Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: ‘That was how politics started for me’: memories on motivations from the History of Parliament Trust’s Sound Archive

Our Parliaments, Politics and People seminar is back for the autumn term! At next week’s seminar our head of Oral History, Dr Emma Peplow, will discuss what drove MPs into politics using materials gathered from our Oral History Project.

The seminar takes place on 18 October 2022, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. It is fully ‘hybrid’, which means you can attend either in-person in London at the IHR, or online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here

Although sadly I will be presenting solo next week, this paper is a collaboration between myself and Dr Priscila Pivatto and takes inspiration from the first few chapters of our introduction to the History of Parliament’s sound archive, The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs. In it, we explore the importance of home and school lives in creating a political generation.

Our long and wide-ranging oral histories are ideally suited to exploring this topic. We begin our interviews asking about an MP’s home life, and many are surprised by the level of detail we are interested in. We ask about the MP’s parents, their attitudes, how religious the family were, about their wider communities and their schooling. Although perhaps shaped by hindsight and their later political lives, this method can give us rich detail about early influences and help to explain what it is that drives particular individuals into active politics.

Over half of our interviewees, for example, came from homes that could be described as actively political: in parliament, the local party, or trade unions. For example, Sylvia Heal described writing and stuffing envelopes for the Labour party, at times resenting the importance of neat handwriting on the envelopes! Olga Maitland described how, every night in her childhood home, on the ‘ping’ of six the drinks would come out and ‘the [political] conversation would start’, led by her father, who was an MP and later peer.

Olga Maitland, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, 1992-97

Even if the family was not politically active most of our interviewees learnt to respect and value politics and public service whilst at home. Many described political arguments, reading newspapers, or otherwise being encouraged to take an interest in the wider world. If this did not happen at home, then it did in school, through debating societies, mock elections and the inspiration (good and bad!) of teachers.

These values often went deeper than which party you supported. Many told us that they were taught the importance of democracy at home, learning the difference between life under a democratic system and various totalitarian systems. Others learnt to value public service, especially in more privileged or religious families. This is best described by Toby Jessel:

[My grandmother] thought Jews from privileged families should give public service. When she heard I’d left the navy, aged seventeen, she took down a photograph of me from a mantelpiece beside one of Queen Mary, banded it and put it in a drawer and never took it out again. And I heard about this, it upset me slightly, and when I failed to get into the Royal Academy of Music, I determined to get on with trying to do public service through politics. […] I, I grew up in a British patriotic and public service atmosphere. Serve the country: queen and country. Toby Jessel (Conservative, 1970–97)

Hilary Armstrong remembered her father, a Methodist lay preacher as well as an MP, telling her along with her brother that: ‘you’ve got some responsibilities for other people. You should be involved in public life in some way.’ These influences could also be quite tribal – the MPs who grew up in the Welsh valleys, for example, described thinking of Tories as ‘odd’, an attitude that never left them!

Hilary Armstrong, Labour MP for North West Durham, 1987-2010. Photograph by Barbara Luckhurst

These men and women grew up to become politically active: joining parties whilst at school, university or because some later cause pushed them into activism. Yet the fundamental values were instilled much earlier, whilst at home. Our archive provides rich and detailed insights into what made a political generation, and helps us to understand their later political thinking.


Emma’s seminar takes place on 18 October 2022, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. You can attend either in-person in London at the IHR, or online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here

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