New Directions in Modern British Studies – Some Reflections

Chris Moores

Chris Moores

Our up-coming conference, is framed around the question ‘what does it mean to do British studies today’? This question looms large in our new MA in Modern British Studies and the module we are currently teaching, titled New Directions in Modern British Studies.

The module has covered a lot of ground. We started by thinking through the history of Britain told as public history and how the subject is taught within schools. And upon reflection, this topic has never been left behind. The publication of the History Manifesto in October, MBS members’ reflections on Birmingham’s on-going Connecting Histories projects, our postgraduate studentscontributions to our blog and the continued discovery of new and innovative projects keep reminding us of the ways in which the past and the present link up in all sorts of public forums. The MA in Modern British Studies is important to us as it provides one way for us to think through our centre’s work and ensures that our intellectual concerns and preoccupations are in synch with, and informed by, the concerns of our students as well as reflective of our individual and collective research questions.

The MA in Modern British Studies encourages those involved to think about how historians have studied the British past. Where have historians of Britain turned their gaze, how have they practised their work and what results have been yielded? Teaching New Directions in British History has further helped me reflect on the ways in which different approaches taken by historians have thickened our knowledge, pricked our conventional periodizations and destabilized assumptions about Modern Britain’s history as well as offering insights into how the past might be captured, described and represented.

Through the module we have explored how historians have used categories of class in their work by thinking through histories of the working class moving from the poor stockingers and luddite croppers of E.P. Thompson to the more recent ‘demonization’ of chavs articulated within the work of Owen Jones, all via Selina Todd’s more recent study The People. But we have also grappled with other complex social, cultural and political identities which emerge within the histories of gender, politics, race and empire.

In doing this, all of us involved with the MA in Modern British Studies have found a great deal of excitement in the analytical skills offered to us by historians of Britain. Amongst other insights, we have found rich potential in the close readings of crossed out words within letters sent home from the First World War’s trenches and how these might allow us to write emotional histories of the British past. We have grappled with the ways in which histories of objects like the post-box, the envelope and filing cabinet can be used to provide a crucial link between the infrastructure and ideology of the British state.

An Important Historical Source?

An Important Historical Source?

We have studied how the history of NGOs and social movements might relate to more traditional ways of writing political history. We have thought about how gender, as expressed and found in the footsteps and gazes of those walking through the streets of late 19th century London, offer both historical and political insights. And we have considered how thinking through issues of sexuality might allow us to unpick false dichotomies between the history of the public and the private, through understanding  – amongst other things – the ambiguously manipulative photography of Dr Barnardo.

Barnados publicity, 1931

Barnardo’s publicity, 1931

If such subjects have been beneficial to our thinking about how we might write the history of British past, the module New Directions in British History also gives students the space to think about how the imperial turn and global and transnational history has raised discussion of where we can locate the British past. Reading a cultural history of hunger is certainly a challenge, but the points of connection between national, colonial, and trans-national regimes of welfare, poverty, and inequality that emerge from doing this, clearly resonated in the past and continue to reverberate today.

As with all courses, our discussions within the MA in Modern British Studies have sometimes generated as much heat as they have done light (see our attempts to draw Patrick Joyce’s conceptualization of the state).

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My co-pilot, Matt Houlbrook, and I have not always been in agreement about the merits of various historical approaches and arguments that we have studied, and we still have important questions on chronology, periodization (that can be found within our conference call for papers) that we need to unpack as our term and our module draws to a conclusion.

From my point of view, one firm thing the module has done is to reiterate the complexity, sophistication, vitality and innovative approaches that historians have taken, and continue to take, when approaching Modern Britain. The MA in Modern British Studies therefore allows our students, as well as us, to start to tackle our central question: ‘what does it mean to study Modern Britain today’.

