This chapter focuses on the ways in which insights from the wider family of historical researchers have been brought to bear on political topics. There is little agreed definition for politics and, hence, what political history is. Because politics simply means the contest or use of power, histories of politics can encompass almost any aspect of human experience. In general, we tend to use politics to mean contests over the government of our lives – but even then, ‘government’ is not always limited to the state or its rulers.
We will consider the use of primary sources to study the politics of modern Britain, although many of the basic problems confronting researchers will apply, in different contexts, to the politics of other societies too. By examining recent shifts in focus among political historians, we will see how they have used new sources or old sources in new ways to reveal innovative understandings of state and society.
The most traditional primary sources, generated by the government or social elites, can still be used to understand arguments at the cabinet table in 10 Downing Street. However, such documents can be read in new ways or placed alongside other sources to understand the politics of the grocer’s counter in the High Street or the kitchen table in a back-street tenement.
The nineteenth-century pioneers of History as a university subject largely pursued political topics. This means that political history has been intertwined with the methods of the earliest professional historians. Twentieth-century innovations in research have reacted against this traditional style of political history and defined themselves in contradiction to its subject and methods. However unjustly, political historians are still sometimes presumed to be examining the machinations of kings, aristocrats, ministers, and bishops with the same prejudices as – and from the primary sources created by – such powerful men (Gardiner, 1988, 18, 30). Yet, politics and political culture are studied by historians with a wide variety of approaches and subjects.
Rather than worrying about the imagined boundaries between different kinds of historical writing, we can prosper from sharing the insights of each and understanding how power has been contested in many different places. Self-identified social or cultural historians have focused their work on the perspectives of the broader population and, often, the primary sources generated by them. Some of these studies pursued traditional political questions through the eyes of everyday people. Hence, E.P. Thompson’s celebrated social history of the English working classes examines the politics of regulation, taxation, and collective identity which forged a Chartist movement, demanding that working men got the right to vote (Thompson, 1963). This ‘history-from-below’ studied politics, as we would understand it, even as it rejected the sources and approaches associated with the label ‘political history’.
In an attempt to identify different traditions, one of the most enduring ways to think about research questions and historical sources has been to distinguish between the ‘high politics’ of privileged elites and the ‘low politics’ of the broader population. While the distinction primarily regards the social and economic status of the people we are studying, it hints at broader differences. In general, ‘high politics’ is likely to emphasise the power of individuals to shape history. Often, historians of ‘low politics’ focus on the particular experience of their subjects or the cumulative effect of collective agency. Moreover, high politics will tend to tour the royal court, the parliamentary chamber, and the corridors of power in a political capital, while low politics often travels into provincial towns or rural settlements. Whether our primary sources are now held in national or local archives often reflects the level of politics we are studying in the past. Inevitably, the diaries and memoirs of famous elites are more likely to have been preserved (and published) than those of working people, where we must rely on personal autobiographies or twentieth-century oral history interviews
In recent years, the artificial distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics is being bridged by those who study the interactions of a nation’s rulers and the ruled. By the 1990s, a convergence in the interests of social, political, and cultural historians led some British and American scholars to declare the arrival of a ‘new political history’ (Pincus and Novak, 2011; Wood, 2001). Broadly speaking, this new subject shares – with cultural history – an interest in language and worldview, but also shares – with social history – an interest in everyday life and ordinary lives. Research questions have moved away from the study of ‘formal politics’ and towards ‘the constitution of identities and meaning’, with a consequent expansion in the types of primary sources used (Craig, 2010; Fielding, 2007, p. 516). Among researchers in the twenty-first century, ‘political culture’ has also become a favoured way to indicate this novel approach to political history, though it lacks any agreed definition (Formisano, 2001).
A ‘new political history’ tended to move away from a focus on the politics of employer–employee relations, the crystallisation of political parties, or the dual rise of industrialisation and democratisation. The final quarter of the twentieth century saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of popular Thatcherism, which perhaps shook many of the assumptions in older studies of politics as a clash of left and right. Certainly, intellectual trends reunited ‘low’ and ‘high’ political history, as fewer historians were willing to assume that economic interests determined social and political history (Fielding, 2007; Lawrence, 1998; Taylor, 1997).
