MBS Album Playlist

To fit with the desert island theme, we asked everyone to list their favorite album.  Some continued with the Modern British theme whilst others gave much more personal responses, relating to memories of their adolescence or their time as undergraduates. Some refused to admit their choices in public; rather wisely perhaps as one member admitted to listening to grindcore remixes of Jedward’s entry for the eurovision song contest. We have stuck some links in case anyone wants to listen to a track….

Here is the MBS album list:


The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (1972)


Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1975)


Gil Scot Heron & Brian Jackson, The First Minute of a New Day (1975)


Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Armed Forces (1979)


The Clash, London Calling (1979)


Robert Wyatt’s version of Shipbuilding (1982) – a single, we know, but one that fits in with our modern British history theme.


Peter Maxwell Davies, Black Pentecost (1993)

(We could not find a clip of this – Sorry!)



The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow (1994)


Tricky, Maxinquaye (1995)


Mogwai, Young Team (1997)


Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997)


Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, I see a Darkness (1999)


Hefner, The Fidelity Wars (1999)


Toumani Diabate, Symmetric Orchestra’s Boulevard de l’Independence (2006)


‘Allo Darlin by ‘Allo Darlin (2010)


And, after choosing an ‘irritatingly obscure album’ (we’ll let you decide which one that is), one member of MBS stated that their favorite album ‘would (obviously) be Melt Banana’s, 13 Hedgehogs (2005)…’


Still not entirely sure whether there are hints of sarcasm here, but in the name of academic freedom, we list it here but leave the passing of any judgment to the reader. That said, at least two members of MBS have seen Melt Banana live…..

5. Favourite Article

Yes, we know this isn’t a book, but articles are so important in forming our thoughts and arguments that it seemed like a waste to leave it out. That and our director really wanted to include one…

Laura Beers: Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘Rethinking Chartism’ (1982)

I actually think that, in the final section, GSJ proves the opposite of his thesis, but I still love it.

Matthew Francis: E.P. Thompson, ‘Rough Music’ in his Customs in Common (1993) 

Like a lot of undergraduates I was sent away to read ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd…’ in the first year of my degree, and as far as I can remember I read ‘Rough Music’ entirely for the fun of it after finishing my assigned reading. And it was fun.

David Gange: Michael Saler, ‘’Clap if you Believe in Sherlock Holmes’: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity, c. 1890-c. 1940’, The Historical Journal (2003)

Fun and powerful, and Sherlock Holmes.

Vanessa Heggie: Peter Hansen’s “Tenzing’s Two Wrist-Watches: The Conquest of Everest and Late Imperial Culture in Britain 1921-1953” Past & Present 157 (1997)

I find a pretty thoughtful and useful piece, and it stretches the borders of ‘British’ history somewhat.

Matthew Hilton: Peter Bailey’, ‘Will the real Bill Banks please stand up?  Towards a role analysis of Victorian respectability’, Journal of Social History (1978)

This is my old favourite, but more recently I think the following is a really accomplished piece of research and writing: Steve Smith, ‘Bones of contention: Bolsheviks and the struggle against relics, 1918–1930’, Past and Present, 204, (2009)

Matt Houlbrook: E.P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Customs in Common (1993)

The Making of the English Working Class gets all the attention, but I think it has dated massively and lost much of its intellectual and historical (if not its political) force. Everything in Customs in Common still feels as fresh as when I first read it as an undergraduate twenty years ago.

Chris Moores: Stephen Brooke – “A New World For Women”? Abortion Law Reform in Britain during the 1930s’, American Historical Review

I love reading Stephen’s work – and I think this article is his best. Important, but also modest and subtle.

Sadiah Qureshi: Maya Jasanoff, ‘Collectors of empire: Objects, conquests and imperial self-fashioning’, Past and Present (2004), pp.109-135

Using this as a stand-in for her book Edge of Empire (2005). Her work helped me clarify many of my thoughts about collecting people in an imperial context as I started to turn my PhD into a book.

