Visions of Europe and the Brexit Debate

Historians of King’s College London debated the referendum on Wednesday, June 8, 2016, 4:30-6:00 PM.

EU flag

In the run-up to the referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union, there has been no shortage of public debate about the possible consequences of the vote, including many forums sponsored by London’s universities.  The History Department at King’s wanted to make its own distinctive contribution to these discussions, playing to the strengths of the discipline.  The head of department, Adam Sutcliffe, therefore asked two colleagues, Jim Bjork and Anne Goldgar, to take the lead in organizing a forum that would take a step back from the immediate In/Out question and provide some broader and deeper context.  Under the title ‘Visions of Europe and the Brexit debate’, four historians were asked to discuss how understandings of Europe have evolved over time:  What ostensibly held Europe together?  What have been seen as Europe’s outer limits?  Two of the speakers (Richard Vinen and Jim Bjork) work primarily on the twentieth century, while the other two (Serena Ferente and Toby Green), as well as the chair, Anne Goldgar, specialize in earlier periods (late medieval to early modern).

 

The panel of historians included (from left to right) Professor Anne Goldgar, Dr Jim Bjork, Professor Richard Vinen, Dr Serena Ferente, and Dr Toby Green.

The panel of historians included (from left to right) Professor Anne Goldgar, Dr Jim Bjork, Professor Richard Vinen, Dr Serena Ferente, and Dr Toby Green.

A common theme of all of the talks was mutability in understandings of Europe and attitudes toward Europe.  The first speaker, Richard Vinen, focused on the evolution of British politicians’ views of European integration since the Second World War.  He noted that enthusiasm for British engagement in this project tended to be stronger on the Right than on the Left at the time of Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community in the 1970s, but then, as now, the attitudes of many individual politicians shifted with changing circumstances.   The next talk, by Serena Ferente, turned to the very different context of continental Europe in the fifteenth century.  She described how one familiar way of defining Europe—as a community united by Christianity—was consciously promoted by Pope Pius II in response to a contemporary challenge from the Ottoman Turks.  Dr. Ferente argued that such programmatic definitions should be seen as attempts to impose order on the continent’s underlying cultural and political pluralism and its frequent demographic disruptions, then, as now, manifested in flows of refugees from conflict zones.   Toby Green’s contribution also highlighted the historical contingency of definitions of Europe, in particular in relation to Africa.   Connections between Iberia and North Africa had been especially strong in the late medieval period, blurring the distinction between the two continents.  And in the twentieth century, attempts to disentangle (European) metropole and (African) colony in the process of de-colonization had also generated much debate and ambivalence.  Many residents of Cape Verde, for example, sought to remain part of Portugal and thus, by extension, part of Europe.  In the final set of remarks, Jim Bjork argued that uncertainty about Europe’s frontiers was paralleled by uncertainty about the continent’s centre.   Early and late modern commentators had noted the paradox of Europe’s geographic centre being marked by a sense of helplessness in the face of bids for hegemony arising on the continent’s margins (Spain, France, Britain, Russia).  This had given rise to rival twentieth-century visions of ‘Central Europe’ as either serving as the core of a robust new imperial power or, alternately, as modelling pluralistic co-existence among small nations, suggesting very different visions for the potential organization of the continent as a whole.

 

The initial presentations were followed by a half hour of questions and comments from the audience, composed of about 25 members of academic staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students.  In addition to following up on particular points made by individual speakers, several interventions from the audience understandably circled back to the issue of what implications these broader historical perspectives might have for the upcoming referendum.  It seemed fair to say that all speakers were sceptical of the view, advanced by at least some advocates of Britain’s exit from the EU, that the long-term histories of Britain and continental Europe ran on separate or divergent tracks.  The diversity and mutability of historical visions of Europe meant that there was no fundamental incompatibility with various visions of Britain.   But it was noted that the panel’s recurring references to contingency and flux in Europe’s past did also help to explain a widespread sense of uncertainty and anxiety about Europe’s possible futures.

Beyond the SS Empire Windrush: London’s Black History in the Archives

An invaluable London resource for reconsidering black British history, explored by Charlotte Taylor (KCL).

