British Politics: The Best of the BBC Radio Archives

In addition to the numerous documentaries on Labour in opposition listed here, on the Harold Wilson era and the Desert Island Discs archives , below  are a list of the best radio documentaries and interviews available in the BBC archives.


‘Barbara Castle – the Red Queen, clever, sexy and single-minded she was the most important female politician the Labour party has produced. Anne Perkins celebrates her centenary’

‘Patrick Wright focuses on Barbara Castle, the Red Queen, the Englishness of her socialism and her fierce resistance to English culture being subsumed by the American Vulgar’

Great Lives Series

Ramsay MacDonald

‘Ramsay Macdonald, Labour’s first prime minister, chosen by Shaun Ley’

Ellen Wilkinson

‘Maxine Peake nominates her working class hero the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson. She tells Matthew Parris why this forgotten figure merits to be recognised as a great life’ 

Clement Attlee

‘Bookseller Tim Waterstone and biographer Ben Pimlott discuss former prime minister Clement Attlee. With Joan Bakewell. From August 2001’

Barbara Castle

‘Prison reformer Frances Crook proposes the Labour politician Barbara Castle as a Great Life. Roy Hattersley offers expert witness, and Matthew Parris is in the chair’

Richard Crossman

‘Politician Tam Dalyell chooses cabinet minister and political diarist Richard Crossman. With Humphrey Carpenter and journalist Anthony Howard. From December 2002’

Roy Jenkins

‘Journalist Polly Toynbee chooses one of the most noted of post-war politicians, Roy Jenkins. With Matthew Parris. From April 2009’

Nick Robinson – The Prime Ministers

‘BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson explores how Britain’s prime ministers have used their power, responded to the challenges of their time and made the job what it is today’

BBC Radio 4: Profile

These area short but informative 15-minute biographies of public figures. Hundreds to look at here but some interesting ones:

Keir Starmer (2009)

‘Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is in the spotlight. As the DPP announces new guidelines on assisted suicide, Clive Coleman traces Starmer’s progression through the legal ranks, and looks at his blue-collar origins, unashamed political commitments and passion for football’

Alan Milburn (2009)

‘Chris Bowlby looks at Alan Milburn, the MP for Darlington who has returned to the political front line in a key advisory role to Gordon Brown. He is to head a new Commission on social mobility’

Alastair Darling (2008)

‘An insight into the Chancellor, Alistair Darling. Business Editor Robert Peston has gained access to people close him. So who is the real Alistair Darling?’

Jeremy Corbyn (2015)

‘Suddenly everyone is taking Jeremy Corbyn seriously. But how easy will it be to go from anti-establishment, backbench rebel to the top Labour job? Chris Bowlby investigates’


Reflections with Peter Hennessy

Historian Peter Hennessy asks senior politicians to reflect on their lives and times. There are five series of this show and each episode is worth an hour of your time. Highlights are

Series 1: Neil Kinnock

‘Peter Hennessy’s guest is Lord Kinnock (Neil Kinnock), former Labour Party Leader’

Series 2: Roy Hattersley

‘Roy Hattersley tells Peter Hennessy how a teacher inspired his belief in equality and recalls what he learned about attitudes to poverty while delivering milk on a vacation job’

Series 5: Tony Blair

‘Peter Hennessy invites senior politicians to reflect on their life and times. This week, his guest is Tony Blair, the former prime minister’

Series 5: Harriet Harman

‘Peter Hennessy invites senior politicians to reflect on their life and times. This week, his guest is Harriet Harman, former deputy Labour leader and senior cabinet minister’

Series 6: David Blunkett

‘Peter Hennessy invites senior politicians to reflect on their life and times. This week, his guest is David Blunkett, the former Labour MP and cabinet minister’

Series 7: Alan Johnson

‘Peter Hennessy invites senior politicians to reflect on their life and times – this week, Alan Johnson, former postman, union boss, Home Secretary and author of acclaimed memoirs’

My Dream Dinner Party: Ed Balls

‘The Strictly star and former MP hosts a gathering with a twist. All his guests are from beyond the grave, long-time heroes brought back to life by the wonders of the radio archive’

My Family Fight for Civil Rights: Oona King

‘Former MP Oona King’s family played key roles in the American Civil Rights Movement. Fifty years later, a trip to Georgia uncovers their fight and the injustice they suffered’

Belief: Shirley Williams

‘Academic and politician Shirley Williams talks to Joan Bakewell about her moral and religious beliefs. She discusses her inspiration from Jesus and the Second Vatican Council’

UK Confidential

Brilliant BBC series that analyses newly released government files each year.

Covers the years from 1974 to 1992 and features interviews with key Cabinet ministers:

The Reunion

Another brilliant BBC series that brings together groups of people for a reunion. Here are the political ones, but ones on cultural moments (such as Brookside, Boys from the Blackstuff and Big Brother) are also worth a listen:

New Labour

‘Sue MacGregor brings together six people who each played a key part in one of the most significant changes to any political party – the creation of New Labour’

The Dome

‘Sue MacGregor reunites key people who created the Millennium Dome, including architects, designers and politicians. From August 2010’

The Scottish Parliament

‘Sue MacGregor brings together those who campaigned for and secured a Scottish Parliament – the country’s first in almost 300 years. But tragedy and resignations were to follow’

Expenses Scandal

‘Sue MacGregor brings together key figures from Westminster and Fleet Street involved in the protracted battle over releasing MPs’ expenses to the public in 2009’

The Rise and Fall of the SDP

‘Sue MacGregor reunites Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen to look back on the bitter split within Labour that drove them to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981’

