The text on this page is taken from a press release issued by the University of Exeter on 11th January 2022.
This project will examine the changing patterns of what was written to MPs and by who, using the papers of 24 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’s 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.
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.
The project 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.
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.
- Dr Kit Kowol (Principal Investigator — King’s College London)
- Professor Richard Toye (Co-Investigator — University of Exeter)
- Matthew Groves (Research Software Engineer — Digital Humanities Institute)