The autumn is upon us. And Poldark is back! The images of the beautiful Cornish coast around Treen, Porthcurno, and St Michael’s Mount are a welcome visitor to the screen as the grimy dark nights draw in. The television series, reborn from the novels of Winston Graham and the earlier screen adaptations of the mid-1970s, continues to attract considerable attention from the general public and historians alike.
Recent posts on this blog from Sarah Crook and Graham Smith have raised some very interesting questions about gendered perceptions of public history, both in popular books and on television. Following on from this commentary, I’d like to consider the ways in which historical writing and research have inflected the production and reception of BBC’s very successful fictional history of eighteenth century Cornwall.
Hannah Greig, historical advisor on Poldark, and Greg Jenner, of Horrible Histories fame, have already offered some very insightful views regarding the role of the historical advisor in contributing to the ‘accuracy’ of fictional representations of the past. For both Hannah and Greig, the priority of a television drama is precisely that – dramatic structures must take priority: ‘drama is there to entertain us. Dramatists are there to spellbind us, to make us laugh and cry and fear for our favourite characters’. Hannah confirms and explains ‘the most important thing is to have great story. That has to be the priority. A historical adviser can help to drive that story forward, informed by what we know about the past’. Historians are thus not invited to ‘determine what that story is’, but to inform the ‘look’ and conduct of the action. And yet I feel we should at least consider the idea that complementing the programmes with further historical context might make the drama all the more compelling and resonant.
The historical preparation for the portrayal of mid- to late-eighteenth century rural, coastal and town life on Poldark has been meticulous: attention to the details of dress, commerce, urban sociability and gentry etiquette have been scrutinised by the learned and the expert. Whether a pasty contained rabbit or deer might depend on the local ecology or the skill of the poachers, and the details of costume, deportment or the pistols and rigging are useful markers of historical ‘accuracy’, if not necessarily carriers of truth. In strictly dramatic terms, the narratives in Poldark are compelling, blending the personal, the emotional and the political in a very challenging and provocative way. Over the course of successive Sunday evenings the heroes and villains, the scoundrels and the indigent, encounter each other in a variety of social, institutional, cultural and legal settings. These encounters also expose the deeper seams of eighteenth century life: the rule and administration of law by local elites, the impact of commerce on the routines of customary economic practises and the complexity of popular and parliamentary politics. Yet while much has been made of the visual reconstruction and the marvellous acting, the more profound themes of gender inequality, class war, the ‘old corruption’ of public politics before the days of the secret ballot, and the abject poverty of rural labour have not been teased out in the reviews, although they are, in effect, the sinews of the power of the narrative which keep us engaged.
As those familiar with the early-modern social history of ideas and crime may have realised, the narrative of Poldark conveys very powerfully one of the key insights of Edward Thompson’s work: that although the rule of law in the eighteenth century was contrived to protect property, it was also bound by its own authority. The role of the jury in freeing Ross Poldark from the noose, for example, represents the significance of the tradition of trial by jury in the administration of justice enshrined in the birthrights of freeborn men and women. The radical John Wilkes’ freedoms were preserved by this process in his defence of liberty in the 1760s when Middlesex juries repeatedly protected him from conviction. The current episodes of Poldark engage with the histories of the complex processes of social mobility which drove, and were driven by, the marriage market; the crises of familial relationships that shaped reputation and authority; the dangers of gambling and the financial markets, and the hard grind of the everyday lives of ordinary people.
