Radical Conservatism, Edwardian Tariff Reform and Brexit

Senior lecturer Mark Rothery reflects on patterns in history.

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Pattern repeating Union Jack by Dawn Hudson

There are moments as a historian when you notice patterns repeating – they never repeat in exactly the same way but the repetition is always noticeable. Recent changes in British Conservatism and the wider Brexit process have reminded me of a moment in the history of the Conservative Party during the Edwardian period.

In the wake of Benjamin Disraeli’s death, in 1881, the Conservative Party faced a series of challenges. The Party seemed unsuited to the new, more democratic world that Disraeli had helped to create. Trades Unions (newly legalised by Gladstone’s Liberals), the decline of Britain’s pre-eminent global economic supremacy, of landed society and the decline of the empire all seemed problematic for a party that rested on these pillars of ‘traditional England’. How to attract the votes of the middle and working classes, this was the challenge.

Conservatism was lent a helping hand in the final two decades of the nineteenth century thanks to problems for the Liberal Party. This included a major split over Home Rule for Ireland that saw the Liberal Unionists under Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain leave the Liberals and join the Conservatives, eventually permanently fusing the two parties as the Conservative and Unionist Party in 1912 (the Conservative Party bears this name to this day). For the moment the Conservatives were saved but trouble was stored up for the future.

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Joseph Chamberlain at his desk in the Colonial Office: Image from Wikicommons

As a way of appealing to a wider electorate the Conservatives settled on Tariff Reform. Perhaps the most unpopular and dull political policy ever devised Tariff Reform went like this. Free trade would come to an end, tariffs would be imposed on all products coming from outside the empire. This would bind the empire more closely as a trading bloc and incrementally improve Britain’s declining position in the world. It would also provide income for social reform thereby attracting working close voters but not alienating ‘traditional support’ by taxing the rich.

All these prerogatives are reminiscent of Brexit and the thinking around this issue. These debates are about Britain’s position in the world, about trade and empire and about attracting a wider electorate.

Tariff Reform was an absolute disaster in the period it was official policy from 1903-14 under the guidance of Joseph Chamberlain and Arthur Balfour, the Conservative leader. The Tories were annihilated in the 1906 election (their biggest defeat until the 1997 election) and showed no signs of recovering in the two elections of 1910 (January and December). New Liberalism, meanwhile, cut swathes through traditional fiscal policy introducing pensions, national insurance, unemployment benefit, the emasculation of the House of Lords and a host of other radical policies, which furnished with Lloyd George’s radical oratory was all the more shocking to ‘the establishment’.

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Only war proved to be the saviour of the Conservatives. They eventually went into wartime coalition with the Liberals in 1916, repeated this in 1918 under Lloyd George and, when their confidence had eventually returned removed themselves from the coalition in 1922 (hence the ‘1922 Committee’). Labour won their first election in 1923 but this, and the 1929-31 Labour Government, were to prove brief eclipses of Tory dominance in the interwar period as the Liberal Party went into terminal decline.

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The Algerian Hirak

HirakSince 22 February 2019 Algerians have been protesting in the streets. As usual there has been very little coverage of events in the British, indeed Western, media. This is, however, one of the most impressive pro-democracy movements the world has seen. It was triggered by President Bouteflika’s decision to stand for a fifth term of office. This flew in the face of the Algerian Constitution, and would have meant that he would have added an extra five year term to the twenty he had already served as Algeria’s longest-serving present. To further breach constitutional matters, Bouteflika had rarely been seen in public since 2013 when he suffered a stroke, and article 102 of the Constitution states that an incapacitated president must stand down. Since his stroke in 2013, perception grew across Algeria that Bouteflika had been a puppet president, with figures from within Bouteflika’s entourage calling the shots.

On 10 February 2019, a press release signed by the long-ailing Bouteflika announcing he would seek a fifth consecutive term provoked widespread discontent. After Friday prayers on 22 February  Algerians took to the streets. This effectively shattered a longstanding fear of protest in Algeria after the Black Decade of the Civil War of the 1990s. Millions of men, women and children took part in peaceful rallies across Algeria, and have been protesting ever since.