Earlier this year I, along with my fellow classmates on Dr Alana Harris’ module Society and Culture in Twentieth Century London, visited the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Officially established in 1981, the archive hosts not only records from (mainly) the twentieth century, but it also operates as a ‘living archive’ actively taking in (or generating through oral history interviews) records every week. The historian Laura Miller describes archives as ‘cultural touchstones to the past’, and this statement holds particular resonance for this archive – without it, a significant proportion of black British history may well have been forgotten amongst the vast sources for white British history.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

When considering black British history, the popular narrative marking the 1948 Windrush voyage from the Caribbean to England as the beginning of a collective and definitive black British presence in Britain seems to dominate. However, the records at the BCA provide resources for the scripting of a different narrative – for example, the original photo of Amy Barbour-Jones that we examined (alongside others of her mother) contradicts this typical chronology by demonstrating a young, black toddler in a photograph reminiscent of those we saw in our visit to the London Metropolitan Archives to view the Victorian London in Photographs exhibition. The Barbour-Jones family were a middle-class black family from Guyana who settled in London around 1904, whilst still conducting business abroad through imperial connections, and who increasingly became involved in black British affairs. For example, the pictured Amy went on to become Secretary of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1942, an organisation which aimed to promote racial equality and black achievements.

Excavating the stories of individuals such as Amy is incredibly important as it complicates seemingly settled histories: the Barbour-Jones family defy the typical assumptions of an early twentieth-century black British family both through their class and wealth, but also through their pre-1960s political engagement. This theme of activism fits perfectly into the ethos of the BCA itself – its origins lie in a grassroots movement to create and maintain a distinct Black British history. Throughout our exploration of other archival materials, we discovered rich resources for writing about black presence and activism in 20th century London, such as the black women’s movements of the 1970s, and collectives such as the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD).

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

OWAAD, the organisation set up by Stella Dadzie, was an organisation aiming to promote equality and protest specific issues for African and Asian women. One particularly prominent instance was their ‘Ban the Jab’ campaign in which they rallied against the testing of the Depo Provera contraceptive jab on African and Asian women.  Some examples included women being unwittingly given the jab immediately after giving birth, being too exhausted to properly give consent. OWAAD in their 1979 Conference highlighted the pressure placed on African and Asian women to take contraception, contrasting it to the reluctance that doctors had providing birth control to white women. Such targeted, racialist practise seems abhorrent (and almost inconceivable) now, but OWAAD also identified key issues that sadly remain all too relevant to today.  For example, the pressure on black women to meet beauty standards that equate whiteness with beauty, and the structural exclusion of black and Asian children from the best standard of education. When reading these original conference papers held within the archive, it seemed astounding to us all that issues so hotly debated in 2016 were already being aired back in 1979.

The Black Cultural Archive is an invaluable (and highly accessible) institution which is crucial to the development and maintenance of black British histories. Its records demonstrate the narrowness of many ‘British history’ narratives which neglect the importance and contribution of black British individuals and organisations as black history is often still relegated to the position of a recent, and sometimes contentious side note within the wider narrative. All of the records we examined on our fieldtrip explored themes we were familiar with from our module, however this visit complimented and complicated these perspectives through allowing us to interrogate fascinating primary sources – such as Stella Dadzie’s satirical feminist board game, Womanpoly, devised as a humorous consciousness-raising tool as well as a rallying call to action. Our immersion in primary source materials relating to Black Edwardians and Black (and Asian) feminists allowed us to ensure that race and ethnicity, alongside gender, class and locality, remain central in the histories we will write about 20th century London.

The Enlightenment bull market and its decolonial future

Richard Drayton (Rhodes Professor of Imperial History)

I arrived in Oxford at the end of the 1980s. I told John Prest, my moral tutor at Balliol, that I wanted to work, via the history of science, on the impact of the Enlightenment on the British Empire and how the British Empire shaped the Enlightenment. He was a kind man, and did not mock my small-island boy grandiosity. He looked puzzled, and replied, evading interestingly the empire issue, “But we didn’t have an Enlightenment. The French and Scots and Germans did. To speak of an English Enlightenment forces us to squeeze Newton, Locke, Addison, Steele, Johnson into a European cultural movement with a very different chronology, identity, and goals”.

It may be difficult for twenty-first century scholars to believe it but his view represented the orthodoxy at the time. The Enlightenment would not have been a term of trade in any English department in Britain. The key object of study and teaching which intersected with what we refer to as the Enlightenment was the Augustan age, and the key transition was, as per Walter Jackson Bate’s study From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth-century England (1961), or Meyer Abrams‘s The Mirror and the Lamp (1951) towards romanticism. Examine, for example, Foucault’s Histoire de la Folie à l’âge classique (1961) and Les Mots et Les Choses (1966), and one can see that even in France there was an idea of a historical period with a seventeenth century ‘L’age de Raison’ and a sprawling ‘L’age classique’ which did not fit the German Enlightenment’s chronology.