Although the original novels were written in the immediate post-war contexts of the mid and later 1940s, they have been made more directly historically interesting by the growth of social history in the 1970s. The ages of Walpole, and then the Pitts, elder and younger, were not simply made up of stories of meticulously landscaped county houses, glittering society balls and the routines of polite culture: they were times of revolution and turbulent class struggle. The American wars of Independence saw a great diffusion of radical commonwealth ideas across the Atlantic. At home the popular resistance manifest in the campaigns of John Wilkes for the liberties of the freeborn English, and later in the French revolution, offered radical opportunities for protest and freedom in Europe, including in Ireland during the bloody United Irish rebellion of 1798, and for the ‘Black Jacobins’ of Haiti (see C.L. R. James’ powerful study of Toussaint L’Overture). In Britain, ‘riots’ prompted by political ideology or economic desperation reflected the increasing dominance of ‘King Property’, and the progressively rapid destruction of what the great historian Edward Thompson called ‘customs in common’. Labourers, artisans and skilled workers – both men and women – saw the traditional means of regulating their working hours, and providing for their families, constrained and disrupted by the demands of the market and the ever powerful coercive legal code which led to Douglas Hay referred to as ‘Albion’s fatal tree’. Smuggling, poaching, and wrecking were all subjected to criminal codes of brutal savagery.
Poldark addresses many of these themes in the social history of crime and society explored in the great and formative works of historians like Edward Thompson (Whig and Hunters, 1975), and the collection of essays exploring the lives and deaths of labourers and city workers (Albion’s Fatal Tree, 1975). Markus Rediker wrote a wonderful book on the Atlantic world of pirates and seamen some thirty years ago (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, 1987), while Peter Linebaugh’s London Hanged (1991) explores the lives of those that were victims of Tyburn in the struggle between rich and poor. The criminalisation of what were regarded as customary rights, in the name of defending property and order, is the backcloth to the struggle of Poldark and his friends. Commerce and maritime innovation may have brought new commodities to the banqueting tables of the gentry, but they also destroyed the system of regular employment which enabled the poor and labouring to survive by helping themselves to reasonable benefits of their labour (known then as perquisites, or in our modern world ‘perks’). Exploring these histories will make the viewing of the series even more exciting.
For those interested in the histories of smuggling, poaching and the highwayman there is an alternative fictional series which seems to have been forgotten. The ‘Dr Syn’ novels of Russell Thorndyke, written during and after the First World War, and set in the smuggling culture of Romney Marsh in Kent and Sussex, combined smuggling, piracy and politics. Thorndyke’s novels travel widely, involving Caribbean characters, pirates and American revolutionaries: this might provide a much more diverse palette for the modern viewer. These novels have been serialised on the radio (read by none other than Rufus Sewell who recently starred in Victoria), and indeed were turned into a series of graphic novels and reasonably gentle Disney films. There was a ‘Carry-on’ version in the 1970s, the great Led Zeppelin recorded a song, ‘No Quarter’, drawn from the stories, while ‘The Day of Syn’ is a festival held in the town of Dymchurch to fund-raise for local community activity. A modern script-writer might work with the novels, but also explore them alongside the new Atlantic history inspired by the landmark histories of Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, whose work, The Many Headed Hydra: The hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic (2000) explores the communities of slaves, commoners and sailors who resisted economic and social oppression from elites and mercantile interests from the West Indies, Africa and North America. Weaving those ‘real’ narratives into a fictional narrative would be a great challenge but it would also produce a very attractive and diverse series that allowed different voices and characters to perform in mainstream viewing. Perhaps and enterprising commissioner at the BBC or Channel 4, will explore the possibilities of creating a further series? Let’s hope so.
Sexed-up television histories, it seems, are just for girls. Histories, that is, that embellish and dwell on human relationships, that exalt the tactile thrill of the inadvertent touch, that are attentive to the colour a frisson of desire can add to the way we tell stories. Or so a recent article in The Spectator by James Delingpole would have us believe. The article, which was subsequently amended to remove some of its more outlandish claims, put forward some quite brazen generalisations about how men and women approach the past. ‘Boys’, the author postulates, ‘being of a more trainspotterish disposition’ would be more critical of the recent ITV series Victoria, for they are ‘more jealous of their facts and period detail’.
