MBS 2017: New researchers and the future of Modern British Studies

cfp imageWe are currently planning another half-day workshop for postgraduates and early career researchers as part of our preparations for the 2017 Modern British Studies conference. Based on the positive feedback we received from the PG/ECR session at MBS 2015, we know that this time was valuable to our community and that much of it helped frame subsequent conference discussions on academic labour. However, we are not sure it achieved all that it set out to do.

In 2015, we aimed to continue the conversation we began in Working Paper Two about how the conditions of academic labour (both in terms of physical and emotional toil) impact the histories we write. Given that there are simply not enough jobs in academia for all of us, it is not surprising that most of the 2015 workshop centred on our uncertain futures. However, despite the anxiety that these challenging conditions create, we cannot allow discussions between PGs and ECRs to always collapse into group therapy sessions. While emotional support and affective networks are vital, we are missing a trick if we do not use our time together to talk productively about what our place of precarity means for the future of our discipline.

We have so far failed to talk at length about the intellectual implications of negotiating a challenging job market. Papers at our recent PG/ECR workshop Seeking Legitimacy explored how impact agendas, tough funding competition and short-term contracts alongside the pressures of researching, teaching and publishing have implications on the intellectual and historical choices we make. Ben Mechen, in a paper on the legitimacy of writing the history of pornography, reflected on how his subject matter may be considered sordid, frivolous or even offensive to some funding/employment panels, while others may find it innovative or engaging. Should the job-seeking researcher play it safe and tick the boxes to land a permanent position? Or should we take risks and write the history our subjects deserve?

This is not to say that we should stop talking about the way these pressures affect our health and wellbeing. They need to continue. But debates about the intellectual implications of our patterns of labour may emphasise the structural causes of poor mental health in academia. The rhetoric around mental health support aimed at postgraduates (in our institution at least) revolves around coping strategies rather than examining the structural causes. The onus is therefore on PGs and ECRs to discuss their own problems and to find their own solutions.

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This is why we want to make exploring the relationship between academic labour and the histories we produce part of the agenda at MBS 2017. However, we remain unsure as to whether our PG and ECR workshop is the best place for this dialogue. Indeed, the spatial dimensions and divisions particularly concern us. We have been working hard in MBS to resist hierarchical structures. Restricting these conversations to new researchers potentially reinforces damaging hierarches and ensures that we miss out on the insights of more senior staff. While a distinct platform may help us feel confident in speaking openly amongst our peers, we cannot help but feel troubled that a separate space may now be a pre-requisite for new researchers to say difficult things.

Moreover, only having these discussions amongst ourselves implies that our community has to find a solution, just as we are responsible for our own mental health and wellbeing. This is not only a huge burden, but requires access to networks that we are not yet part of. Although many commented on the way the postgraduate workshop at MBS 2015 spilled over into the conference ‘proper’, this in itself is problematic. While we were delighted that we helped to frame MBS 2015, it was certainly not the two-way conversation we would have liked. Instead, the academic community were able to pick up on some of the tropes of our broader points without fully engaging with us or our debates.

Segregation also prevents us from sharing knowledge that comes from our unique vantage point. For example, we are the first generation of historians who have been encouraged from the start of our training to engage with other disciplines. Some of us who are funded by Doctoral Training Partnerships regularly meet with students from other disciplines via this network. Similarly, those of us who share offices with other schools and colleges are keenly aware of the value of speaking with non-historians. If MBS 2017 is going to focus on questions of cross-disciplinarity, surely we should be part of that conversation – from the centre and not from the edges!

What’s more, although fear of interview-and-funding-panels-to-be loom over our imaginations, Seeking Legitimacy demonstrated that our creativity has not been completely stifled. We are tackling challenging and exciting subject matter and are using interdisciplinary methodologies in our interventions. This is not history à la mode but a way of innovating from the margins. At MBS 2015 it was repeatedly noted that new researchers are doing some of the most exciting work. This can only reinforce the value of our voice in the debate about what Modern British history is and where it should go next.  We hope that it will become part of the norm to discuss our subjects in more reflexive ways, to be transparent about our privileges and to be open about the context in which our work has been produced.