Jonathan Reinarz: E.P.Thompson, ‘Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, Past and Present (1967)

Thompson’s writing lured me to England to begin my graduate work in 1993, the year he died (bad timing), so it has to be this one.

Kate Smith: Constance Classen, ‘Foundations for an Anthropology of the Senses’ International Social Science Journal, 99:153 (1997), pp. 401-412

This made me think very differently about history.         

More MBS ‘Desert Island’ posts:

  • Book you have referred to most
  • Most thought provoking book
  • Most Controversial Book
  • Book you wish you had written

4. Book you wish you had written

Laura Beers:  Charles S. Maier, Recasting Bourgeois Europe: Stabilization in France, Germany and Italy in the Decade after World War I (1975)

Matthew Francis: Jenny Andersson, The Library and the Workshop: Social Democracy and Capitalism in the Knowledge Age (2009)

Among the most subtle and insightful works yet produced on New Labour and contemporary social democracy, which challenges the idea that ‘the Third Way’ was simply a neoliberal phenomenon.  This is also a miracle of brevity: barely one hundred and fifty pages of often beautiful prose.

David Gange: Matthew Kneale’s novel ‘English Passengers’ (2000)

Tempted to just think about the REF, and say my next book even if it’s rubbish – that would make life easier. But the real answer to this can’t be a history monograph can it? It’ll have to be either a freakishly ambitious theoretical work or, more desirable still, some actual ‘litrichur’ like this one.

Vanessa Heggie:

I wish I had written Higher, Further, Colder: a History of Extreme Physiology and Exploration, but I haven’t and I should get on with it.

Matthew Hilton: James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development”, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (1990)

Matt Houlbrook: Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (2004)

This is the best piece of British social and cultural history I’ve ever read. It’s a beautifully written demonstration of the historian’s craft that somehow manages to combine theoretical sophistication, meticulous research, and compelling emotional power. It’s the kind of book I’ll never be able to write.

Chris Moores:

I find this a really difficult question. Like David – it probably would not be a history book. But if I had to choose one of those I might be tempted to say one of Peter Bailey’s. They read like he enjoyed writing and researching them.

Sadiah Qureshi: Matthew Kneale, English Passengers (2000)

David pipped me to the post in many ways, but this is the literary equivalent to what I want to do for my book on human endangerment. The research that went into the book is truly remarkable.

Jonathan Reinarz: Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (1982)

Bold, sweeping synthesis of eighteenth-century society, written by a young Porter, who managed to weave every existing study, the best anecdotes and bon mots into a narrative that appealed to both academics and general readers.

Kate Smith: Carolyn Steedman’s, Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age (2007), particularly chapter ten.

For more MBS ‘Desert Island’ posts:

  • Book you have referred to most
  • Most thought provoking book
  • Most Controversial Book
  • Favourite Article

3. Most Controversial Book

Laura Beers: Robert Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974)

How appropriate is it to compare American slaves to English poor law orphans?

Matthew Francis: David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005)

Am tempted to put Corelli Barnett’s The Audit of War, a book that was loved by many Thatcherites in spite of the fact that it was not very good, but surely nobody takes him seriously now anyway? I am going to choose A Brief History of Neoliberalism on the basis that people do take that book far more seriously than they ought to…

David Gange: Martin Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1901 (1981)

The 1980s seemed to be a decade that specialized in very bad, very influential books on British history. This was a particularly unhelpful one, beloved by Thatcher’s advisers and therefore woven into the political history of the 80s in ways that make it a great case study for historians of that decade as well as for historians of what Wiener’s actually trying, very badly, to make sense of.

Vanessa Heggie:  Thomas Mckeown, The Modern Rise of Population (1976)

Controversial in that it caused (on-going) controversy?

Matthew Hilton:  

I honestly can’t answer this – are there any truly controversial history books anymore?

Matt Houlbrook:  Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (2014)

It has to be this at the moment: controversial or just plain wrong…

Chris Moores: Niall Ferguson, Empire (2008)

It came out when I was an UG in history and seemed to be accompanied by a load of media hype and hullabaloo.