The MA in Modern British Studies takes different ways or practising history seriously. Next term’s core course will build on this. I need to keep relatively quiet on this to avoid spoilers for those currently enrolled, but as a sneak preview I can reveal that our MA students will be reading personal diaries and life-stories in the Cadbury Research library, working on the fantastic photographic sources taken by students from Birmingham’s Centre for Cultural Studies during the late 1960s (one of which forms the backdrop to MBS’ CFP poster and associated imagery), looking at documentary films like St Kilda its People and its Birds, and examining the types of material culture that can be found in the home through thinking about the work of the East India Company at Home project. A seminar on how historians might make use of music will be framed around the oeuvre of the West Midland’s finest grindcore ensemble, Napalm Death. This term has been thought-provoking, next term looks like it will be that way as well.

Find out more about the MA in Modern British Studies and studying with us.

The White Band’s Burden: Band Aid 30 and Modern Britain

Andrew Jones

Andrew Jones

The nights are drawing in, an African disaster is in the news, and Bob Geldof is swearing on live television. It can only mean one thing: Band Aid is back. Now resembling a national institution, the artistically dreadful charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas? has been resurrected for the fourth time in thirty years. Now featuring such humanitarian heavyweights as One Direction and Olly Murs, Band Aid 30 raises funds to help tackle the ongoing Ebola virus disease epidemic in West Africa.

Band Aid has attracted a significant amount of criticism since its revival, which has focused largely upon the song’s patronising and even dehumanising portrayal of African people as desperate, voiceless, and dependent upon the generosity of privileged white Westerns. Many of these critiques are as old as Band Aid itself. However, Band Aid 30 has still proven popular with the music-buying public. At the time of writing, Band Aid has raced to become the fastest-selling single in years, shifting 312,000 copies in one week and entering the charts at #1.


Despite a belief among fundraising professionals that pop music benefit songs are in decline (displaced by social media activism such as the ALS ice bucket challenge), there is clearly still a popular demand for Geldof’s product. But what does the revival and continuing success of Band Aid actually tell us about Modern Britain?

The original Band Aid was organised by Geldof and Midge Ure in response to a severe famine in Northern Ethiopia, famously exposed by BBC television news in late 1984. The coming together of celebrity musicians in support of famine relief resonated with the public and proved immensely popular, drawing in new constitutiences traditionally uninterested in humanitarian causes (especially young people).

Band Aid (and its follow-up Live Aid in 1985) also attracted sharp criticism at the time from established development organisations such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, for an over-reliance on images of starving African children as a means to shock the viewing public into donations. In doing so, it was felt that Band Aid was simplifying the famine and failing to raise any awareness of the more complex, structural causes of African poverty (such as debt, global economics, geopolitics and climate change).

While legitimate, this critique obscured how the same mainstream aid agencies had promoted and reinforced a similar message in their own publicity and appeals for many decades beforehand. Simplistic, negative images of disaster and suffering children may be unethical and exploitative, but they have also been consistently effective at raising money and driving growth in a crowded voluntary sector. Indeed, for all the attacks directed at Band Aid and its sequels, they have actually been following a formula for successful humanitarian fundraising already embedded in British society. The record sales of Band Aid 30 re-affirm the appeal of this form of charity.

Disasters Emergency Committee, East African Emergency Appeal, 1980. Reproduced with permission of the Disasters Emergency Committee

Disasters Emergency Committee, East African Emergency Appeal, 1980. Reproduced with permission of the Disasters Emergency Committee

Band Aid’s popularity therefore shows us that poverty and suffering abroad has consistently moved the British public, but largely only in a charitable sense. Popular support for overseas aid has historically been motivated by moral and humanitarian concerns, while understanding of the causes and complexities of global poverty and underdevelopment has been low. As a number of recent public opinion surveys conclude, simplistic associations of Africa and the developing world with famine, disaster and Western aid are enduring and compelling stereotypes in Britain.

This can be attributed to years of simplistic messages and negative images in humanitarian publicity, a genre which Band Aid exemplifies. It also reveals how a number of colonial ideas and discourses about the wider world remain deeply engrained in British society and culture. We know that Britain’s imperial identity was sustained by ideas of benevolent leadership, which presented the Empire as a positive and constructive force in the world. Modern humanitarian philanthropy such as Band Aid re-packages these discourses, offering a new narrative of British national purpose and the ‘White Man’s Burden’ in a post-imperial age characterised by fragmentation and a lack of coherent national identity.

