was certainly ‘segregation’ in Westminster (to use the words of MP Teddy Taylor). This is particularly revealed in this interview extract from former Labour MP Alice Mahon:
On the other hand, as with any oral history project, memories are themselves constructed by the interviewer and have to be treated with care. This can be a greater problem for MPs who are keen to present a particular narrative of their careers.
We then turned to some findings from our project, based on a sample of 60 interviews. Our discussion focussed on the reasons given by MPs for entering politics. We uncovered three key reasons for entering politics: firstly, the influence of family, either through the direct example of family members’ involvement, such as Peter, Lord Carrington:
Or through an atmosphere at home of discussion and debate, as remembered here by Frank Judd:
Secondly, education could be a key factor in enlightening their political views, especially those who went to grammar or public school. Jill Knight, for example, remembered first becoming interested in politics thanks to a reaction to a left-wing English teacher, whereas others, such as Kenneth Baker, discussed debating societies, mock elections or the active encouragement of teachers. A smaller group became involved in politics because of a specific cause – for Conservatives, this may have been the Attlee government or the Winter of Discontent, for Labour, this might be anti-apartheid activism or involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. For some, their interest in politics began at school or in the home but they were motivated to become actively involved, or stand as an MP, because of these specific issues.
We then briefly looked at the routes to Westminster and analysed different experiences and strategies MPs used to become selected as candidates. In discussion afterwards, there were several suggestions of further avenues to explore, such as the possible links between motivation and the type of career the MPs had, and many were interested in how MPs viewed their time at Westminster. We were helped in our discussions by several volunteer interviewers from the project, who shared their experiences as well.
Our final seminar for the term takes place this evening as Eliza Hartrich will speak on ‘Influencing Parliament in fifteenth-century England: some observations on ‘The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye’. Full details are available here. Hope you can join us!