The protests, which have been dubbed Algeria’s Hirak, which is Arabic for ‘movement’, took on a broader focus when Bouteflika finally ceded to pressure and resigned in April 2019. Protestors then called for action against the failures of the privileged elite who had supported him, and in doing so had failed public services in Algeria. The protestors  called for widespread reform, and for corruption charges to be brought against the regime’s generals and oligarchs.

Bouteflika’s  long regime had  effectively crushed political dissent and oversaw a proliferation of corruption throughout the state, with oligarchs and the party elite owing their position to the monopoly on oil and other key energy industries. Algeria is one of Africa’s major oil and gas producers, the endemic corruption has led to an overreliance on oil revenues at the expense of the agricultural potential of the country, further adding to discontent on the domestic front. Additional factors including high unemployment, lack of job opportunities, economic stagnation following the decline of oil and gas export revenues in 2014, social inequalities, have led the Algerian population to protest against ‘le pouvoir’ (the people in power. Although forcing Bouteflika’s resignation in April 2019 as a result of the mass protests was a major achievement, the momentum was with the protestors, and the Hirak forced further concessions.

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The strength of this Hirak, also known as the ‘Revolution of Smiles’, is that the protestors seem to have learned the lessons of the Arab Spring. Millions of people, both men and women, who mostly young, are participating in the weekly marches, occupying public spaces and peacefully demanding the regime to change. The fact that this is a movement with no official leader, but which is seeking dramatic change through entirely peaceful means, appears to have prevented the emergence of extremist groups, as occurred in Libya and Syria. The movement also has a significant cultural component, and has witnessed the proliferation of creative endeavours: songs, slogans, cartoons, the occupation and collective clean-up of public places, spontaneous dialogues and debates, and very active social media. The abiding cry has been: ‘Yetnahaw Gaa’ / ‘Get them out!’

When finally a new election was called for December 2019, this was largely rejected by the movement, who instead called for a complete overhaul of the political system. As the protests grew louder, the response of the government was to clamp down severely on detractors, and the number of arrests increased significantly.  Protestors are recording increasing internet censorship, and political cartoonists have been arrested and imprisoned. Amnesty International’s ‘Algeria Watch’ reports of around 500 arrested, some arbitrarily, as a result of a sweeping government action against the Hirak. (see https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2019/12/algeria-hirak-protests/)

The election went ahead on 12 December 2019, and the result was controversial.  Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a Bouteflika loyalist was elected as President. Protestors chanted ‘The vote is rigged. Your elections are of no concern to us and your president will not govern us.’ One protestor stated: ‘Tebboune is worse than Bouteflika, We did not vote and we will not back down.’ Little news has emerged in the West since the election and the protests which followed. Has the Revolution of Smiles turned sour?

 

 

From Facebook to Fatherhood: Emotional Economies Then and Now

Senior Lecturer in History Mark Rothery writes on emotional economies: 

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Emojis – tiny pictures representing emotions. Picture via British Library

As we leave Christmas and a very divisive general election behind ‘Emotional Economies’ seems an appropriate choice for this blog – it’s the subject of a paper I’ll be giving on the subject at the bi-annual European Social Science History Conference this year in Leiden, Netherlands.

‘Emotional economies’ is a term used by both economists and historians. Let’s start with the economists.

Classical economics assumes that consumers and, indeed, all agents in the market, behave rationally. Under certain conditions, in terms of price and levels of supply, their behaviour (particularly in relation to demand) should be predictable. Repeated historic collapses of financial markets (most recently in 2007-8) have illustrated the folly of this idea as investors and consumers continually fail to behave ‘rationally’ when faced with choice.

Emotional economics is a new frontier in marketing and economics. It attempts to engage with some of these problems and achieve better access to and persuasion of consumers. Rather than assuming that consumers behave ‘rationally’ emotional economics recognises that people often make choices based on how they ‘feel’ about a product, the company that produces the product, the state of the world, Brexit and a host of other contexts for feeling. So consumers need to ‘feel’ positive about a product, need to feel emotionally uplifted by it in some way or feel that it is aligned to their emotional as well as cognitive well being, rather than be persuaded that it is in their best interests as rational agents to purchase it.

This all sounds quite acceptable – people sell things in a market economy so why not find out how we feel about their products? But what if our feelings about things were being measured and recorded on a grand scale? What is our feelings were being manipulated?

