Out this month: ‘The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs: An Oral History of Parliament’

Later this month the very first book based on our Oral History Project Archive is published by Bloomsbury Academic. Today, the book’s authors, Dr Emma Peplow and Dr Priscila Pivatto, give a preview of what you can expect in the book

A publication based on our oral history project archive has been some time coming – as readers of this blog will know, we have been interviewing former MPs about their lives and experiences since 2011. With over 185 interviews now deposited at the British Library, we felt the time had come to share some of the secrets of this archive.

The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs takes its inspiration from Russell Riley’s Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History (2016), a curated collection of his project’s interviews with key members of the Clinton administration. Taking a similar approach, we have selected extracts covering some of the key themes that emerge again and again in the interviews. We hope that it will act as both an introduction to the archive and a guide for those researchers who want to explore further.

The book follows the ‘life story’ approach of our interviews themselves, and we include extracts of memories from all aspects of a politician’s career: from their very first memories of politics around their parents’ dining tables to deep reflections on the successes and failures of their careers. In the first part of the book we discuss our interviewees’ early backgrounds: how their families and communities helped to shape their earliest (and often deepest) political values, the inspirational teachers and university lecturers who inspired (or rankled!) them, and their first experiences in the world of work. These chapters explore the influences that helped to shape the interviewees and their later careers, as suggested in this clip by Liberal Democrat MP Jackie Ballard:

Jackie Ballard, photographed by Barbara Luckhurst for the History of Parliament Oral History Project

The second section of the book moves on to political careers before Westminster. We explore the decision to enter politics (if there was one moment that could be pinpointed, for some political activism was an entirely natural step) and the vitally important process of being selected as a parliamentary candidate – a difficult business that would shape a subsequent career. Memories of electioneering and the highs and lows of election night itself complete this section.

We then focus on the culture and practices of life at Westminster: what it felt like to arrive as a new MP. Our interviewees discuss a confusing rabbit warren of a parliamentary estate without induction processes, bewildering procedures to learn to speak in the Chamber and social spaces – bars, tea room, smoking room – that often seemed akin to a gentlemen’s club. For most, Westminster took some getting used to and it took considerable time to understand how to get things done. This was the case even for those who you might not expect, as Conservative Jim Prior remembered:

Jim Prior, photographed by Michael Waller-Bridge for the History of Parliament Oral History Project

Whilst many soon learned and settled in, others – more likely to be women, or those with working-class backgrounds – always felt a bit like outsiders. All of these memories give us a real insight into how Westminster worked.

Of course, our interviewees remember some of the biggest political events of the past fifty years, from Suez to the 2001 Iraq war, and in the fourth section of the book we include memories of these issues: the Troubles, the complicated British-European relationship, Thatcher’s rise and fall, and the formation of the SPD. We again include reflections from ‘behind the scenes’: how parties and the whipping system worked, what was needed to get key legislation through parliament, and how MPs managed (or not) their constituency work and parties. These issues give us an insight into the different roles that MPs took on.

Clive Soley, photographed by Barbara Luckhurst for the History of Parliament Oral History Project

Finally, we include MPs’ reflections on their careers. Some of our more revealing interview questions revolve around achievements and regrets, what impact a political career could have on family life, and how it felt to leave the Commons – either by choice or because the electorate decided so. Here Labour MP Clive Soley reflects on his career in a clip that reflects both achievements and frustrations:

We hope that the this book will give both a taste of the materials available in our archive and a flavour of what it felt like to be an MP: to be selected to represent your community, to gossip in the tea room, to campaign with colleagues (perhaps even political enemies), and to pass or block legislation. These recordings remind us again that politicians are real people, rather than the caricatures we sometimes see in the media.

The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs is out in print on 20 August, and over the coming months we’ll share some insights with you on this blog and elsewhere. Look out for blogs on selection experiences, case studies on Wales, and a discussion of the competing roles MPs took on when they were elected. Over on twitter we’ll continue to share some of our favourite extracts for you to listen to.

The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs is available now from Bloomsbury Academic here.

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