At the time I dismissed Prest’s resistance to thinking of the long eighteenth century in terms of the Enlightenment as just old fashioned, or even as an ignorant ‘little England’ position. After all, hadn’t Ernst Cassirer in Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, fifty years earlier, woven Newton, Shaftesbury and Locke into a fabric that ran through Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot to Kant? Hadn’t Peter Gay, at whose feet I had (literally) sat at Yale as a grad student, not mapped the Enlightenment as a pan-European and transatlantic social movement in two magisterial volumes in the 1960s? Hadn’t Roy Porter in a famous essay in 1981, ‘The Enlightenment in England’, in one of the history in national costume volumes he edited with Mikulas Teich, shown, exactly as I wished to do, how Britain participated in these European currents?

I am more sceptical now. Let me be clear: I am not sceptical about the existence of a great web of European intellectual reconfigurations and interconnections over the long Eighteenth century in which England and Britain were involved. I am more wary however about how we conjure with the category of the Enlightenment and organise study and teaching around it, and about the late twentieth-century and twenty-first century uses of the idea of “The Enlightenment”.

* * * * *

Examine these two Ngram graphs which show us, respectively, the incidence of the word “Enlightenment” published between 1940 and 2000 in American and British English books. On close examination, one sees that ‘The Enlightenment’, far from being some objective historical referent, as it is repeatedly used in popular culture, was a late Twentieth-century social fiction.

Enlightenment American English

‘Enlightenment’ – American English

'Enlightenment' - British English

‘Enlightenment’ – British English

Ngrams are, of course, not very accurate instruments, but they do help us to see trends. What these seem to show is that the retail of the Enlightenment as a category has two big booms: one in the long 1960s, during which it doubles in the United States, and the other from the mid 1980s, and especially after 1990, during which there is another doubling stateside, while in Britain there is a sudden takeoff and convergence with the American pattern. The idea that something called “The Enlightenment” is an effective metonym for the intellectual life of the long Eighteenth-Century century is thus a more recent idol than we often assume. We need to explain in it terms of the history of the period after 1945, and after 1990, and to ask who were the stakeholders in the Enlightenment franchise?

The first and most important stakeholders were the refugees from the Nazis who came to the United States, in particular German Jews, who sought to bridge their own intellectual heritage in Europe to the culture and politics of their new home. Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment (1966 and 1969) which begin with the philosophes in France and ended with Jefferson and the American Revolution, was perhaps the most influential single intervention of these. It is rarely noticed that he punctuated its two volumes with his book on Weimar Culture. Its coda was the virtual manifesto for thinking of the Enlightenment as, Peter Gay suggested, ‘responsible for [almost] everything that was good in the Twentieth century': The Bridge of Criticism: Dialogues among Lucien, Erasmus and Voltaire about the Enlightenment (1970). It was in the wake of the success of Gay’s first tome that Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment was at last published in English in 1968. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung, written in exile in the United States in the 1940s, was only translated in 1972, which while even taking a darker view of the Enlightenment as part of the foundation for the Holocaust added to the legend of its coherence and importance.

Many other constituencies of stakeholders embedded themselves in this way of seeing early modern European intellectual history and its relationship to the present. For (white) Americans, the discovery of European precedents for themselves was always attractive, and even better if, as per the Transcendentalists, the anxiety of influence by its former colonial metropolis Britain could be overcome by a reach to continental Europe. But Cold War liberalism also had its uses for the Enlightenment. The idea of the Enlightenment was backcrossed with modernization theory, with secularisation elevated, quite anachronistically, given all we now know about the religious enthusiasms which were central to the period, as the sign of Enlightenment. Anti-communists sought to find anti-romantic allies, and, as per the Liberty Fund in the United States, to conjure with the ‘rational’ Eighteenth century against the dangerous nineteenth-century ideologies of revolution. And yet at the same time, Marxists who were dismayed by the Soviet Union also claimed the Enlightenment, in the vein of Adorno and Horkheimer, as the anchor tradition of the Left. In continental Europe from the 1970s, and in Britain from the 1990s, those touched by the European project were also attracted by the idea of a historic pan-European intellectual community for which the Enlightenment appeared to be a good sign.