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Racism, diversity and contested histories: some reflections on Christmas (just) Past

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The Cratchits sit down to Christmas dinner 

If, like me, you tuned in to watch the BBC’s latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, I’m sure it will have left a lasting impression.  Over three nights a star-studded cast presented a much darker version of the tale of Scrooge than we are used to. It was uncomfortable at times, rude, crude even, but funny and also very poignant and political.

I’m not an expert on Dickens and have only recently read the novella that bears limited similarity to the scripted version I watched over Christmas. This seemed to annoy some people, who took to social media to complain that students studying it at school today would have been confused by Steven Knight’s retelling of an old classic. Personally, I loved it. I found Guy Pearce’s Scrooge a more complex character than Dickens had presented him and Vinette Robinson’s Mary Cratchit was a study in controlled anger.

Most of all I think Dickens would have approved as it had a powerful message about the concerns of the day, combining as it did themes of poverty and inequality, abuse, exploitation, and the callous nature of unrestrained and immoral capitalism.

But what really seemed to upset some keyboard warriors was that the Cratchits were presented as a mixed race family. This was compounded when the BBC released a modern version of Worzel Gummidge complete with two black children as the central characters (below right). For some this was diversity gone mad, a deliberate attempt by ‘auntie’ to meddle with our cultural past and present. Unknown

I’ve been musing on this for a few days now. At the time I responded to a tweet I saw by @WhoresofYore (aka Dr Kate Lister) which had shared several images of interracial marriage to challenge the claim (by some) that the BBC’s drama presentation of the  Cratchits was ‘PC nonsense and historically inaccurate’.

I wrote:

‘Some people would like to believe Britain was entirely white before 1950. It wasn’t. It’s just that we’ve written black people out of history’.

That tweet had had over 2000 ‘likes’ and nearly 200 retweets but it also drew a few people to comment that they had never seen black people when they were growing up. ‘If a black of Asian man ever came down the street [in 1950s Birmingham]’, one wrote, ‘people ran out of their houses to look at him. They’d never seen one, except in pictures’. Another commented that ‘it largely was white’ adding, ‘now my home town has 300 languages and there are very few white school kids’.

It didn’t take much searching on twitter to find some pretty disgusting racist comments about the dramas and the BBC’s use of black faces in them. Which begs the question for me at least, why are people so unhappy about the depiction of diversity on our television screens?

After all history can tell us (should tell us) that Britain has had a very diverse population for hundreds of years. There have been people from all parts of the world in England from Roman times to the present; in medieval England, in Tudor England, in the 1700s and nineteenth century, and right through the twentieth. Moreover all of these immigrants to Britain have contributed to the success of these islands, economically, culturally and politically.

Black troops fought in the last world war, and the one before that, directly contributing to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the survival of our ‘British’ way of life. Estimates suggest also that around a third of Nelson’s crew on HMS Victory were not white. The records of the Old Bailey (London’s central criminal court) reveal the presence of Black Londoners in significant numbers throughout the 1700s and 1800s. In many cases of course contemporary prejudice and notions of racial superiority mean that Black voices have been silenced or muted, or erased completely but this does not mean they didn’t exist at all.

We know this. History has been telling us this for decades at least so why do some people have such a problem accepting it?

Sadly I think it is because Britain is a country where racism remains endemic. When the grime artist Stormzy was asked if there was racism in Britain he replied: ‘definitely. 100 percent’. Reactions to that comment and its misreporting pretty much sum up the problem we have.

UnknownStormzy was condemned for labeling Britain as ‘100 percent racist’, which he never did. All sorts of people who should have known better leapt to the country’s defense accusing him of all sorts of outrages without stopping to read or listen to what he had actually said. There is racism in Britain, I agree with that statement completely (100%). Not everyone in Britain is a racist, and Stormzy never suggested that they were.

A day later racist abuse was directed at a black footballer, as he played for Chelsea in a local London derby at Tottenham. When I ‘liked’ a tweet from Jolyon Rubinstein, comedian and TV producer, that condemned the racism at his club and then added a comment that it needed to be challenged everywhere, a handful of comments took issue with me. There was no racism at ‘our club’ some said; please don’t condemn us all with the same brush.

