British Studies in a Broken World: Call for Papers MBS 2017

Modern British Studies at Birmingham invites proposals for panels showcasing new research on all aspects of British history from the 18th century to the present. At a moment when many of the core strands of modern society, culture, politics, and economics have been called into question, it is time to explore how we make sense of Britain’s past and the value of thinking historically in public life.

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The intersecting challenges prompted by the European Union referendum make these issues more pressing than ever. Taken together, the fallout of Brexit, the criticism of ‘expertise’, and ongoing discussions about our ‘postcolonial present’ challenge our thinking about British history and the historian’s public status. What does it mean to study Britain’s past at a moment of crisis? What value does historical thinking have as an intellectual, public and political endeavour? How should we engage across disciplines to make sense of modern Britain?

These questions are prompted by the time and place in which we work. While we welcome proposals that reflect explicitly on the historical contexts for the present crisis, Modern British Studies at Birmingham encourages panels and papers interrogating these questions from a range of thematic, chronological, and disciplinary vantages as well as sessions showcasing new research. Building on the exciting contributions at Rethinking Modern British Studies in 2015, this conference provides a forum to showcase diverse work, explore new methodologies, and prompt engaged conversations between those working across disciplines on Britain since the 18th century.

The conference offers a space for intellectual engagement and conversation around individual panels and roundtables. In addition, we will organise plenary panels around three themes:

  • Fluid Presents, Turbulent Pasts
  • Crossing Disciplines, Making Studies
  • Public History, Engaged Historians

Confirmed plenary panellists include Antoinette Burton (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Pamela Cox (University of Essex), Lucy Delap (University of Cambridge), Caroline Elkins (Harvard University), Gurminder Bhambra (University of Warwick), Margot Finn (University College, London), Leela Gandhi (Brown University), Fredrik Jonsson (University of Chicago), Hayden Lorimer (University of Glasgow) and Peter Mandler (University of Cambridge).

Modern British Studies invites proposals for ninety-minute panels and roundtables related to the conference’s themes or showcasing cutting edge research across the field. Panel sessions should include at least three speakers (and a chair), but we welcome larger groups where appropriate (for roundtable sessions).

Panel proposals may follow traditional formats or take new approaches: please get in touch with the organisers to discuss alternative formats, such as workshops, reading groups, or teaching-focussed sessions before submitting a proposal. Panels featuring scholars from a range of career stages, especially including postgraduate researchers, are strongly encouraged.

The 2015 conference opened with a postgraduate and early career workshop that started a conversation about the relationship between the material conditions of academic labour, precarity and the job market, and the research produced by younger scholars. That conversation remains urgent today. The 2017 conference will begin with another PGR and ECR workshop which will have a separate call for papers. This is in addition to the main conference and we encourage submissions to both.

The Conference will charge a fee to cover registration and food and drink costs. As in 2015, however, we will be offering 100 free registrations for postgraduate students, ECRs on short-term contracts, and the unwaged once registration opens.

Panel Proposals should include: Session Title, Session Abstract (c. 300 words), List of Participants, and Abstracts for individual papers where appropriate (c. 300 words each). The deadline for panel submissions is 28 February and proposals can be submitted via the Modern British Studies blog.

DOWNLOAD THE CFP:mbs2017-for-web

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Patrick Wall and a different lost world of conservatism

Blog Moores

Chris Moores

While reaching the end of one project I have been, for some time, thinking about different forms of right-wing, non-extremist activism in post-war Britain. Such interests recently took me to the papers of Patrick Wall, Conservative MP for Haltemprice and then Beverley in East Yorkshire.

As this blog shows, I am still processing the mass of material that I found there, there is much I have not read, so this blog is a first – and uneven – and slgihtly ‘listy’ – attempt to start thinking through a Lost World of Conservatism that can be glimpsed there.[1]

Wall is probably best known as a member of the Monday Club, chairing its Defence Committee for fifteen years. But his papers also offer glimpses, fragments and hints of an extensive world of conservative mobilization which are difficult to account for in our dominant frameworks for thinking about political and social activism.