By way of an example, Gareth Stedman Jones began his career in the 1970s examining the working-class politics of Victorian Britain. In the next decade, he famously distanced himself from his early assumptions – inspired by Marx’s social theory – about the inevitability of workers organising against the richer bosses. Stedman Jones’ most influential essay emphasises Chartist campaigners’ primary concern with a working man’s right to vote as a recognition of full citizenship and traditional rights of the ‘free-born Englishman’. Stedman Jones found less class warfare in the Chartists’ own words than he had assumed (Stedman Jones, 1983). The extent to which historians should see language, culture, and ideas as the motors of history, not merely signs of change in underlying economic factors, formed the basis of a sometimes ill-tempered debate in the following years over this ‘linguistic turn’ or ‘cultural turn’ (Pedersen, 2002).
It is worth remembering that historians tend to overstate their novelty compared to predecessors. Indeed, Maurice Cowling’s oft-maligned histories of high politics paid attention to beliefs and worldviews, as well as the pressure of public opinion, in understanding the decisions of elites (Craig, 2010). Equally, the Marxist social historian Edward Thompson defined class as experience and he paid deep interest to folk culture and local traditions which shaped eighteenth- and nineteenth-century workers’ political views. We should not overstate the extent to which twenty-first-century historians of politics break from past approaches, even if there is a change in emphasis and a conscious engagement with new methodologies from the social sciences and other humanities disciplines (Eley and Nield, 2007).
The study of popular politics and attention to the meaning of political concepts, even if they constitute the two characteristic features of a ‘new political history’, are not necessarily identical or even complementary directions for research. Evidence for the language and meaning of ideas often survives in the archives of the powerful or in the words of authors whose ideas got printed. This means we use traditional sources in new ways, so the study of political beliefs or language can chime with the methods of those pursuing the history of ideas and high-brow intellectual history as much as those studying political history from below (Craig, 2010).
While such approaches prize qualitative analysis of the content and context of ideas, new tools in digital humanities research are allowing us to quantify the study of language. Using software to examine the incidence of keywords related to Ireland during elections held in 1880–1914, Luke Blaxill has recently challenged prior assumptions about the issue of Irish Home Rule. For example, this ‘corpus linguistics’ approach can measure how far the reputation of Liberal leader William Gladstone played out differently in local, national, and parliamentary speech by studying how frequently he was mentioned by supporters and opponents (Blaxill, 2013).
Besides letters to newspapers or the recorded incidence of jeering during speeches, the rare survival of letters and diaries can offer non-elite responses to national events and offer us a window into popular politics. Hence, studies of nineteenth-century popular politics have embraced such varied primary sources as the architecture of clock towers and town halls; songs and ballads; or the headgear and clothing of the crowd. The discovery of popular political engagement has expanded the number and type of people whose actions we recognise as political. This said, some scholars have been more impressed by the modern British state’s innovative methods of disciplining and regulating, rather than expanding, the political community (Navickas, 2010; Vernon, 1993).
However pessimistic they are, historians’ flight from classic concerns with the rise of ‘the franchise’ (meaning the right to vote) or the evolution of political party alignment has led to a new appreciation of how gender and race, not just class, shaped political experience. Indeed, an awareness of class identities as culturally contested not economically constructed has opened up broader questions about how the politics of race and gender intersected with class. Scholars such as Kathryn Gleadle and Sarah Richardson have emphasised the extent of female political engagement before the women’s suffrage movement, which had been the presumed focus for earlier work. Their sources are often the private papers of middle-class families held in county record offices, not state papers in the National Archives; these collections reflect their argument that we find alternative spaces for politics once we step outside the chambers of the Houses of Parliament (Gleadle, 2009; Richardson, 2013).
This greater range of geographies and scales has also encouraged scholars to look globally and examine the flow of political ideas and people across national frontiers (Jackson, 2014). Most importantly, a ‘new imperial history’ has challenged historians of modern Britain to recognise that the United Kingdom was a state at the heart of an empire and hence to consider the interactions between the politics of the home nations, colonies, and the wider world. Deana Heath, for example, has studied the regulation of obscene texts in Britain, India, and Australia, drawing comparisons as well as continuities between state practices (Heath, 2010). A study of the 1867 Second Reform Act now considers the colonial context (coinciding with the abolition of an elected assembly in Jamaica) and the gendered implications for women’s citizenship in a measure treated as a step on the path towards working-class enfranchisement (Hall, McClelland and Rendall, 2000).
This is an exciting time to research political history, precisely because of the variety of approaches. We can use old sources in new ways and new sources to reframe old questions. It is a small irony that, at a time when the study of politics is so rich and fruitful, increasingly few people would choose to call themselves political historians. However you choose to describe your own research into politics, you may find the sheer choice of sources on modern Britain intimidating. Therefore, we shall turn to considering how you would select and use the right sources for your project.