It seems like this and the Stormzy incident are part of the same problem. Some people are more outraged at being called racist than they are at racism existing in our society. Some are so scared of seeing black faces on the TV screens that they feel the need to complain that the BBC is misrepresenting the nation and its history.

The reality is that actors are actors and it doesn’t matter what colour their skins is anyway. We’ve been used to white actors playing black characters, to Americans playing Germans, to able bodies actors portraying disabled people, and to all sorts of dramatic interpretations and adaptations of texts from the past.

The reason some people got their collective knickers in a twist about Stormzy, and the BBC’s A Christmas  Carol  and Worzel Gummidge is because they are either ignorant or prejudiced, or both. I’m sorry but that is self-evident.

What worries me is what we are doing to combat this. How do we educate people so that that this racism dies a death now, in the 2020s, along with all the other intolerances that continue to blight our society?

Diversity is a good thing, not something to be afraid of and we have to get that message out there from nursery, to primary and secondary school to university, though the shop floor, in all forms of the media, in sport, culture, and, most of all, in politics.

Racism has no place in our society, none whatsoever, and it is the responsibility of all of us to call it out wherever we see it.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

 

 

 

 

Star Wars: a personal history

When The Force Awakens came out in 2015, I wrote a blog about how Star Wars had a strong sense of history, referencing previous times and films about them. After watching the new movie The Rise of Skywalker last Friday, I have been thinking about how the series has a history in a more personal sense.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I am a child of the seventies and it feels like Star Wars has been with me my whole life. I was too young when the first one came out, but it was on TV once a year in the early eighties so that was the first one I saw. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it, despite my parents’ reservations that the monsters would scare me.

Like many kids at the time, I primarily got into Star Wars through the toys, comics and other paraphernalia rather than the films themselves. The toys enabled children to come up with their own stories, which was a big part of the power of the Star Wars universe. My friends and I would pool our own modest collections in order to stage epic battles – for this reason, I mostly collected the baddies, to even the sides up.

We didn’t have a VCR at that point, so I first saw Empire Strikes Back as part of a triple-bill at the cinema when Return of the Jedi came out. My dad took some arm-twisting to take me. We missed the start of the first film, and popped out after the second for some KFC to fortify us for the third. Having previously devoured comics and novelisations, the big revelation in Empire didn’t come as a shock.

In the later eighties, Star Wars wasn’t cool. I sold nearly all of the toys at car boot sales to buy things like records. But I still enjoyed watching the films, having taped them off the telly.

In the nineties, Star Wars became cool once more. I was then a student, and spent much of my time on the Star Wars pinball machine in the JCR, trying to shoot the Death Star. The films were revived at student film nights: a friend of mine at another campus told me that people would bring torches to their smoky cinema, to use during the lightsabre battles. I remember going to see the special editions as a student. I was unimpressed with the digital ‘improvements’, but just remember the thrill of seeing these films on the massive screen of York’s Odeon rather than on TV.

The prequel trilogy started coming out when I was finishing my PhD. My similarly Star Wars-obsessed friends and I went to see The Phantom Menace full of expectation, and emerged feeling very deflated. In retrospect, this was a bit unfair. It was and is a terrible film, but it plays very young, so people who had grown up with the original trilogy were not really the target audience. The Gungans are no more childish than the Ewoks.

After the disappointment of Episode 1, I didn’t bother with the next one, until I watched it round a friend’s house on his new-fangled DVD player, which showed off the battle scene to spectacular effect. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, so I gave Revenge of the Sith the benefit of the doubt and went to see it at the cinema.

When the third trilogy came around, I had kids of my own so partly experienced it through them. They were too young to see the new films at the cinema themselves (so I went with other parents of young children, on rare nights out). Like me the children experienced the film vicariously through toys. Rather than the action figures, they mostly played Star Wars through Lego, which offers up even more opportunities for imaginative engagement with its universe. Unlike me, though, they had easy access to the films on DVD. They love Phantom Menace, despite me informing them that they are wrong.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Watching the final installment last week therefore felt rather significant. Having been with me my whole life, it felt as though a chapter of it had come to a close. The documentary short before the film, with grainy out-takes and interviews from the first film, added to the sense of nostalgia. In retrospect, my relationship with the nine films (and the two spin-offs, of which there will no doubt be more) is influenced by the points in my own life when they came out.

