Interrogating British Boundaries

Speakers: Chloe Ward, Liam Byrne, Lauren Piko

Chair: Chris Hill

These three papers span the twentieth century and political, cultural and academic contexts. They are united by their aspiration to ‘treat [Britain] as a nodal point in a broader global history’ [MBS Working Paper No. 1]. They seek to challenge longstanding perspectives on the origins and effects of political, economic and cultural transformations in Britain in the 20th century.

The three papers are transnational in methodology and scope. They conceive of the transnational as ‘a space’ for exchanges that can elide, override, and undermine national boundaries. This helps identifying the ways in which ‘the nation’ is in fact produced by transnational forces (c.f. ‘AHR Conversation on Transnational History’, 2006). In so doing, each paper frames an aspect of 20th century British politics, culture, and thought as relative and comparative, challenging the insularity of existing literature in each field.

Liam Byrne examines the connections between labour movements and parties in Britain and Australia and their adoption of policies of socialisation in the years immediately following the First World War. Chloe Ward’s paper focuses on the left in culture, discussing the little-explored international connections of the interwar Left Book Club. Lauren Piko uses the frame of Empire to interrogate the ethical and political implications of the study of declinism.

Paper 1 Abstract: A comparative reading of British and Australian political labour 1918 and 1921: points of connection and difference.

Liam Byrne, University of Melbourne

2015 has been marked by the political ascent of radical ‘alternatives’ to the status-quo, such as SYRZIA and Podemos, seemingly challenging the traditional parties of progress. British Labour noticeably lags behind such radicalism in response to this crisis, its own viability as a party of radical reform has been questioned. The party’s political culture has become hollow, and Labour seems the victim of its own history, the consequences of ‘ruling the void,’ as Peter Mair would have it.
In this paper, I analyse a period of transformation to consider the construction of the political culture of British Labour, and explore its possibilities for change. But, following the work of Neville Kirk, I argue that an under-appreciated but vital lens through which to view such bodies is the comparative one, and that through such a means both the particular factors that shaped Labour’s experience, and transnational influences, can be appreciated. It will offer a comparative reading of British Labour’s 1918 constitution and the adoption of Clause Four and Australian Labor’s socialisation objective of 1921. Tracing the common legacies of these moments of transformation and the interconnections between the radical wings of both parties – ideological, and personal with figures such as Tom Mann embodying the networks of exchange – my intention is to demonstrate the processes common to these organisations as they operated as a particular form of counterpublic. I will propose the utility of works of analysis such as that of Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge and their concept of the proletarian public sphere. This important understanding will be joined with the concept of the subaltern counterpublic developed by Nancy Fraser in a unique interpretation to chart the impact of division and contest between moderates and radicals in these organisations.
Providing such a reading seeks to use this transformative period to appreciate the underlying dynamics of these organisations and how they function within established polities as counter spheres, but also to demonstrate that this in itself is an ambiguous and contradictory function.

Paper 2 Abstract: Towards ‘real world-citizens’? The transnational reading community of the Left Book Club.

Chloe Ward, University of Melbourne

The Left Book Club, founded by the radical publisher Victor Gollancz in 1936, has been cited as a key agent of transformations in British political culture and Labour’s election victory in 1945. Works about the Club have, however, struggled to explicate the relationship between the Club’s principal activity – buying, reading and discussing books – and changes in the political order. The international aspects of the Club have also gone largely unexamined. This paper addresses these neglected vectors for assessing the Club. It examines the transnational reading community the Club established across Britain, Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa and Australia. It builds on several recent advances in the history of the book. Historians of reading have examined the significance of class, gender, consumer practice and local and national cultures in structuring Britons’ reading practice. This paper further positions reading in the context of recent examinations of the imperial book trade and anti-fascist politics. The Club’s organisers regularly and publicly appraised the international development of the Club. In 1938 they described it as ‘a world-wide movement’. Such blandishments obfuscated the distinction between Gollancz’s progressive cosmopolitanism and the class-based internationalism of the Club’s professional staff. Further to this, British readers’ responses demonstrate the tension between these two ideals of an international readership and a practice that was highly localised and inflected by considerations of nation and Empire. This paper uses newspapers, correspondence and readers’ accounts to explore how they imagined and pursued relationships with the international readership of the Club. These exchanges contributed to local readers’ apprehension of the post-war world and British responsibility to it. Their reading affirmed a view of Britain’s leading role in global democracy and their own potential contributions to this through local activism and electoral politics.

Paper 3 Abstract: Relative, absolute, or both? Towards locating empire in postwar declinism.

Lauren Piko, University of Melbourne

The last twenty years have seen a substantial and welcome increase in the study of British declinism after 1945. The conceptualisation of a belief in decline, especially relative economic decline, as a pervasive ideology with its own history, has been especially productive in creating challenging narratives of Britain’s political and media cultures. Nonetheless, I argue that the study of declinism has rarely been accompanied by examination of its broader implications, particularly how declinism might function in excluding, as well as privileging, particular aspects of postwar British history. I suggest that existing studies of declinism, by seeking to narrate and to explain cultural fixations on relative economic decline, have replicated some of the limitations of declinism itself, by treating absolute imperial decline as a given which does not require substantial engagement. While postwar declinist cultures did not frequently explicitly engage with absolute imperial decline, I suggest that this in itself is indicative of an ongoing cultural practice of avoiding explicit and direct engagement with the legacy of empire. It is possible to read postwar relative economic declinism as a form of post-imperial silence, a way of sublimating discussion of the absolute unravelling of imperial economic models while obsessively reframing the diagnosis of decline within a strictly domestic framework. In this way declinism can be seen to work alongside the ongoing debates around European integration and of immigration which facilitate oblique reference to post-imperial status and identity without fully addressing the moral, emotional, and ongoing political implications of having exerted imperial power. This therefore precludes engagement with the criteria by which Britain’s pre-decline history of ‘greatness’ is defined. While the analysis offered here is partial, it represents a potential model for further historical engagement with the functions of declinism as an ideology.




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