‘We the peoples’ and ‘the greatest cause of all’

Jamie Perry

Jamie Perry

Jamie Perry just completed his PhD on the United Nations Association, Chatham House and liberal internationalism in postwar Britain. You can contact him on j.perry@bham.ac.uk


Saturday was United Nations Day. It was a special one too. It was the 70th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Charter. The Charter is a fascinating text and no dusty diplomatic document to be dismissed. It articulates a bold internationalist communitarian vision: to confront war, poverty, famine, ignorance, disease, economic instability, inequality, unemployment, discrimination and oppression. These endeavours would be soon elaborated upon in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later the UN would also put its hand to environmental issues.

It’s quite a to-do list. Little wonder then why Britain’s United Nations Association (UNA), the successor to the League of Nations Union (LNU), referred to the UN’s project as ‘The Greatest Cause of All’. There’s even another dimension to the UN’s breadth of ambition that relates to the mobilisation behind this cause. The Preamble to the Charter, drafted by the British historian Charles Webster, begins: ‘We the peoples’. Contrast this with the League of Nations Covenant that begins: ‘The high contracting parties’.

So Saturday was United Nations Day. But how many of us among ‘We the peoples’ (all 7 billion of us) marked this occasion or were even aware of its existence? At least in Britain, I suspect that the answer was not many.

It has not always been thus. UNA, which organised the majority of UN Day activities in Britain, was a far more successful organisation than the scholarly record (or lack of it) implies. It had tens of thousands of members and hundreds of branches dotted around the UK.

For the first UN Day in 1946 (at least the first one that was on the 24th October, rather than the 14 June – it’s a long story), over 1,500 events were organised all around the country. UNA were assisted by the three main political parties, trade unions, the BBC, over 20 women’s organisations and many other national and local societies.

600,000 colour leaflets featuring a cartoon specially drawn by David Low emblazoned with the words ‘Keep the War Won’ were distributed. 40,000 orders of service prepared by the British Council of Churches were circulated and a five minute trailer produced by Britain’s leading film magnate Arthur Rank was shown in 540 cinemas. Special displays adorned shops, UN flags were raised ceremonially above town halls, and there were many, many rallies including one in Leicester where 3,000 women, representing 46 women’s organisations, pledged themselves to support the UN Charter.

1946 UNA leaflet with David Low cartoon. Trades Union Congress Archive at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.292/921.9/1.

1946 UNA leaflet with David Low cartoon. Trades Union Congress Archive at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.292/921.9/1.

These efforts and many others during the decade (such as this and this and indeed the founding of the United Nations Student Association at a conference hosted by the University of Birmingham) made a significant contribution to the UNA’s membership that stood at over 80,000 in the 1940s.

However, this proved to be the UNA’s honeymoon period. UNA activists soon complained of encountering on British doorsteps cynicism, materialistic fatalism and an apathy born of frustration.

Amid Cold War power politics, decolonisation and declining deference to elites (whether domestic or international), typical postwar criticisms of the UN related to the failure of the League of Nations; that it was dominated by (depending on political persuasion) the USA or USSR; that it threatened British sovereignty – ‘look what it has done to break up the British Empire!’; that universal values did not equate with British values; that nuclear weaponry had made a mockery of it; that the individual citizen could not make any difference. Mass Observation research pointed to similar findings.

 UNA newspaper New World. Refers to Khrushchev’s alleged shoe-banging at the UN. UNA Archives at LSE Special Collections, UNA 25/2/2. Copyright United Nations Association – UK.

UNA newspaper New World. Refers to Khrushchev’s alleged shoe-banging at the UN. UNA Archives at LSE Special Collections, UNA 25/2/2. Copyright United Nations Association – UK.

By 1970, the 25th anniversary of the UN, the BBC was pleased to drop what little remained of its traditional UN Day coverage. The BBC and other media outlets believed that there was simply too little demand for information on the UN and international politics, unless it immediately affected Britain. If UNA membership was anything to go by, perhaps they were right. Membership gradually declined over the postwar period, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1989 it amounted to about 11,000.

Was this the end of British internationalism? In 1931, the LNU had 406,868 members. In 1934/5 it organised 11 million people to take part in the Peace Ballot. In postwar Britain, were people less interested in what was going on beyond their borders?

Of course not. At least not necessarily any less than they had been in the past. Just look to new social movements (such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) or the Anti-Apartheid Movement) and the popularity of humanitarian causes. However, what is apparent is that political internationalism (that which advocated international organisation) became a more recessive theme in British internationalism.