Precisely because the material conditions of labour determine our intellectual outputs, a conference that does not locate new researchers at the centre of discussions cannot claim to fully engage with the intellectual shape of our discipline.  Our precarity should not just be a point of entry for a conversation about the neo-liberal university. Rather, the very future of our discipline is at stake.

Ruth Lindley & Laura Sefton

 

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Accumulating Objects

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Howard Carlton

Howard Carlton is a doctoral researcher in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham. This is one of a series of blogs on Display Cabinets and Hidden Histories. For more see contributions by Matt Houlbrook, Chloe Ward, Kate Smith, Donna Taylor and Shahmima Akhtar.

Do you have a display cabinet or case in your family? If so, we would love to learn more about it — to see your hidden objects and hear the stories you have to tell. Please feel free to share your stories through the comments section on this blog.


I find myself in some difficulty when approaching the task of writing about display cabinets as we don’t have one.  Neither did my parents or my wife’s parents.  The meaning of this absence of exhibition is something I shall return to.  In the meantime, however, I should point out that our house nonetheless contains a variety of objets d’art and bric-à-brac.  Or, in other words, an accumulation of objects which their original owners might have thought to be valuable antiques, but are in fact generally not.

Perhaps the closest thing to a display cabinet is the triangular corner cupboard which is indeed an antique but which had first to be carefully restored by my Devonian father in law Jack.  This is where he kept, amongst other things, the glass and bottle of whisky which formed the basis of his “nightcap”; a substantial draught which took the place of a forbidden (in his own mind) trip to the local pub.  It is one of a number of specimens of his handiwork which can be found around the house, including wood carvings and a long-case clock built to accommodate an old movement originally manufactured in Dudley, which he felt appropriate to our midland location.

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IMG_2248Jack’s parents were an agricultural labourer and a domestic servant.  They lived in a ‘picture postcard’ thatched cottage which, whilst it has to us resonances of summer holidays and clotted cream, was in fact a combination of hand-built cob walls and high maintenance thatched roofs which often housed rats and other fellow travellers of the human race.  The occupants of this basic accommodation also ‘enjoyed’ a fairly low standard of living.  An Edwardian farm worker’s lunch consisted mainly of bread, cheese and very occasional (and very fatty) bacon.  Jack’s dad would return four days out of five with the cheese uneaten, claiming that he hadn’t been hungry; his contribution to the modest household economy.

Jack was fortunate in a number of ways.  He was born in 1915 and thus lived through most of a century during which, in his words, “saw amazing advances in science and technology”.  The first instance he would cite was the motor car; a sight so rare in rural 1920s Devon that children would run across the fields to see one at first hand.  He was also fortunate, compared with generations of his forefathers, in the availability of an education which included subjects like the sciences and woodwork in addition to the traditional three ‘Rs’.  As an only child and therefore having no siblings, his mother was able to devote sufficient of the family’s resources to keep him at school until he matriculated at the age of 16.  His third piece of luck was the outbreak of World War 2 which saw him initially doing his part to defeat Hitler by dint of his clerical efforts at the Army Pay Corps in Exeter.  There his potential was spotted by his officer and he was sent for training and redeployment to a then very secretive manor house called Bletchley Park.  There his nascent academic abilities were combined with wood-working and craft skills which enabled him to manufacture sophisticated radio sets disguised as everyday objects (such as sewing machines or briefcases) which accompanied Special Operations Executive agents on their missions into occupied France.

The war was also a period of social dislocation and mobility; in Jack’s case the outcome of this dynamic period was courtship and marriage to a girl called Pearl.  She, despite also having roots in the west country, had been raised as a middle class Anglo-Indian; her childhood alternated between a large house with servants located on the hot dusty plain and term-time spent at a boarding school in the mountain station of Simla.  In the vernacular of the period it was clear that Jack had married above himself.  He thus took (we assume unconscious) advantage of both of the available routes out of the labouring class which were not generally available to his predecessors in their picturesque but primitive cottages.