But the great boom in the retail of the Enlightenment comes after 1990. One important contributing current was its critics, who took up Adorno and Horkheimer’s exploration of the dark side of the Enlightenment, in particular post-colonial theorists among them, connecting the violence of the West with ‘Enlightenment rationality’. But for far more people in the post-colonial and post-communist moment– conservatives, liberals, and some socialists – the Enlightenment became central to the imagined collective identity of the West and of ‘modernity’, the two things normally assumed to be one. a flattering mirror of the past in which the present might find its face. Even the odd Marxist contributed their praisesong of ‘the enduring value of Enlightenment universalism’. Few asked about the reality of that imagined ‘universal’, or how its narcissistic gaze towards affinities excluded the experience and agency of Africa, Asia, and the darker-skinned Americas. The apotheosis of this turn came in the early Twenty-First Century, when Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis identified “Enlightenment values” with the prosecution of the “Global War on Terror”. And so, it appeared, we came to bomb and torture in defence of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment industry, of course, now has its own independent momentum. A generation of scholars have made their careers on the historical myth, while others make good money from books earnestly defending the Enlightenment. Of course, you might say that this is just a form of unconscious homage to the entrepreneurial skills of eighteenth-century intellectuals who themselves made a business of the Enlightenment. This is all good clean fun, at least when it is not part of the road which leads humanitarian intervention via cruise missile, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. And yet, as we approach ‘peak oil’ we must surely be reaching peak Enlightenment when, at the same time as the category is said to explain the values of the present, it also, as in one 2015 exhibition, appears to reach greedily backward to the Sixteenth century to engulf and consume the ‘Renaissance‘, which is threatened from the other direction by a resurgent late ‘mediaeval’ period. It begins to become simply another name for the idea of a Western liberal subjectivity, the precise temporal or spatial limits of which are never terribly clear.

* * * * *

It may be that if we do wish to rescue what is living and vital about ‘the Enlightenment’ we need to shatter the idol.

To begin with we need to destroy the latter day Whig’s idea of the Enlightenment, if we agree to accept ‘Enlightenment’ as a loose name for the problem of European thought c. 1660-1830. The problem is not, pace Adorno and Horkheimer, its legacies, but its origins. It is not that the Enlightenment led to Auschwitz, but that its origins, like the origins of everything in modern Europe, lie partly in that continent’s centuries-long offshore history of racial slavery, colonial domination, and genocide in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth century. It should not be acceptable in the Twenty-First century, to speak or write or teach about the Enlightenment as having to do with the histories of rights, ideas and museums, friendship, humanitarianism, without at the same time mapping its direct involvement in the expansion of regimes of slavery, the destruction of other cultures and their values, and dehumanization.

Whiggery, or to put it more simply the present’s recruitment of a flattering myth of its past, is central to what we might call the unbearable whiteness of the Enlightenment. By ‘whiteness’ I do not mean the skins of those who are assumed to be its principal participants, or even today’s Enlightenment mongerers, some of whom are brown. I am focusing instead on how the idea of the Enlightenment is based on cognitive compartmentalizations and repressions which have a generic relationship to racially-based past and present regimes of exclusion, subordination, and exploitation.

For example, were we to ask what was the most emblematic product of the Enlightenment, we would usually reach towards a text like Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. A good case, however, might instead be made however for the Slave Ship of the 1780s as the crowning achievement of Enlightenment civilization: they carried hundreds of captives, packed with mathematical efficiency, across thousands of miles with relatively small normal loss of life, and depending on the collaboration of engineers, shipbuilders, Europe-wide sharing in the capital and insurance risks, and state-of-the-art food preservation and tropical medicine. Other candidates might be the attempts at the psychological manipulation of human subjectivity with mesmerism in St Domingue, in the ‘rational’ prisons of Pennsylvania and Tasmania, or in the methodical experiments with using torture to force two-handed cotton picking in the American south. Or we might consider the Malthusian experiments of Sir Richard Temple, the lieutenant governor of Bengal, with how little food might be given to starving men forced to perform hard labour, which led in 1877 to the ‘Temple ration’ of 1627 calories (almost 100 less than was dispensed at Buchenwald).

We ourselves need to think with both hands, and to put together both sides of the story. The involvement of John Locke in the Royal African Company, and as a key member of the Board of Trade and Plantations, or the investments held by philosophes in the Compagnie des Indes, are widely known by scholars but not by the public. It is almost never used to make sense of how Locke or Voltaire thought of rights and freedom.  But the constitution of forms of rights which have as their premise categories of rights-bearers who, as Charles Mills has noted, are limited to people of a particular race and gender has some interpretative importance. Rather like those who glibly ascribe the origins of modern liberties to Magna Carta, so those who trade in the Enlightenment prefer us to focus on the potential future interpretations of texts than on what they meant in their context. But context matters, not least because it alerts us to ask what social and political and intellectual struggles led to their later renegotiation? How did the excluded, whose total exclusion from kinds of rights had a foundational role in the constitution of a set of rights-bearers, become the included? As an example, we might look at how Nick Nesbitt has shown how Haitian revolutionaries fought and died on behalf of rethinking of the idea of the Rights of Man as universal emancipation. If the Enlightenment has anything to do with contemporary human rights, that is due to how people around the world, usually innocent of any knowledge of Rousseau, demanded rights.