Collapse of Northern Rock

‘Sue MacGregor’s guests recall the 2007 collapse of Northern Rock, the Newcastle-based bank whose rapid growth came to symbolise the region’s renaissance’

Wapping Dispute

‘Sue MacGregor brings together trades unionists and editors from opposing sides of one of the most bitter and violent strikes in British industrial history – the Wapping dispute’

Maastricht Treaty

‘Former ministers, backbench rebels and government advisors recall the dramas of the Maastricht Treaty negotiations – Black Wednesday, no confidence motions and political bloodshed’

Foot and Mouth Disease

‘Sue MacGregor reunites five people whose lives and livelihoods were dramatically changed by the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001’

The Sun Newspaper

‘Sue MacGregor reunites journalists working on The Sun newspaper in the 1980s to consider how it revolutionised our news’

The Miners Strike

‘Sue MacGregor brings together some of those involved on both sides of Britain’s longest-lasting and most bitter industrial dispute, the miners’ strike of 1984-5’

The Poll Tax

‘Sue MacGregor recalls the infamous Poll Tax initiative, precursor to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall, bringing together those who designed it with those who opposed it’

Brixton Riots

‘Sue MacGregor speaks to five people who were at the centre of events when rioting erupted in Brixton, South London, in April 1981’

The Hutton Inquiry

‘Sue MacGregor reunites four people involved in one of the worst rows between the government and the BBC in modern times, as they remember the Hutton Inquiry’

Labour’s Identity Crisis

Why Blue Labour is still relevant under Corbyn - LabourList 

Blue Labour

‘Labour’s traditional working-class supporters are abandoning the party. David Goodhart asks, can Labour win them back without alienating more liberal middle-class voters?’

Labour, the Left and Europe

‘The nature of the European Union is changing. Should Labour re-evaluate its attitude towards it? Edward Stourton investigates’

What’s Left?

‘Andrew Rawnsley chairs a studio debate on the future of the Labour Party, following its devastating defeat in the 2015 general election’

‘Where Next for Labour?’

‘As the Labour conference approaches, Beyond Westminster asks how Ed Miliband should rebrand his party? Should it go purple, blue or red? And how important is community organising?’

Post-War British History

The State of Welfare

‘Jane Garvey and Julian Worricker present a special programme marking the 70th anniversary of William Beveridge’s ground-breaking report which founded the welfare state’

The 1945 Labour Government

‘Michael Portillo presents a series revisiting great moments of history which often conceal other events of equal but forgotten importance’

Roy Jenkins – Father of the Permissive Society?

Social historian Richard Weight talks with key witnesses and explores the archives to examine the key role played by Roy Jenkins in the liberal reforms of the 1960s’

 The Myth of Homosexual Decriminalisation

‘Peter Tatchell on how the 1967 Sexual Offences Act failed to provide equal rights for gay men, with convictions for same-sex offences rising in the following years’

1979: Democracy’s Nightmares

Documentary-maker Phil Tinline traces the political fears and hopes of a divided, uncertain Britain – 40 years ago, in the period just before Mrs Thatcher’s 1979 election victory.

The People’s Thatcher

‘Andrew Neil presents a portrait of Margaret Thatcher as reflected by voices from the archive of those who lived through her premiership, both supportive and opposed’

10 Days that Toppled Thatcher

‘James Landale examines the dramatic fall of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990 and asks why she was toppled when she had not been defeated at a general election or in the Commons’

The Heath Enigma

‘On the centenary of Sir Edward Heath’s birth, Shaun Ley reassesses the enigmatic premier, who took the UK into Europe and modernised his party but failed to win people’s hearts’

When to Break Up the Party

‘Historian Steven Fielding draws on the five big splits in the British political parties in the last 180 years to make sense of what’s happening in our politics right now’

Tearing up the Politics Textbook

‘British politics has been going through a period of rapid and remarkable change. Rosie Campbell, a professor of politics, asks if it is time to bin her old lecture notes’

Steve Richards: The Long March of Corbyn’s Labour

‘Steve Richards presents a three-part series examining Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership’

The Thirty Year Itch

‘Has British politics reached a turning point? Phil Tinline explores what the turmoil of the 1970s can tell us about how governing orthodoxies break down, and new ones emerge’

Who Runs Labour?

‘Roger Bolton looks back at the ferocious internal Labour Party battles of the 1980s and examines the extent to which there is now a re-run of the battle for control of Labour.’

David Davis on Tony Benn

‘4 Extra Debut. Politician David Davis gives a personal exploration of Tony Benn’s life and ideas through his many radio appearances. From March 2014.

The Brown Years

‘Steve Richards reveals the inside story of Gordon Brown’s time as prime minister. Based on interviews with close colleagues, including ex-ministers and Downing Street staff.’

Meeting Myself Coming Back

‘Peter Mandelson, former Labour PR supremo, cabinet minister and peer, reflects on his life via the BBC Archives. From August 2010’

Election Snapshots

1997 Cherie Blair

‘Cherie Blair tells the story behind that photo of her on the morning of Labour’s 1997 win, with the photographer who took the picture, Mathieu Polak’

2010 Gordon Brown

‘The story behind the fateful meeting between PM Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy in 2010. Senior Brown aide David Muir recalls a tumultuous day with photographer Jeff Mitchell’

British Socialism: The Grand Tour (12 episodes)

Anne McElvoy traces the story of British socialism through the 20th century, from Robert Owen to the Chartists to the Fabian Society to Bevin v Cripps and the politics of Tony Benn in the 1980s.

Labour and the Bomb

‘As Jeremy Corbyn seeks to change Labour’s policy on nuclear deterrence, the veteran political reporter John Sergeant examines the party’s troubled relationship with ‘the bomb’

Will add more to this list in the coming weeks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s