UNA looked on with envy at the ability of new social movements to attract attention, particularly CND. Yet they worried that CND’s advocacy of unilateral (as opposed to multilateral) disarmament effectively bypassed the UN and had little grounding in the realities of international politics.

They believed that CND had inflated British influence and its ability to take moral leadership among non-aligned nations, many of which had just struggled for independence from Britain. Worse, bringing imbalance to the nuclear stalemate was understood to make nuclear war more likely, the devastation of which had no respect for artificial borders however neutral those behind them professed to be.

Similarly, UNA was fully aware of the popularity of humanitarianism in Britain. Indeed it was/is very active in this arena itself. UNA helped coordinate the response of British state and non-state actors to UN initiatives, such as the Freedom from Hunger Campaign and the UN Development Decade.

Nevertheless, there were concerns within UNA that such work distracted from the Association’s true purpose to promote international cooperation and organisation. The suffragette and former Chair of UNA, Kathleen Courtney worried in the 1960s that too often donations to humanitarian causes represented an escapism of an affluent society. Britons were giving money but were they giving thought to the causes of the ills they wished to alleviate?

Courtney believed that treating the disease of international inequality, and not just the symptoms, required political internationalism. If the UN project was to be ‘the greatest cause of all’, then it needed ‘we the peoples’ to push our governments to make more active use of it and encourage them to deal with these issues, rather than leaving it to the UN infrastructure and NGOs alone.

On the 70th anniversary, while UNA-UK still champions the work and aims of the UN, we should remember that the UN has achieved much and yet is too easily taken for granted. Perhaps we in Britain should also remember the concerns and experiences of UNA, especially as we shall soon face a referendum on Britain’s membership of another political internationalist project, European integration.

In our still globalising world, the big problems (that Britons are by no means sheltered from) are often international and they require international – likely at times supranational – solutions. That is not to say that such bodies require or deserve our unquestioning loyalty. But where there are flaws, reform (big and small) is highly unlikely to be achieved through neglect or withdrawal. And it behoves those who advocate withdrawal or ignore such projects, both on the left and the right, to formulate practical and sustainable alternatives as to how their vision of a Great Britain can still play an effective role in great causes.

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Sticking the boot into charity

Matthew Hilton

Matthew Hilton

Charities are under assault. While many of us thought the Big Society was incoherent and full of empty rhetoric, in reality it ushered in one of the most sustained attacks on charities since legislation regulating their actions was first introduced in 1601.

First, the assault was verbal. The government’s notion of charity was small-scale, local and service oriented. Its ‘Big Society tsar’, Lord Wei, dismissed the big charities as ‘bureaucratic and unresponsive’ to citizens. Then came the cuts. By 2012/3, charities had experienced a fall in their income from government of £1.9 billion from its peak in 2009/10. The government’s own preferred smaller charities here were hardest hit, as local authorities could no longer contract them to provide essential services. Ironically, those charities operating in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath, the inspiration for the Big Society, shared the pain of these cutbacks.

Put on the defensive and struggling to respond to massive operational changes, the government then worked to shut them up. The Lobbying Act of 2014 severely curtailed the ability of charities to campaign on ‘political’ issues. Charities have always been advocates as well as providers for their clients, but the government sought to terminate this historical role. The onslaught has continued from many fronts. Changes in the regulations relating to tax relief has brought further scrutiny, and the Charity Commissioners have toughened their oversight of the sector as a whole.

In July of this year, the Daily Mail escalated the condemnation of charity when it reported that Olive Cooke, a 92-year old poppy-seller, had killed herself after becoming so distraught at the number of cold calls made by aggressive charitable fundraisers. The government saw a further opportunity to damage the sector. Over the summer, Sir Stuart Etherington, head of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, was appointed to lead a review into the regulation of charitable fundraising. It reported in September. The government has accepted all of its findings and legislation is now working its way through parliament to restrict and restrain charitable action.

Last week, I joined a roundtable of charity officials to discuss the future of charities amidst this more hostile environment. To some extent, the sector can look to comfort from history. This is because accusations of financial malpractice, high salaries and administration costs and aggressive fundraising techniques have perennially been leveled at charities, from the 19th century onwards. Despite this, however, we have maintained our faith in charities, aid fatigue has not set in and we have continued to be a nation of givers. Kids Company is not just an exception. It is light years away from the norm.

But the combination of press exposés with sustained government attack is something new and significant. What is most remarkable about the recent discussions about charity is how the language that used to be associated with other organisations is now attached to charity. Responding to charges of aggressive fundraising Etherington wrote of ‘the right to be left alone.’ That seems a fair point. But the efforts of chuggers in the street or cold callers in our homes are but nothing when compared to the invasion of our private lives by advertisers, marketers, ambulance-chasing lawyers and PPI parasites. How have we let long-standing debates about protection from selling come to be associated with charity and not commerce?

