The political history blues (or whatever happened to Political History)?

Speakers: Kit Kowol, Laura Beers, David Ellis

Chair: Lawrence Black

The strange dearth of political history is the focus of this panel. Compared with earlier periods or recent debates about social movements and NGOs, a “new political history” or the role of language, 20th century political history has drawn back from the methodological barricades. The politics of history are worked out elsewhere in arenas such as empire and sexuality; whereas political history finds itself at something of an impasse (in the case of labour history, as Richard Price has recently commented, chronically so). The panel explores both political and historiographical reasons for this: from the shift in historians gaze from politics to political culture and culture more generally, to a popular politics where we have to understand “Why we hate Politics”, as Colin Hay’s 2010 study put it.

But in part, it questions these anxieties, by assembling key, newer practitioners working on grassroots Conservatism (Kowol), local urban activism (Ellis) and transnational practices (Beers) to demonstrate there is significant new empirical work being done and new ways of thinking about modern British politics being forged. It flags up areas where historical debates engage current practice, like the Blue Labour thinkers. If one of the insights of more creative political histories since the 1980s was to take note of signs and meanings happening beyond the radar of official politics, these papers suggest we also need to rethink the centre as well as the periphery. Political history is undoubtedly too important to be left to either political historians or cultural historians alone.

Paper 1 Abstract: Kit Kowol (Teesside)

‘Towards a Dynamic of Ginger-Groups: Edward Martell and British Conservatism 1955-1964’

The development of ‘new political history’ witnessed a renaissance of interest in pressure groups. But an understanding of the role of‘ginger-groups’ within British popular politics remains lacking. This paper argues that this is a result of the hybrid nature of such groups, which include functions such as external pressure groups, internal party caucuses, and, at times, political parties. This diversity precludes ginger groups from traditional political science classifications and masks their multi-levelled influence.

Examining the relationship between the right-wing ‘Freedom Groups’ created by ex-Liberal activist Edward Martell and Conservative Central Office, this paper offers a new template for the analysis of ginger-groups both in British Conservatism and other political contexts. It demonstrates that both Martell and Central Office were well aware of the multiple constituencies of activists who made up these “Freedom Groups” and the negotiations over functions this entailed. Tracing the history of these groups between 1955 and 1964 the paper shows how a contest over the definition, purpose, and nature of these organisations subsequently emerged. It concludes by demonstrating that despite precluding Martell’s organisations from significance within the Party this conflict nonetheless increased their influence on wider British political culture, arguably paving the way for Thatcherism.

Paper 2 Abstract: Laura Beers (Birmingham)

“Bringing the international home: the relationship between the international and the domestic in modern British politics.”

We are all transnational historians now, or at least we all do our best to pretend to be. If British historians in the 1990s were transfixed by the empire, for the last decade, historians of modern Britain have been the lured less towards the so-called “periphery” that towards Europe, or more rightly towards Geneva. The establishment of the League of Nations and the new “international society” purportedly established by the League and the network of associated pressure groups and non-governmental organizations that sprung up to lobby and advise the new body have attracted considerable scholarly attention, as scholars such as Susan Pedersen have reconceptualized Britain’s and Britons’ relationship to the wider world. This scholarship has largely existed in parallel to an older historiography on the other international society, which took its lead from Moscow and the Third International, although as Susan Pennybacker’s recent work has shown these liberal democratic and communist networks not infrequently overlapped. While such scholarship has helped illuminate the extent and impact of Britons’engagement in international affairs, there has been little effort to explore the linkages between international engagement and domestic British politics. Yet, historians of domestic British politics can and should reclaim the international for their own ends. An unprecedented number of British politicians were engaged outside of Britain’s borders in the interwar period, and this international work informed and impacted their domestic political agendas, and vice versa. Taking as its focal point the career of the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, this argues that, for many British politicians, their international political engagement was constitutive of their domestic politics in fundamental ways.

Paper 3 Abstract: David Ellis (York)

“Building the Liveable City: Neighbourhood Politics and Urban Renewal in Leeds, 1965-1990”

There can be no doubt that the New Political History has invigorated political historiography in recent decades. For all this innovation, however, the topics studied by practitioners of the New Political History are remarkably conventional. They have been chiefly concerned with politics at the national level and with political parties, elections, political leaders and the electorate. If the New Political History poses a new set of questions, its subject matter would be instantly familiar to an earlier generation of political historians. This paper follows recent trends in historiography by widening the focus of the political history of late twentieth century Britain. It is interested in politics at the level of city and the neighbourhood, and it adopts a “bottom up” approach to analysing political change. The main actors are not political parties but grassroots community groups and local NGOs. And it is largely concerned with local rather than national government. It argues that the political life of the urban neighbourhood offers fertile ground for political historians.

The paper investigates the work of community activists in late twentieth century Leeds who sought to build a more liveable and humane city in the context of urban decline, deindustrialisation and suburbanisation. These community activists contested the dominant approach to urban renewal which was orientated around comprehensive redevelopment, mass housing, zoning and highway construction. They advocated for a city that informed by traditional urban principles and subject to greater democratic control. This city would be socially mixed, walkable and cyclable. It would mix uses, promote sustainable densities and conserve the historic urban fabric. These community activists were particularly interested in the inner and central city, which they wanted to revive by restoring residential communities, enhancing the natural and built environment and encouraging social enterprise.

The paper focuses in particular on the work of the Leeds Civic Trust (established in 1965) and a number of neighbourhood-based organisations across the city who shared its goals. Whilst the Trust was initially formed to conserve heritage buildings, it quickly broadened its remit to the health of the city and the quality of urban amenities. The paper analyses the relationship between community activists and public bodies and it assesses the extent to which activists overcame official resistance and informed urban policy. It discusses why their vision was never fully realised. The paper situates this case study of urban activism in the wider national and transnational context of the “back to the city” movement in Britain, western Europe and North America. Activists in Leeds were influenced by these networks. In the context of a world where policy makers are, once again, excited by cities, this paper enriches our historical understanding of the revival of the western city following its nadir in the 1960s and 1970s. It highlights the role of grassroots activism in this process whilst illuminating the “paths not taken” in urban development.

 

 

 

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