The critical response to the unamended article from historians on Twitter was swift and brutal. This was followed by a more critical approach: Delingpole is a provocateur, it was claimed, and the academic community should not engage with his trolling. But as other historians pointed out, Delingpole’s view that women’s interests are less intellectually rigorous and factually oriented than men’s are less unusual than we might hope. My own view, and that of others, is that we have a responsibility to attack sexism as and where we find it. Beyond this, the article raises two issues for historians interested in the public representation of the past. First, and perhaps less controversially, that the purpose of popular portrayals of prominent figures is to inform as much as to intrigue and entertain. Second, that women are driving the ‘MillsandBoonification of history’ while men are the dispassionate stewards of historical fact.
It is impossible to lay the sexism of the article to one side. The dichotomy between men and women trespasses from their representation of history and into their representation of characters. Rufus Sewell ‘smoulders so tastefully’ as Lord Melbourne (he acts) while Jenna Coleman ‘looks gorgeous’ as Victoria (she exists). Moreover, a collective sigh surely arose at the declaration that the author ‘blamed the ongoing feminisation of culture’ for the direction of the series. This feminisation, the author suggests, drives an ‘irresponsible’ history. But if we scale out from the article to examine the landscape of historical dramas more broadly, can we really say that this attentiveness to desire and romance is a peculiarly feminine trait? Are women responsible for driving men off the sofa on a Sunday night? The author makes it clear that they are – and not to bed with a serious historical tome, either – rather, he argues, men are driven off the sofa by romantic dramas to ‘cavort with rent boys’.
The briefest of journeys through films situated in the (sometimes mythical) past suggests that men happily sex up their representations: Troy (dir. Wolfgang Petersen); Pearl Harbor (dir. Michael Bay); Braveheart (dir. Mel Gibson). Male directors and writers evidently find it just as easy to elaborate, extemporise and appeal to emotion. When men take the reins they are inclined to emphasise the human relationships that underpin events regardless of whether they envisage a male or female audience. In dramas emotions often do the work of explaining complex historical convergences. Does it matter if these desires are fictitious, that it is unlikely that Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne ever exchanged looks charged with sexual intent? While this might grate for historians (we are, after all, ‘for History’), we must first be wary of doing a disservice to viewers by infantilising them as an uncritical public.
My own view is that the best historical dramas do inform as they entertain. As historians are only too aware, and at the risk of being platitudinous, the truth of history is often more scandalous and more intriguing than dramas allow. It is a shame that Victoria marginalises the genuine political and social tensions in favour of a fabricated romance. But laying the blame for this at women’s feet is simply laughable to today’s historians. Rather, Delingpole’s piece brings to mind the anxiety raised by novel reading in the eighteenth century or the consternation over the proliferation of girls’ magazines in early twentieth century Britain. A culture that indulges fictive representations of lust is often considered risky and threatening. As for his claim that ‘mostly men … value history’? Just imagine how he’d react if he found out that some women not only value it, we also teach it.
Sarah Crook is the Cox Fellow in History at New College, Oxford. She completed her PhD on mothers and depression in post-war Britain at Queen Mary, University of London in September 2016.
Just over a week ago The Guardian published an interview with Rebecca Rideal whose narrative history 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire has just been published. The interview provoked a number of historians to Tweet criticism of Rideal, a PhD student and former TV producer who founded The History Vault. Her assertion that ‘The time of the grand histories that are all about male figures is coming to an end’ seems to have touched a particularly raw nerve. The common complaint was that Rideal had failed to acknowledge that the fight against great men histories had been waged for over three decades.
I have some sympathy with these grumblings. Back in 1982, I returned from completing an MA in Social History at Essex to my first university armed with a poster for Leonore Davidoff’s course. I was just pinning it to a noticeboard when the department’s senior professor of economic history spotted me and declared, ‘Women in History, Graham? Whatever next?’
However, as others have pointed out, the fact that the struggle to go beyond hegemonic discourses continues suggests that winning once is not enough. My belief is that evidence of a new generation reinventing ways of taking up that fight should be a cause for celebration rather than condemnation. As tends to happen on Twitter, battle-lines were drawn, allies and enemies were quickly made and exchanges sharpened after those initial criticisms of Rideal. On one side were historians who clearly identified with Rideal, especially those aiming to make a living from producing popular histories. On the other, for the most part, were historians working in universities, some of whom began to question whether Rideal was even qualified to write early modern history.