If ‘the Enlightenment’ can do any work for us now, it is in directing our attention to how contradictions unfolded in ideas as they were put to work by different interests in struggles, conflicts, and crises across the space of the globe. Even the most eurocentric vendors of the category accept that ‘the Enlightenment’ was profoundly engaged with the forms of global knowledge made possible by European imperial systems. But it is usual to consider this in diffusionist terms, with centres of calculation and peripheries towards which knowledge diffused. We need now to follow the lead set by work such as Simon Schaffer’s on the global history of physics to recognize how extra-European people and places acted on the development of modern thought. Unexpected gifts of knowledge and sensibility came from the periphery in the eighteenth century, bundled with tobacco and calicoes. It is in a focus on the global history of the ‘Enlightenment’ as a cross-cultural and transnational phenomenon that the category may perhaps become meaningful again. At the least we might begin to decolonize the Enlightenment, of which, perhaps, Diderot and Raynal would have approved.

1 Roy Porter, ‘The Enlightenment in England’, in Roy S. Porter and Mikuláš Teich, The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge, 1981).

 

Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History

Two PhD students in the Department of History at KCL, Maggie Scull and Naomi Lloyd-Jones, discuss the ideas and debates that lie behind their successful Four Nations History Network.

Four Nations 2

We’re two PhD students looking not to change the world, but to reshape the debate on Modern ‘British’ History. Our own thesis research, although separated by 100 years, draws on a shared history. Yet had we not met on a statistical methodology course run by the School of Advanced Studies, our projects, however similar, might not have crossed paths. We realised that there was a need for a platform to connect researchers – be they postgraduates, early career historians or established academics. With this is mind, we created the Four Nations History Network for those working on the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. With the ‘New British History’ no longer so ‘new’, we hope to reignite the debate over how we study ‘British’ history. The network is open to anyone using ‘four nations’ or ‘British’ frameworks, and to those researching the individual nations.

Forty years ago, J.G.A. Pocock made a now famed clarion call for ‘British history’ to be revived and re-invested with a meaning allegedly stripped from it by the likes of A.J.P. Taylor.[1] He observed the lack of ‘histories of Britain’ and the dominance of what thereby effectively amounted to ‘histories of England’, in which the Welsh, Scottish and Irish appeared ‘when, and only when, their doings assume[d] power to disturb the tenor of English politics.’ He also noted the parallel practice of writing ‘histories of Wales, Scotland [and] Ireland’ as ‘separate enterprises’, thereby perpetuating the existence of ‘separate historiographical traditions.’[2]

Pocock’s mantle was most comprehensively taken up in the 1990s by a school of early modernists who, in a series of conference proceedings, emphasised the need to place given points in history into their ‘British’ context, so as to tease out a host of forgotten dimensions and establish a new, more complete narrative. Illuminating and lively though the debate generated by these studies was, by 2013 Toby Barnard could suggest that ‘the “British” approach to political history from 1485 to 1782 may have run its course.’[3] Yet the ‘British’ approach to modern history, political or otherwise, has barely hit the ground running.

The current political climate, with the simultaneous emergence of a four nations discourse and a renewed focus on the affairs of the nations within the UK, suggests alternative methodologies are required to understand the past and the present. For instance, David Cameron’s rhetoric has shifted in the months after the Scottish independence referendum. The morning after the vote, he stood outside No.10 and declared that voters had ‘kept our country of four nations together’. At his party’s 2014 conference, Cameron expressed his pride at being ‘Prime Minister of four nations in one United Kingdom’. Fast forward to the early hours of 8 May 2015, and we find Cameron again outside Downing Street, but this time pledging the Conservatives to ‘govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom.’ The party nevertheless issued a separate ‘English manifesto’ and has outlined plans for ‘English votes for English laws’, while also vowing to press ahead with the Smith Commission’s recommendations on Scottish devolution.

Four Nations 1Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, has both insisted on Scotland’s right to be heard at Westminster and called for ‘the assent of all four UK home nations before any withdrawal from the EU’.

