Fieldwork in a Palace

by Marc Geddes (Politics and International Relations Pathway, University of Sheffield – m.geddes@sheffield.ac.uk) 

My doctoral thesis explores the everyday life at the Palace of Westminster, specifically the day-to-day work of parliamentary select committees in scrutinising the executive. Naturally, I was incredibly excited to secure a three month research placement with the Committee Office of the House of Commons (funded by the ESRC through the White Rose DTC). This internship has been immensely valuable with far-reaching effects for my professional development, my understanding of British political life and, ultimately, my academic work on select committees.

300px-London_Parliament_2007-1Working for the Committee Office fast-tracked my learning about the way in which Parliament worked. I participated in discussions and worked alongside clerks and specialists of a select committee in writing briefings, attending their committee meetings, and supporting the needs of MPs in every way possible. This accelerated my skills for working in a team. In doing so, I took on responsibilities that had a direct effect on the work of the committee to which I was attached. Things I wrote would make their way into the hands of MPs (usually a distant prospect for an aspiring academic). All of this was hugely demanding. I quickly learnt how to manage my time and work under pressure, how to prioritise key issues, and how to become more responsive to the needs of MPs. It opened a window to a world that is, as you might expect, completely different to the world I had known and experienced before.

At a broader level, working for the Committee Office confirmed the principle that simply ‘being there’ is crucial to understanding a subject matter, place, or community. I was immersed in the everyday life of people that inhabited an imposing, grand palace. I could have completed a PhD without ever setting foot in the Palace of Westminster or indeed talking to a single Member of Parliament. Would I really have understood their lives if I had not been there for a sustained period of time? On a daily basis, I was squeezed on the Victoria Line with a thousand other commuters at 7am; I ate lunch in the Palace next to (occasionally with) clerks of the House; caught up with friends in the Sports and Social Bar; rubbed shoulders with frontbench and backbench MPs as I rushed from meeting to meeting; and attended a range of events in the evenings where I had the opportunity to listen to (even meet) prominent parliamentarians – often by chance.

ESRCOn the face of it, none of these things seem to matter to an academic study of Parliament, of parliamentary codes, or of the policy impact of select committees. But it does. Slowly, you identify habits and ways of working that confirm theories about the importance of norms and values, of what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus. Catching up in social settings allows you to tell stories and, in doing so, make sense of the world around you. Chanced meetings with parliamentarians gave them the opportunity to share their points of view, experiences and expertise – some of whom you would not have met in any other way. Working for the Committee Office offered a wealth of other practical opportunities: I was close to the Parliamentary Estate, which meant that I could listen and observe evidence sessions and proceedings as I needed; I was given a parliamentary email address that hugely increased my chances of positive replies when requesting interviews with MPs and clerks; and, with my pass, I could be flexible for MPs’ diaries and meet them in most places and at most times convenient to them. All of these things helped me to break down conventional access barriers that many academics face.

Aside from these practical opportunities, I was able to gain remarkable insights into the way that politics worked at the heart of British political life. I learnt how select committees operate, their interpretations of their role, and their unwritten rules or ‘norms’ of behaviour. All of this has made a positive impact on the way that I look at Parliament and embedded new points of view for my study that I would not have thought about otherwise. For that, I’m extremely grateful to the ESRC and the WRDTC for making the funds available, and to the Committee Office in the House of Commons for making the time and resources available. Without this opportunity, my doctoral thesis would be poorer, my understanding of British political culture more basic, and my skillset underdeveloped.

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