Along with every other oral history project, the Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely frustrating for us at the History of Parliament Trust (HPT). All our interviews, and three volunteer training days, were suspended in lockdown one and we have not been back since. Reviewing the situation periodically, with the help of the excellent OHS/BL guidance, we decided that remote interviewing was not right for our project.
The HPT researches parliamentarians, and parliamentary politics, from the 14th century to the present day. In 2011 we began an oral history project in partnership with the British Library. Our aim is to record life story interviews with as many former MPs as possible, capturing not just their political careers but their backgrounds, motivations and wider lives. Nearly 200 interviews have since been recorded, most available at the British Library. The archive has given valuable insights ‘behind the scenes’ at Westminster, and helped us (and we hope future historians) to understand what makes politicians tick.
We only interview MPs after their political careers are over and therefore our interviewees are generally older and especially vulnerable to Covid-19. Even when transmission was at a low level in summer 2020 we did not want to risk interviewer or interviewee with socially distanced in-person interviews. The pandemic hit at a difficult time for us. We rely almost entirely on volunteer interviewers, and thanks to their generous and brilliant efforts we have been able to do much with a shoe-string budget. By the start of 2020, however, our team of experienced interviewers had begun to dwindle and we were preparing to train around 30 new volunteers: this all had to be cancelled. We entered the pandemic with just a small number of experienced interviewers and many new volunteers keen to be trained but with nothing to do.
For pandemic decision-making, our shoe-string funding became, in a funny way, an asset. It might be small but it is guaranteed, and not time-limited: the HPT is committed to the continuation of this project. We did have to justify our decision to our governing structures, but we did not face the existential pressure that so many projects have done over the past year. This made our situation much clearer.
For us, we did not believe that we could accurately recreate the rapport between interviewer and interviewee remotely. We had concerns about technology, audio quality, and the security of recordings made online: but in the end it came down to that crucial relationship. As former MPs our interviewees have lives that are, for oral history projects in particular, pretty well-recorded. Our project is only worthwhile if we get the long, in-depth, personal reflections that can only emerge in life story interviews with excellent rapport between interviewer and interviewee. The fact that we have relatively few experienced volunteers with us at the moment made trying to create this remotely all the harder – our new volunteers would be thrown in at the deep end. The whole situation has been very frustrating, but in the end, we think we have made the correct decision for our project.
Instead, we again are lucky that we already have an archive that we can work with. In August 2020 our first book based on the project, The Political Lives of Postwar MPs, was published. Written as an introduction to the collection, the launch publicity kept us busy and kept the archive in people’s minds. We have also worked hard keeping our volunteers engaged by running monthly seminars over zoom. These introductory sessions have now turned into a ‘listening group’ for interviewers old and new: we take a previous interview and discuss it. This hasn’t been perfect, but they have been invaluable for us getting to know a largely new team of volunteers.
That said: we cannot wait to get back to interviewing again!