Magazine article History Today

Josiah Wedgwood (1872-1943): The Commons Sense Biographies of MPs from the Past Come from the Work of the History of Parliament. Its Founder, Josiah Wedgwood, Was Himself an MP: Here David Cannadine Writes about Him and His Creation

Magazine article History Today

Josiah Wedgwood (1872-1943): The Commons Sense Biographies of MPs from the Past Come from the Work of the History of Parliament. Its Founder, Josiah Wedgwood, Was Himself an MP: Here David Cannadine Writes about Him and His Creation

Article excerpt

JOSIAH WEDGWOOD WAS Member of Parliament for Newcastle-Under-Lyme from 1906 until 1942, initially as an advanced Liberal, subsequently as a member of the Labour Party. His great-great grandfather, whose name he bore, was the famous potter, and Wedgwood took enormous pride in his family, and exhibited what he believed to be the same brand of independent radicalism that had characterized his forbears. In practice, this meant he was difficult, counter-suggestible, and a poor team player, and he never accomplished as much in British politics as he hoped. But instead, he achieved something more lasting, and that was the establishment of the History of Parliament.

'Jos' Wedgwood (as he was often known) was born in 1872 in Barlaston, and he remained devoted to the Potteries all his life. Although he did not attend university, he was very well read, and he was especially devoted to history: the history of his family, his locality, and his nation. He originally planned to become a naval engineer, but then the Boer War intervened, and he volunteered for active service. He volunteered again in the First World War, and took part in the Gallipoli expedition (in which he was wounded and awarded the DSO, and thereafter he was also known as 'the Colonel').

Wedgwood had entered Parliament as an advanced Liberal, and he soon made friends with such kindred spirits as Winston Churchill. But he was disappointed at the slow pace of reform, and began to devote himself to history--especially the history of his own family, and also the parliamentary history of Staffordshire, its constituencies and MPs. There was, in practice, a substantial overlap between these two subjects, and just as Wedgwood gloried in his ancestors, so he delighted in what he saw as the grand pageant of national history, exemplified in the Commons. For him, it was a special place, where he could be simultaneously patriot and dissenter, conformist and rebel, critic and clubman, local representative and national personality.

By the late 1920s, after a brief and unhappy time as a junior minister in the first Labour Government, it was clear that Wedgwood's hopes of preferment were doomed, and he turned to another sphere of activity where he hoped he might make his name. Everywhere across Europe, he noted with dismay, parliamentary democracies were being snuffed out by fascist or communist dictatorships, and only in Britain did such historic liberties and institutions survive. …

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