Sadiah Qureshi: Niall Ferguson’s Empire (2008)

Agree with Chris, I’m still driven mad by how students use his work to write glowing essays about the Brits abroad taking progress wherever they went. The erasure of imperial violence is just extraordinary and makes me and a lot of others very, very angry.

Jonathan Reinarz:  Anything by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Kate Smith: Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (1992)

This is slightly different reading of the ‘controversial’ category, but this seminal work is something that aroused many important discussions and remains an incredibly important book.

More MBS ‘Desert Island’ posts:

  • Book you have referred to most
  • Most thought provoking book
  • Book you wish you had written
  • Favourite Article

2. Most thought provoking book

Laura Beers: Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (1987)

Matthew Francis: Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (2004)

I first came across Koselleck through reading around conceptual history but there is so much else besides in this collection of essays: historical time, war memorials, the Third Reich in dreams…

David Gange: Adam Kuper, Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England (2009)

This is an anthropology of the role incest (well, cousin marriage) played in sustaining the elite (Wedgewoods & Darwins).

Vanessa Heggie: Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (1987)

Not discovered through work, this was given to me by my mum.

Matthew Hilton: Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (1980)

Not necessarily a book but a sentence I keep returning to more than anything: ‘systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures’

Matt Houlbrook: Vic Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (1986)

This was the book that made me want to be a historian. It’s impassioned, angry, and humane. It shows how it is possible to interweave social, cultural, and political histories, and to move between the minutiae of everyday life and far-reaching processes of historical change.

Chris Moores: Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (1987)

I would also like to add a non-history book: Stuart Hall, Chas Chritcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke & Brian Roberts’, Policing the Crisis (1978).  I don’t agree with everything in it but I still keep coming back to its analysis as a way of thinking through late 20th century Britain. It is also a great example of collaborative work in practice.

Sadiah Qureshi: Alison Winter’s Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian England (1998)

It changed my outlook on how science is demarcated from other disciplines in the nineteenth century and helped lay the ground for some of the most important claims I wanted to make about exhibitions as spaces for the production of anthropological knowledge.

Jonathan Reinarz: James Huzel, The Popularization of Malthus in Early Nineteenth Century England (2006)

Written by the then unusually democratic undergraduate History tutor at UBC who introduced me to British History and whose stimulating lectures and encouraging comments echo in its pages.

Kate Smith: Dorothy Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (2005)

Not Modern British Studies I’m afraid but this remains one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. Not only because of its findings but also for the way it plays with structure and method.

More MBS Desert Island posts:

  • Book you have referred to most
  • Most Controversial Book
  • Book you wish you had written
  • Favourite Article

1. Book you have referred to most

Laura Beers:  Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (1998)

The political historian’s cultural history.

Matthew Francis: Michael Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach (1996)

My copy is falling apart from overuse. Aside from the fact that his work provided the theoretical underpinnings of my thesis, Freeden also seems to have an almost endless knowledge of political thought and political thinkers.

David Gange: Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (2004)

I love this book – in treating some extremely eccentric occultists it conjures the richest treatment of 1890s culture I know of. A brilliant example of how the apparently marginal can address the big themes of a period.

Vanessa Heggie:  Christopher Lawrence, Medicine in the Making of Modern Britain (1994)

Often used on my syllabus, so regularly referred to. For research-only, it’s probably a toss-up between the PhD’s most used book, which is Richard Soloway, Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth Century Britain (1995) and the first post-doc’s use of JA Mangan’s Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School (1981)

Matthew Hilton: Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Trilogy, 1996-1998)

This was really useful in helping me connect a whole variety of people, institutions and ideas when I was working on global/transnational history.

Matt Houlbrook: Stephanie Newell, The Forger’s Tale: In Search of Odeziaku (2006)

This book is a great example of how writing about an individual life can be a way of exploring broader historical issues — the relationship between metropole and colony and inequalities of race, class, and sexuality, for example.