The MP for Haltemprice was a controversial figure on the right of the Conservative Party. His defence of Rhodesia following its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 and contrubued support for Ian Smith’s regime, as well as his enthusiasm for Enoch Powell following the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, marked his divisive  enthusiasm for the forms of ‘ethnic populism’ which Bill Schwarz has argued was linked to a ‘popular reverie’ of white sovereignty ‘overseas’.

Symbolic of his divisiveness, a tour of British Universities during the late 1960s and early 1970s proved disruptive. Wall considered certain disciplines and academics within British Universities to be deeply ‘subversive’, aligning himself with a wider assault on ‘Marxist’ intellectuals which typified certain strands of conservative thought at the time.[2]

Wall’s critique of the University reached its zenith on 3 May 1968 when his wife was, according to The Times newspaper, tripped, kicked and spat-on by student protesters at Leeds University Union.

The chaotic aftermath of the speech was captured by broadcasters and Wall’s postbag swelled with correspondence eager to lambast ‘long-haired’ student protestors, while his wife received threatening letters warning of further violence.

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Although it created less of a shockwave, parallels can be draw between the letters sent to Wall following the incident and the contents of Enoch Powell’s postbag in the wake of his ‘Rivers of Blood Speech’.[3]  Letters written to Wall moved seamlessly from the conduct of students to the fate of Rhodesia, from questions about higher education funding to a decline in religious values, from an unease about generational change to evidence of the communist subversion of ‘foreign extremists’ destabilizing Britain and England.

One correspondent complained, ‘many of us who have not had the advantage of university education are wondering exactly what sort of advantage, to themselves and to their country the expenditure of our money upon these students is supposed to confer’, another objected to the ‘sick of the weakness of making excuses for the “with it” mentality’. ‘So many of those that rule our country’ one letter explained, ‘appear to be scared of a small minority of anti-British; anti-Christian; pro-communist (and, in many cases, pro-United(?) [sic] Nations), fanatics whose sole purpose is the ruin of our country’.

Such letter-writing is significant in itself. Carolyn Steedman observed that letters are ‘pieces of text that are most intimately connected to biological bodies’; they have weight. According to Bill Schwarz the letters responding to Powell’s speech demonstrate ‘configurations of whiteness intensifying’ at a bodily level. And letters to Wall are cetainly revealing in such respects (especially those on the colonies and immigration). But I am also interested, as a historian of activism, about those that took their anxieties one step further, who sought to not just articulate their private thoughts into public policies through sympathetic MPs, but to mobilize and organize. Those who printed pamphlets, produced stationary headings and campaigned even if for a short moment. This was activism, even if was haphazard, deeply problematic and challenging to trace.

Wall was, to some extent, defined by his associational life. At the start of his political career, he volunteered for the London Sea Scouts and Sea Cadets with which he was involved from the 1940s onwards. Wall had served in the British Navy during the Second World War, even acting on attachment with the US Navy during Operation Overlord.  His interest in the threat of invasion, anxiety about subversion, interest in Cold War technologies and concerns about ‘aliens’ also found expression in his membership of organiztions; he was from 1955 a committed member of the ‘Flying Saucer Club’, held a subscription to ‘Flying Saucer Quarterly’ and maintained career-long commitment to understanding UFOs.[4]

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But in discussing Wall with final year students this week, our eyes were drawn to a range of organizations glimpsed in the papers which we struggled to place in out categories of post war mobilization.

It is possible to detect well-connected faith-based organizations, but these were vastly different from the faith-based groups working, for example, in international aid and development. As well as more well-known, reactionary bodies like the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children or the National Festival of Light, the papers also document The Order of Christian Unity (c. 1970), featuring a well-connected group of prominent religious and political figures seeking to roll back the ‘so-called moral reforms of Parliament’, which ‘pressurized Christians into living with a social framework contrary to their beliefs’. Wall who was well-known as a traditional Catholic attracted the attention of a range of other, similar groups with various objections to abortion, euthanasia, divorce legislation and moral decline (including The St Thomas More Group, The Lamp Society, and The Keys of St Peter) about which I know little.