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Jack in due course became the manager at the local feed mill where he had worked before the warWhilst he had achieved a desirable, to him, state of middle-classness, there is little doubt that Pearl in due course chafed somewhat at the constraints of a petit-bourgeois life in a small rural community where she lacked social peers.  As the boss’s wife she was expected (particularly by him) not to work so, like many of her contemporaries, she sublimated some of her energies into the self-improvement and social intercourse offered by the Women’s Institute.  Jack also felt it incumbent on him to mark a social distance between himself and his workforce; hence the avoidance of the local pub and his perceived stand-offishness when dealing with other village residents.  He devoted his spare time instead to the exercise of his practical abilities.  Hence the wood-carving and antique restoration projects which he carried out in his work-shop; a safe haven from the difficulties of dealing with other people including, at times, his own family.

Objects which he created and restored or possessions bought, such as Pearl’s small collection of Mason’s Ironstone with its distinctive hard red and blue glazes, were not, however, to be installed in a display cabinet.  That would presumably have been an example of ostentatiousness; a trait to be avoided as he distanced himself from his humble origins and marked his climb to relative success.  Paintings on the other hand, were valid collectibles for the upwardly mobile and considered desirable both for their aesthetic qualities and their value as tangible assets.  They were purchased with care, due to their relatively high cost, and then openly displayed and discussed with visitors.  Art is ostentation in acceptable form for the bourgeoisie.  Paintings were also objects, like ceramics, carvings, fresh flowers and de-personalised craft items, which could be carefully arranged in relation to the containing space in such a way as to create a pleasing whole; another symptom of aspiration constrained by ‘taste’.

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We don’t have a display cabinet.  Neither did my parents.  Time and space do not permit an examination of the somewhat parallel class transition made by own family from being the offspring of Irish immigrants and girls in service to the world of academia; education being a key theme in both narrative arcs.  Another meme common to both families was the erasure of almost all traces of regional dialect and an assumption that Received Pronunciation was a desirable marker which would allow them to claim a position further up the social scale.  And of course one wouldn’t keep sentimental (also read as cheap) memorabilia in a display cabinet like one’s parents.  Especially if, like my father, you had been inducted into a fairly ascetic form of Protestantism which saw little or no value in the display of non-functional artefacts. As a consequence of this religious fundamentalism and social distancing we have probably lost, or never possessed, items which would be of genuine interest to future generations; souvenirs of great events perhaps or the military memorabilia which would have enabled family stories to be relayed to succeeding generations.

Honouring Professor Catherine Hall

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Sadiah Qureshi

Modern British Studies at Birmingham is proud to announce that Professor Catherine Hall will be awarded an honorary degree by the University of Birmingham at a ceremony to be held this morning. We are especially pleased because Professor Hall’s career began at Birmingham and she has woven the city’s history into profoundly influential research on class, race and empire.

Professor Hall lived and worked in Birmingham during the 1960s and 1970s. This period was the heyday of the Centre for Cotemporary Cultural Studies and the emergence of a new awareness of the political dimensions of everyday life. For example, Hall was active in a women’s consciousness raising group that provided an important means of exploring how and why the ‘personal is political’. This afternoon she will be in conversation about her work and its groundings with our postgraduate students.

Hall’s most important research includes Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class 1780-1850 (1987), written with Leonore Davidoff, White, male and middle-class: explorations in feminism and history (1992), Civilising subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination, 1830-1867 (2002); Macaulay and son: architects of imperial Britain (2012) and a host of edited collections on race, gender, slavery, domesticity and imperial culture.

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Professor Hall spoke of her most recent research at the University of Birmingham’s inaugural Modern British Studies Conference in 2015. Her plenary drew from her leadership of the ESRC-funded project Legacies of British Slave Ownership (2004-12) and the new ESRC/AHRC funded project ‘The Structure and Significance of British-Caribbean Slave-Ownership, 1763-1833’ (2013-16). In 1833, the British Government paid £20 million in compensation to slave-owners when the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 was passed to end stop slavery in the Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. The slave trade had been ended in 1807 but emancipation did not follow for another 26 years. Even then, a scheme of apprenticeship was adopted that continued to make use of unfree labour.

