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!