Selecting and interpreting sources
For the sake of convenience, we can very roughly divide our primary sources into three groups. The first are official sources, created as part of the work of legislators or the government. The second are private sources, created for personal communication with another individual or a very specific audience. The third are public sources, which emerge from and are created for a conversation with the broader political community – be that locally or nationally. These are arbitrary divisions, encompassing very different kinds of documents, but the categories help to emphasise the importance of audience in interpreting primary sources.
The most important thing to remember is that your sources and your research questions need to align. If you wish to understand Margaret Thatcher’s preparations for a likely miners’ strike, then you need to delve into government and private papers to unearth high politics behind closed doors. Conversely, if you want to know about the low politics of union power in the months before the strike, you can see what the public read in newspapers and – if you are very lucky – unearth grassroots reflections from diaries, interviews, or letters. Think about whose decisions or ideas you are researching; if your question does not align with your source material, then change one of them.
For the ‘high politics’ of decision-making, official papers are an obvious place to start. One of the traditional questions for political historians has been how far the balance of power shifted between the monarch, the government, and Parliament; the blurred lines between these different sources of power are reflected in the sources for studying them. The official correspondence of government departments, for example, could be reproduced in multiplying volumes of parliamentary papers, as MPs and peers wanted to scrutinise what was going on. The politics of information governance is a worthy topic in its own right, as access to official documents or knowledge of what was said in Parliament have been explosive controversies in the last few centuries.
Parliamentary papers – sometimes known as sessional papers or even ‘blue books’ thanks to their distinctive binding – encompass papers relating to the work of each House; bills presented before the Commons and Lords; and papers sent to both houses by ‘Command’ of the monarch’s ministers. These comprise about 4.2 million pages of text in the nineteenth century and 5.5 million pages in the twentieth, which is probably beyond the expectations of even the most demanding lecturers you will encounter. Most universities will have subscriptions to the digitised copies of the Parliamentary Papers and there are thousands of possible research projects within these volumes (Proquest, 2016).
The papers specific to the House of Commons and House of Lords include their journals, recording the agenda and decisions – although not the debates – in the two chambers. Whatever topic you are interested in, at least one of the two houses probably considered it as part of one of the select committee inquiries which multiplied throughout the nineteenth century. The witnesses testifying at these hearings include female campaigners, colonial subjects, and local experts, as well as politicians. Therefore, we can find unexpected voices in the most elite records. As government departments became larger and more remote from Parliament, they started to provide legislators with information on their activities and plans in the Command Papers, which became separate from the journals in 1833. For reasons of economy, the quantity of Command Papers shrunk from the 1920s (House of Commons Information Office, 2009; 2010).
This vast trove of official papers produced for Parliament is just the beginning, however. The letters and memoranda of the UK Government are primarily found in the collections of Britain’s National Archives, based in Kew. They tend to be organised by department, which inevitably leads to complications when the numbers and remits of these have changed dramatically over the centuries. The complexity of divisions between the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, and the separate India Office can present particular challenges to researchers, for example. Thankfully the National Archives produces a range of research guides for particular subjects and departments.
While some of this official government material ended up reprinted in the parliamentary papers, there is plenty which did not. Often the marginal annotations of clerks and their ministers reveal where ideas or concerns emerged, allowing you to see the ‘official mind’ of career civil servants or how the reforming zeal of a particular minister shaped government decisions. The National Archives has begun to digitise heavily-used government files, although it will be a very long time before this is complete. Some material has been digitised by commercial providers, as is the case for Foreign Office Confidential Print. In all cases, government documents are covered by a thirty-year rule – longer in special cases of sensitive information – before they are released.
Although, in the eighteenth century, many laws began as private bills from petitioners, the Prime Minister and government ministers have shaped legislative activity by pursuing programmes of public policies as well as exercising executive authority on behalf of the crown. From 1916, the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s Office began coordinating – and recording – their work across government. A far older institution, the monarch’s Privy Council, survived as a body of leading politicians – with its own records – to consider everything from state occasions and national security to appeals in colonial court cases or students’ complaints about their university.
There are further papers which we might think of as official – as they concern parliamentary or government affairs – but which have historically been considered the private property of the owners. The personal papers of the British monarchy are held at the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle. These are, legally, the private property of the royal family and permission must be sought (and is sometimes denied) to consult items. Recent steps to open up the archives include open digital access to Queen Victoria’s Journals.