A four nations approach is a different beast from other kinds of history, in that it is intentionally polycentric. The Four Nations History Network does not intend to be prescriptive, nor do we advocate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. In this respect, we heed David Cannadine’s warning that no one approach should be allowed to dominate.[4] Instead, our aim is to demonstrate that four nations frameworks are relevant to a range of fields, and, crucially, can be interpreted and applied in different ways. Moreover, we aim to address certain of the imbalances in the New British History. We do not seek to recount a process of state formation, alleged by some to offer merely ‘a more sophisticated version of old-fashioned anglocentric constitutional history.’[5] Four nations is not about core-periphery; it allows for and explores the complications arising from regionalism, pan-Celticism and the seeming inextricability of ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’. Nor is the Network solely (high) political in its focus; we publish blogs on cultural, gender, imperial, intellectual and economic history. In some subject areas, a four nations approach is an intuitive exercise; in the case of others, we hope the Network will inspire critical engagement with such frameworks.

We hope to hold another conference as well as a roundtable discussion on the future of four nations as a framework for the study of modern ‘British’ history. So while Pocock made his ‘plea for a new subject’, we ask historians to broaden their toolkit and think about how four nations could relate to their research.

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[1] See, for example, A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford, 1965), v.

[2] J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History, 47:4 (Dec. 1975), pp.601-621.

[3] T. Barnard, ‘Renewing the “New” British history’, unpubl. Dacre lecture, Oxford University (May 2013).

[4] D. Cannadine, ‘British History as a “new subject.” Politics, perspectives and prospects’, in A. Grant & K.J. Stringer (eds.), Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History (London, 1995), p.23.

[5]K.M. Brown, ‘Seducing the Scottish Clio: Has Scottish History Anything to Fear From The New British History?’, in G. Burgess (ed.), The New British History: Founding a Modern State, 1603-1715 (London, 1999), p.242.

What Sort of History Should Historians Write?

The blog entry below is the second in a series of responses to a question, ‘Who should historians write history for?’, that was posed by an event of the same name held in the history department at KCL on the 14th of January 2015. These responses are intended to respond to the debate initiated recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto about the public role of history.

After I submitted my PhD proposal I realised how it was exactly the sort of history which had recently been labelled as utterly redundant. Needless to say, this made me feel a little sad. This stark come down came in the form of Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto. For these scholars, to produce an account of the ways in which science informed the politics of the British Left between 1964 and 1979 would be about as useless as a modernist historian explaining the minutia of an Anglo-Saxon hill fort. In fact, perhaps worse. As to Guldi and Armitage histories based in a single country over a short period of time, micro-studies, are representative of everything wrong with modern day academic history. To these scholars, since micro-studies could only ever be small, insular and irrelevant, such work embodies as well as ensures the slow demise of history into an immaterial subject of no contemporary importance. So Guldi and Armitage suggest all historians (including would-be historians in training) should all ditch the particulars and work solely in terms of big data and the longue durée. Only through doing so can historians hope to be of any relevance outside of three other researchers in their field.

For many reasons, it is a relief that I do not exactly agree with the arguments laid out within the History Manifesto. Actually, I think it would be difficult for me to disagree with them more, but I’ll keep this focused. My most central objection is to how Guldi and Armitage conceive of what constitutes good history and, more specifically, I take issue with their misplaced emphasis on the utility of quantifiable knowledge within historical practice.

I agreed with something which David Edgerton put forward at the event organised on this topic. He made the excellent point that there are, of course, a plurality of historical approaches and histories. This makes Guldi and Armitage’s dogmatic stance on a single type of history seem a little odd. In fact, Edgerton went so far to say that the History Manifesto presupposes a stage theory of history which would make Stalin blush. It is clearly strange to state that a single type of history should dominate over all others. But I also think we can level a more specific critique at the type of history which Guldi and Armitage put forward as the sort which they feel should dominate historical practice.

Guldi and Armitage argued all historical work must use big data as it is only through presenting quantifiable knowledge over a long period of time can history “speak truth to power.” The first issue I have with this idea is the strange assumption that history speaks any truth whatsoever. Isn’t this the sort of thing that an undergraduate would be scolded for? Yet, throughout the criticism and discussion on the History Manifesto the problem of historical truth is not really discussed. However, this is a really important thing to talk about not only in and of itself, but because it reveals to us what I think is the real importance of history. I believe the radical potential of history rests not in any mysterious claims to objectivity, but in its very subjectivity. This is not to lead us far down the terrifying far reaches of a postmodern rabbit hole. In fact, quite the opposite. I think that through understanding how the power of history lays in its subjectivity we can produce not only better scholarship, but also ensure that our histories can play a vital part in contemporary political discourse.