Wall formed organizations himself. He drove a Catholic lay movement in the early 1970s entitled ‘Pro Fide’ seeking to represent ‘a voice for the silent majority’ opposing ‘the modern trend of rejection of authority an substitution of self-interest disguised as conscience’. He created ‘Sword of the Spirit’ during the late 1950s. This was a Catholic organization which hoped that an assertion of Christianity might ‘shape the new Africa’ allowing British Catholics to continue their ‘very direct responsibility’ there while alerting Catholics in Britain to their responsibilities in Africa. Its ‘Africa Committee’ included academics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, Queen Mary University of London, and the African Studies Department of the Colonial Office.

Wall engaged with different Cold War mobilizations some of which were more prominent than others: Families for Defence, Western Goals, the British Committee for Free Vietman, the World Anti-Communist League mongst others. His papers reveal that Sir Walter Walker’s Civil Alliance, often used as evidence of 1970s Cold War paranoia and fear of domestic subversion, was continuing to mobilize and provide civil defence training well into the 1980s, well after the ascent of Thatcher was meant to have nipped such initiatives in the bud.

We know little of snappily titled organizations like the ‘National Cleansing Crusade for the Restoration of Capital Punishment, the outlawing of Sodomy, and Stiffer Penalties to Fit the Crimes, including Recompense and Corporal Punishment’ (tag-line: Shame to all men in Church and Government who degrade Britain through the act of Sodomy), which pop up in his papers. The Campaign for Justice in Divorce (1979) lobbied Wall to support the end of maintenance in divorce cases (except for children) and the removing the ‘concept of fault’ from divorce legislation which had served to ‘punish husbands’ especially those with second wives, which sounds strangely attuned with more contemporary mobilizations complaining about the ‘gender inequalities’ faced by men.

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These organizations are difficult to trace as well as define, we just see the edges of them in Wall’s papers, further documents on such bodies and their protagonists are difficult to track down. But, I also need to think harder about what to do with such groups. In the past, I might have been, perhaps, a little content to see them as cranky reactionary manifestations of those whose politics and values were being slowly undermined by generational change. Interesting as symbols of discontent, or a sense of loss, or prisms through which cultural shifts could be seen, but people whose politics was bounded rather than enabled by party politicians.

Yet as astutely articulated by my new colleangue Mo Moulton public and media discourse around the EU referendum and the varied manifestations of ethnic populism which seem an important feature of contemporary politics are making me think. Contact with different activists, many of whom used a comparable tone and critique, was a feature of Patrick Wall’s Parliamentary career which lasted for most of the post-war period. We only see fragments of such groups– are these tips of icebergs or the sole extent of mobilization?

Comparisons of the present  with the past is inheritently anti-historical and should largely be avoided, so rather than suggest continuities between these mobilizations and, for example, some of the thinking that can be seen within domestic politics surrounding the EU referendum, I wonder if we might, instead, extend our concern about modern echo chambers of social media interactions into our archives and histories. Why were my students so surprised by documents from these mobilizations, why did they jar with a literature on conservatism and activism they had been studying?

The organizations which can be found in Wall’s papers are not well represented within the Conservative Party archives, reflecting the Party’s various efforts to downplay and contain the activities of those acting on its extremes. Moreover, the correspondents with Wall that were so hostile to the Universities in 1968 were hardly likely to deposit papers in the libraries of those institutions in the manner of more progressive, respectable, organized or well-established NGOs might do or those from the Labour movement did.

Wall’s archives reflected his own idiosyncrasies; he catalogued and organized much of the content himself. But as Powell’s letters show, Wall was not the only MP to receive such content in his postbag.

It may well be these are all we see of such forms of malcontent, anger and frustration, but the paucity of the archive represents our difficulty in accommodating such bodies into our conceptualization of post-war activism. These were not agents of elite-driven expertise representing a new technocratic governmentality; they were too fragmented to be seen as a forms of social movement, too ‘respectable’ to be fully identifiable with the far-right, difficult to find within serious studies of the Conservative Party’s grass roots.