Similarly, British laws have only gradually established divisions between a cabinet minister’s personal correspondence and official business. It is important to examine private exchanges to understand how politicians cajoled each other or confessed their concerns. The activities of elected officials or political campaigners who did not serve in government can be found in such collections, where they survive. The personal papers of politicians, deposited in a range of different archives, might be found by consulting the ‘Guides to sources for British history’ produced by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, and Cook and Waller’s 1994 volumes. The internal affairs of political groups or organisations, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), form another important body of sources (Political Parties and Parliamentary Archives Group, 2010).
The authors of private letters and papers about political matters are, of course, neither compulsive liars nor confessional innocents. We should consider the author’s perspective and intentions in presenting calculations, rumours, or principles to the recipient. This is not from any misplaced desire to strip away layers of ‘bias’, but rather because past peoples’ judgements, experiences, and representations are what we are interested in. Examining correspondence to multiple recipients or different audiences may well help reveal how far they were tailoring their arguments for a particular audience. That is itself revealing, and much of the value in primary sources arises from the presence – not the absence – of personal perspectives and explanations.
This is important to remember in the case of the most private sources – such as personal journals and diaries. Although we may believe that these are documentary chronicles, we should remember that they are dependent on both the author’s perspective and candour. We tend to be very aware of the fact that memoirs or reminiscences, whether intended for publication or not, are performances for the author’s family, the historical record, or personal satisfaction. The same concerns must be borne in mind with any reflections recorded closer to the time of creation. Although diaries, memoirs and reminiscences are more likely to survive from active politicians and richer families, there are growing opportunities to access less-privileged perspectives: Early working-class autobiographies provide perspectives for studies of low politics (Mass Observation, 2015; Writing Lives, 2016).
For equally rich insights from certain periods of the twentieth century, specifically 1937–48 and since 1981, historians can turn to the diaries submitted by citizens across Britain as part of the Mass Observation project. The project’s ‘directives’ to volunteer participants asked for reflections on things such as shopping, reading, or TV viewing habits. These can be illuminating for political research, especially when combined with entries where respondents volunteered their views about politics and current affairs. Although the original responses are kept in the archives of Sussex University, which has administered this project, some have been digitised for subscribing libraries and others are available as part of specific digital projects. The ‘Observing the 80s’ initiative, for example, has brought together print sources, retrospective oral history interviews, and Mass Observation responses to offer a sense of that decade – including its politics.
For many projects, these insights into popular politics are simply not available. Instead, many of our sources for public campaigns will be the printed or spoken appeals of politicians and activists addressing the voting (and non-voting) subjects of Britain in the hope of support. A vibrant range of ephemeral posters, pamphlets, leaflets, and ballads survive, allowing us to examine the slogans and practice of politics on the pavement as well as in Parliament. While twentieth-century political parties created formal, bureaucratic organisations – and hence their own archives – earlier material and unofficial publications will be found in local record offices or specialist collections such as the John Johnson Collection. When collections can be located, visual sources offer a dynamic and fruitful field for study (Thompson, 2007). Historians are also rediscovering material objects, from medallions of political heroes to banners (Mansfield and Uhl, 2002; Nixon, Pentland and Roberts, 2012). While it is dangerous to assume that political appeals always succeeded, we can often get a sense of audience response from politicians’ reflections on what they emphasised or dropped based on popular reception.
Meetings would be advertised and reported in newspapers, while periodicals featured essays dissecting political controversies. While we have already noted the phenomenal growth of printed parliamentary and government sources in the past 250 years, this pales in comparison with the explosion of commercial publications documenting current affairs and popular controversies. In the nineteenth century, regional newspapers covered parliamentary and foreign politics as well as county or city affairs. By the later twentieth century, there is a clearer distinction between national papers and local ones. A project examining the representation of a particular incident would thrive using newspaper sources alone. A scholar such as Richard Toye, for example, has blended low and high politics by studying the speeches of Winston Churchill alongside evidence of their reception (Toye, 2013).
For such a study, it is important to look at a wide variety of sources, perhaps sampling methodically. Dipping into individual articles culled from searches in online databases can lead us to ignore the perspective, political background, or consistency of a publication. Indeed, the presence of full runs of the satirical Punch magazine in university libraries has led historians to overlook its many regional competitors and London-centric readership (Miller, 2008). If you are using newspapers extensively, it will be useful to familiarise yourself with the publishing norms of your period. For example, nineteenth-century newspapers did not share the clear distinctions we find in twentieth-century Britain between national titles and local ones; regional papers with substantial readerships covered international affairs as readily as those in London. Earlier newspapers commonly reproduced lengthy quotations from other periodicals, meaning that you should distinguish carefully between a publication’s own views and those they are reproducing.