Star Wars is a very personal thing. Its stories are bound up with the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. It is therefore part of my own history.

Matthew McCormack

Taking Research to the Secondary School Classroom

Kerry Love is one of our wonderful PhD students! She has written a blog for us about her experiences in a school classroom. 

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Takahata highschool 10; under Creative Commons licence

To me, the desire to teach is a basic extension of having passion for your subject. As an undergraduate, one of the most common career goal assumptions you’ll be faced with is ‘so you want to be a history teacher?’ and the enthusiasm with which you’ll defend your interest in it is definitely one needed to teach. During my MA I started to build up some experience as a GCSE and A-Level history tutor, mainly to get some ‘education’ experience. I was considering applying for a PGCE, so it seemed to be a logical step. A lot of it was in a summer school, so during that summer for the first time in my life I’d switched places and was standing alone in a room full of teenagers needing a rapid-fire revision of the Cold War. Whilst intimidating at first, I enjoyed the experience and it made me realise I wanted a career in education in some form. This way I could convince reluctant students that it was a subject that they could do well in and enjoy exploring further. In a way, I think it might have pushed me towards further study as well, as without realising it this was also the time I started to explore applying to start a PhD on the basis that if I learn more I could teach better!

The one thing I picked up on from my time tutoring was the familiar, but fairly restrictive curriculum. The range and depth of topics taught at university differs so much from those taught at level 1, 2 and 3. I didn’t entirely decide on history until I started to study it at university to be honest – it was more of a ‘why not?’ when choosing my own degree subject at that time. Naturally, when I did some research for my own work experience, and found the university’s UniClub tutor team whereby PhD students develop and run their own module based on their research, I thought it was perfect as I had free reign to teach exactly what I enjoy the most!

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Educating Generation Z

Recently lecturer in history Dr Rachel Moss was invited to speak at Times Higher Education’s LIVE event, a major conference celebrating UK Higher Education and addressing the problems it faces. This is the text of her talk (with a few modifications for online clarity), given in a session titled Educating Generation Z. Part of this text is based on an article published in THE. 

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Sessions at THE Live 2019 

 

 

After many years of haranguing millennials like me for being self-indulgent consumerist snowflakes, it seems that media outlets suddenly realised that many millennials are actually in their mid-to-late thirties, many of us reaching mid-career stage as we start families and acquire mortgages, and that we have the expanding waistlines and thinning hairlines to show for it. It was easy for them to transfer their bilious op eds to Generation Z, and so I have a lot of sympathy for my students – we were criticised for exactly the same reasons that they receive public condemnation. We’re apparently all over-sensitive slackers who buy too many coffees and avocado toast.

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Free Speech for Fascists

On 13 November, David Renton gave a History Research seminar based on his work on the history of fascism and National Front. In this blog he reflects further on issues of free speech raised in his presentation:

 

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For years, I’ve written about the battle between left and right. My interest hasn’t been so much in the structured alternation between two projects for government which gets resolved in a election. I mean rather the conflict between the far right and far left: a story of street-fighters, cultural warriors and intelligence-gatherers.

Recently, I’ve been writing about the rise and fall of one group, the National Front, which in 1976 and 1977 was a mass party capable of winning 100,000 votes in local elections in London and similar support across Britain.

That research has taken me to the Searchlight archive at the University of Northampton. Searchlight was a monthly magazine, with a predominantly left-wing readership which reported on the activities of the Front and other groups on the right.

You find in its archives all sorts of reports – sent in by regular informers, wavering former fascists, or individuals who came into contact with the British right and felt a need to tell someone else what they’d seen.

An example of the committed anti-fascist spy is the individual who attended a meeting of the Front at the Shakespeare pub in Birmingham in June 1975 and who recorded not merely the names of all the speakers, but the content of their speeches:

‘A short discussion was held on infiltration and meetings. Tom Finnegan gave a report on the proposed bulletins for various areas – displaying a map with several hundred coloured pins on it he outlined how things would be done – the communist cell system would be applied with several people in each branch covering a set number of members … John Finnegan then took up the question of trades unions and said that National Front members must gain trade union posts. Communist training classes were referred to and possible emulation commented on.’