Band Aid also reveals something more specific about the nature of charity in contemporary Britain.  There is a long lineage of simplistic, non-political humanitarian fundraising which stretches back to missionary portrayals of colonial subjects. Since the 1980s, this has been reinforced by broader shifts in how capitalist society functions. The turn from collectivist welfare to neoliberal governance, sparked by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, has also increasingly legitimised the realm of consumption as a means to intervene in global issues. The result has been market-driven philanthropy such as Band Aid – slick, professional, corporate, and populist. This philanthropy also bypasses structural solutions, substitutes for state responsibility, and narrows the possibilities of public action to the act of donating money.

Live Aid at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, 1985. By Squelle (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Live Aid at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, 1985. By Squelle (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Band Aid and similar initiatives enable citizens to affect positive change, but without altering their own consumer behaviour, or questioning the complicity of consumer capitalism in creating global injustice. Band Aid 30’s success is thus also a reminder of some uncomfortable truths. Perhaps the British public simply do not want revolutionary transformations in the existing international order, which could prevent emergencies such as the Ebola epidemic from occurring in the first place. As a society, we want Band Aid solutions – sticking plasters that stem the bleeding, but do not address the underlying condition. The vocal public criticism of Band Aid 30 may indicate that these attitudes are shifting. But a quick glance at this week’s Top 40 UK Singles Chart suggests there is still a long way to go.

Connecting Histories – Voices Past and Present: the Backdrop

Izzy Mohammed

Izzy Mohammed

Following Kate Smith’s post on Connecting History this week, I was asked by the MBS blog to write about the event and the on-going initiatives which I have been involved with as the Library of Birmingham’s Audience Engagement Co-Ordinator.

In a particularly multicultural city – Birmingham – and an increasingly multicultural nation – Britain – how do we:

(a) enable wide and meaningful participation in the production and reproduction of histories and heritages towards an inclusive ‘national culture’ reflecting the realities rather than doing this just for the sake of it ‘being a nice thing to do’?

(b) empower different groups so we expand the scope of involvement in local and national culture – in local and national life?

(c) correct the affects of those regressive forces that seek to engender divisive sentiments, attitudes and ideas?

Birmingham is a multicultural city. But being ‘multicultural’ can be taken to mean a lot of things. Perhaps most crucially, the concept embodies a kind of diversity resulting from migration of deep and global significance.

In my experience as Audience Engagement Co-ordinator at the Library of Birmingham, it often seems that this diversity has yet to be embedded within the cultural fabric of the nation. In other words, the history of British diversity is seldom seen as an integral element within the history of the nation. This has led to an under-representation of the diverse range of histories and heritages that ought to be seen as comprising our world – from the local – to the national – to the global.

Remnants of a Portrait of a Bangladeshi family

Remnants of a Portrait of a Bangladeshi family

A lack of representation has not only been disempowering for respective groups, it has also served to constrain cross-cultural contact and knowledge. Set against a backdrop of negative sentiments frequently present in contemporary discussion of topics like immigration, Islam and Muslims, the working and so-called, “under’-classes”, Ebola-type scare stories, anxieties about Europe, as well as the continuing economic crisis from which we yet to emerge – it is easy to see how discord and discontent is apparent, if not engineered. Undoing the damage by trying to increase knowledge and connectivity and through engendering a sense of the actual and of proportion is not easy.

Connecting Histories – Voices Past and Present (Saturday 15th November)[1] was a part of an ongoing process designed to make some sort of contribution in this regard. That is:

(a) to raise the profile of diverse community histories and heritages and accord these with some degree of value.

(b) to enable a practical understanding of how groups can participate in the field of community history and heritage (with this event drawing attention to oral history – the field of recording/documenting history by recording the stories of ordinary people and funding opportunities available through the Heritage Lottery).

(c) to provide opportunity for cross-community awareness, understanding and participation (typically referred to as social cohesion).