Equally, we should beware assuming that a newspaper’s journalists spoke for their readers, although letters to the editor offer some glimpses of responses. Comparing the reporting of the same event in very different sources could be illuminating, as would exploring the representation of a political theme in literature, television, or art, alongside print journalism. The development of illustrated newspapers and journals during the nineteenth century means that we can get a sense of material objects before the adoption of photography and long after the items themselves have rotted away (Hawkins, 2011).
Looking at pictorial coverage of a subject across a publication such as the Illustrated London News, in the nineteenth century, or newspapers routinely illustrated by photographs in the twentieth century, will allow you to understand how visual material supported reporting or editorial opinion.
Printed sources and newspapers also give us a chance to understand public meetings and political speeches, which reach many more readers than listeners present when they were originally delivered. Significant variations could occur in different accounts of the same speech; this should make us cautious about the exact language chosen and alert to the ways that the politics of a reporter could influence their reconstruction of what was actually said (Wahrman, 1992). The House of Commons maintained a ban on reporting its discussions until 1771, on the basis that accountability to the wider public would corrupt legislators’ independence and freedom of deliberation. However, after this date, newspapers reported particular debates, and individual parliamentarians might publish their speeches as pamphlets.
Comprehensive reports can be found in Debrett’s Parliamentary Register (1775–1813) and the Parliamentary Debates (from 1803) started by the radical William Cobbett, which were continued by the publishers Hansard and later adopted as part of the official parliamentary papers (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/). There is good evidence that speakers did, in fact, start to tailor what they said to a wider public audience, not just their fellow parliamentarians; we should, then, be aware of a parliamentary speech as a performance not a window into a speaker’s immortal soul (Reid, 2012).
As in many fields of history, the perils of particular sources can be balanced by using them alongside each other. So, for example, James Hinton shows how women’s response to rationing undermined support for the post-1945 Labour governments, combining evidence from opinion polls, diaries, the press, and the records of female membership organisations. This kind of work pairs the policy deliberations of high politics into the kitchens and front rooms of everyday citizens to explain changing electoral support at the polls (Hinton, 1992). The most incisive research often uses sources in new ways at odds with the intentions behind their creation. So, for example, Katrina Navickas has used both Home Office surveillance reports and digital mapping of meetings reported in newspapers to understand radical politics in the early nineteenth century (Navickas, 2015). In such cases, the purpose for the creation of the source are subverted, just as when we consider alternatives motivations or explanations for behaviour described through the eyes of others.
Some of the most exciting insights into political history come from the kinds of sources identified by social and cultural historians, as they can offer us a view of the popular – ‘low’ – politics of everyday people rather than well-connected elites. Of course, it is often difficult to find the political views of ordinary Britons, rather than elites, because of the unlikely survival of their voices in our primary sources. A number of nineteenth-century working-class men – but very few women – committed their life stories to paper in autobiographies.
Social historians have sometimes struggled with the fact that the authors are self-consciously presenting their experiences to close family or a wider reading public; certainly, the authors are atypically likely to be actively engaged in politics and they frequently tell a rags-to-riches story of how they became comfortable, perhaps even middle class. Even so, there is a great deal we can discern – even if the authors are atypically political. The autobiography of Anthony Errington, a skilled wagon wright in the mining industry, is one example of a manuscript which has been transcribed and printed to offer wider access to this primary source [A]. The memoirs provide evidence of his interest in national news and controversies.
Although he does not tell us much about the content, Errington recalls a period of time when he spent his working days thinking over a question of political economy posed in the newspapers. We can at least learn from this anecdote that he read and considered the London and local papers – and that he printed and submitted his response to the newspaper. The mockery he then endures from fellow working men gives a flavour of his precociousness and the fact that this last step was rather unusual. However, despite searching in digitised newspapers, I have been unable to find surviving evidence of the question or his input. The editor of the published edition of Errington’s autobiography, P. E. H. Hair, did not have any better luck, so this source would only be fruitful in illustrating the deep circuits of political awareness during this period, rather than revealing a working man’s views on a particular national controversy we are studying through other sources.