Chris Moores: Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (2002)

Sadiah Qureshi: George Stocking, Victorian Anthropology (1987)

It has yet to be replaced by a more up to date survey of the entire century.

Jonathan Reinarz: Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians: Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872 (1971)

I started my graduate studies with drink, reluctantly left it when I began my post-doc, continued with it as a medical historian, and look forward to it, with at least one conference presentation on alcohol on the cards in 2015.

Kate Smith: John Brewer and Roy Porter’s Consumption and the World of Goods (1993)

More MBS ‘Desert Island’ posts:

  • 2. Most thought provoking book
  • 3.Most Controversial Book
  • 4. Book you wish you had written
  • 5. Favourite Article

MBS ‘Desert Island’ Books

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton

My last blog post discussed the difficulties I have when reading academic texts. These anxieties seem to have resonated with others and I’m grateful to those who have offered advice or tips on how they deal with it, alongside others who have simply said they feel the same.  Regardless of discipline, I guess we all have to grapple with literature.

Working on modern British history poses its own challenges though. The fragmentation of the field, much lamented in Working Paper 1, has ensured that we read very specific bodies of work, related only to our own field. Clearly this is necessary, but by encouraging us to work within sub-disciplines, it can be difficult to place our work in wider contexts. Collaborative working practices remain an exception rather than the norm. And whilst these standards exist we not only miss out on imaginative and creative ways of thinking through our own work, but we will fail to encapsulate the complexity and vibrancy of modern British history.

Participating in a postgraduate-led reading group is not only an important step in challenging the anxieties I have about reading, but I also hope it will become a space in which we can read wider and think bigger.  A space where we can read works outside of our own areas of research, where discussion will not be limited to what we already understand, but stimulated by what we do not know. A space where we can begin to enjoy books.

Practicalities first, we need books to read. Inspired by these History Workshop posts, we asked MBS staff to participate in a desert island type task to get our list of books started. Being an unruly lot though, we asked them to suggest titles within categories and to explain their choices if they felt it necessary.

The titles suggested are not only a great list of books to read for our reading group, but are suggestive in their own right. Many of the titles are not British history books, indicating that just as Britain did not develop in isolation; neither does the writing of its history. The influences on our work may not be tangible; the connections between texts are not always obvious.

When we write the history of modern Britain, we choose the chronological and temporal limits of our project. We must always question the reasons why we set our boundaries and recognize that the books we read play just as important a role as the sources we painstakingly research.

We must also understand the role books play in our working practices. What we read not only influences the way we conceive of our discipline, but affects the way we imagine ourselves in relation to that discipline. There are very prescriptive bodies of literature that you must engage with before you are considered, or even consider yourself, a historian with a certain methodological approach (e.g. gender, cultural, social, etc.).

This task was designed to work outside of those boundaries, to allow staff to consider the broader influences on their work. We expected titles that related very closely to their work, and the ‘most referred to’ category invited such responses, but have been pleasantly surprised by their willingness to think beyond their immediate research and engage with the wider influences on their careers and lives.

Given these answers, our reading group will be starting with Carolyn Steedman’s A Landscape for a Good Woman.

I’ve agonized over how to present these responses but have decided to simply present the answers as they were given to me, albeit edited slightly (we all know how much historians can write…)

  1. Book you have referred to most
  2. Most thought provoking book
  3. Most Controversial Book
  4. Book you wish you had written
  5. Favourite Article

Brave New Words

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton

As a new PhD student, I’m told it’s normal to initially feel overwhelmed, to feel as though you’re going through the motions of each day, unsure what it is you should be doing but feeling like you should be doing something. I’m also told that this is the ideal time to feel lost; after all, this is the part where you get acquainted with your subject.

You may already be acquainted with your subject, but you definitely haven’t got to know each other properly. You will spend at least three years of your life together and, whilst it won’t think anything about you, it will always be on your mind.

As academics, we get to know our subjects by reading. We turn inwards and read as much of the literature as we can. It’s where we discover our interests, find the gaps, and explore originality. We engage with other scholars constantly, pouring over their words and trying to emulate their methods, all whilst carving out a tiny place for ourselves, where our own words will eventually sit and be read by others.

