Correspondence from the public exists for almost all periods between 1890 and the present

From telegrams to Twitter – archives of letters sent to party leaders will uncover impact of political correspondence

Whether being treated like celebrities with thousands of adoring fans or being demonised by online ‘trolls’ today’s politicians receive a never-ending barrage of public communication. Whether via Twitter, Facebook, or email an army of keyboard warriors are ready to praise or abuse their every word or action.

As part of a major new study experts will examine the changing patterns of what was written to MPs and by who, using the papers of twenty-seven prominent politicians, from William Gladstone to Neil Kinnock.

Their analysis of some of the hundreds of thousands of letters, cards, and faxes British politicians received from the late nineteenth century onwards will show who has been more likely to write to their MP, and when politicians have been more likely to reply.

The project will be led by Dr Kit Kowol, from Kings College, London, supported by Professor Richard Toye, from the University of Exeter. Their hope is to help politicians better understand why people write as well as to contribute to ongoing debates about the effects of social media on democracy.

The project’s official partner is the House of Commons Library, the parliamentary office responsible for answering queries about policy that originate in letters written to Members of Parliament.

Dr Kowol said: “As a private and intimate form of political participations correspondents didn’t just use letters to request help or give their opinion but often to share their deepest hopes and fears. Their analysis gives researchers a new way to understand how everyday people thought about politics as well as how politicians used these letters.”

The ease and accessibility of writing to politicians made it one of the most popular forms of political participation in the twentieth century. Long before today’s clogged Twitter feeds and overwhelmed email inboxes, individual MPs in the interwar period received between 1,500 to 2,000 letters a week. Much of this correspondence, like today’s hate mail and Twitter ‘trolling’, was decidedly hostile.

Correspondence from the public exists for almost all periods between 1890 and the present. They are a remarkable source to explore many of the most important and pressing questions in British politics and history.

Experts will analyse correspondence sent to 24 British political leaders and interview contemporary politicians and their staff about their experience and understanding of receiving messages from the public.

Professor Toye said: “The project will reveal much about the changing nature of political culture in Britain and the relationship between members of the public and their representatives during a period of profound political transformation. It will also improve access to understanding of a unique source base with the capacity to shed light on key areas of British social, cultural, and political history.

“Politics in Britain is intimately connected to correspondence, and we have records from 1890. Politicians have used letters, and now email and social media, to appeal, organize, govern, and scheme. The analysis of politicians’ correspondence with each other has long been a cornerstone of political history. Letters written by members of the public to politicians have, by contrast, received considerably less attention, even though they are a uniquely valuable way to understand popular political and social attitudes.”

Researchers will examine correspondence sent to Andrew Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Herbert Samuel, Archibald Sinclair, Clement Davies, Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe, David Owen and Paddy Ashdown.

Researchers will collect oral history from those working for recent political party leaders and their staff in order to explore the impact of receiving messages from the public via email and social media. Those who have already agreed to participate include past and current members of Number Ten staff.

With European data protection rules (GDPR) causing numerous historic letter archives to be sealed off the project also aims to contribute to the Government’s post-Brexit ‘common sense’ review of privacy laws.

 

Notable correspondence to British politicians

  • 1890 - William Gladstone receives letters from outraged Liberal voters during Parnell divorce scandal.
  • 1918 – letters urging Lloyd George to pursue German war reparations and ‘hang the Kaiser’ received from bereaved parents and wives of WWI soldiers.
  • 1938 – Neville Chamberlain draws emotional support from letters sent to him praising his response to Munich Crisis.
  • 1945 – ‘condolence letters’ sent to Winston Churchill from across Britain, Europe, USA, and Empire after defeat in postwar General Election.
  • 1965 – Harold Wilson recipient of extensive hate-mail after sanctions imposed on Rhodesia after UDI.
  • 1968 – Enoch Powell uses emotional letter from constituent describing effect of non-white immigration in ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech
  • 1981 – Michael Foot sent coins and clothing vouchers in wake of his appearance in a ‘donkey jacket’ at Cenotaph Remembrance service.
  • 1982 – Extra staff drafted into Downing Street after Margaret Thatcher deluged with letters for and against Falklands War.
  • 1992 – Neil Kinnock recipient of letters, faxes, and greetings cards urging him to stay as Labour leader after second General Election loss.
  • 2015 – Jeremy Corbyn reads letters from public in first appearance as Leader of the Opposition during Prime Minister’s Questions.
  • 2019 – ‘People’s PMQs’ launched by Boris Johnson with pre-selected members of public asking questions via Facebook live stream.
  • 2021 – Gavin Williamson urges parents to write to Ofsted with complaints regarding online learning, Ofsted receives 5,000 letters of praise instead.

Date: 11 January 2022

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