Saturday’s event drew together projects and groups from various parts of the city; the Three Estates and Kings Norton; Bordesley Green; Saltley – and others with a broader city or region-wide remit; covering topics such as Mirpuri History and heritage; the lives of working class people; the Polish community; Chinese community; and Birchfield Harriers (the city’s leading and oldest athletics club).[2]

The most significant outcome of the event was to bring together this diverse group of people to enable this kind of learning and sharing; that the event at least allowed for the possibility of a sense of a common humanity and familiarity – opportunities for which have often been problematically lacking.

While Birmingham is considerably more comfortable with its multicultural nature than many other similarly diverse urban contexts, the uncritical – if not biased – racialisation of particular news stories and a tendency to focus attention on particular issues around particular groups has fuelled popular discourses around the failures of multiculturalism, often adding to the widespread unease and uncertainty caused by an economic crisis from which the world is yet to emerge.

This has led to fertile ground for the germination in certain quarters of socially unconstructive ideas and attitudes. These are the contexts in which events and programmes such as Connecting Histories – Voices Past and Present are situated.

The next event is entitled Connecting Histories – Origins is scheduled for Saturday 28th March, 2015, where the emphasis will be migration and settlement. It will be another interesting session.

[1] The event is named after the Connecting Histories project (partnership project between, particularly, the Library of Birmingham, or the Central Library as it was, and the University of Birmingham).

[2] The LBGT history group, too, were programmed to present but an overrun the programme meant the programme for the day had to be concluded without this particular presentation. It is worthwhile mentioning that the LGBT community had presented at previous events and will do so at future events, as well.

Connected Histories in Birmingham

Kate Smith

Kate Smith

Spotted: this advert for the Horrible Histories Christmas special, now showing at the Old Rep Theatre, on a number 50 bus heading home from Birmingham city centre at the weekend. This ‘action-packed historical adventure’ features historical figures like Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Oliver Cromwell and, of course, Santa Claus. Brilliant. The Horrible Histories brand has always offered a great way to get kids enthusiastic about history and learning about the past: an endeavour that can only be applauded. But what sort of past is being represented here and on stage? There are three ‘great’ men (four, if you want to count Santa) and one woman; a king and a celebrated author; all of them are white. These histories might be action-packed, but they are also horribly lacking in diversity. Can this version of the past really speak to the people of Birmingham, or Britain more generally?

Horrible Christmas

The Horrible Histories poster stood out, because I was coming back from a day of learning about the diverse and connected histories that come together to make up Birmingham’s vibrant past and present. On Saturday Chris Moores, Matt Houlbrook, Sarah Pett and I ventured into the new shiny building that is the Library of Building to hear a series of presentations about other forms of history being researched and written here in Britain’s second largest city. ‘Connected Histories: Voices Past and Present’ had been organized Izzy Mohammed who works as the Audience Engagement Coordinator at the Library while working on a PhD in the University of Birmingham . On Saturday 15 November, Izzy brought together a range of people to share their experiences of running different historical projects across Birmingham.

Horrible Histories might not necessarily speak to the people of Birmingham, but at Connected Histories we heard the voices of many of the city’s citizens retelling its diverse pasts – both those who have been recorded describing their own lives, and the volunteers and community representatives who are working so hard to elicit their personal testimonies. We heard from Kate Gordon who is working with members of the Chinese community to complete a series of oral histories that seek to mark and record processes of migration to and home building within Birmingham’s neighbourhoods. Similarly, we learnt about From Mirpur to Birmingham, an ambitious project that focuses on the experiences of individuals who have journeyed from Mirpur in Azad Kashmir to Birmingham. Like Kate Gordon’s Chinese Lives in Birmingham, the Mirpur project has recorded oral histories to capture the experiences and meanings of migration, in the hope that younger generations will gain a better understanding of the lives lived by older residents in the city. The desire to pass histories from one generation to the next was also evident in a project being organized by Maureen Smojkis and Ania Gibson of the Midland Polish Association. Oral histories, photographs, objects and documents have been uncovered to construct a richer history of Birmingham’s Polish residents. During the day we also heard about the work of Christina Darragh who is working to document the experiences of residents of the Three Estates in Kings Norton. Built in the 1950s, little evidence currently exists to show what these estates were like to live on in the second half of the twentieth century. This project, like the others we heard from, places value on the different lived experiences of Birmingham’s residents and tries to unpick the complicated histories located in its sites and spaces.