I have a problem with all of this: I can’t read. Or rather, I’m not sure I can read academic texts. I can sit for hours, obsessing over works of fiction, developing emotional attachment with words that have left indelible marks on my life. But academic texts, the texts that will define my own work, I struggle with those.

From the moment I open a book, I worry. What if I miss something important? What if I don’t quite understand the argument or the methodology evades me? What if I miss the bigger picture or fail to situate it in a wider body of literature? I obsess over the details, re-reading sentences to make sure I’ve understood them but then failing to understand the paragraph, page, or chapter as a whole.

I make conscious efforts not to write notes but then I spot a really important piece of evidence or a crucial stage of the argument – what if I don’t remember it? Lacking the confidence that I will remember it, I write it down. I write everything down, even whole pages. Sometimes, when I’m feeling brave, I paraphrase, but nothing I write will ever be as eloquent as the author’s words, it seems like a foolish act to translate perfection into imperfection.

It’s not easy articulating this, it’s such a fundamental part of the work we do, the work I’m being funded to do, that it feels like an admission of weakness. But I know that I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to other PhD students and staff members recently about it and each one has communicated the same fears, the same obsessive worries that keep us reading in such unproductive ways.

As a community, we are much better at discussing our working practices than we once were. Writing workshops can be found at every university, informal writing groups are constantly emerging and #AcWri is always in use on twitter. Yet we do not talk about reading enough. We shy away from discussing how we read, much less our fears about it.  Instead, we assume that everyone else is doing it “right”, that some academics have an innate ability to read, cover-to-cover, whilst retaining everything. Most problematically, we assume that anyone senior to us must have the correct interpretation.

I’m enjoying being part of the MBS reading group but sometimes feel perplexed when older members discuss books with a clear emotional attachment, as though they were old friends.  Their memories of undergraduate are anchored around the books they read there, the books that inspired them, that prompted emulation or rebellion. I have no such connection. As an undergraduate in the odd age of the student-consumer, I was encouraged to try as much history as possible; I became fixated on getting as much value from the course as I could. Books became convenient to mine for facts or figures, but that was all. My arguments came from articles, never from books.

In an attempt to enjoy books, to read them without worrying, to discuss them without fear of being “wrong”, myself and other postgraduates working under MBS have decided to set up our own postgraduate reading group. Encouraged by the emotional connection staff members seem to have with books, we asked them to suggest texts that have impacted their lives for different reasons. The next post will discuss their responses.

In the meantime, let’s start talking about academic reading. Comment on the blog, or use twitter, about your relationship with books, fears that you have about reading or the different ways you read.

The Changing Face of the Post-War City: The Photography of Janet Mendelsohn

Kieran Connell

Kieran Connell

Earlier this year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), I curated an exhibition of artwork at mac Birmingham. It was a fairly stressful experience. Admittedly, this was partly because at the time I really didn’t know all that much about contemporary art. But it was also stressful because of the subject matter. It turned out that finding ways of communicating ‘counter hegemony’, ‘conjuncture’ or any of the Centre’s other famed theoretical concepts to non-academic audiences through art was even harder than it sounds. Who knew?

In the end, we did manage bring together both established and emerging artists whose diverse practices spoke brilliantly to the ongoing significance of the Centre’s work. But throughout the curatorial process I kept returning to this image (pictured), of a south-Asian man posing beneath an advert for Hunt’s ‘tropical lemon’ drink and the slogan, ‘drink Hunt’s, taste paradise’.



Janet Mendelsohn, 1968

Janet Mendelsohn, 1968

The photograph was featured on the front cover of the Centre’s 1969 annual report and, in a single image, seemed to encapsulate what cultural studies at Birmingham was at this stage all about. The Hunt’s advert speaks to the Centre’s early interest in the mass media, for example, as well as what would later become the centrality of gender and feminism. The figure in the foreground, and the flyposter over his right shoulder advertising a Jamaica 5th anniversary dance, alludes to the Centre’s interest in race and the cultures of Britain’s growing immigrant population. Finally, the inner-city backdrop is suggestive of a focus on class that to a greater or lesser degree would inform the work of the Centre throughout its existence.