Or, if you want an example of the opportunistic anti-fascist spy: here is a one-off letter sent to Searchlight a couple of years later, at a time when the National Front held weekly paper sales at Chapel Market in Islington and the group’s National Organiser Martin Webster was a frequent visitor:

‘Please find enclosed Martin Webster’s passport, diary and a couple of letters. I came into possession of these items as a result of stealing his bike from outside a pub in Islington. I don’t normally steal things but as a committed anti-Nazi I thought I would take it first to wind Webster up.’

The next project I’ll be working on is about silencing and speech. The National Front wanted to see Britain become a one-party state on which everyone who disagreed with the Front would be silenced.

Anti-fascists also had their own idea of silencing, ‘no platform,’ which held that the Front should be prevented from speaking because the Front was a fascist party, and had as its defining purpose the destruction of democracy. As Alan Sapper, General Secretary of the broadcast workers union ACTT put it. ‘Democracy is threatened. We don’t need to bother with philosophical arguments. We can discuss democracy until the concentration camps come in.’

I am only just beginning my research but the things which intrigue me include the resistance of the Front to posing as free speech martyrs. They were desperate to be seen as a virile force capable of beating any opponent, literally or metaphorically, into resistance. Therefore, they declined to play the role which the far right had played in earlier decades: of demanding free speech for themselves but not their opponents.

On the left, meanwhile, no platform was not a single political position but a range of arguments whose resolution was never properly resolved.

Should no platform be restricted to fascists or could it be applied universally to anyone who championed racial or sex discrimination?

Was no platform only appropriate for places controlled by social movements (eg student unions, trade unions, politicised black communities), or did it apply everywhere (eg to party political broadcasts watched by anyone)?

Linked to that question, was no platform something to be carried out ‘from below’ (eg by people themselves blocking the road to prevent a speaker making their way into a meeting) or ‘from above’ (eg by petitioning the local authority to have a particular speaker’s invitation rescinded?

The confused outcomes of these debates is, I’d argue, something which was apparent even after the Front had gone into decline, and its legacy remains with us today.

Should we teach ‘difficult’ history in schools?

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One twenty-two-year-old (Instagram ‘influencer’ Freddie Bentley, pictured above) recently caused consternation by suggesting topics such as climate change and Brexit should be taught in schools rather than the history of the Second World War. It followed comments by contestants on the reality show The Apprentice that revealed that they weren’t sure of the dates of the conflict. Not surprisingly Bentley drew down a wave of criticism (much of it from tabloid newspapers and their readers) for suggesting current events were more important than historical ones.

Naturally, as a historian, I would argue that history is important, and should be taught in schools but surely children ought to learn about current affairs as well? Of course, there is a debate to be had about what history (who’s history perhaps) is taught and what lessons are drawn from it, and how it is taught.

Bentley commented that learning about the horrors of the world war and the deaths of millions of people had been traumatising and he worried for children’s mental health.

That shouldn’t mean it isn’t taught.

Future generations need to understand the sacrifices made by previous ones and they need to understand how something like the Holocaust could come about. Teaching should always be age appropriate, but we can’t completely shield our children from the tragedies of the past. Human history is shot through with inhumanity and the next generation is entitled to know about it.

However, I am a little suspicious of the reaction to Bentley’s Good Morning Britain interview. It seems as if those commentators have been quick to say that history is important whilst at the very same time ignoring or misrepresenting history when it suits them.

Surely one of the lessons of the second world war is that we should have a closer relationship between European nations to avoid future wars? Surely the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is that singling out people on account of their religion, race, sexuality or disability leads to state sponsored murder and is abhorrent?

Surely the lesson we might draw from the war in the Pacific is that nuclear weapons are disproportionally destructive and should be banned?  Indeed, we also might learn that warfare is abhorrent and so all arms manufacture should be tightly restricted at least, and perhaps even prohibited?

None of these suits the agendas of the politicians that most tabloid editors give their support to however. These lessons from history are simply ignored or reinterpreted to suit a narrow world view that allows race hate, unbridled arms dealing, nationalism, and economic inequality, to persist.

Moreover, the real challenge to our children’s future – the climate emergency – is side lined and relegated to a discussion of the rights of people to protest. Climate change is the single most important issue for our society and I think Bentley was probably right to say that it should be taught in schools. Not at the expense of learning about WW2,, however, but as well as.