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Both projects have traced the recipients of the compensation and have helped to establish the profound and lasting significance of slave-ownership to British society. The compensation paid would be around £16.5 billion pounds in today’s money. Following the money has revealed that it contributed to private wealth whilst flowing into industrial projects such as building railways and financing merchants and banks. One of the most important outputs is an Encyclopedia of British Slave-Owners that is publicly available online and allows users to search a database to see if their ancestor owned slaves. A two-part BBC documentary based on these findings, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, recently won a BAFTA.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is how beautifully it exemplifies that British history can begin with and incorporate conservative ground but quickly transcend the limitations of focusing on the elite, powerful, white, metropolitan and male. Thus, an established history of propertied men has been transformed into a considerably more nuanced account incorporating women and people of colour. Establishing deep continuities between earlier histories of slavery, the post-abolitionist state and the lasting impact of empire also offers rich opportunities to recast our understanding of how the nineteenth century ought to be incorporated into Modern British Studies. We must always keep in mind the distinctions, however finely graded, between master, servant and enslaved; between metropolis and colony; between man and woman; between being propertied and property; between labour and idleness; and across a spectrum of bodily differences such as complexion. Whether explicit or implicit such qualifications abound in the texts, images, material artefacts and soundscapes of both British and global history.

Professor Hall’s research has transformed our understanding of race, gender, class and empire within modern Britain. We are immensely pleased that University of Birmingham has chosen to recognise the value of her research and look forward to hosting the celebrations.

5-7 July: MBS 2017

cropped-mbs-logo-03.pngIt is just over a year since we hosted the Rethinking Modern British Studies conference in Birmingham. Now seems a good time to reflect on what #MBS2015 achieved. Now also seems a good time to think ahead about how we might build on the strengths and the limits of the ongoing conversation the conference prompted about the state of our field. It is on this basis that we invite you to come, once again, to Birmingham to continue this discussion in July 2017.

The response to the call for papers for Rethinking Modern British Studies went far beyond anything we expected. Bringing together around three hundred British historians over three days and four parallel sessions, the conference provided striking evidence of a vibrant and diverse field. What Charlotte Riley and James Vernon have described as ‘Glastonbury for historians’ provided a focal point for a genuinely open and collaborative conversation between scholars from across the world about modern British society, culture, politics, and economics. The result was exhilarating, challenging, and often bewildering.

#MBS2015 drew attention to the particular vitality of current work on histories of humanitarianism, race and empire, and the emotions. All of these were recurring and prominent themes at the conference and in the online debates that followed. So, too, were the important discussions about the conditions of academic labour and the position of PGR and ECR historians in the contemporary academy. It has been gratifying to realise the impact the conference has had. The sense of excitement that marked the event itself has been followed by continued social media discussions and more recent reflections including Charlotte Riley’s review in Twentieth Century British History, over twenty thoughtful blogs published on the Modern British Studies website, and subsequent academic gatherings in and beyond Birmingham.

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Much of the intellectual dynamism of the conference was driven by PGR and ECR historians. Their invigorating contributions to individual panels, plenary roundtables, and the discussions that took place in seminar rooms and on social media set out new ways of thinking about established historiographical and theoretical debates. The PGR and ECR sessions with which the conference began provided the impetus and buzz that ran through all three days. The vital role of our own PGRs and ECRs at #MBS2015 reflects their position within the centre itself. If the conference was a success, it was because we managed to find a format in which a diverse range of new voices could be heard.

We are committed to maintaining this kind of democratic public sphere. This means thinking carefully about how any future conference is organised and run. This also means providing the financial support necessary to ensure conference attendance is affordable and accessible. It is clear that our decision to make registration and refreshments at #MBS2015 free for PGR and ECR historians was vital to the event’s success. As difficult as this might be in the current university environment, this is something that we will do again in 2017.

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The past twelve months have also provided an opportunity to reflect on the limits of the discussions that began at #MBS2015 —the conversations that did not happen and the questions that went unanswered.