There was some contextual information about the photograph to be found inside the annual report. According to a credit, it was taken by Janet Mendelsohn as part of a ‘photo-essay on Balsall Heath’ – an inner-city area of Birmingham that in the 1950s and 1960s became a key site of settlement for immigrants from the Caribbean and south Asia. I had never heard of Mendelsohn, but some further digging in the CCCS archive – which we had established at the Cadbury Research Library at Birmingham as part of the wider project on CCCS – told me she was a part-time student at the Centre, having arrived on a scholarship from the United States. Her aim was to explore how photography could be used as ‘a tool for cultural analysis’.

I wanted to know more, so I did what all lazy contemporary historians do – I asked Google. Nothing. I got in touch with some of Mendelsohn’s Centre peers, which eventually yielded an email address. Finally, after many emails into what seemed like a wilderness, there was a response from Janet. It was brief, but exciting: ‘I would love it if you could take over the collection of all my images about Balsall Heath’. We talked some more and eventually a package arrived in my office from the US. It contained a hundred prints of Mendelsohn’s photographs of Balsall Heath, around 3,000 negatives and an envelope containing the hand-written transcripts of interviews that Mendelsohn had conducted with her subjects. My jaw hit the ground.

It was the quality, as well as the quantity of the material that was remarkable. Mendelsohn’s photographs document everyday encounters between African-Caribbean, Irish and south-Asian immigrants in Balsall Heath. Frenetic street scenes are interspersed with more intimate shots from inside the area’s pubs, cafés and living rooms. But at this point, Balsall Heath was also infamous as the city’s largest ‘red light’ district, and a place of work for some 200 sex workers. Mendelsohn’s photographs also offer an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of these women, a portrait of their domestic arrangements, personal relationships and everyday experiences.

I am in the process of writing about some of these themes in much greater detail, but as well as the subjects of race, immigration and sex work, it is clear that Mendelsohn’s photographs also offer a way of thinking about the early practice of cultural studies, the relationship between academics and their subjects, the changing face of the post-war inner-city, class and, as my colleague Matt Houlbrook might put it, ‘self-fashioning’.

In the end, we did manage to include some of Mendelsohn’s work in the CCCS exhibition – including the ‘Hunt’s’ image. But it became apparent that, aside from a small selection that was published in a now-defunct university magazine in 1968, the vast majority of Mendelsohn’s photographs have never before been seen in public. They are now accessible as part of the CCCS archive at the Cadbury Research Library. But my colleague Matthew Hilton and I have just received an AHRC grant that will allow us to give them a much wider audience.

From May 2015, in partnership with a number of local organisations, we will begin a project around the Mendelsohn archive. This will include discussion events at the Library of Birmingham and Ort, a café based in the heart of the Balsall Heath community; a series of workshops asking local residents to produce a contemporary photographic response to the Mendelsohn archive; an outdoor, ‘pop up’ exhibition in Balsall Heath; and, in January 2016, a major public exhibition of Mendelsohn’s photographs at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. We hope that we will be able to give this previously hidden archive the audience it really deserves.

(How) is Barack Obama like Ramsay MacDonald?

Laura Beers

Laura Beers

When Barack Obama decided not to visit Ferguson, Missouri the other week, my husband suggested to me that this was a moral failing on a par with the David Cameron’s failure to meet with the Duggan family or to visit Tottenham following the riots there in August 2011.  It showed, he argued, an insensitivity to the real grievances of the black community that underlay the riots, and a lack of empathy for and solidarity with that community.