Here, in the Library of Birmingham, on a blustery Saturday afternoon, people had come together not to consume history as a spectacle, but to share in the process of making history – to listen and learn from the efforts and achievements of others embarked on practising history at different locations across the city. During the day I was sat next to a member of the Hall Green History Society who was interested in embarking on an oral history project of his own and wanted to learn from others. I also spoke to a woman who wanted to find some way of recording the history of her father and his professional contacts who had trained as doctors in the subcontinent before moving to Britain and practising medicine here. The ‘Connected Histories’ event encouraged people to share expertise, knowledge, skills and experience in order that others might also go out and capture the histories of those around them. The different presentations we heard demonstrated that individuals and groups are working together to capture a past that is much more diverse than those we meet in traditional media. They also, in their methods and practices, showed how broad the project of writing history has become. Individuals and groups outside of the academy are working to ensure that a more inclusive vision of Britain’s past is being created – and, just as importantly, connected. Chris, Matt, Sarah and I left the Library keen to learn from those endeavours.

Indira Gandhi and the Indian Politics of the Punjabi Diaspora in Britain

Silas Webb

Silas Webb

This semester I have been lucky enough to spend most of my time at the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research at the Library of Birmingham. My doctoral dissertation has brought me to the “midland metropolis” in order to explore the social and political formations of Indians, largely Punjabis, who migrated to the United Kingdom from the 1930s to the 1970s. I have also enjoyed engaging with the Centre for Modern British Studies as an Associate and participating in lectures and the reading group. Both of these activities have helped to confirm that, as Catherine Hall has said in a different context, “Birmingham was of the empire.”[1]

As a hub of migration in the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham offered a vibrant setting for interacting with anti-colonial struggles and the politics of liberation, both which were informed by an understanding of the relationship between capitalism, racism, and imperialism. The Wolfson Centre maintains the papers of the Indian Workers Association (IWA), an organization committed to political and social issues related to Indian migrants. The papers of this organization, among many other things, demonstrate the level of transnational cooperation that Indian migrants embraced with Pakistani, West Indians, and, later, Bangladeshis. Thus, one might say, Birmingham was also of the Commonwealth.

For Indians in Britain during the 1960s, at least the thousands represented at that time by the IWA, the Commonwealth was not the ideal international organization. In 1969, just before the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference, the IWA released a statement imploring its members to protest because the Commonwealth was “nothing more than an exploitation market for Anglo-American imperialism.”[2] The anger that the IWA harboured toward the Commonwealth in general was rooted in the experiences of Indian democracy in the nearly twenty years of independence, and especially after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964.

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Lal Bahadur Shastri became the leader of the Congress Government after Nehru’s death. Though his was a short tenure, as he died in office in 1966, he presided over crises of food shortage and the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. More to the point, he retained the Defence of India Act, an emergency measure during the war, and the IWA saw the maintenance of this act as an unnecessary threat to democracy. Indeed, according to the IWA, the DIA served as de facto suspension of habeas corpus that facilitated the detention of more than 1000 communists, trade unionists, workers and peasants who were, for one reason or another, considered threats to Indian democracy.

These problems, rather than finding any resolution, were exacerbated under the First Ministry of Indira Gandhi. The perspective of the Indian diaspora on Gandhi’s governments is especially important in 2014. Last month was the thirty-year anniversary of the Army invasion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and this month many are commemorating the anti-Sikh pogroms that occurred in North India in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As these events are rightly commemorated, there may be a tendency to see her tenure, and even more so her relationship with Sikhs and the Punjab, through this lens only.

