Andrew Seaton: Looking Beyond Blighty: Comparison in Modern British Studies

Andrew Seaton

Andrew Seaton

Andrew is a PhD Student at New York University (NYU), working on the political, social, and cultural history of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). He is the 2014 winner of Twentieth Century British History’s Duncan Tanner Prize for an article on how NHS history can be written in the future, using a case study of NHS critics in the 1950s and 1960s. You can email him at andrew.seaton@nyu.edu or follow him on Twitter @AndrewSeaton.


I missed the first day of MBS (thought a sweaty conference room might not be the best location to spend my birthday) but thoroughly enjoyed the panels and plenaries I attended, and the conversations I had with others on the Thursday and Friday. Thanks to all those involved in the creation of a great event that will hopefully become a regular occasion.

Following Christienna Fryer’s fantastic blog post, I thought I would also give my thoughts on the experience of attending MBS as an individual who researches British history in the U.S (See ‘Point Six’ of Christienna’s piece). Though far from unfamiliar with the UK system (I’m a Brit who took his undergraduate and masters degree in British institutions) my time so far as a PhD student in America (and then coming back again this summer) gives me another take on the question of British history overseas.

Modern British history in the U.S. is a specialised pursuit (justifiably, as it is not the national history). Universities usually employ just one historian of Britain, typically expected to teach survey courses from 1688-present and/or a class on Empire. Empire dominates British history in the American academy, perhaps due to the novel claims of the ‘new imperial history’ from the 1990s onwards or the explicit recommendation of those wanting to defend British history in the face of dwindling interest in the field among undergraduates. In this broadened context, imperial history seems a magic bullet, placing Britain in a ‘global’ context and facilitating productive links with other places and fields.

But where does this leave historians, like myself, who study ‘domestic’ (i.e. – not explicitly ‘imperial’) topics? British historians in the U.S. have to always justify why their findings are important to other fields. Topic contributions or revisions are insufficient in themselves. The historian of motherhood in 1950s Glasgow ideally shows why their work carries relevance for Latin Americanists. Research on Chartism hopefully speaks to the colleague in the department who works on nineteenth-century France, and so on. James Vernon’s Distant Strangers (2014), for example, uses evidence from a largely domestic setting to argue for the broader importance of Britain by returning to the idea of ‘modernity’.

Though focussing primarily on Britain, I am reflecting in my own work on how the National Health Service fits in an international context – how did its development reflect broader patterns in global health systems or the evolution of welfare states? Who spoke across national borders about the NHS? How did the ‘myth of the NHS’ operate when Britons looked overseas, and when others looked to Britain? But placing domestic subjects in these contexts like this is difficult. They risk appearing forced or just another exercise in box ticking.

Going to MBS, I hoped for further ideas on how these comparisons can be successfully achieved, especially after the recent criticism directed at ‘Historians for Britain’. Apart from the ‘Technologies of Empire’ and ‘Destitution and its Discontents’ panels, though (and these papers more or less fitted within an ‘imperial’ framework), I didn’t hear as much as I anticipated regarding connections to other places or fields. Unfortunately, I missed the ‘Interrogating British Boundaries’ panel and apologies to those who made these links elsewhere, but I felt more could have been said generally in answer to MBS Working Paper 1 + 2’s call for thinking about how Britain acts as a ‘nodal point in a broader global history’. Deborah Cohen also made a plea for ‘more comparisons’ in her plenary.

If British history within the UK wants to challenge the Little Englander mentality of projects like ‘Historians for Britain’, then it needs to proactively assert itself in wider discussions. In a similar way to how gender history went from being ‘that extra chapter on women at the end of the book’ to something that informed a project throughout (though, obviously, there are plenty of recent books yet to grasp the problem with the earlier approach…) making broader links needs to be something we all at least contemplate.

Of course, many in the field are alive to this problem and I remain confident that future conferences will rectify the omission. If we want ‘British studies’ to flourish outside the UK, though, where the demands on the field are different, it is vital we engage more explicitly with the question of how to look beyond Blighty.

 

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