Book Review: An Anthropology of MPs at work

by Marc Geddes

Emma Crewe 1This is a book review for Emma Crewe’s recent book, The House of Commons: An anthropology of MPs at work, London: Bloomsbury. It is available here.

From the very first page of this book, Emma Crewe’s words read like a story among friends. The very first chapter demonstrates a huge openness about her approach and how she came to study Parliament, and specifically the House of Commons. In doing so, she entices the reader into a study that is both distinctive and thought-provoking: distinctive, in that a study of this kind has not been done at such detail and with so much access before; and thought-provoking, because it challenges our preconceptions of the way that the House of Commons is perceived to work among the public and even among academics.

This anthropological study on the Commons follows a study completed 10 or so years earlier on the House of Lords. This first book, published as Lords of Parliament, was hugely insightful – particularly for me, as I have not studied the upper chamber at any great length before. In that sense, the first book was a revelation. Crucially, not only did it explain how everyday practices affect peers, but it also demonstrated the value of ethnographic methods to better understand political arena and phenomena. I therefore waited for the second book eagerly, and I was not disappointed. As a doctoral student on everyday practices in the House of Commons, I was able to relate to a lot of the thoughts that Crewe raised (which, to me, reinforces the accuracy of her account in case anyone had questions about the subjectivity of ethnographic research). But more significantly, I was able to learn a lot about Parliament. Specifically, and most important for me and my research, I can now understand much better the role that select committees play in the wider process of scrutiny conducted by both Houses of Parliament – something which I had not fully appreciated before. Crewe’s chapter on Section 11 of the Children and Families Act 2014 (Chapter 6), which followed the passage of that section from early consultation to its implementation, was key in this. It demonstrated the various roles of Commons’ and Lords’ select committees; it showed that the input of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), charities and other interested parties were crucial in supporting individual Members of Parliament (MPs) adjudicate between competing types of evidence; and, it revealed that, though we do not hold adversarial politics in high regard when it comes to scrutiny, it can make an indirect impact on policy. This chapter alone made me re-evaluate the role played by public bill committees, even if, formally, they are perceived to be largely powerless.

Chapter 3, which covered the constituency role of MP, was another insightful piece of research. In parliamentary research, there does not seem to be much on the various ways in which MPs interact with their constituents, instead focusing on events in the Palace of Westminster and the clashes between the executive and Parliament. In this way, a chapter that recounts events in constituencies was refreshing and opened up a tonne of questions about the gendered role of constituency service by MPs and their staff, for instance. More generally, the issue of representation and identity – though a typical and oft-covered topic in political studies – was discussed in a different way and presents us with a new way to think about traditional questions regarding the ‘delegate versus representative’ role of MPs.

That said, you can also see some limitations of this study in that the breadth of analysis covered throughout the book means that some depth of analysis had to be sacrificed. Of course, a detailed and dense academic text was not the aim of the book, so this is only a minor point. Furthermore, it is not a piece of traditional political science, but a political anthropology; emphases that I may therefore would want to give it, coming from a politics department, were always likely to be different. The book is a wide-ranging analysis that seeks to explore many different faces of MPs and their roles, so the preference for breadth over depth is not a criticism. If anything, this opens more questions for future scholars (such as myself!) to explore Parliament, whether this is gaining a more systematic understanding of the way that constituents and MPs interact, or the role of select committee scrutiny (the latter of which is the focus of my doctoral research).

The most important point about this book is that it reaches far beyond abstract discussions over executive-legislative relationships, which can often happen in research written in parliamentary studies. In many ways, such research doesn’t seem to focus on what actually happens in Parliament, but what happens as a result of actions taken by MPs. So there is plenty of work on the impact of votes in the chamber on the executive, or the role of pieces of legislation on policy networks, or the influence of select committee reports on policy-makers. At times, this means that questions about the how and why can be elided. Why did a select committee approach certain inquiries over others? How did MPs choose to scrutinise particular policies or bills before the House? Where do they focus their energies? All of these are questions that need to be addressed in order to fully understand why a piece of legislation makes an impact or why a committee report is regarded as influential. This is something that Emma Crewe has done in her book. She studies MPs not as ‘things’, but as agents and as people, and in doing so manages to demonstrate the multiple ways in which our elected representatives choose to do their job in representing the public and constituents’ interests. This book gives us a far more rounded understanding not of Parliament in the abstract, but of all the different people that make the place such an interesting place to study in the first place. This deserves heaps of praise.