Stuart Etherington

Stuart Etherington

Likewise, Etherington wrote of the need ‘to maintain public trust in charities. But the truth is that it is consistently charities and the voluntary sector that the public trusts above so many other types of organisation. There is a crisis of trust in British public life. Levels of trust in politicians has been declining for years and levels of trust in banks is catastrophically low. How is it that the terms of public debate have been allowed to become so warped that it is charities and not the government that has to respond to charges of a lack of trust?

In the past, the charitable sector has been remarkably effective at articulating its own role, function, diversity, effectiveness and relationship to social welfare, public life, democracy and governance. From the Charity Organisation Society in the 1870s through to William Beveridge in 1948 and beyond, the purpose of voluntary action has been set out by charities and their champions.

Yet in the massive expansion of government funding of charities in the decade prior to 2010 a certainly complacency set in. In the rush to expand, charities did not reflect sufficiently well on their position in relation to state and society. Now that these funds are being withdrawn, the sector finds that it no longer has the language to articulate a defence of its purpose. Instead, the agenda is being set elsewhere – from advocates of social enterprise to the cynical utopians espousing a spurious ideology of philanthrocapitalism.

Charity needs to be able to sidestep the accusations thrown against it, set out what it does on its own terms and ensure that debates about privacy and trust are directed towards other institutions which have far greater problems in these regards. I am not an unreflecting champion of charity myself. In my work on international aid, I think there are some deeply problematic aspects of the extent and range of charitable activity in tackling global poverty. But if I can form an opinion on the proper role of charity in the past then charities themselves ought to be able to do it for the present.

Again, they could do well to look to history to draw out the remarkable consistencies that are apparent in their work. They have always had a place in the mixed economy of welfare. They can point to much good achieved through their campaigning as much as their service provision. Diversity has always been the base of their strength and adaptability. They have long been the trusted expert representative of their clients and the wider public, their professiNCVOonalism and commitment holding in check the power of other unelected experts.

Etherington’s own organisation, the NCVO, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019. Perhaps the lead up to this significant date will provide an opportunity to reflect more widely on charity’s role and purpose. If charities do not, then they may continue to responds only to the definitions imposed by others. Undoubtedly there will be another big idea soon that seeks to define the sector. Any institution should surely try to dominate and construct the language within which it is debated and operates. But will the NCVO, the main organisation representing the voluntary sector, be able to ensure that charities contribute to their own definition? Or will they remain the pawns in another, more powerful, player’s frequently underhand game?

The Politics of Expertise

The Politics of Expertise

The Irish Village of Ballymaclinton

Shahmima Akhtar

Shahmima Akhtar

Shahmima Akhtar is a PhD student researching Commercial Exhibitions of the Irish in World Fairs’ in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries in Britain and the US. This blog looks at an iconic Irish Village: “Ballymaclinton”, repeatedly exhibited at World Fairs’.


“Ballymaclinton” was an Irish village, repeatedly exhibited for seventeen years from 1907 to 1924 in various national and international exhibitions. The display of Ballymaclinton fits within a wider context of the exhibition of peoples and places that reached its height in the twentieth century. Exhibitions were alternatively used for commercial purposes, anthropological interest or at its apex as powerful displays of a country’s industrial and economic progress.

Arguably as magnificent displays of a country’s achievement, those that were exhibited became crucial proponents of particular, idiosyncratic narratives.

The British exhibition of the Irish often became a popular means of reinforcing colonial hierarchies, asserting the metropolitan’s core of control and justifying its imperial domination. However, the Irish exhibition of the Irish, complicates this neat understanding of power relations personified on the world stage.

Brown and Son Soap Company of County Tyrone, conceived of Ballymaclinton as a sort of Irish utopia. It epitomised everything Ireland could be. Replete with displays of Irish progress, Irish industrial achievements, Irish art and architecture, Ballymaclinton offered a striking alternative to racist and derogatory British arguments as to why Ireland had to be ‘colonised for its own sake’.

Within this constructed fantasy of an idealised Ireland, exhibited Irish women (colleens) played a crucial but often undervalued role. They ‘sold’ the idea of a prosperous, innovative, ‘new’ Ireland in the twentieth century. The colleens numbered from 200 to 250 at various exhibitions. They called home the exhibition grounds during its six-month seasons, living and working; offering a performative display of traditional ‘Irishness’.

Brown and Son Company used the colleens to demonstrate the utility of their soap. Its crowning achievement being to ‘whiten skin’. The Irish, already white in appearance, further had to scrub themselves ‘whiter’.