To get the same insight into the political engagement of everyday Britons in the twentieth century, we might turn to oral history interviews or, for the decades it operated, to the Mass Observation diaries. One female participant from 25 May 1983, for example, records that she ‘would quite welcome the thought of a General Election’ [B]. The woman reports her previous support for the Liberal party, though she disapproves of their alliance with the new SDP (Social Democrat Party). Frustratingly, she does not explain her reasons for this disapproval, although she is clear that she ‘could not vote Labour’. Like the SDP, who broke away from Labour, she opposes unilateral disarmament ‘unless Russia gives up their Arms first!’ She goes on to explain that ‘although I hate the thought of nuclear arms I lived through the last war’ and therefore she feels surrender of Britain’s destructive weapons would risk a new conflict. This would be a rich source for cultural historians of nuclear technology, but it is also valuable for political historians seeking to understand the success of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives and the collapse of Michael Foot’s Labour party in 1983.
Clearly, we would never suggest that this one woman is representative of the entire electorate. For a start, the Liberal party (with or without their SDP allies) remained a third party, and so this Mass Observation participant is unusual in having ‘voted Liberal last time’ there was an election. However, her intriguing allusion to memories of the Second World War as motives for retaining nuclear weapons gives us some insight into why national security mattered at the ballot box. Moreover, her condemnation of the radical Greenham Common protesters – despite her broad sympathy for disarmament – suggests a preference for respectable, orderly politics, rather than direct action. This woman’s explanation of her views – and the reasons she volunteered as foremost in her thinking about the forthcoming election – would help illustrate an essay about the fate of the Labour party or the impact of protest movements such as Greenham women in this period.
To write an undergraduate dissertation drawn from Mass Observation sources or other reflective diaries, it would be important to justify the selection of responses (perhaps focusing on women or looking only at people in the north of England) and considering themes or contrasts between them. It would be especially important to bear in mind the rehearsed, prompted nature of these reflections: Whether writing in diaries or Mass Observation surveys, people know their responses are being preserved for posterity and might be shy to venture their real feelings. Whatever these caveats, individuals’ views are brilliant sources for political historians whenever we can find them. It is a bonus when programmes such as Mass Observation offer contextual information, such as this woman’s account of her fondness for the TV soap Dallas and the publications she buys from the newsagent.
The views of this woman’s favourite newspapers and periodicals are easier to access, and so it is not surprising that research at all levels tends to use press sources to understand politics in the public sphere. For an example, we can turn to one page of the 18 November 1831 edition of the Liverpool Mercury [C]. In using material from any newspaper, we will usually want to get a sense of its editorial traditions and ownership; the choice of news stories and the coverage of them will still be skewed by political perspectives, even in apparently factual stories. There will be major works of literary scholarship on well-known titles, but for our purposes it is often sufficient to read brief comments offered by digital resources such as the British Library newspapers, 1600–1900 database . In the case of the Liverpool Mercury, we will want to know – or, reading the content, we would soon suspect – that it was a Liberal publication.
To enrich an essay surveying a well-known historical debate, you might well dip into a digital database of newspapers or periodicals to provide your own examples of different responses by contemporaries. In an essay on the crisis over extending the right to vote – which culminated in the Great Reform Act of 1832 – I might pick out the Mercury’s mockery of a local MP in the second column [C]. Secondary sources such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the History of Parliament would allow me to confirm the subject as Henry Hunt, sometimes known as ‘Orator Hunt’. Our sample page reprints a confrontation in Leeds, adding the editor’s own colourful conclusion that he regrets ‘devoting so much space to the trash, vulgarity, and blackguardism of this wretched political mountebank’. After reaching for my dictionary to find out what the antiquated insults ‘blackguard’ and ‘mountebank’ could possibly mean, I might use this lively language to explain why a radical such as Hunt angered supporters of the Whig reformers, such as those at the Mercury, by insisting that the extension of the vote to richer, middle-class men was worse than no reform at all.
When pursuing your own original research solely on the basis of newspaper evidence, you would want to examine political coverage across different titles or different issues. The Mercury’s coverage of Hunt is, on its own, unlikely to overturn the broader scholarly judgements of a monograph such as John Belchem’s ‘Orator’ Hunt (1985). However, I might hope to supplement or challenge existing literature if I embarked on a qualitative study of how regional or political differences shaped the reporting of Hunt’s speeches. I could look, for example, to see what was being said in the run-up to a major crisis, to understand whether hatred for Hunt in the winter of 1831 confirmed or confounded the Liberal press’s expectations. It would also be revealing to look at conservative newspapers, to see how they incorporated radical critiques of moderate reform into their opposition to change.
