Aaron Andrews is a second year PhD student at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History. He is currently researching ‘Urban Decline’ in Glasgow and Liverpool, c. 1960-1990. You can follow him on Twitter: @MrAaronAndrews
Some Ramblings in Response to Rethinking Modern British Studies
With such a diverse range of panels, so many insightful and thought-provoking papers, and evocative plenaries, it is impossible to identify the single issue addressed by MBS2015. This is probably a good thing; as historians, especially after the historiographical turns of the 1990s, we are taught to be sceptical of overarching narratives. The question therefore arises: how on earth can one person respond to Rethinking Modern British Studies?
For me, there were two interlinking issues which loomed over the conference and these were issues which I look forward to seeing how MBS addresses as the project moves forward. In a field which it seems is becoming ever more contemporary in its focus, Neoliberalism (both as an ideology and an actually-existing phenomenon) comes increasingly into focus.
Working Paper 1 articulated an interpretation of modern British history through ‘cultures of democracy’. But this was a conception in which the economy, though not forgotten, felt a little bit pushed to the back. With 9 elections since Thatcher’s victory in 1979, Neoliberalism is and was essentially a democratic project (a statement I may one day regret). Perhaps there’s something in a paper on the democratic cultures of Neoliberalism, but given some of the alarm at the neoliberalisation of Higher Education this may prove contentious.
‘Manifestos’ also cast a bit of a shadow over proceedings. The Working Papers, not manifestos in themselves, articulated a vision for Modern British Studies both at Birmingham and in the field at large. But other manifestos, which I won’t name, were (almost) as much on delegates’ minds as the Birmingham papers; how, we were asked, can we answer the big questions?
One of MBS’ great triumphs was to bring into direct conversation political, economic, social and cultural historians. Historians of emotions, of subcultures, of sexuality, gender and everything else in between. Some matched the size of the question with the scope of enquiry, others used individual narratives to clearly outline broader historical processes. Structure versus agency. Macro versus micro. As this conference showed however, fragmentation is not a bad thing; it simply reflects the vitality of the field.
The real reason I bring up the word ‘manifesto’ was not to deride or dismiss Working Paper 1. Rather, the word can be invoked for Working Paper 2; a spectre was haunting the PhD/ECR Workshop and, you may have already guessed it, that spectre was Neoliberalism, and ECR working conditions more broadly.
There were many strategies put forward to deal with the problems identified, from joining a union (who knew PhD students could choose between UCU and NUS?) to learning to cook (some great advice from Catherine Hall on the importance of looking after yourself and taking time to get away from work).
But from my own perspective, MBS can be effective through being affective. By this I don’t mean getting emotional, we are British (historians) after all. I simply mean providing both the necessary support and a space in which postgrads and ECRs can develop ideas, gain the confidence to raise their hands and ask questions, and generally feel part of something larger. As one of the many in receipt of free registration, I have to admit that this is an area in which MBS at Birmingham has set the bar pretty high.
In many ways, the conference raised more questions than it asked. A good thing, perhaps, for a centre hoping to start a conversation. It is beyond doubt, however, that MBS2015 left the field feeling invigorated (and a little bit hungover – or was that just me?)