At this stage, I reserve judgement on what to conclude about this world.  It needs further more detailed, precise exploration. Too much of my evidence is partial and piecemeal at this stage; it may stay this way. This is a blog about a world I do not yet understand, I suspect many of the threads I am pulling at will be loose ends, but more than ever, this seems a good time to start unravelling them.

[1] I realize I have pinched this from Lawrence Black (via Raphael Samuel) who used this phrase to describe the Young Conservatives of the 1950s. Lawrence –  I hope you don’t mind.

[2] Patrick Wall, Student Power (London, Monday Club, 1968).

[3] As astutely discussed in the work of Camilla Schofield, Amy Whipple and Bill Schwarz.

[4] Even one letter on this subject suggested that the ‘decline’ of Western powers could be seen in the warnings of extra terrestrials. Wall himself wrote in 1986, ‘Personally I believe that the chances are that UFOs do exist and do come from a more advanced civilization than our own though where this may be remains a mystery’

Visibly Hidden: Power and Historical Practice in Modern Britain

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Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar

(3-5 o’clock, 30 November 2016)

In this session four postgraduate researchers from the centre for Modern British Studies explore ways in which their doctoral research makes broader historical interventions in modern and contemporary history. The papers, woven together by a single introduction and conclusion, are interested in the relationship between power and historical practice. Exploring broader themes in their individual projects such as race, religion, citizenship, and ordinary life, they interrogate how historical practice has perpetuated power structures in the past. While on the surface very different, by tentatively exploring connections across their work, they argue against historical methodologies that have perpetuated hierarchies of exclusion and have kept their subjects visibly hidden.


Shahmima Akhtar,‘Whiteness’ as an invisible category of analysis?’
This paper uses intersecting categories of race, gender and nation to consider the process of constructing Irish whiteness in World’s Fairs’. A prism of analysis centred on Irish display challenges popular views on the central and so-called objective ground occupied by whiteness. In so doing, Shahmima reveals how imperial power operated and calls into question the historians’ role, suggesting that a reluctance to interrogate whiteness has perpetuated damaging notions of its neutrality.


Ruth Lindley, ‘’Goddess Rising’: Re-Imagining Gender and Secularism in Modern Britain’
Ruth will talk about the Goddess movement, a feminist spirituality movement made invisible by the stories historians have chosen to tell about belief and gender in modern Britain. Because Goddess spirituality emerged in the 1970s after rapid religious decline is already supposed to have taken place, historians have dismissed it as a symptom of modern secular culture: individualistic, narcissistic and shallow. By paying serious attention to the personal testimonies of Goddess-celebrants, Ruth hopes to re-write the history of spirituality in modern Britain in terms of imaginative political innovation, engagement and activism.


Chelsea-Anne Saxby ‘Finding the ‘Sensible, Ordinary Briton’: The Regulation of Television Content, 1954-1981’
In the first few weeks of her research, Chelsea has been trying to get a sense of the powers, discourses and practices that shaped television content, and the changing relationships between them. At the centre of this play between shifting forces seems to be the idea of the ‘Sensible, Ordinary Briton’, whose tastes, values and private mores could be used to demarcate the boundaries for acceptable content. She will use this paper to start thinking through how this median of the television audience was constructed and understood, reflecting on her own role in this process.


Laura Sefton, ‘Becoming Citizens? Children’s Writing and Agency in Post-war Britain’
Laura’s paper reflects on her use of children’s essays to rethink citizenship in post-war Britain. By accepting political rhetoric of children as belonging to the future, historians have denied children’s historical agency and contributed to their remarkable invisibility in discussions of citizenship. By taking their writing seriously, Laura questions whether we can recover their historical agency, considering the politics and ethics of doing so. Alongside methodological concerns, she will suggest there are sound historical reasons for focusing on children. Drawing attention to citizenship as a negotiated process, these children demand new historical perspectives that consider how citizens negotiated competing modes of belonging through space, markets, and relationships.