The papers of the IWA provide a longer perspective on that relationship. In a “Resolution on India,” passed at the National Conference of the IWA in 1967, the IWA decried the brutal suppression of the Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal and plans for a program of coerced sterilization of peasants, which ultimately affected roughly 12 million people during the Emergency Rule of 1975-77.[3] Moreover, the IWA characterized the government’s response to the Indian Railway Strike of 1974 as an expression of the “true fascist nature of the [so-called] Indian democracy.”[4] Thus, once Gandhi initiated Emergency Rule in 1975, Indians in Britain had already been prepared to see her ministry as dictatorial and protests against her Government became ever fiercer; well before her sanctioned aggression against Sikh holy sites.

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Though some have criticized the IWA for being too Indo-centric in its politics, which led second and third generation British Punjabis to seek alternative forms of mobilization, it remains that a thorough appraisal of these politics is integral to understanding the process of community formation. Moreover, this archive allows us to examine British politics and society in the 1960s and ‘70s, as they were perceived and experienced by labour migrants, and the radicalism that late-stage capitalism engendered, which fostered inter-group solidarities of migrants, students, and workers. Both helped form a foundation for activism among British Indians in the mid-twentieth century. The Papers of the IWA provide an important archive for pursuing both of these concerns.

[1] Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Colony and Metropole in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 272.

[2] MS 2141/A/3/2. Urgent Circular from Jagmohan Joshi, General Secretary, Indian Workers Association. Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service (BAHS).

[3] V. A. Pai Panandiker and P. K. Umashankar, “Fertility Control and Politics in India”, Population and Development Review, 20 (1994): 91.

[4] MS2141/A/1/1/29. Draft Resolution on India. 1967. BAHS.

Language, Politics and History: Section 28 and the Department for Education

George Harvey, MA Student MBS Birmingham

George Harvey, PG Student MBS Birmingham

This week’s blog is written by George Harvey, from our Masters course in Modern British Studies. You can find more details about the course here.

“When used with care and consideration, social media can be an extremely useful political tool. Unfortunately, when the Government attempts to fire short bursts of information to the public at great speed, there is a high chance of miscommunication. For example, a recent tweet from the Department for Education on 2nd November 2014, read as follows:

“Nonsense to say schools ‘must teach gay rights’. We want schools to teach broad curric [sic] based on British values.”

Tweet from the DfE

The resultant uproar from the statement forced the message to be deleted and a series of clarifying tweets emerged, explaining that OFSTED are “rightly ensuring” that schools do not teach pupils that any people are inferior. Putting to one side the absurdity of throwing the phrase “British values” into a discussion without any attempt to explain what those values might actually consist of, the DfE should clearly have taken greater care over the expression of this initial statement. The wording of the declaration produced the fear that the department considered gay rights and British values to be mutually exclusive.

It is of great concern that the Department for Education has apparently not learnt the importance of syntax as part of the discussion of sexual education within schools, as history shows that carelessly worded statements can cause panic, outrage, and a great deal of harm.

The focal point of my historical research to date has been the study of British gay rights groups and their opposition to the creation of the Section 28 legislation by the Thatcher government. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was a rather bizarre attempt to both ban the intentional “promotion” of homosexuality by any local authorities and to halt the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship” within schools.

Although the legislation itself was so badly worded that it was completely ineffectual in a legal sense, it placed the idea that homosexuality was inherently inferior to heterosexuality onto the British statute book.[1] Furthermore the language used within the clause caused confusion amongst teachers which hindered their ability to halt homophobic bullying through fear of contravening the legislation.

Only in 2003 was Section 28 finally removed, one of several reforms made under the Blair government to improve the legal standing of British homosexuals within society. Ideally, this is where the story should end, with the meaningless and offensive document struck from the record and with no further influence within schools.

However, as recently as 2013 over forty schools across the country were shown to have sex-education guidelines that warned teachers against “promoting” homosexuality. Whilst it was encouraging to see the Department for Education quickly refer to the behaviour of these schools as “unacceptable”, it has to be a concern that the language of Section 28 has been allowed to linger ten years after the legislation was abolished.   This is especially important as the very idea that sexuality can be “promoted” onto school children to fundamentally change their sexual orientation is simply incorrect.

