In today’s blog Dr Emma Peplow, coordinator of the History of Parliament’s Oral History Project, picks up our recent theme of marriage and Parliament. As many former MPs discussed in their interviews, a parliamentary career wasn’t always a friend to marital life…
Our oral history project interviewers make sure to ask former MP not just about formal politics, but how political life impacted on personal and family lives. Our archive is full of reflections on not just politics, but the political lifestyle. As Conservative David Howell told us: ‘People think it’s a job. It’s not. It’s a role.’ Even before arriving at Westminster, building a political career was all-consuming and could not be fit into a 9-5 working day, put to one side on entering the front door. Unfortunately, a politician’s marriage could often be a casualty of their commitment, and even the strongest relationships came under considerable strain.
Given the amount of time most of our interviewees dedicated to political activism, it is not surprising that many met their spouses through politics. For those who did not, problems could develop long before a politician arrived at Westminster. Pursing this activism and trying to be selected, and elected, to Westminster often involved campaigning long hours into the evening, or far away from home, over many years. For some, marriages broke up at this stage: Labour’s Giles Radice’s told us that his first wife ‘didn’t like politics’; Ivor Richard (Labour) believed politics had a negative impact on family life ‘no matter how you do it.’ Jackie Ballard’s marriage broke down after two years of involvement with the Liberal Democrats serving on town and district councils: ‘my husband had had enough of my politics, because he didn’t share my political views and he didn’t like me being out all the time doing politics.’
Various interviewees told us that they only pursued a political career with the express agreement of their partner. Conservative Elizabeth Peacock went forward for selection only after a family ‘round-table discussion.’ Labour’s Robert Hughes told us that he would ‘never have stood for Parliament without [my wife’s] agreement. So she knew what she was letting herself in for.’ Others, unfortunately, were not so enamoured with their partner’s selection. We have several examples of wives who were angry, or in tears, when their husbands were selected. Conservative Richard Luce told us of his wife’s reaction, herself a daughter of an MP, when he was selected:
A candidate’s partner was, especially for the Conservative party, a full part of the selection process – MPs’ wives in particular were expected to play a certain role in the community. Anthony Coombs described his wife as a ‘very major asset’ to his selection; whereas Ivan Lawrence was more critical, his association ‘wanted two people for the price of one […] My wife would throw parties, bring people together, help at election time.’ In fact David Curry made sure that his constituency party knew as soon as he was selected that his wife was not prepared to play that traditional role. In other parties’ selection the role of spouses did not seem to be as overt. However, spouses often attended selection meetings and many wives, in particular, acted as secretaries or ran constituency offices: both out of financial necessity (before there was an expenses allowance for constituency secretaries) or as the person most trusted to do so.
On arrival in Westminster the stresses on married life only increased. In the period when Parliament sat long into the night and the bars were full, being an MP was ‘a recipe for adultery and divorce’ in the words of Labour/SDP MP Bryan Magee. Here Conservative John Watson spells out the temptations for MPs whose spouses were far away in the constituency:
The advice from our interviewees, overwhelmingly, was to move family to London rather than stay in far-flung constituencies. Selection for seats in London was extremely competitive for this very reason: Conservative Kenneth Baker, for example, had a deal with his wife that he would only represent a seat in London ‘so I would always be close to the family and have breakfast with the children’; whereas Labour’s Fred Silvester commuted with his entire family between London in the week and Manchester at the weekends. Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge’s husband ‘loved’ her being an MP, in part because, as a consultant at the nearby St Thomas’s hospital, they would have dinner on the parliamentary estate together whilst she was waiting to vote. Overwhelmingly, those MPs who kept their marriages together were full of praise and gratitude for their spouses, well aware of the sacrifices they had made and support given in politics, childcare, and personally.
As working hours and parliamentary culture began to change in the 1990s, some of these pressures began to ease. Labour’s David Hinchliffe argued that the change in hours was ‘such a positive thing’ and many felt it helped to undermine the ‘boys club’ atmosphere. However, pressures remain for those MPs whose families live a long way from London. MPs are now expected to be in Westminster for more days of the week, with less to occupy them in the evenings. Being an MP is not, despite the change in hours, a 9-5 job, and it is certainly not an easy lifestyle for either MP or spouse.
You can listen to many of our oral history interviews online via British Library Sounds.
Do you want to learn more about the experience of female MPs?
Click here to find out more about women’s experiences of parliamentary life from our oral history interviews. This was the subject of the recent Speaker’s Advisory Committee of Works of Art International Women’s Day lecture, given by Emma Peplow and Priscila Pivatto.