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A pandemic in Boris Johnson’s ‘Land of Liberty’

The UK government is holding daily news conferences on the Coronavirus pandemic, and yesterday the Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded to a question about further restrictions on the public – such as limiting public transport – like this:

We live in a land of liberty, as you know, and it’s one of the great features of our lives that we don’t tend to impose those sorts of restrictions on people in this country…

It was typically romantic rhetoric from Johnson, although it was an incongruous moment in a press conference dominated by scientific analysis and practical policy announcements.

 

 

 

The remark stuck out for me, since it is very reminiscent of the type of rhetoric I encounter when studying Britain in the eighteenth century. As I wrote about in my new book Citizenship and Gender in Britain, political culture in this period emphasised the liberties of the freeborn Englishman, and celebrated these rights as unique and enshrined in the ancient constitution. (This political culture was exported to the American colonies and ironically inspired the revolution against British rule: since this was the founding moment of the republic, this libertarian rhetoric retains an even greater purchase in the USA today than it does here.)

This was historically interesting, then, but arguably it sheds some light on British (and indeed American) responses to the Coronavirus pandemic, in contrast with other parts of the world. While many other countries closed schools and public buildings, stopped holding public events and required citizens to remain in their homes, they looked on with bafflement as Britain appeared to carry on as usual.

As late as last weekend, Britain carried out very little testing, imposed minimal restrictions, and kept pubs and schools open. Half-hearted free market solutions, such as using Deliveroo to take meals to older people, were floated. When on Monday the government changed tack after widespread public outcry, it issued advice to avoid pubs and cinemas – but did not require them actually to close.

In general, this bespoke a reluctance to tell people what to do. Even the government scientists’ own modelling took ‘behavioural fatigue’ into account: people tire of control measures, so if you start them too early then people will start disobeying them early too.

Historically, the British state has been wary of imposing anything on its citizens that could be seen to infringe their liberty. To take an issue that I have researched, the state has historically been reluctant to impose military conscription. The wars of the eighteenth century made huge manpower demands, not least because Britain’s primary rival France could always threaten to invade. But such was the horror of conscription, that the British instead relied on voluntarist initiatives and legal fudges to get men under arms. Naval impressment and the militia ballot were conscription in all but name, but gave the impression of community service and libertarianism. The remarkable thing about these responses was their effectiveness: while Revolutionary and Napoleonic France assembled huge conscripted armies, Britain got a similar proportion of its population under arms through largely voluntarist means. And it continued to avoid full conscription until things got really desperate in 1916.

The British model of citizenship tends to place the emphasis upon the citizen’s rights, whereas in many republican traditions abroad this is outweighed by the citizen’s obligations to the state. France, Italy and Spain are near neighbours facing similar problems, but their governments have had no compunction about imposing tight infection control measures, and enforcing them with their police services. It remains to be seen whether, as the situation worsens here, the British government will act in the same way.

Perhaps they won’t need to. It was striking how the government U-turned on Monday after their weeks of inaction prompted an outcry from the public and the media. People started to change their behaviour without being told to: sporting bodies led the way here, cancelling fixtures and tournaments, and fans accepted it. I’m not going to credit the government with doing this deliberately, but the public seemed happier doing something once they had made up their own minds, rather than because they were required to.

As a coda, Brexit Britain has been wallowing in Second World War nostalgia. Expect to hear a lot more about ‘the people’s war’, as plucky citizens do their bit in a time of national emergency. We’re all in this together, apparently. Except that recent scenes of panic buying have echoes of the black-marketeering, rule-breaking and looting that took place during the rationing regime of the mid-twentieth century…

Matthew McCormack

Call for Papers: ‘Innovations in Teaching Eighteenth-Century History’

Online workshop hosted by the University of Northampton, 25 June 2020

 

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William Hogarth, ‘The Assembly at Wanstead House’ (c. 1728-32): Wikimedia Commons

In recent decades, the eighteenth century has been a notable growth area in historical studies and related disciplines. Since its study was long neglected, historians of the period tended to work with scholars from other disciplines under the banner of ‘eighteenth-century studies’, leading to a field that is often interdisciplinary and theoretically-informed. Research areas that currently receive attention include – among many others – the histories of colonialism, material culture, emotions, sexuality and ecology. Given that the eighteenth century is often regarded as a foundational one for the modern world, much of this research has an overt contemporary relevance.

The eighteenth century is now widely taught in UK History departments, but it also presents challenges. Students will typically not have encountered it as part of their school curriculum, they may have preconceptions that are offputting, and the source material can be appear longwinded or illegible. Much of this source material is now online, so students require digital skills to evaluate it. The theoretical and interdisciplinary nature of some of the critical writings can also make it challenging to teach, especially at undergraduate level. It can therefore be a tough sell, whereas academics of the period are keen to convey that this is a fascinating and important period to study.