First: as Charlotte Riley, Margot Finn, and others have noted, despite the deliberate emphasis on British studies the conference was a gathering of modern British historians. Perhaps the intellectual challenges set out in a CFP written by scholars based in a history department did not resonate with those working in adjacent disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Perhaps the networks through which the CFP circulated did not extend beyond members of history departments in Britain and beyond. Whatever the reason, #MBS2015 did not interrogate the problems and possibilities of working across disciplines in order to understand society, culture, politics, and economics in modern Britain. This remains a pressing intellectual and political challenge.

Second: outside of the plenary sessions, many of the vibrant debates at #MBS2015 worked alongside rather than in dialogue with one another. Parallel thematic sessions created different intellectual streams that made it easy to attend mini-conferences — about humanitarianism and transnationalism or histories of the emotions and subjectivities, for example. While the conference aimed to bring together historians working on the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the balance was skewed towards the latter and it was possible to navigate the conference through specific temporalities. The conference structure allowed conversations to develop over the course of three days and demonstrated the vibrant and diverse state of the field. Yet it also made it difficult to bring different perspectives, preoccupations, and methodologies into sustained conversation.

Third: the success of the conference was also underpinned by the diverse and energetic conversations that took place on social media. These conversations fed directly into the plenary sessions and allowed important and democratic discussions to continue for weeks after the event. But Twitter in particular invites a congratulatory tone. What it now seems less good at is inviting sustained debate as to the relative importance of different specialisms or how they might challenge one another. The relationship between social media and the conference format demands further reflection.

Channeling our work into these historical silos carries intellectual and political costs. As satisfying as it is to celebrate the strengths of our particular field, in remaining within those confines we evade the challenges posed by engaging with scholars working in different ways on different topics. How might histories of emotion reorientate the preoccupations of historians of political economy — and vice versa? How might a foregrounding the environmental humanities, for example, offer us new ways of thinking about British studies? What can the sticking points between discrete fields reveal about the nature of histories of modern Britain?

In remaining within the confines of our particular fields, we also evade the most difficult questions about what our discipline is — and should be — at this particular historical conjuncture. As we enter a moment of genuine crisis, are some kinds of history more important than others? As the political, social, cultural, and economic effects of Brexit become increasingly manifest, should historians pay more attention to questions of inequality, power, and the global economy — all comparatively neglected at #MBS2015? When the role of the ‘expert’ in public life has been so spectacularly undermined, do we have to think again about who we are and what we do?

#MBS2015 was one part of what Stuart Hall might call an ‘unfinished conversation’. As we now look ahead, we want to continue that dialogue about the nature, status, and effects of our histories of modern Britain. On 5-7 July 2017 the Centre for Modern British Studies will host another three day conference in Birmingham. The call for papers will circulate at the start of October 2016. Although it might foreground many of the issues raised in this blog, we invite you now to suggest the questions that should be addressed in the second Rethinking Modern British Studies conference.


We have recordings of Stephen Brooke and James Vernon’s plenary lectures and the various responses of some of those attending the event available via this blog.

Thatcher’s Alive?!

Matthew Francis

Matthew Francis

A curious – though far from unimportant – subplot of the fallout from the EU referendum has been a debate over Thatcherism. While some writers have turned their attention to blaming Thatcherism for the Leave vote, others have, rather perversely, taken up the question of whether Thatcherism has a future.

Andy Beckett, writing in the Guardian, argues that Brexit might prompt a revival of Thatcherism, offering the space for an orgy of deregulation designed to benefit business. Beckett cites as evidence an email distributed by the Centre for Policy Studies within minutes of the Leave campaigning securing victory, which suggested that Brexit offered an opportunity to ‘to drive through a wide-ranging … revolution on a scale similar to that of the 1980s’. Brexit therefore promises to revive, or perhaps to unleash, elements of Thatcherism which have hitherto been held in check by membership of Europe.