Spiraling sub-fights, with supporters weighing in from various camps, fed a debate that became increasingly acrimonious. There was also the usual Twitter induced comic confusion – it is not always clear who is responding to what strand as arguments fork, overlap, separate and loop. Nevertheless, things were very evidently turning nasty.
Responses – public history
A common response during the course of the spat and afterwards has been to present the ‘history profession’ as broad enough to encompass both those working inside and outside of universities. Such claims were underpinned in most cases with the argument that Rideal is engaged in ‘public history’. Leaving aside the rather odd formulation of the ‘history profession’ with its Rankean pretensions, intellectual insecurities and constant discipline making, patching things up with another poorly conceived label seems like an inadequate way to proceed. Instead, moving the debate forward will require genuine reflection on the nature of ‘history’ as a profession; otherwise we will continue to periodically descend into bickering and trading insults.
One difficulty amongst historians in Britain is that public history is not as well developed or understood here as it is elsewhere, especially in North America and Australasia. We tend to talk about public history as history that is produced outside of university departments; an activity, such as a television history. Or sometimes we stretch this base definition to include public history as impact, especially the influence of historical policy research translated for the consumption of publics or politicians. But the roots of public history are older and the acrimony of the recent Twitter battle reminds me of a wider war.
In those very early and heady years of the 1980s, I had left Stirling University to learn about oral history at Essex. At the time, oral history was despised by ‘professional historians’, rather than generally misunderstood or dismissed as is the case now. The economic historian I referred to above taught me in my final undergraduate year and on being approached for a reference recommended I should continue to study with him. By so doing, he insisted, I would be able to take, ‘A panoramic view of the past, rather than going down in the dirt with the yokels’. My response to such unashamed elitism, was to attend his final seminars dressed in a top hat and frock coat bought from the local Oxfam.
These days, the battles within ‘the profession’ are mainly over resources and too often fuelled by egotism. With its proponents organised into warring tribes according to the periods and places they study, or corralled into sub-disciplinary groupings, History is fractious even within the academy. In all of this sound and fury, and despite constant internal sniping, the discipline has been traditionally slow to innovate and much of the sparring is about maintaining rather than extending boundaries. It is worth noting, for example, that those pioneering courses in women’s history and oral history at Essex were taught in the Sociology Department. While members of other disciplines frequently offer support for new ideas, historians – too often operating as lone scholars – revel in knocking lumps out of one another, reserving particular spite for those who try to innovate. The result is that in open competition for resources, most obviously for research grant income or in the formation of mutually beneficial research partnerships, historians do not achieve the same results as, say, political scientists or human geographers. Nor are we as prepared to look after our researchers or early career colleagues as would be the case in economics or sociology.
So what can public history offer? In answering that question I’m alluding to historians who actively research and publish as reflective public historians and are not only making up numbers in the history commentariat. Drawing on the work of early oral history, at least some public historians have developed a greater sense of working in partnership, and have come to genuinely appreciate the notion of ‘shared authority’. This at its most basic is the recognition of different forms of expertise and was developed in response to the simple question of who were the authors of oral history interviews. Was it the (oral) historians conducting the interview? Or the interviewees who were specialists in their own lives and always much more (otherwise why bother interviewing them)? Or both?
It cannot be beyond the capability of historians, irrespective of where they work or what they work on, to collaborate on projects in a spirit of shared authority. While rigour in handling evidence, of broader interpretation and writing should be upheld, there is much to be gained by recognising that we may all be engaged in a common project that goes beyond individual conceptualisations or where we work. Just recognising that connecting with members of the public involves a different skill set and that the ways in which we communicate should become the subject of historical study would be a major step forward. Even more pressing is the need for greater recognition that large numbers of people, especially in Britain, are often deeply invested, passionate and knowledgeable about history. The notion that ‘we’, whether ‘we’ are in community or academy settings, are the arbiters or the sole traders of the past is pure delusion. The idea that there still a great deal to do within our imagined profession even after a peace treaty is declared, should keep us all busy and out of Twitter trouble.