This peculiar project speaks to a whole host of happenings in the twentieth century that can be traced as far back as the 1600s. The Irish were ostensibly attempting to challenge racist British imperial stereotypes of the Irish as dirty, diseased, and lazy. These negative tropes manifested in a conceptual darkening of the Irish. They had to be washed clean. The evolution of dark skin to white becoming the raison d’etre of imperial British soap companies. Indigenous groups could join the march of civilisation by washing themselves white.

Clearly then, what on the face of it, seems like an ordinary Irish village, ordained with a blarney stone, a clock tower, a church, a herd of pigs and cows, reveals an immense amount about twentieth century Britain and Ireland and the discriminatory narratives they were operating within.


Collaborating to co-produce historical research

Kate Smith

Kate Smith

Palgrave Macmillan recently published New Paths to Public Histories, a volume of essays co-edited by Professor Margot Finn (UCL History) and myself. Publication was met with a flurry of excited emails from contributors engaged in the volume and the wider project of the East India Company at Home, 1757-1857, which had been based at Warwick University and then UCL between 2011 and 2014.

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the project re-examined the British country house within imperial and global contexts. It explored the ways in which East India Company families and officials, as well as the commodities they traded, came to shape the material culture and built environments of country houses in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain.

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Key to the project was working with a variety of other researchers to extend its scope and reach. The core project team of Margot Finn (Principal Investigator), Helen Clifford (Part-Time Research Fellow), Ellen Filor (PhD Student) and myself (Full-Time Research Fellow) was joined by other academics (such as Joanna de Groot, York and Viccy Coltman, Edinburgh) archivists (such as Margaret Makepeace, British Library and Keith Sweetmore, North Yorkshire County Record Office and The National Archives), curators and museum professionals (such as Claire Reed, National Trust, Sue Stronge, V&A and Sarah Longair, British Museum), local historians (such as Georgina Green), family historians (such as Penelope Farmer, David Williams and Sir John Sykes) and heritage sector professionals (such as Rachael Barnwell, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales).

These other researchers provided not only advice and insightful comments within the early stages of the project, but also generously wrote case studies and shared their knowledge and source collections. By the end of the project, the core team was enriched by the knowledge and resources offered by over 300 project associates, many of who joined us for our end-of-project conference in July 2014.

Working across different disciplines, sectors and interests raised distinct questions about the how, why, when and where of collaborative research. New Paths to Public Histories provided an opportunity for capturing the many conversations that began during the project about these ways of working.

The volume features a lengthy introduction written by Margot Finn and myself entitled ‘Different histories: relationships between family, local, public and global histories’ that discusses the benefits and challenges of collaboration and co-production and will be really useful for anyone seeking to work across sectors with other researchers. The volume also includes four distinct chapters, each co-written by different individuals involved in the East India Company at Home project.

The first, co-authored by Helen Clifford and Keith Sweetmore (now Engagement Manager for North Region, The National Archives) and entitled ‘From Competition to Collaboration: Local Record Office and University Archives, and the Country House’, explores the historical development of archives held in record offices, universities and country houses. It shows how connections between personnel, skills and documents in these sites have shaped research practice, often fostering dynamic relationships between different collections and institutions. It ends by questioning the future problems that might limit connections and collaborations between archives, universities and diverse research communities.

The second, co-authored by Claire Reed (now Curator for London and South East Region, National Trust) and myself and entitled ‘Collaborating Across Heritage and Higher Education to Reveal the Global History of Osterley Park House’, examines the benefits and challenges of sharing expertise, resources and knowledge across different sectors and communities. The chapter demonstrates the multiple issues at stake in exploring global histories in local contexts and the importance of relationships in completing such work.

The third, co-authored by Georgina Green (Local historian) and Margaret Makepeace (Lead Curator for the East India Company Archives, British Library) and entitled ‘Creating Collaboration: Accessing the Archive’, looks to the many different forms of collaboration that take place in research practice. Reflecting on the projects undertaken by local and family historians, it shows how and when researchers engage with and access archives and the opportunities and limitations they encounter.

Finally, the fourth chapter, co-authored by Ellen Filor (now postdoctoral fellow UCL) and Jan Sibthorpe (Design historian) and entitled ‘Outside the Public: The Histories of Sezincote and Prestonfield in Private Hands’, challenges the notion of the ‘public’ by looking to country houses owned by businesses or private families. It explores the histories that are constructed and delivered by individuals often with commercial interests in mind and demonstrates the important, but often difficult, role such sites play in producing historical knowledge.