This day workshop will therefore reflect on how we teach the history of the long eighteenth century, focusing on pedagogical innovation and current developments in the discipline. Themes could include:

  • Teaching the digital eighteenth century
  • Decolonising the eighteenth-century curriculum
  • Mental wellbeing and neurodiversity
  • LGBT+ history in the classroom
  • Pedagogy and the environmental crisis
  • Eighteenth-century studies and postgraduate learning
  • Teaching and learning with material objects

Please send 300 word proposals for papers or workshop sessions to matthew.mccormack@northampton.ac.uk by 20 April 2020.

UPDATE: due to the COVID-19 situation, we have extended the deadline for proposals, and plan to hold the workshop online. Please watch this space for further details.

The event is funded by the East Midlands Centre for Learning and Teaching in History. Participation is free of charge.

The event is organised by Matthew McCormack (Northampton), Ruth Larsen (Derby) and Alice Marples (Oxford).

 

Restricting immigration, a good idea? An historical perspective from 1905 to the present

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At the beginning of this week the incumbent Home Secretary announced that from January 2021 new legislation would restrict immigration into the UK, as the government had promised in the run up to the 2019 General Election.

In brief the aim of the Conservative administration is to limit the amount of poorer, less well educated, and ‘low skilled’ migrants to Britain whilst at the same time allowing (encouraging perhaps) those with much-needed skills to come to the UK to work, regardless of where they come from.

Immigrants will only qualify for a visa if they have 70 points under the new system and meet the three essential characteristics, which are:

An ‘approved’  job offer, at an ‘appropriate skill level, and a good command of English.

Those three would give you 50 points so in addition migrants need to coming to work in a job where we have a shortage (20 points); to a job which pays a salary in excess of £25,600; or a PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job they are taking.

Journalists were quick to point out that this would have excluded the Home Secretary’s own family from entering Britain in the 1960s (something she denied was relevant) and opponents have loudly condemned the move, saying that it will undermine Social Care provision and the hospitality industry.

However, the move is likely to be popular amongst those that supported Brexit, particularly in the constituencies that ‘lent’ the Conservatives their (previously Labour) vote in the last election. PM Johnson’s promise to ‘get Brexit done’ chimed with very many people who believe (like one member of the audience on the BBC’s Question Time last night) that Britain is being ‘flooded’ with immigrants.

Immigrants, it has long been suggested, who take jobs away from locals, depress wages (via their willingness to work for low pay), and who are a drain on the benefit system, housing, and the NHS.

A very similar situation existed in the closing decades of the nineteenth century when after several years of large scale immigration of mainly Jewish migrants from Eastern and Central Europe precipitated racial tension and calls for law to restrict such migration. In 1905 this culminated in the very first restrictive immigration legislation – the Aliens Act.

This act was aimed squarely at poor foreign Jews, just as the modern act is aimed at those who are deemed to contribute little to our society.  In the late 1800s some contemporaries argued that the huge numbers of Jews fleeing persecution and poverty in the Russian Empire were overcrowding areas like East London and ‘swamping’ communities. Cheap Jewish labour – especially in clothing manufacture – was ‘working the Englishman out’. Since immigrants were prepared to work for a lot less in cramped (‘sweated’) conditions the local ‘English’ workforce were either left unemployed or forced to accept reduced wages to compete.Unknown

Following the 1905 act ships arriving in Britain were inspected and ‘steerage’ passengers (those arriving with little or no money) were assessed to see if they were ‘undesirable’. Anyone unable to support himself or his dependents (unless they were political refugees) was undesirable.

In practice this meant they had to have at least £5 plus £2 for every defendant that accompanied them. In 1905 this was quite a considerable amount of cash to bring with you, especially after paying for travel and (probably) having to bribe a series of officials on the way our of Russia. In addition anyone deemed to be ‘a lunatic’, those previous expelled, and criminals were all rejected and turned away.

This was a calculated effort on behalf of the then Conservative government (a weak administration which fell shortly afterwards) to respond to the ‘dog whistles’ of right wing populist politicians like Arnold White and newly elected MPs in the East End who advocated restrictions on immigration.

It fed on the entrenched prejudice towards Jews and ‘foreigners’  that had surfaced during the late 1880s in the wake of the ‘sweating scandal’ and the unprecedented influx of poor Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the Pale of Settlement.

In 1888 when an unknown serial killer murdered at least five defenseless women in Whitechapel many were quick to point the finger of blame at the Jewish community. Indeed, many are still keen to pin the murders on a local Jew even though there is scant evidence that a member of the Jewish community was responsible.

The 1905 Aliens Act fed on popular fears and prejudices just as the legislation announced this week does. That is not say that immigration should not be restricted at all but people should be presented with the facts and not be misled or manipulated for political ends.

UnknownPriti Patel (pictured right with Nick Ferage from LBC) claimed that her parents would have been allowed into Britain as they were fleeing persecution in Uganda under the dictatorship of Idi Amin. But her knowledge of history is sadly lacking.

The Patels came to England in the 1960s, working hard and establishing themselves as the vast majority of immigrants have done and continue to do, and Mrs Patel has benefitted from their hard work and the education she received since her birth here in 1972.

