By Esther Gill – Hub project manager – Unlocking our Sound Heritage
It is Monday 1st February 2021, the UK is in lockdown and I am working from home, listening to a radio interview (UTK006/498) from 1973 with a councillor from Shoreham Urban District Council being interviewed by journalist Ivan Howlett. It’s from the Viewpoint series, part of the BBC Radio Brighton Collection held by the Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust, that is being preserved by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. The councillor’s name is Maureen Colquhoun and she talks eloquently about her politics, why she is a socialist, about standing for Northampton North constituency for the Labour Party in the forthcoming 1974 general election. The interview lasts 30 minutes and touches on her commitment to encouraging more women into Parliament, the challenge of seeking election while being the ‘unfashionable age, for a woman, of 45’ and the isolation of the campaign trail:
“I don’t think people looking at politicians from the outside realise what an isolating experience it is. It’s very isolating to be a prospective candidate, you move into a town and you’re not really part of it, you’re something special to the Labour Party members and when you go into a room they are delighted to see you, tend to spoil you rather, but after the meeting you are more or less on your own in a hotel room. And this is a very lonely experience, in part, fighting for a parliamentary seat.”
She talks about the difficulty of being anti-Europe whilst your husband is pro-Europe:
“He’s a great political ideas man. He’s someone whose opinions I very much respect – I try out my ideas on him. We’ve had a very difficult breakfast time lately because he is pro-Europe and I am anti. And the number of eggs that have got ruined on the breakfast table is absolutely incredible. “
And she reflects openly on her own experience of being trapped, albeit happily, in the ‘career of marriage and motherhood’ that makes it hard for women to develop their own political careers. Somewhat uncomfortably for the listener, she also talks in a disparaging way about the ‘lower calibre’ of local politicians as opposed to national politicians. I am mildly interested and reflect on both how much has changed, along with how little, a common experience when listening to radio reporting from the 1970s. I then think no further of the interview.
The following day, Tuesday 2nd February 2021, still working from home, I read that a ground-breaking woman, the first out lesbian MP, has died at the age of 92. Her name was Maureen Colquhoun and before being selected as MP in Northampton, she was a councillor in West Sussex. Despite her significance and my own interest in women’s history and representation, I had never heard of her. The previous day I had listened with mild interest to the views of a 1970s county councillor and potential MP; now our Radio Brighton recording had suddenly grown in significance. Maureen Colquhoun was a committed politician with strong views and willing to stand her ground. In 1970 Shoreham Urban District Council tried to block her from being appointed to certain committee roles on the grounds that she ‘talked too much’! Happily for us today, she was willing to talk to the local radio station, Radio Brighton and she appears on local election day broadcasts (UTK006/440) and also a short piece from 1972 where she is critical of ‘piecemeal’ plans for the Saltings Bridge in Shoreham, the town that she represented (UTK006/428). However, the 1973 Viewpoint programme is a full half-hour interview, providing her with the opportunity to expand on her views, and to talk passionately and humorously at times, about the things that mattered to her. With my new knowledge, I re-listened with a different ear to the interview, slightly shamed by my only fleeting interest the day before and intrigued to hear more about this woman whose parliamentary career became significant, but perhaps not for the reason she would have chosen.
Maureen Colquhoun – Decision to go into politics
In 1974 Maureen Colquhoun was successful in her bid to become the MP for Northampton North and stood down from her Shoreham council seat in February of that year. While an MP she introduced the Balance of the Sexes bill, with the objective of requiring equal numbers of men and women on public bodies, and the Protection of Prostitutes Bill, campaigning for the decriminalisation of prostitution. She was an active socialist and feminist who came to Parliament to create change, but in 1979 she lost her seat and never returned to Parliament. The loss of her seat was due in no small part to the fact that she had been outed as a lesbian in 1975. Gossip columnist Nigel Dempster had reported in the Daily Mail that she had left her husband to live with Barbara Todd, the editor of Sappho magazine. In due course her local Labour Party de-selected her as their candidate for the 1979 election (subsequently overturned), apparently citing her ‘obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights’ and saying that ‘She was elected as a working wife and mother … this business has blackened her image irredeemably’. Although she didn’t return to Parliament, she remained active in local politics and on driving change in public representation.
Working your way through a large preservation project, it can be hard to hold on to the sense of the value of the material that is being preserved. Some rare or very topical recordings are clearly going to be of significance to future generations, but a lot of the time we just don’t know. After many hours of work on a collection, you can wonder whether anybody will ever listen to it again! Then an interview like this pops up and we are reminded as to why we are preserving these recordings. Knowing of her future, I listen to her 1973 words with more intent, with closer attention. We don’t know what will be of significance to future audiences, but if we let this material decay, if it sits uncatalogued, nobody will have the chance to discover.
Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) is digitising and cataloguing the Radio Brighton collection for the Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust (RPMT). All material preserved through the UOSH project was selected against criteria of rarity, relevance and the risk it faced. The original tapes are stored at The Keep and a digital preservation copy of the audio files is now held at the British Library. Every digitised recording is also catalogued for the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue (sami.bl.uk). The catalogue for the interview with Maureen Colquhoun can be found on SAMI as UTK006/498.
- Langdon, Julia, ‘Maureen Colquhoun obituary’ (8th February 2021) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/feb/08/maureen-colquhoun-obituary [Accessed 14th June 2021]
- ‘Maureen Colquhoun’ (10th June 2021) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maureen_Colquhoun [Accessed 14th June 2021]