Together these chapters and the volume as a whole demonstrates and analyses the multiple collaborations all researchers are involved with when they enter archives, contact others, attend conferences and visit museums. In an age of endless communication the lone scholar model appears defunct. How and why then should we embark on (and recognize) collaboration and what are the practical, financial, ethical and intellectual issues involved in doing so? We hope you enjoy reading it and look forward to continuing the conversation still further.

Chile Solidarity FC, 1977

Welcome back to the MBS Blog. Over the past year we have shared many different posts on many important subjects. Amongst other things, these covered community history within Birmingham, media appearances, archival discoveries, university collections, contemporary events, new modules associated with the MA in Modern British Studies, the challenges facing emerging scholars, and highlighted new research projects of MBS members.

During the summer we were delighted to share responses to the Modern British Studies Conference held in July and I urge you all to take a look at these if you have not already.

To start the new academic year, however, this blog entry will not do anything so worthy. In fact, more indulgently, I am using it to write about a picture I found in an archive this summer.

As a historian interested in the evolution of human rights, I have  been researching campaigning from Britain against the Chilean junta of Augusto Pinochet. These campaigns were part of a movement and moment which increased the saliency of human rights politics during the 1970s.

The archives offered many different discoveries; some of which won’t necessarily feature in the publication generated by the research. So I thought I would use this post to share material which did not quite add to the arguments of a distinct article or contained material that might be used in future projects.

An example of the former was the efforts by unionized telecommunications technicians to block the transmission of the Eurovision song contest to Chile in 1975. Members of the junta were, no doubt, upset to have missed out on Ding-a-Dong the Netherlands’ winning entry from that year. In case you missed it as well, here it is:

As for the latter, I also discovered that this house, which I pretty much pass on my commute to work, is one of a number close to the University of Birmingham which housed families of Chilean refugees in Selly Oak, Birmingham. I hope to write some more about this in the coming year.

Gleave Road, Selly Oak

Gleave Road, Selly Oak

In addition to these, one item stood out in the papers of the Chile Solidarity Campaign (CSC). It was this photo.

Solidarity FC

Solidarity FC, 1977

Sent from a small town in the South of England, two members of a local football team attached their photo to a letter explaining their opposition to Pinochet. The 25 year old men offered three typical explanations for solidarity with Chile. This was political – they were ‘politically aware and anxious to assist the Chile Solidarity Campaign’. This was cultural; their interest was encouraged by Chilean concerts raising money for the children of the ‘disappeared’. This was humanitarian; the CSC was thanked for its ‘help and humanity for others’.

Similar explanations for engagement are common in the archives of these campaigns, but this particular letter included a less usual request. As it explained, the note was written ‘to find out if there are two Chilean females who would care to correspond or meet two left-oriented males for friendship’. The enclosed picture was for the benefit of ‘any Chilean lady (or ladies) who might be interested’.

The photo and letter got me thinking, once more, about the relationship between politics and emotion – one of the many discussions which took place at the MBS conference (in particular see Charlotte Greenhalgh, Stephen Brooke, and Rhodri Hayward). It might be tempting to cast these two activists into a narrative stressing a sometimes problematic, misjudged romantic gaze of the humanitarian activist. Here, the politics of solidarity – about which Lucy Robinson blogged about in response to the recent Conference on Rethinking Contemporary British Political History at Queen Mary’s University of London – becomes slippier still.

But if the footballers’ letter lacked finesse, it is also a reminder that politics often fused with, or served as, a platform, an opportunity, or even an excuse, to meet girls or boys with shared concerns and interests. Those of us that have spent time researching and writing about social movements, NGOs, and voluntary associations could doubtless muster countless examples of activism constructed around, and informed by, the intimate relationships of those involved.

While the motivations of those circled in the photo do not, perhaps, appear entirely wholesome, the letter also hints at the isolation of young, left-wing men, in a ferry town, in a solid Conservative constituency in England in the late 1970s. The letter concludes, ‘I hope that this request for Chilean friendship is not imposing on your goodwill but our geographical position isolates us and we’re desperate for contact’. If there is a slight leeriness in tone there is also a loneliness of sentiment, which should not escape our attention.

Solidarity therefore is revealed as a tricky subject, difficult to unpack. As the wider research shows, ‘solidarity’ as a phrase might have been used by opposition to Pinochet, but it is easy enough to find businesses, activists, companies, traders, politicians, diplomats, and military personnel offering a form of ‘solidarity’ to support a junta responsible for deaths and disappearances of hundreds of thousands. As Lucy points out, ‘we better sort out our solidarity’. This is clearly a valuable undertaking, politically and historically, but as the letter from the footballers and the multiple different actors engaging with Chile might suggest, it will not be straightforward.