Although their subsequent explanations show that the DfE had no intention of tweeting a homophobic viewpoint, one does have to question why such an important topic was dealt with in such a hurried and badly-worded fashion. Section 28 showed the damage that can be caused by carelessly worded statements on the discussion of homosexuality within schools, and as the creators of the legislation, the Conservative Party should be fully aware of their past mistakes in this area.

Although the party legalised same-sex marriage within Britain, they did so with the support of under half of their MPs, so whilst the official party line is one of equality, homophobic thought is still prevalent. Therefore, the Conservative Party will continue to be scrutinised for their record on gay rights, especially by those who have felt the effects of Section 28. Consequently, every single public statement on homosexuality should be fully thought out and properly expressed; if that cannot be done in 140 characters or less, then it should not be attempted.

Within their recent work The History Manifesto, Jo Guldi and David Armitage have discussed the need for policymakers to turn to historians in the style of the longue durée for advice on political action in the present day. However, this particular instance illuminates how (at the very least) it is equally important for political parties to operate using their knowledge of more recent, short term historical events.

Clearly the Conservative Party has come a long way since 1988 in both its attitude and its policies towards homosexuality in Britain. However, apologising for Section 28 is not the same as fully understanding the effects the legislation had, and the manner in which language was used to affront the gay community. Here is an opportunity for the Conservatives to look into their recent past for guidance on their present day actions.

Gazing from a historical perspective in particular, it was a real shock to see the Department for Education write so haphazardly on such an important issue; one which the Conservative Party in particular should be taking as seriously as possible, considering their previous use of slapdash writing to offend British homosexuals.”

[1] S. Jeffery-Poulter, Peers, Queers and Commons: The Struggle for Gay Law Reform from 1950 to the Present (London, 1991), pp. 236-237.

Margot Finn: Response to Working Paper No. 1

For our third response, Margot Finn from UCL shares her thoughts on MBS Working Paper No.1

Margot Finn, UCL

Margot Finn, UCL

The first Working Paper of Birmingham’s Modern British Studies initiative sets out a clear and laudable agenda for thinking systematically and imaginatively about ‘modern’ British history from c. 1850.  As the authors note, trends in both academic scholarship and popular (often highly politicised) understandings of the British past make this new agenda especially timely in 2014.

What follows is not an attack on the proposed approach—which displays deep thought and many important insights into the state of modern British history today—but rather a sympathetic series of suggestions for  further thought as this new development at Birmingham gathers pace.  These suggestions fall under four rubrics, relating to 1) the categorisation of the initiative as a ‘Studies’ movement, 2) its focus on ‘democracy’, 3) its (arguably truncated) chronology and 4) its proposed interlocutors.

‘Studies’:   Conventionally, ‘Studies’ movements within the Humanities and Social Sciences are marked by their interdisciplinary formation and remit.  Thus Area Studies, Cultural Studies, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Romantic Studies and Victorian Studies are all nominally (if often, in practice, unequally) conceived as operating across, between or among one or more disciplinary specialisms.

To what extent is this true for Modern British Studies at Birmingham?  Where ‘Studies’ gestures toward the interdisciplinary, the text of Working Paper No. 1 repeatedly proclaims the initiative’s historicity.  Thus the agenda focuses on ‘Historical mindedness’ ‘for us as historians’ who ‘will integrate history within the university with those flourishing historical communities without’ (p. 2).  What is the analytical (or rhetorical) value of ‘Studies’ as opposed to ‘History’ in this context?  Because this question is not posed explicitly in the Working Paper, its answer (p. 7) is unclear.

My point here is not about semantic distinctions, but rather about substantive methodological, analytical and historiographical choices.  Choosing to focus on History as a bounded discipline opens up selected lines of interpretation, and closes down others.  So too of course, a decision to approach Modern British Studies from an interdisciplinary perspective would privilege some analytical pathways to the detriment of others.

