Edinburgh West MPs… and literature

Thomas Buchanan
Thomas Buchanan

The words “politicians” and “literature” aren’t one you might immediately associate with each other. Probably a bit unfairly, since even though many present-day politicians are raving philistines, the relationship between politicians and literature goes back thousands of years… to Ancient Greece and beyond.

Of course, when it comes to fiction written by your MP, the best bet is to look in Hansard, not your local bookshop or library. Some of the material in politicians’ “autobiographies” is complete fiction too – but they tend to be ghost written by someone else these days. There are notable exceptions of course. Benjamin Disraeli* and Winston Churchill were accomplished writers in their time. Then, of course, there’s Jeffrey Archer – I actually found some of Archer’s earlier novels surprisingly enjoyable. (I can’t believe I just said that.) His novels have certainly sold in respectable quantities, but he’s a bit unfashionable these days, truth be told.

Closer to home, the former Scottish secretary and ambassador to Australia Helen Liddell wrote a trashy novel called Elite. Elite appears to be roman à clef (i.e. disguised autobiography), mixed up with a large dollop of wish fulfilment. Like the works of Jeffrey Archer, which are also in extremely bad taste, I enjoyed this book more than I should have. But when I enjoyed Elite it was usually for reasons other than the author intended.

Edinburgh West may have produced no Disraelis – or Archers – but its MPs have made their own contributions to literature:

Viscount Woolmer
Viscount Woolmer

* Viscount Woolmer (1859-1942) aka William Palmer, 2nd Earl of Selborne, was Liberal MP from 1892-1895. He was the author of Letters from Mesopotamia, about his role as a colonial administrator. I have not read this book, but I suspect like many such works, it probably holds more than a few lessons for present-day British politicians who feel like getting involved in the Middle East. (Pedants please note – he was styled Viscount Wolmer between 1882 and 1895 – and became 2nd Earl later. That’s how he could stand for parliament.)

* Vivian Phillipps (1870-1955) was Liberal MP from 1922-1924. His autobiography My Days and Ways came out in 1943 but was privately circulated. Douglas in The Dictionary of Liberal Biography describes My Days as “a useful record to how matters looked to a devoted Asquithian.” Sadly, it is hard to get hold of, and it is not in the National Library of Scotland. Phillips also wrote a guide to German literature.

* Lord James Douglas Hamilton (1942-), was Tory MP from 1974 to 1997. He has produced some work as well. In particular, he has written about his father and Rudolf Hess’ flight to Scotland during WWII. Lord James claims that his father has been misrepresented in this whole affair by certain parties, and has tried to set the record straight. A number of Lord James’ papers are also lodged with the National Library, but you will have to ask his permission if you wish to use these for research.

* Thomas Buchanan (1846-1911), Liberal MP from 1885-1892, was a devoted bibliophile, who left his books and various historical manuscripts to the Bodleian Library and Edinburgh University.

* John Avon Clyde, Lord Clyde (1863 – 1944), was Tory MP from 1909-1918, and was also on the board of the National Library…

While not at the apex of Scottish literature, these men have all made some contribution. Local historians might find these works of interest.

Devolution of literature?

Our MSPs, unfortunately, have not kept up the tradition. Still, it’s early doors yet, since the Scottish Parliament has barely been on the go for a generation. Like their Westminster predecessors, though, they may well be fodder for academics and historians. I suspect Margaret Smith of the Liberal Democrats shall be remembered as something of a trailblazer – she was the first openly lesbian MSP, and also the first into a civil partnership in 2006. These two facts will merit her a mention in any forthcoming books on Scottish LGBT history. Will she ever write an autobiography? Well, it seems she is quite a private person, so I wouldn’t bet on it.


*Disraeli’s novel Lothair features a character based on someone with Corstorphine connections. But if you want to find out who, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the book of Literary Corstorphine!

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