I turn to international development as an important example of where historical thinking, and not the big data stuff, can help us think about very real policy issues. Michael Woolcock, Vijayendra Rao and Simon Szreter in their 2010 paper ‘How and Why Does History Matter for Development Policy’ argued that in contrast to the universalising abstractions of economists, historians can provide localized, nuanced and self-aware accounts of the impact of development policies. This is particularly useful as Woolcock, Rao and Szeter stressed how historians can appreciate, for instance, that the consequences of policies might be unexpected or that the same policy can mean different things to various groups of people. What is important here is how history has the capacity to treat human beings as human beings. This is what historians of the longue durée and big data can miss out on by conceiving of people through numbers. So history might not tell the truth, but if it doesn’t attempt to this can make it all the more useful.

So, for me, the wonder of history is not in its ability to “speak truth to power,” but in its potential to speak another language than that of power. Not one of arrogance, data and economic growth, but one of humility, scepticism and self-awareness. I believe that the central question which the History Manifesto raises is certainly not one which it intended to. It makes us think why do Guldi and Armitage suppose the link between quantifiable knowledge and relevance? I feel answering this could tell us a lot about the modern world and looking at this question historically could result in some interesting research. I think it is fair to say that, perhaps, it would produce arguments that would neither span over three-hundred years nor have their basis in numbers.

Tom Kelsey is currently a student on the Science, Technology, and Medicine in History MA at King’s College London.

Becoming a Historical Researcher

Hello Students, Prospective Students and Faculty of King’s College London. My name is
Patrick Wingrove and in January 2014 I graduated with an MA in Modern History from KCL. I am writing this article primarily for those prospective students thinking of undertaking an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in history but also for those who are just coming to the end of their studies.

Undertaking a history degree is no easy task. You will spend most of your time reading,
either through books or manuscripts long forgotten about, and sometimes be expected to
find new and interesting points of view on subjects that have already been analysed a
thousand different ways. If you’re anything like me, though, you will love every moment if it.

The real question is how do you apply all that hard work to the real world? If you’re
planning to pursue a life in academia and/or historical research, then the answer is obvious. However, for those who love history but aren’t quite sure what career avenue they want to take, do not fear. Some of the most successful people working in television broadcasting, law, publishing, teaching and many other fields are history graduates. The skills a history degree will give you in analysis, writing and organisation are highly sought after in graduates, not to mention the appreciation you obtain for hard work and sheer bloody mindedness.

To give you an idea of a career path you could go down, I thought I would give you an
insight into mine since graduating. A few months ago, I was hired by Illustrated London
News Ltd as a Historical Researcher. Once a great media empire, which published
periodicals such as The Illustrated London News, ILN Ltd is now a creative content agency encompassing digital and print with an archive that goes back to 1842. My job is essentially to utilise the archive for the company’s benefit. I’m often tasked with finding material that helps with approaches to prospective customers with a rich past, e.g. Aston Martin, whose magazine ILN produces.

aston

The main project I’ve been working on is ILN’s First World War centenary website www.illustratedfirstworldwar.com. With Heritage Lottery Fund backing, this project has made the 1914-1919 editions of The Illustrated London News freely available to the public, soon followed by The Graphic, The Sphere, The Bystander, The Tatler, The Sketch, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and The Illustrated War News. 

ww1

My colleague Hannah, a fellow historian, and I wrote content for most sections of the
website, curated images, ensured the site was historically accurate and we continue to write weekly blog pieces. We’re now working on the second phase of the site, which will see improved search functionality, more content and a much-improved teaching resources section. Although I am a “Historical Researcher”, my role is not entirely research based. A lot of my time is spent learning new digital skills to help improve the website, including design and basic programming skills. I’ve also been charged with office and events management, including organising a “Road Show” designed to showcase the new website and a preview event for an auction at Christie’s South Kensington of original artwork published in the ILN’s magazines. I also write weekly content for The Times, English Heritage and the Imperial War Museum as part of my responsibilities.

Jobs such as this (though often under different titles) are constantly becoming available.
Companies are now becoming aware that their archives are one of the best resources
imaginable for brand knowledge, differentiation and innovation. One good example is the
Savile Row tailors Gieves & Hawkes, who recently hired historians to help dig up old designs to be used in their “capsule collection”. Archival material helped with their campaigns based around their long-standing reputation as a royal tailor, as well as content written about their history as a designer for the Royal Navy going as far back as the Napoleonic wars.

Indeed, the future is bright for anyone interested in, or just coming to the end of, a history
degree. Mine is only one example of the doors that were opened because of my degree
from King’s College London. If you’re interested in history, I highly recommend it.

Who Should We Write History For?

The blog entry below is a response to a question, ‘Who should historians write history for?’, that was posed by an event of the same name held in the history department at King’s College London on the 14th of January 2015. We had a series of responses from members of the history department, including that below, which will hopefully form part of a series over the coming months. These responses are intended to respond to the debate initiated recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto about the public role of history.