Idi Amin rose to power in the 1970s, well after the Patels left Uganda. When Amin started expelling Asians from Uganda in 1972 Priti Patel’s family had been over here for several years.

Perhaps she might reflect that her parents – like so many migrants to the UK – came for a variety of reasons and with a variety of skills (‘high’ and ‘low’ by her own definitions). Not all – very far from ‘all’ in fact – came with a job or with sufficient money to support themselves (for very long at least) but they came and they worked and they enriched the communities they joined.

Immigration has been a success for Britain and attempts to restrict it have largely been shown to fail. Better perhaps to educate those who believe they are being ‘flooded’ than to pander to their fears and prejudices.

Drew Gray, History at Northampton

Deporting people is not the answer to the problem of crime, nor has it ever been.

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Clearly we need to have the full details of those individuals who have today been deported from the UK to Jamaica. However, the Home Office was forced to remove well over half of those they wished to deport after last minute appeals that they had not had their cases properly represented by lawyers. Which begs the questions of what have these people done and is it ever right to deport someone from the place they call ‘home’?

Earlier this week a Home office spokesperson said:

‘We make no apology for trying to protect the public from serious, violent and persistent foreign national offenders.’

Sajid Javid has argued that all of those being deported were ‘Jamaican nationals who have been convicted of criminal offences and served prison sentences of 12 months or more’.

Opponents of the deportation have suggested that at the very least these people have not all been given the opportunity to contest their deportation in the courts. Detention Action– a charity which works with those held in immigration detention centres  – claimed that poor communication at the centres in which the detainees had been held meant they couldn’t access legal support.

The High Court upheld this injunction in at least 30 of the 50 cases of those scheduled to be flown out of Britain this morning.

Bella Sankey, Director of Detention Action, said:

‘Yesterday we gathered shocking and damning evidence that those scheduled on tomorrow’s deportation flight to Jamaica have been denied access to justice. Home Office efforts to issue new SIM cards have been flawed and patchy and people facing a life-changing removal from the UK are effectively being held incommunicado. These removals must be halted until access to lawyers has been restored’.

Speaking on BBC News this morning Sankey remarked that those being deported were being punished a second time for crimes they had already served prison sentences for. Mnay were brought to the UK as children or young adults, many had suffered abuse and grooming whilst here, and in many cases their crimes were minor and drug related. Even in the case of those committing the serious violent offences that Home Secretary Patel and Chancellor Javid were intent on highlighting, did so after living here for several decades.

Her point was that these people – whatever they have done – are, effectively if not legally, British citizens. Their offending is our problem, not Jamaica’s.

convicts_at_botany_bay_commons

We have a history of deporting people our own citizens in this country. From at least the 17thcentury we shipped unwanted criminals to the colonies on America’s eastern seaboard – to Maryland and Virginia for example. Revolutionary war in 1776 brought the system of indentured forced migration to a close and it was far from effective Unknownanyway, as convicts found it fairly straightforward to escape and return to England.

It was much harder for them to escape from the next penal colony however. In 1787 the First Fleet sailed for New South Wales, landing in Botany Bay and establishing a penal settlement was to last until the 1860s. Australia was an unforgiving continent from which escape was almost impossible.

Whilst modern historians have reconsidered the convict experience in the last few decades, and argued that some of those sent ‘down under’ had a better set of life chances than those left behind in the slums of London, Birmingham and Manchester, it was still a double sentence.

Most of those transported (deported in effect) to Australia were guilty of fairly minor property crimes and yet they had been imprisoned in Britain, often in unsanitary and bleak conditions, before being packed onto a ship and transported thousands of miles to endure harsh conditions in a new colony. Set to work in chain gangs, on farms as bonded labourers and servants, whilst they might work their way out of bondage it was very difficult for any of them to return ‘home’.

Britain abandoned transportation in the 1860s, preferring instead to lock up most of our criminals in model prisons like Pentonville. Notions of reform and rehabilitations often ran a poor second to those of protecting the public and punishment but at least on release those convicted could return to the communities they knew and understood.

Britain is a nation of immigrants; first and second and third (and so on) migrants from all over the world. Those from the Caribbean (whether Windrush or not) come as part of what was our empire and dominions. To uproot those that have made their home here (however badly they have lived their lives since they arrived) seems to be piling further punishment on top of that imposed by a judge at trial.

To me it smacks of cruelty and an abrogation of responsibility for people whose crimes were committed here, not in Jamaica or anywhere else, and as a result of the environment they grew up in, not the one they were removed from as children or teenagers.

UnknownI rather suspect that Mr Javid and Ms Patel (left) are more interested in appearing ‘tough on crime’ than they are in dealing with the problem of ‘crime’.

There is nothing new in this: it is very easy to talk tough and impress the readers of the Daily Mail and the Conservative Party conference but it will do nothing to keep the people of Britain ‘safe’ in the long run.

Drew Gray, Historian of crime and punishment

 

 

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.

Hirak2

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?

 

 

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

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:

 

Renton

 

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)