On one level, it is hard not to agree with that analysis.  But, I was hesitant to accept the analogy.  In a promo for an interview which aired on Monday (December 8) on BET, an African-American news outlet in the United States, Obama gave a sermon on gradualism. “This isn’t going to be solved overnight … we have made progress … typically, progress is in steps, its in increments. … You have to recognize that it is going to take some time, and you just have to be steady.” It is incredibly measured language, given the felt need, on the part of many Americans, black, white and latino, for the federal government to take immediate action to overhaul a broken system of law enforcement.

But, the US president is constrained, or at least sees himself to be constrained, in ways that Cameron was not.  He is a black man in a society where many people believe that the mere fact of his blackness makes him unsuitable to lead the country.  His aim is to do his best to dispel that prejudice by doing nothing that might substantiate it.   And, for better or for worse, he believed that taking a public stand in solidarity with Michael Brown and his family (or with Eric Garner’s family earlier this week), would have fueled the perception that he represented the interests, and only the interests, of black America.

In some ways – and I say this with all due recognition to the vast moral differences that separated the Ferguson and Brooklyn grand jury trials from the abandoned Crown prosecution case against the communist editor J.R. Campbell in 1924 – Obama reminds me of Ramsay MacDonald. (Caveat: if you don’t have a taste for potentially specious moral analogizing, stop reading now.)

Many of his contemporaries on the British left, including my pet left-radical Ellen Wilkinson, thought that Ramsay MacDonald was an ineffectual prime minister.  He led too cautiously, too gradually.  He did not stand up for the people who had elected him.  He did not advocate for the immediate revolution of the British class system. He was a white man’s Uncle Tom, adopting court dress, and apologizing for his colleagues’ inexperience of parliamentary practice.  During the 1926 general strike, and again in the face of the 1931 debt crisis, he failed to stand by his party and his class.

MacDonald was a disappointment to many, even before the “great betrayal” of 1931.  This was not, however, because he was not sincerely committed to the British working class. As an early member of the ILP and the founder of the Labour Party, he had given his life to working-class politics, and he never forgave his for supporters for failing to realize that he had always acted in their best interests (or so he believed).  But MacDonald was hamstrung by his desire to prove that Labour could be an effective party of government.  The British constitution would be safe in Labour’s hands. If elected, the party would not be merely a “sectional” faction, but could govern in the interests of the entire nation.  And an illegitimate son of a Scottish agricultural labourer could serve as the king’s first minister as effectively as the son of a duke.

MacDonald needed to prove Labour wasn’t only on the workers’ team (1923 General Election poster)

MacDonald needed to prove Labour wasn’t only on the workers’ team (1923 General Election poster)

MacDonald’s moderate gradualist strategy was arguably effective in allowing Labour, in a few short decades, to displace the Liberals as the second party of the state.  But it also hamstrung him.  Thus, when the Attorney-General, Sir Patrick Hastings, came to him in August 1924 to ask how he should proceed with the case against Campbell, the temporary editor of the Communist Workers’ Weekly, who had been detained under the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797 for publishing an article that allegedly incited mutiny by discouraging troops from taking arms against striking workers, MacDonald saw the issue not in terms of the protections of the workers from state violence, but in terms of the political protection of the Labour ministry from accusations of partisanship or unconstitutionality.  Although he knew that many in his party agreed with the Workers’ Weekly’ s artice and that the actual evidence against Campbell was weak (he was the acting editor and had not written the piece), he hesitated to withdraw the case.  When the government did ultimately abandon the prosecution, he quietly resigned his ministry rather than allow the issue to mushroom into an even larger scandal.  And despite a vicious campaign by Labour’s opponents to brand the party as a threat to the British constitution, twenty-one year’s later, a majority Labour government would be in office, albeit in this instance one led by an Oxford alumnus.

MacDonald may deserve a credit for making the Labour party respectable, but so doing, many of his supporters would argue that he betrayed the very people and principles that put him in office.  If, in twenty year’s time, the idea of a black man in the Oval Office has ceased to be as incendiary as many Americans still currently perceive it to be, Obama will have a lot of the credit.  But in the meantime, he may end up leaving many of those who came out in force to elect him in 2008 feeling abandoned and betrayed.