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Margaret Thatcher’s Funeral, (Soultourist [CC/Flikr])

Eliza Filby, writing in… also the Guardian, argues, by contrast, that the referendum result has ‘finally closed the chapter’ on Thatcherism. Quite why this should be the case is never entirely clear. Filby argues that the supposed ‘Thatcherite v. One Nation’ division within the Conservative Party – which, as Filby observes, has declined in relevance since the early 1990s – has been killed off by a realignment around ‘Remain v. Leave’. (Some experienced Tory-watchers might note that the few remaining One Nation Conservatives almost unanimously backed Remain, and suggest by extension that the old distinctions are by no means as irrelevant as Filby implies.) Filby predicts that this will lead to the emergence of a ‘more robust’ One Nation tradition, which will seek to address the social cleavages which fed the Leave vote. The new Toryism will turn its attention to the post-industrial ‘heartlands’ which Thatcherism created and neglected.

So, is Thatcherism dead? Or revived? Or neither?

The problem with both Beckett’s and Filby’s analysis is that it treats Thatcherism as too monolithic, one-dimensional an edifice: an enormous ideological leviathan with a single heart and a single brain. The truth is more complex. Thatcherism, in common with other ideologies, is a complex and multifaceted creed, composed not of a single unified whole but of multiple overlapping discourses. While each of these discourses was active simultaneously during the Thatcherite high-water mark of the 1980s, it is not necessary for all of these discourses to be active for some form of Thatcherism survive. It is quite possible for some Thatcherite discourses (rolling back the state, markets, welfare reform) to thrive in contemporary Conservatism, while others (anti-permissiveness) lie largely dormant. Thatcherism, in this sense, is more like hydra, the many-headed serpent of Greek mythology: slicing off one head is no guarantee of killing the beast.

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‘I Still Hate Margaret Thatcher’ – black balloon, Thatcher protest, Trafalgar Square, London, 13 April 2013, (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr)

What is true is that the referendum and its aftermath have exposed – not for the first time – some of the contradictions between these discourses. Europe has long been a vexatious issue for Thatcherites because it embodies both what they desire and what they abhor. Thatcherism has, of course, always entailed a commitment to fee markets and to competition, and it was this commitment to the promotion which led many Thatcherites and proto-Thatcherites to endorse membership of the EEC in 1975 and the Single European Act of 1986. The entry into the EEC and the creation of the Single Market promised to extend market forces and to reinvigorate first the British and then the European economy. Membership of Europe was supposed to expose British firms to ever-greater competition from their rivals on the continent by the removal of barriers to trade, and thus drive up productivity and economic growth.

A concomitant commitment to deregulation and to ‘roll[ing] back the frontiers of the state’ is, however, less obviously compatible with membership of Europe. The purpose of the Single European Act, which gave life to the Single Market, was to eliminate non-tariff barriers to trade by extending policy cooperation and ensuring legislative harmonisation across Europe. If one consequence of this was the extension of market forces, another was the growth of legislation which emanated not from national parliaments but from European institutions, much of it concerning environmental protection and the regulation of labour markets. Membership of the Single Market thus entailed acceptance of many of the forms of regulatory intervention that the Thatcher governments had rejected, and as early as 1988 Thatcher could be heard complaining that the frontiers which she had ‘rolled back’ a Westminster was being ‘re-imposed’ from Brussels.

A further contradiction (albeit not one Thatcher herself could have foreseen) emerges between the commitment to markets and the Thatcherite commitment to the restriction of immigration. The same Single Market which extended market forces by allowing for freedom of movement for capital, goods, and services also made provision for the free movement of people. In the context of the mid-1980s, when the EEC was composed of just twelve states and the majority of migration to the UK came either from the ‘Anglosphere’ or from the Indian subcontinent, free markets and free movement appeared largely compatible with control of immigration. The UK’s immigrants, after all, mostly did not come from Europe. After the Fifth Enlargement of 2004, which saw the accession of many central and eastern European states, and the growth of migration to the UK from other EU states, free movement and control of immigration were less obviously compatible.

Brexit does not resolve these dilemmas, and may, in fact, force the next Conservative leader to choose which of these discourses should take priority by demanding that the Tory position on Europe assume a concrete reality. To sustain the commitment to extending market forces will almost certainly oblige the next Conservative leader to negotiate a Brexit package which preserves British membership of the Single Market (i.e. in the form of EEA membership, or the so-called ‘Norway option’) and therefore likely preserves much, if not all, European regulation and freedom of movement. To sustain a commitment to deregulation and restrictions on immigration will therefore, in all but the most fanciful scenarios, involve withdrawal from the Single Market and the loss of the opportunities and stimulus which the latter provides.