What is needed here is not necessarily a commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry, but rather clarity as to which disciplinary, interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary decisions have been made, and why.  To give but one example, literature and visual culture both loom large in other historically-minded ‘Studies’ movements (notably Romantic and Victorian Studies), but receive short shrift in Working Paper No. 1.  Where does George Elliot, surely among the most ‘historically minded’ Victorian, or her Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), surely one of the richest Victorian literary expositions of the emergence of democratic cultures, fit within the Birmingham agenda?  Which analytical toolkits will be deployed, and which rejected, to what benefit and what cost?[1]

‘Democracy’: Democracy and democratic cultures are to form the matrix for Modern British Studies at Birmingham.  Yet the Working Paper is coy in places about what falls within (and, perhaps more significantly, without) this category of analysis.  The absence of specific references to liberalism in the document is, at one level, refreshing: insistent emphasis on the liberal subject has arguably begun to obscure more than it reveals in modern British historiography: now used to describe the market, the polity, the individual and the empire, ‘liberal’ has begun to lose its historiographical edge.

By the same token, however, by declining to address liberalism’s relation to democracy head-on, Working Paper No. 1. runs the risk of missing opportunities to grapple with key works within the secondary literature.  Where does the initiative position itself with regard to Uday Singh Mehta’s Liberalism and Empire (1999), Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000) and Chris Bayly’s Recovering Liberties (2012), for example?

‘Democracy’ too requires more definition.  Does the term encompass increases in literacy, in consumer choice, in mobility, or refer only or chiefly to the franchise?  If the former, are these forces equally ‘democratic’, or democratic in the same or different ways?  If the latter, how ‘democratic’ really was (and is) modern Britain?

Choosing democracy propels us down specific analytical pathways, pathways that modern voters—by choosing not to vote or to vote selectively or differentially in contexts that range from Strictly and X-Factor to Scottish referendums, trade union ballots, Parliamentary elections and Facebook—have  increasingly distanced from the teleological narratives of democracy crafted and comprehended by the Victorians.

Chronology: A focus on democracy also draws attention to the abridged chronology selected for the Birmingham initiative.  Why choose 1850 as a starting point, especially given the decision to focus on modern democratic cultures?  What has happened to the long 18th century and its contribution to experiences and narratives of modernity?  Forged in and exemplified by responses to political revolution in the Atlantic World, pan-imperial abolitionist movements and Enlightenment salons, 18th-century democratic cultures were surely an integral part of the birth of the modern in Britain, as Birmingham city’s complex reticulation of canals, its historic Jewellery Quarter and its Lunar men amply attest.

At the other end of modernity, postmodernity perhaps also merits consideration.  Latour (1991) suggested that we have never been modern; if instead Britain has been modern ever since 1850, perhaps by 2014, its modernity has stopped? These questions of chronology are important in themselves, but they also raise important questions of comparison.  If we begin at 1850, Britain’s modernity can be compared to that of Europe and North America, for example, but it forms a sharp contrast to India’s un-modernity.  A starting point of 1750 (as Prasannan Parthasarathi’s research would suggest) instead yields points of both contrast and meaningful comparison.

Interlocutors: My final set of queries flows from this comparative point.  The Working Paper’s outline of its interlocutors ‘Beyond Birmingham’ adduces academic collaborators who will participate in ‘reciprocal intellectual exchange’ from universities based in ‘comparable centres’ in Canada and the US.  ‘Comparable’, one might ask, to whom and to what?  To Anglo-American academics?

‘Comparable’ to modern Britain today is surely a term that also encompasses the African, Asian and Pacific Worlds as well as a global army of ‘amateur’ local and family historians researching their ancestry in myriad ‘democratic’ ways. These constituencies deserve to be fully integrated into the Birmingham initiative, as active agents in its programmes rather than as objects of its scrutiny alone.  Widening the community of modern Britain was a key aspiration of some of modern Britain’s democratic cultures.

Without wishing to be a curmudgeon, and whilst wishing this timely, important and refreshing initiative a bon voyage, I suggest here that Birmingham’s Modern British Studies will be most successful if it widens even further its ambitious intellectual remit.

[1] The extent to which History and Literature elide in ‘popular’ understandings of modern British history forms a sharp contrast with the Working Paper’s relative silence on this topic.  Significantly, self-declared passionate lovers and practitioners of modern British history Michael Gove and Jeremy Paxman both read English at Oxford and Cambridge.