In the oft-quoted preface to his 1963 The Making of the English Working Class E. P Thompson described his ambition to ‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” As an undergraduate I was, as others surely were, deeply inspired by this eloquent exposition on the value of social history. In the History Manifesto Jo Guldi and David Armitage cite Thompson approvingly as an example of a politically engaged historian, somebody who ‘spoke to power’.

I am not sure the feeling of approval would be completely mutual. Guldi and Armitage see the future of history in the long-term and the wide scope. For them digital history and big data offer the techniques by which historians can shape histories for public and especially policy consumption. Yet Thompson, despite his public political engagement, had a rather different idea of how to practice history. He was reacting against a structural Marxism in which individuals were subsumed into an inhuman statistical morass. Instead he sought to reassert the agency of the individual, the working classes made their history rather than being victims of it. Thompson teased out the richness of the working class lives he examined.

This richness is also characteristic of the work of other scholars, such as Natalie Zemon Davis, whom Armitage and Guldi dismiss as ‘micro-historians’. For Guldi and Armitage cultural historians such as Davis have simply asked the wrong questions and over the wrong time scales. They have apparently not engaged with big enough issues, Guldi and Armitage’s favourite seems to be climate change, and they did not do so over the ‘long dureé’, which for Guldi and Armitage seems to be as long as the proverbial piece of string.

Yet a whole host of other social and cultural historians have engaged with political questions. Questions about gender and patriarchy, class and social status, race and racism, the holy trinity of social and cultural history, have given voice to those excluded, both in past and present, from power. These accounts are usually from closely observed readings, from fragments and details. It is this detail that offers us compelling perspectives on the complexity of the past.

My fear is that Guldi and Armitage’s dismissal of such histories and their calls for focus on ever-larger datasets obscures the complexities, the detail, and the individual from history. It is not only Guldi and Armitage’s methods but the way in which they suggest our findings should be communicated that bothers me. Their focus on the production of ‘one screen visualizations’ that sum up research for public and policy consumption seems to pander to an age in which so much of our politics and policy is captured in sound bites and images with little substance or explanation. It seems to suggest an ability to obscure as much it reveals.

The richness of the lives that Thompson, Davis and a range of social and cultural historians since have examined, also has a place in the way history, as a discipline, engages with the public. Often as not, it is the tangled tissue of individual lives and stories that some publics (a plurality largely ignored by The History Manifesto) find compelling. The BBC’s ‘Who do you think you are?’ is a testament to this interest. It is the publics of television, radio, museums, classrooms, readers of books and blogs that are often interested in these stories, publics that Guldi and Armitage’s book largely ignore.

Who should we write history for? I think in a sense the question is about emphasis. That we should write history that engages with a wide range of publics is not a controversial statement. The history manifesto’s issue seems to be a focus on a policy making public above all else. But, in addition to this, I would also suggest that we partly write history for the dead. This may seem slightly idealistic or clichéd. It’s also convenient because the dead can’t answer back. This is not the audience of entrepreneurs, CEOs and politicians that Guldi and Armitage have suggested as historians’ targets. Yet thinking in this way forces the historian to do justice to the complexity and richness of past experience, a complexity and richness that comes from combining the micro, macro and everything in-between. The historian has a responsibility to the dead, more particularly to those whose voices and lives emerge only from a great deal of close and careful engagement with our sources. It is the social and cultural historians that Guldi and Armitage criticize that have done so much to excavate these voices from the archive. The History Manifesto argues that historians should ‘speak truth to power’, but historians’ greatest achievements have often come from speaking to the powerless, or at least making their voices and stories heard.

Finally, a slightly more cynical point. Historians write, and publish, at least partly to earn a living. Putting to one side the fact that individuals other than academic historians write history (a point that Guldi and Armitage problematically ignore), it seems pertinent to note that academia, not just academic history, suffers from its own crisis of short termism. In a world in which the pressure is to publish early, where rising numbers of early career researchers are on ever-shorter contracts that pay for teaching but not for research, and where academics have to work within the timescale of research assessment cycles, the grand projects which Guldi and Armitage suggest seem harder to grasp. Fernand Braudel is the history manifesto’s hero. Yet the research for his mammoth work on the Mediterranean began in 1927 and he didn’t commence writing until 1939. Even with digital techniques this suggests that the future of history will also be partly determined by the institutional culture in which historians exist, which itself is undergoing fundamental, not always positive, change.

William Tullett is a PhD researcher in the History department at King’s College London working on the social and cultural history of smells and smelling in eighteenth-century England.