The reality is that Climate Change is terrifying, and we risk traumatizing our children just as much as learning about Belsen and Auschwitz does. But since the general public doesn’t seem to have woken up to the dangers of the climate emergency, and the tabloids and most politicians don’t seem to be doing a very good job of educating us on it, the only hope we have is for our schools to inculcate a concern for the planet at an early age.

History is vital to a rounded education but if we don’t look – and look urgently – to the future no one will be around to learn the lessons that history teaches us anyway.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

Taking teaching outside the classroom: crime and punishment in situ

 

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On Monday this week I removed my second-year class on crime and punishment from the confines of a Waterside campus classroom (lovely as they are) and transported it to a real life courthouse in the centre of Northampton.

Northampton’s Sessions House was built after the fire that destroyed much of the town in 1675. This gave the local authorities the opportunity to create a purpose-built space to hold the biannual county assizes and the quarterly sessions of the peace.  There are two courts in the complex – one for criminal and one for civil cases – both have had some significant modernization since the late 1700s but plenty of the original courtrooms have survived.

Below the courts are holding cells, and it is still possible to access the ‘walk of shame’ that would have conveyed commended prisoners to the gallows that was situated towards the rear of the complex.  Still possible, that is, so long as you have a friendly and well-informed guide like Dr Alan Clarke, our friendly expert in local English history.

About 30 history undergraduates take my level 5 module (HIS2010) at the University of Northampton and in last week’s class we had looked at the nature of the court trial in the eighteenth century, at the role of the judge and juries, and considered the importance of architecture in the process of the administration of ‘justice’.

This is quite limited in a modern classroom when your key resources are contemporary written accounts and images like this one (of the Old Bailey in the early 1800s).

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My students have just embarked on a project that will see them reenact a real trial using the published records of London’s Central Criminal Court in the past and so I was keen to let them get a sense of what a trial might have been like. I rather enjoy the idea of ‘experiencing’ history where possible, even if (thanks goodness) I can’t begin to experience the fear of being tried for an offence for which I might pay with my life if convicted.

Alan took us on a tour of the court complex – the cells (where evidence of their recently past can be seen in the surviving graffiti from the 1970s and 1980s), the judge’s chambers, and the nineteenth-century gaol block.

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He also described the interior of both courts, pointing out and explaining the symbolism woven into the intricate plaster work (the work of Edward Goodge). Over the judge’s chair in the criminal court are emblems representing truth, justice, material wealth (and its opposite), as well as the image of the devil complete with a tongue which supposedly wags when someone tells a lie in court.

Having settled the class back down after our tour I now gave individuals roles to play as we reconstructed two short cases from the Old Bailey Proceedings in the 1700s. The first was the trial of a domestic servant who had given birth in secret and was accused of ‘destroying’ her illegitimate child. The trial took hardly any time at all to find her guilty and to condemn her death and anatomization. The evidence was limited, the few witnesses that spoke up for her were ineffectual, and this made a deep impression on the class as we unpacked it afterwards.

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The second case was no less brutal; another young woman, this time accused of killing man because he called her ‘a whore’. Despite the evidence of intent being almost nonexistent and contentious (the knife she used had a rounded blade, hardly likely to have inflicted the wounds described by the witnesses that spoke against her) she too was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Both cases revealed that respectability and class played a more important role in the eighteenth-century courtroom than evidence did. But more than this the very act of voicing the words spoken in a real court space helped us understand how the various actors were perceived. There is a very different perspective sitting (as the student playing the judge did) at the apex of the court looking down on everyone else, than there is looking up from the dock, knowing that behind you is a staircase (merely ladder when the court was built) to the dark cells below.

In January these students will be back in court so that they can put on their own assessed trials. They have 15-20 minutes to reenact a case of their choosing before myself and a colleague will discuss what they have learnt from the process and how it has shaped their understanding the criminal justice system of the past.

Of course, we can’t possibly experience history in the way that people did in the past: there were plenty of giggles as students placed in the dock or ‘locked’ into a cell but engaging with history in this way does bring it alive. Taking students out of the comfort of a classroom changes perspectives, mine as well as theirs, and I think we ought to do it more often.

Drew Gray (Subject lead, Humanities)