Your assessments of newspapers’ political language or policy judgements will gain additional authority if you can explain how you have built a “sample” – meaning a deliberate, controlled selection of sources consulted. Of course, you might identify key issues on the basis of initial full-text searches on a digitised newspaper database. However, you will then want to consider how far this “sample” is really comprehensive for what you are researching. Your search terms might have omitted other common expressions for the same idea – or you might have picked a partisan phrase used by only one side of an argument. Besides sampling for a qualitative, literary study of what was said, you might create a clearly defined sample and then count how often an individual, a type of argument, or a phrase is used in these sources. The most technologically savvy researchers are now using corpus linguistics software to generate this kind of quantitative data from millions of texts, although this information is still analysed alongside traditional sources to confirm expectations or probe assumptions (Blaxill, 2013).
Visual sources offer particular opportunities and challenges. A photograph from a 1910 parliamentary by-election [D] could be analysed as part of a research essay on the women’s suffrage campaign or Edwardian politics. It shows female campaigners posing in the midst of their efforts to elect the candidate who supported their cause in Liverpool’s Kirkdale constituency. The ways in which the crusade for women’s votes played a role on the ground in elections is clearly important and for those researching popular politics, this scene shows a number of things. For a start, we can see the campaigners have secured the use of a shop to advertise their presence and their ideas locally. The illustrated leaflets and posters in the window might survive in local archives, for us to examine more closely, but the photograph allows us to understand one of the ways they were deployed. With some expert secondary sources on clothing in the 1910s, we might even begin to suggest how far the women’s dress revealed their shared or mixed social status.
The awning over the window emphasises in large bold letters the society’s ‘law-abiding’ and ‘non-party’ principles, which are pointed reminders of some of the controversies between different suffragist groups – reflected in published histories of their campaigns. Although the pictured banner might be lost and the display of posters taken down, the photograph gives us a snapshot of the real-life uses of printed items and material objects we might seek out. When combined with the private correspondence of Eleanor Rathbone, who is one of the women pictured and who kept a copy as part of her archive, or newspaper coverage of local politics, we could even develop a whole dissertation on Liverpool’s suffragist campaigners. Unless you are focusing explicitly on the visual history of politics, you will often pair such images alongside textual sources in this way.
For the rest of this section, I am going to show how a cartoon from Punch magazine in March 1865 [E] could be the starting point for an undergraduate dissertation exploring Victorian cynicism towards overseas charity through a variety of official, private, and public sources. A ‘little London Arab’, a British boy dirtied with dust and soot, is tugging on the dazzling robes of Britannia – the traditional personification of British power as a female deity. The child asks ‘ain’t we black enough to be cared for?’, allowing readers to both chortle at how his dirtiness might disguise his whiteness and sneer at the wider target of the cartoon: ignoring poverty at her feet, Britannia is gazing off to some far-flung shore, where a white saviour is preaching to an indistinct mass of black figures.
Besides explaining the artist’s political point or considering how dirtiness and racial difference are conflated, we might explore the context for this cartoon. We should certainly find out more about the artist and the publication. We would also want to understand how the cartoon connects to wider public controversies at this time. The dedication ‘to Lord Stanley’ and some quick research in newspapers could reveal that this illustration comments on a recent discussion about Africa in the House of Commons on 21 February 1865.
Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates – by this point an official record not a commercial publication – is organised in different series and volumes, with column numbers rather than page numbers, so it might take you a moment to understand how references to it should be interpreted or constructed. Once we manage to penetrate paper or digital indexes of Hansard, we need to decode the confusing succession of titles used by heirs in the British aristocracy – probably with the help of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. By this point, we would deduce that the Lord Stanley mentioned in the cartoon was a former Colonial Secretary and the son of the Conservative opposition leader the 14th Earl of Derby; he would become the 15th Earl of Derby on his father’s death in 1869.
In his contribution to the February 1865 debate [F], Stanley argued against continued expenditure on suppression of the international slave trade by the Royal Navy. Although his father had been instrumental in passing the Emancipation Act freeing slaves in Britain’s West Indian colonies in 1833, Stanley argued three decades later that ‘whatever debt we owed to the people of Africa has by this time been paid off’. Moreover, we can find the inspiration for Punch’s cartoon a few weeks later in his insistence that ‘I am afraid we had better first look at home’, as within a few miles of Parliament he could ‘find plenty of persons who stand as much in need of civilizing and who have as little done for them as the negro’. The language he used about the urgency of assisting the poor at home – and his public insistence that he supported Britain’s anti-slavery traditions but felt they had limits – reveal how we wished to persuade fellow parliamentarians and those who read his speech in newspaper coverage. Indeed, Stanley recognises a wider political culture when, during his speech, he refers to arguments ‘either in the press, in this House, or at public meetings’ which he considers ill-founded.
