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Women in Westminster: In Conversation With Dr Hannah White OBE

6 min read Partner content

Hannah White has spent a career dedicated to improving the way that government works. Now, as director of the Institute for Government, White provides an independent and knowledgeable voice that is helping shape a more modern and inclusive democracy. As part of our Women in Westminster series, we sat down with her to learn more about how she believes our politics needs to change

“A lot of people are disillusioned with Parliament, but it can improve itself,” Hannah White tells us during our sit-down conversation. “It might need a lot of prodding to get there but I am willing to keep working at it.”

White is someone who has spent her career focused not just on understanding what Parliament does, but also on improving how it works.

For White, this is not a “marginal” or “academic” subject. Discussions about the procedures and rules that underpin the way Westminster works do sometimes take a back seat to headline-grabbing policies. However, White is clear that the foundations on which our democracy is built really do have an impact.

Understanding what she describes as “the how not the what,” is at the heart of White’s current role as director of the Institute for Government. And far from being remote or academic, White tells us that she detects a growing public interest in the importance of constitutional issues.

“When I started my career, it was much more abstract but over the past few years people get it much more,” she says. “People are thinking a lot more about what makes Parliament and government work and whether people are behaving in a way you would expect.”

White cites wider debates about Brexit as one clear example of a policy area that put constitutional issues like sovereignty firmly on the front pages. She also tells us that more recent events have reminded the public that issues of behaviour and culture are hugely important.  

“The reason Partygate cut through is because this was a story where people were not following the rules,” she explains. “So that kind of propriety and constitutional stuff really matters to the public.”

White’s career in Westminster began following her completion of a PhD in geography, with a thesis focusing on different responses to HIV. Despite describing herself as “not massively politically aware as a child,” White does identify an enduring interest in the application of knowledge to address real-world problems.

“My mum always says, ‘life is lived forward and understood backwards,’” she explains. “Looking back, I think I was always interested in policy. That is why geography inspired me. It was all about real-world problems and solutions and people trying to find the evidence to answer difficult questions.”

It is a philosophy that has shaped White’s own career. After starting as a clerk in the House of Commons, White went on to support the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the Cabinet Office before joining the Institute for Government in 2014.

She recalls the start of her working life with fondness and is positive about the experience of working within Westminster.  

“I felt very privileged,” she says. “I worked with some good people. On a personal level, the period of working in Parliament was really empowering. But, as a workplace, it is pretty intimidating. You feel a massive sense of responsibility. That proximity to politics is both exhilarating and stressful.”

The time White spent working in the Commons also gave her a clear understanding of the intersection between Westminster’s culture, behaviours, and legislation. It was this front-row seat that also helped shape her 2022 book, Held in Contempt: What’s Wrong with the House of Commons?

In that book, White paints a picture of an institution with an embedded culture, built up over centuries. That culture, she argues, has now been normalised as an operating model.

“Parliament’s rules and norms were basically shaped by a very un-diverse group of older, white, privately educated men,” she tells us. “That is often not unpicked. It is simply presented as ‘this is how we do politics.’”

White believes that shifting this culture and modernising our democratic structures is a dynamic and ongoing process. She views increasing the diversity of Parliament as an important part of the solution, particularly when it comes to defining the scope of policy discussions.

“More women MPs has resulted in a change in the nature of the things that the House thinks it is important to debate,” she explains, highlighting issues such as childcare. “I don’t think we would be here if it hadn’t been for women like Harriet Harman putting those things on the table. That has changed the policy narrative.”

However, she cautions that there remains a deep-seated set of cultural assumptions and values that shape the way that MPs and their staff work. This, White argues, goes beyond the cohort of MPs in place at any particular moment and influences MPs' behaviours much more widely.

“For female members, it is really difficult not to feel they have to adopt the behaviours that are normalised in order to be seen as successful,” she says. “How do you engage in the chamber? What do you prioritise?”

That culture, White argues, has led to an institution that is not just resistant to change, but often oblivious to the need for it.

“The fundamental problem is that Parliament is very bad at improving itself,” she explains. “It doesn’t have the incentives or structures to be self-reflective as an institution or to follow through on positive change. You only get change when there is a disaster, scandal or election that gets over the inertia to make things better.”

White believes “being in politics” is too often seen as an end in itself for MPs rather than as a mechanism to deliver change.

Instead, she would like to see MPs focused on the problems they want to solve as the primary driver for building a political career. This is reflected in her advice for women at the start of their careers who might be considering working in Westminster.

“I would say go and do something in the real world first. Pick the things you really care about,” she says. “Then work out how the politics operate around it and identify where your best intervention can be.”

It is advice that certainly seems to have shaped White’s own approach. Throughout our discussion, she maintains an unwavering focus on the challenges that she wants to address to improve the way that government works.

“I am pleased I went into public policy,” she says. “It gives me the chance to work at making this stuff better.”

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