The Bodleian Libraries’ collection of political papers is one of the largest in the UK, and it includes the papers of seven of Britain’s Prime Ministers: H.H. Asquith (1852-1928), Clement Attlee (1883-1967), James Callaghan (1912-2005), Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), Edward Heath (1916-2005), Harold Macmillan (1894-1986) and Harold Wilson (1916-95). The collections document both the private and public lives of the leaders, chronicling their rise to power and their engagements with democracy and UK history.
Benjamin Disraeli (1868, 1874-80)
Benjamin Disraeli, earl of Beaconsfield (1804–1881), was a novelist and Conservative Prime Minister in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880. Disraeli is recognised as one of the most important figures of the early Conservative Party. In his two terms as Prime Minister, he passed social legislation that improved the general quality of life in the UK, including laws prohibiting child chimney sweeps and providing housing for the poor and basic sanitation for all. He also worked to acquire a substantial share of the Suez Canal, strengthening Britain’s global position.
For more Disraeli information, please visit Benjamin Disraeli: Scenes from an Extraordinary Life, an online project to commemorate Disraeli's bicentenary.
Herbert Henry Asquith (1908-16)
HH Asquith, first earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852–1928), served as Liberal Prime Minister from 1908 until 1916. Asquith led a government that changed the British political landscape, introducing new measures such as old age pensions, national insurance and the reform of the House of Lords.
These issues – and those such as Irish home rule, women’s suffrage and Britain’s entry into World War I – are addressed in the papers held by the Bodleian. Although the collection is largely political and official, the papers of his second wife, Margot Asquith, and his elder daughter, Violet Bonham Carter, include much material of personal and political interest. These collections, also held by the Bodleian, and the letters Asquith wrote to two of his confidantes, Venetia Stanley and subsequently her sister Sylvia, bring richness and depth to the narrative of Asquith's life and times. For more information about Asquith and the material held by the Bodleian, please visit HH Asquith and the Liberal Legacy, a 2008 online project.
Clement Attlee (1945-51)
Clement Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee (1883-1967), served as Labour Prime Minster from 1945 until 1951 after serving as the country’s first Deputy Prime Minister during World War II. Following a lifetime dedicated to social work, he was responsible for rebuilding a war-torn nation and rolling out the National Health Service.
The bulk of the Attlee collection covers his term in office and consists of notes for the Prime Minister's speeches and broadcasts, as well as correspondence, newspaper cuttings, personal material, and papers of his wife Violet, Countess Attlee.
Harold Macmillan (1957-63)
Harold Macmillan, first earl of Stockton (1894–1986), was Conservative Prime Minister from 1957 until 1963. Despite terms rocked by scandal, Macmillan – dubbed ‘Supermac’ – presided over a solid economy that allowed him to focus attention on international relations. He was a strong proponent of colonial independence, and he was instrumental in recognising major decolonisation in sub-Saharan Africa. Macmillan worked towards an improved relationship with the USA and the Soviet Union and oversaw the resolution of the Suez Crisis. Under his leadership, the UK applied for the first time to be a member of the European Community, although it was not accepted until the 1970s.
The Macmillan collection at the Bodleian includes diaries, correspondence and papers; as a Conservative Prime Minister, Macmillan is also represented in the Conservative Party Archive.
Harold Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76)
Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx (1916–1995), was the Labour Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976. In addition to an early focus on economics and technology, Wilson was responsible for the modernisation of social laws affecting homosexuals and censorship, the end of capital punishment in Britain and the foundation of the Open University. Later in his terms, he faced economic crises (including the controversial devaluation of the pound), Rhodesian independence and divisions over the European Community.
Edward (Ted) Heath (1970-74)
Sir Edward [Ted] Heath (1916–2005) served as Conservative Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974. His time in office placed him at the forefront of some of the most important issues to modern Britain, especially the UK’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1973. Heath also oversaw the decimalisation of the UK monetary system, one of the worst periods of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, local government reform and issues of industrial relations.
The archive held at the Bodleian comprises over 1,000 boxes and includes a rich and diverse collection of papers from his time in office and the shadow cabinet, as well as personal papers from his early life including his time as an undergraduate at Balliol College and his active role in student politics during the 1930s. The Conservative Party Archive also contains papers relating to Heath.
James Callaghan (1976-79)
James Callaghan, Baron Callaghan of Cardiff (1912–2005), was Labour Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979. He was the only Prime Minister to have held the positions of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. Though his experience was prodigious, his term was beset by economic issues, including inflation and devaluation that required the intervention of the IMF.
All images © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford