POLITICS IN NORFOLK

Norfolk; it is impossible to talk of Norfolk politics without acknowledging the great divide between Norwich, which has been Labour inclined since the birth of the Independent Labour Party in the last years of the nineteenth century, and the rest of the county which has (in the popular imagination anyway) been painted Tory Blue since time immemorial. This, particularly the latter part, is not true by any means.

For hundreds of years the tiny area of Castle Rising in West Norfolk returned two MPs. Some well-known figures sat for Castle Rising, including Samuel Pepys and Robert Walpole. The elections were never contested although they could be bought and sold. Following the Reform Act of 1832, which abolished most of these notorious Rotten Boroughs, some of the smaller boroughs remained until 1867/68; both Great Yarmouth and Thetford returned two MPs until that date. These Rotten or Pocket Boroughs were in the ‘pockets’ of the local landowner and did not respond the changing political mood in the country at large. After 1832 Norfolk was divided into two constituencies, East and West; previous Norfolk had been one. Each constituency in the country returned two Members of Parliament. The bigger constituencies of East and West Norfolk regularly changed their allegiance between Tories and the Liberal Party.

In the House of Commons Norwich was a separate constituency from the first establishment of Parliament in the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century one of the Members for Norwich was called Thomas Sotherton, a name that may be familiar to the residents of Taverham; his family provided all the squires of the village from 1623 until squires as such disappeared at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Norwich returned George Roberts as its first Labour MP in 1906. He had stood unsuccessfully in 1904.  George Roberts lost his seat in 1923, but by then he had ceased to represent the Labour Party.

Ruth Hardy, first woman socialist to become Lord Mayor of Norwich

At the same election Norwich returned one of the first three female MPs to represent the Labour Party. Her name was Dorothy Jewson and she was hardly a typical member of the working class. Her father had been a prosperous coal merchant, and her educational background was Norwich High School and Girton College Cambridge. She was firm in her principles however, and was a pacifist who had opposed the First World War. It was a time of political turmoil nationally, and she lost her seat in the 1924 General Election, although she came closely behind the winning candidates. She stood again in 1929 and 1931, but she never again entered parliament. She sat on the City Council as an Independent Labour Party member, at a time when my Great Aunt Ruth Hardy- a woman of authentic working class roots  – was establishing her career in local politics, which led to her becoming Lord Major in 1950.

In the General Election of that year the constituency of Norwich was abolished, to be replaced by Norwich North and Norwich South. The number of representatives did not increase, as the old two member constituencies were replaced by single member ones. The ‘first past the post’ electoral system that we regard as a basic (though controversial) facet of British politics is in fact not that old. I can claim to older than it is, though only just.

In Norfolk the picture is more varied than that in Norwich; West Norfolk has been a Tory stronghold pretty consistently from the nineteenth century onwards, but East Norfolk has swung more between the major parties. North Norfolk has long struck an independent course; throughout much of the twentieth century it returned a Labour MP, and in the twenty first century it has loyally stood by its Liberal Democrat representative, Norman Lamb.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

 

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