First impressions of Westminster in the words of former MPs: back to school, into ‘Dracula’s castle’ or safe at home?

Ahead of Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Emma Peplow & Priscila Pivatto, responsible for the History of Parliament Trust’s oral history project which is interviewing former MPs about their lives and experiences. They recently published The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs, an introduction and guide to the project. Emma & Priscila will be responding to your questions about the project between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on 17 November 2020. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

This blog, which explores the first impressions new MPs had of Westminster in their own words, is based on their full-length seminar paper, ‘A prep school, ‘Dracula’s castle’, or where they belonged? First impressions of Westminster from the History of Parliament oral history project’, which is available here.

E. Peplow & P. Pivatto, The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs (2020)

We always ask the former MPs we interview as part of the History of Parliament Trust’s oral history project about their first impressions of Westminster. Their answers are often revealing about an individual’s personality, but also about the wider culture and atmosphere in the Palace of Westminster. This type of material – personal, emotional and full of insider information about how Parliament operates – is often hidden in more traditional parliamentary sources. It is one of the highlights of our archive.

Many will be familiar with some of the clichés about Parliament’s culture. The comparison between the first day as an MP and the ‘first day of school’, often seen in the press, was repeated in our interviews, in particular by those upper-middle class men who had direct experience of prep or boarding schools. This is best described by Michael Heseltine:

Michael Heseltine (Conservative, 1966–2001) © History of Parliament Trust

Another common theme is that Westminster is unwelcoming to those of working-class backgrounds, to women and to people of colour. Again this is certainly repeated in our recordings. Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge here describes the Palace as a ‘crumbling old Dracula’s castle’:

Jenny Tonge (Liberal Democrat, 1997–2005) © History of Parliament Trust
© Barbara Luckhurst/History of Parliament Trust

Our archive, however, includes many more views on the culture, or cultures, of the Palace. For example, there was a third initial reaction from several MPs, in particular those who had worked in politics for a long time: a feeling of being ‘at home’. This reaction is best described by then Labour MP Bill Rodgers:

William Rodgers (Labour/Social Democrat/Liberal Democrat, 1962-1983) © History of Parliament Trust

On arrival at Westminster MPs describe various emotions or reactions. Many described feeling overawed. These MPs came from all walks of life, and even included the current Marquess of Salisbury. A feeling of accomplishment and excitement was also common, as described here by Ann Widdecombe:

Anne Widdecombe (Conservative, 1987-2010) © History of Parliament Trust

However, we also found some (more often working class or female MPs) who felt the culture was hostile to them. For example, Labour’s Linda Gilroy described Parliament as ‘a place that was built to keep people in their place’.

Whether they felt overawed, delighted, or out of place, in this period (all of our interviewees entered parliament between 1952 and 1997) there was little or no formal induction process, either through party or through Parliament itself. MPs were not told when they should arrive, where they should go, or given a map. Parliament has many complicated official procedures as it is, but this confusion was compounded by the informal rules and ‘things done or not done’.

Many told us that they were ‘ignorant’ of how Parliament worked. Then of course, there were more informal issues: which bar should you go to (if you could find it), as many were unofficially segregated by party; where should you sit in the dining room or canteen? MPs relied on friends, old and new, to find a way through these often baffling conventions, as described here by Conservative Robert Hicks:

Robert Hicks (Conservative, 1970-1997) © History of Parliament Trust

In addition, MPs soon learned that Parliament was hierarchical. This was not particularly between MPs, but more between the MPs and parliamentary staff. If Parliament was a club, the MPs were by definition the ‘members’, and treated as such. This respect, almost deference, was appreciated by most (although not all) MPs and helped them to feel at home quickly. For example, Conservative Roger Sims remembered showing family members around and asking if he could take them out to the terrace: ‘Of course you can, sir. It is your house.’

Our archive suggests that Westminster was not just one ‘club’, but a series of ‘clubs’. There certainly was the gentleman’s club, complete with wood panelling, the smoking and dining rooms and so on; but there was also the working man’s club, as seen in several of the bars, and a women’s organisation, found in the ‘lady Members’ rooms’. Before 1997 in particular many remarked on the diversity of class on show in Westminster, as described here in a joke told to Labour’s Bryan Magee:

Bryan Magee (Labour, 1974-1983) © History of Parliament Trust

If you joined a ‘club’, the Palace quickly became a productive and successful working environment. Many described camaraderie both within parties and between them, especially during long sessions that ran late into the night. However, if you did not fit into these clubs you lost opportunities to progress. Labour’s Win Griffiths, for example, explained that his alcohol allergy kept him away from the bars and thus away from the political groupings in his party.

For women, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, it could be hard to break down cultural barriers to even go into the bar or smoking room, but many tried hard to ‘drink with the boys as well as chat in the women’s room’ in the words of Helen Jackson (Labour). The lady Members’ rooms were divided by party and were important in developing friendships and camaraderie between female MPs. Yet once again there were those who were not able to join in. SDP MP Rosie Barnes remembered having to choose between the Labour and Conservative rooms: ‘I had to choose which to go into and it was who hates me the least! I felt very uncomfortable in either.’

These cultures were all informal, and largely learned by ‘Chinese whispers’. They were therefore reinforced with every generation of MPs, as the new members struggled to fit in and find their feet. From our archive we have a few examples of those who tried to change things early on; this sparked hostility from colleagues, old and new. It wasn’t until 1997, when a significant number of new MPs entered the House and the New Labour government backed change, that real reform took place.

EP/PP

Emma & Priscila will be responding to your questions about the project between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on 17 November 2020. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

This blog, which explores the first impressions new MPs had of Westminster in their own words, is based on their full-length seminar paper, ‘A prep school, ‘Dracula’s castle’, or where they belonged? First impressions of Westminster from the History of Parliament oral history project’, which is available here.

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