We could pursue our research into this issue by looking for evidence of those public meetings or press reports, but we might also look forward to the results of this debate in February 1865. The parliamentary deliberations concluded with the creation of a Select Committee. If we turn to the sessional papers of the House of Commons, we will find a transcript of the questions from that committee’s members and the answers given by the witnesses they called. In some cases, such as an earlier 1842 Select Committee on West Africa, this could include witnesses such as an African woman who had been brought by advocates of the naval campaign to testify to the importance of their anti-slavery work. In the documents submitted as evidence to the 1865 Select Committee, we can find the transcript of a letter from ‘inhabitants and natives’ in the Gold Coast colony (in modern Ghana) requesting a continued British presence [G].
We can soon see how this letter condemned the fact that the kind of arguments made by Stanley and his admirers in the Times newspaper had been ‘uttered by any representative of Christian men’. We cannot make any claims about the authenticity of this letter, or the extent to which it really represented the desires of local African people as well as British settlers; indeed, it was written to the Gold Coast Governor on the eve of his departure to testify in London at the Select Committee, and we may fairly assume that he solicited such a letter from sympathetic local missionaries and African traders to bolster his arguments for maintaining the small West African colony.
In general, we should be aware that evidence to a parliamentary select committee or documents submitted to it in evidence are studied performances. Hence, the use of religious arguments for Britain’s duty to West Africa within source [G] might be a choice, in preference to other motives for the Governor, missionaries, and traders to desire funding for the colony to continue. That is still revealing, as it shows what was considered acceptable and unacceptable in public discourse; it tells us not necessarily a person’s motives, but which considerations they think will be most persuasive to others.
When interpreting the political sources which have survived in official archives or any collections, we need to remember that authors were aware of both their immediate audience and the future survival of those documents. While we should not become conspiracy theorists, suspecting unsaid collusion behind every source, we need to remember that the relatively high level of transparency in British government could make people cautious or duplicitous. Among the private papers of Lord John Russell, the Foreign Secretary in 1860, we can find a letter [H] received by the Duke of Somerset, who was responsible for the Admiralty. The Duke asked his colleague to modify a letter requesting the Royal Navy to patrol the waters north of Cuba, as part of the slave-trade suppression campaign. Knowing this would anger the United States government, Somerset explained that ‘it might be awkward if this letter of the 22nd should hereafter be called for, and I do not wish to have any public letter written from this office stating objections to such a course of proceedings’.
Knowing their correspondence could be printed in the parliamentary papers, Somerset asked for a new copy of Russell’s letter to be sent. In this way, a politician might delete from official records the controversial request, which, if published, would cause diplomatic tensions if accepted and domestic criticism if rejected. The survival of this exchange in Russell’s private papers shows why official documents do not cover the whole story. Plenty of private collections have also been destroyed or weeded before being opened for public access, so we need to retain a degree of humility in following the paper trail of documentary evidence.
Feeding off synergies, not rivalries, with cultural, social, and gender history, histories of politics can pursue a wider range of political questions through local and national; high and low; elite and popular; visual and textual; material and manuscript sources. In our examples, we have seen how autobiography and contemporaneous diaries can fuel a history of popular politics experienced in everyday life. We have explored how newspaper sources or a photograph can enhance essays on the extension of the vote to larger numbers of men and, eventually, women. And we have seen how Victorian policy towards West Africa can be understood by considering the complex arguments and serious debates which inspired a Punch cartoon, especially when we present a wide range of evidence for the surprising combinations of humanitarian demands for colonialism and racist arguments for non-interference in African affairs (Huzzey, 2012).
This last case study is actually drawn from my own research, and it is therefore appropriate to close this chapter by reflecting on the fact that my suggestions and methods here are personal, not definitive. I have sought to open up a wide range of approaches to sources for the political history, including those which inspired me. I hope that this enthusiasm and pluralism will encourage you to cast your net widely, to enjoy work on other historical topics – and borrow from them.
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Many thanks to Laura Balderstone, Jon Hogg, Catherine McManamon, and Alison Welsby for their stewardship of the project and their help preparing my chapter. I am also grateful to David Craig for advice on the content of the chapter. For permission to use material in their collections, I am grateful to the trustees of the Mass Observation archives, their curator Fiona Courage, and the Remembering the 80s project team at the University of Sussex; to the University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives; and to the National Archives and its Head of Research Valerie Johnson; and to Simon Green of St Mary’s Heritage Centre, Gateshead Libraries for his help with the Hair manuscript.