The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs - An Oral History of Parliament

This book comes out of the History of Parliament's oral history project and is a remarkable work of transcription. It comprises extracts from 178 interviews with former MPs only eight of whom declined to allow their interviews to be published. Seventeen Liberal or Liberal Democrat colleagues are included. I need to state that I am one of the former Members interviewed. When the interviewer 'phoned me he asked if I could spare two hours to talk about myself. I replied that I could give him two days! What becomes apparent from reading the different extracts is that politicians are much more frank when speaking than when writing, so much so that this book is an invaluable reference book political writers and particularly historians, quite apart from being a very entertaining and revealing read.

The book is organised under topics, including political development, finding a seat, party splits, gender issues, personal life and politics, with quotes from the interviews in the relevant places. This layout, coupled with one of best and most comprehensive indices I've seen in years, makes this a very easily accessible reference work. It is also valuable in having former Cabinet ministers, including Michael Heseltine, and long-serving MPs side by side with those, such as Liberal Elizabeth Shields, who were only in the House of Commons for five minutes, alas. It is clear that they is no single, settled view on candidate selection, campaigning and constituency work.

Amongst the Liberal contributions Graham Tope retells how Trevor Jones, the human dynamo and architect of the Liverpool Liberal successes, took over his by-election campaign in 1972 and conjured up a by-election gain out of nowhere. Diana Maddock recounts how when heavily pregnant a Liberal canvasser in Southampton followed her up after an election and got her involved. Through this she "got hooked on campaigning." A message there for all canvassers. Jenny Tonge has a very different story, coming from a Liberal family. And she also emphasises the importance of local attachment to a constituency. One curious anecdote, typical of the book, comes from Jackie Ballard who recounts how she played bridge with David Heath and Evan Harris during the long evenings in the House rather than inhabiting the many bars. It prompts the the question: who had the fourth hand? Later Jackie recounts how she became disillusioned with parliament and with the party. Martin Bell recounts how the Liberal Democrats - and others - stood down to give him a straight fight against Neil Hamilton in his successful 1997 election in Tatton. Emma Nicholson tells how the Conservative whips "manhandled" the lobby which made her so angry that hse joined the Liberal Democrats, although "I am intrinsically I think a Conservative." Which no doubt explains why in due course she re-defected back to the Conservatives.

There are a number of enlightening contributions on how cross party alliances are formed, particularly by women MPs on key issues, such as breast cancer services, as well as information on arcane traditions such as how the Members' Dining Room is organised into particular tables for party members and groups, and the idiocy of overnight queueing to be first in line for a 10 Minute Rule Bill. An unnamed Liberal tells of the wonders of the dreaded Focus leaflet!

To my knowledge there is no other book that provides direct information from one-time Members of Parliament on the trials and tribulations of parliamentary life and on the failure to organise the place to enable constructive discussion to take place on key issues. Oral history projects are increasingly common and no doubt contain a great deal of valuable material but I imagine that I am not unique in never getting around to organising a time to book an appointment to go to a library and to listen to long hours of interviews. To have project staff transcribing the interviews and selecting significant passages is therefore a great boon. They have produced an excellent book, even if its price is rather excessive.

The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs - An Oral History of Parliament, ed Emma Peplow & Priscila Pivatto, Bloomsbury Academic 2020, Currently £61.20