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Margaret Thatcher (RV1864 [CC/Flikr])

I have argued elsewhere that the divisions within the Conservative Party over Europe are far less absolute than is often supposed. The relationship which most Conservatives would like to have with Europe – inside or outside the European Union, inside or outside of the Single Market – would entail a continued commitment to free trade and free markets, while allowing the UK government greater control over (de)regulation and immigration. The noises emerging from the Conservative leadership contest suggest this is the deal which most of the contenders would like to reach. The reality is, inside or outside of Europe, that no such option exists. Something’s got to give.

Displays and Memories

Shahmima

Shahmima Akhtar

In the latest of a series of posts about the history of display cabinets Shahmima Akhtar, a doctoral researcher in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, follows on Matt Houlbrook, Kate Smith, Chloe Ward and Donna Taylor‘s earlier posts. You can find out more about Shahmima’s work here.

Do you have a display cabinet or case in your family? If so, we would love to learn more about it — to see your hidden objects and hear the stories you have to tell. Please feel free to share your stories through the comments section on this blog.


This is the story of a display cabinet that was. It has probably been over a decade since the entire house was painted magnolia and all the old furniture replaced with new. That is why there are few pictures in this story – most of the things have been thrown away, after a rummage through the house revealed.

The display cabinet was placed in my front room – my parents pride and joy. In it was displayed all of their treasures and trinkets. Everything they valued, from family photographs to precious crockery, important religious texts, and general nick-knacks that me and my sisters gathered over the years.

As I traverse my memory trying to remember what the display cabinet used to hold – a few things stick out for me.

My father was an avid charity shopper and the Church down the road was his favourite place on a Sunday. Coming back with what my mother called more ‘’rubbish’’.

One of my dad’s excursions led him to bring home a ceramic of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. I remember it vividly. A quaint white-washed house placed neatly in English countryside – with Peter Rabbit just on the outskirts of the 3-D model.

Strikingly, next to this, the display cabinet of light oak with patterned clear glass on its doors held a beautifully embossed Qur’an. Lovingly wrapped in velvet, the words of my parent’s faith was placed prominently on a rehal – a foldable wooden reading stand. Itself made of dark wood and decorated in intricate patterns. All of my sisters had one rehal each, our names inked into them by our dad once we were off the age to start mosque. Although this rehal was probably just a spare one, as ours at this point were being used daily in the local mosque that was someone’s living room after 5-6pm on weekdays.

Pride of place was also given to crockery – my parents were keen collectors of floral tableware. Proudly sitting next to each other was fine bone English china, that my parents had brought for my eldest sister’s wedding, which was only bought out on the fanciest occasions – almost never.

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And next to this was decorated tableware from Bangladesh, the place of my parent’s birth and what I imagine is perhaps my second home. These were made of melamine – popular in Bangladesh and also sturdy enough to withstand the almost five-thousand-mile journey to England. These were a nightmare to clean as they would stain so easily, so like the china, they were rarely moved from the display cabinet.

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Other items ranged from school achievement awards to gifts me and my sisters had amassed over our many birthdays. Things continuously piling up, and instead of being removed, just being chivvied along to the back of the cabinet.

Perhaps, this display cabinet serves as an archetype of many more lives – deemed British Asian on a census. Many of my friends had similar collections in their houses, whatever the amalgam of things was inside, these pieces of wooden furniture, almost always a different stain of oak, were eclectic and unremarkable – typical of what is deemed our ethnic-national make-up.

Whilst these two parts of my identity are often more in conflict now as I struggle through the twenty-first century and its rise in general intolerance of ethnic minorities’, it is nice to reflect on a time in the early 2000s when for me, the British and Asian in me and my household were co-existing peacefully. Literally in the same display cabinet, with no-one commenting on its unusualness or uniqueness, but just accepting the display. Accepting the items as parts of a whole.