Political scientists are already mining Twitter for research, most notably on its use in revolutionary situations. One recent study has pointed to the significance of Twitter as a means of ‘collective sense making’ during times of instability. It will be interesting to see what historians make of Twitter in the future. As an echo-chamber for congratulatory thought collectives or as a means to conduct acrimonious debate, the 140-character-a-time medium will offer rich evidence of the historiographical making and unmaking of ‘us’ and ‘other’.
 Oh, O., C. Eom, and H. R. Rao, “Role of Social Media in Social Change: An Analysis of Collective Sense Making During the 2011 Egypt Revolution,” Information Systems Research, vol. 26, no. 1, pp.210–223, 2015.
The recent photos in the media showing armed police apparently forcing a Muslim woman wearing a burkini on a French beach to remove it, or alternatively some of her outer clothing, in public, and then seemingly fining her, highlight beautifully the challenges facing historians in a post-modern historical world. What the ‘facts’ of the matter really are is no longer relevant. It is what we believe to be happening that counts, and so it is our interpretation of those facts that matters. Whether or not it was really a dreaded burkini (an outfit “not respecting good morals and secularism”) – at best, unhygienic, or at worst, to quote the French Prime Minister, part of the “enslavement” of (Muslim) women, this episode underlines yet again how central Muslim women’s bodies are to wider questions of identity, community and ‘modernity’. For the last couple of centuries Muslim women have been under close scrutiny in terms of what they wear, or do not wear. Their sartorial choices have not been individual choices. Rather they are so often the litmus test for ideas about progress versus non-progress, however these two terms might be understood. Interestingly, back in the 1850s, when the US activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer pioneered the wearing of the loose pantaloons that came to bear her name, western women followed the example of so-called eastern (Muslim) women and adopted ‘the Turkish dress’ in order to liberate themselves from the restrictive clothing – complete with bone-crunching corsets – that dominated at that time. Of course, bloomers in due course retreated to the private world of Western women’s underwear. Burkinis, like other supposedly threatening forms of covering worn by twenty-first century Muslim women, have to be seen, like the women who wear them, in public. Surely their public presence is a good thing?
See here for an informed discussion of when and why items of clothing have caused political storms.
Sarah Ansari is Professor of South Asian History and head of the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London.
In the spring of 1848 Europeans rose up on the streets of dozens of continental cities from Budapest to Paris and Berlin to Milan. Their demands were disparate and sometimes contradictory: free assembly, representative government, national self-determination, economic reform and much else besides. After initial successes, many of these revolutions followed a common pattern: reform, violence, division, repression and ultimately failure. By the following year constitutions had been torn up, newspapers banned and activists exiled.
After Brexit it is not the revolutions of 1848 that should capture our attention but rather what came next. As Chris Clark has shown, the 1850s witnessed a collective European experiment in which ruling elites mixed politics in new combinations in an attempt to respond to and address the instability that had produced revolutionary situations across Europe. The regimes that took over after 1848 did not simply carry out a conservative ‘reaction’, shutting down elections and newspapers. Innovative and expansive, they sought to provide the sort of order that would reassure threatened elites while also alleviating the social tensions that had made politics so dangerously volatile.
Importantly, governments in the affected countries began adopting a newly assertive role in economic and public life. The Spanish government laid telegraph cables to the Balearics, Central European states built railways and drove tunnels through the Alps. Many regimes also experimented with novel techniques for managing public opinion through the press and measuring social problems by gathering statistics.
France’s Emperor Napoleon III was emblematic of this trend: first elected as President Louis-Napoleon under universal suffrage in the wake of 1848, his longer-term survival relied on his ability to build a coalition of interests that represented apparently contradictory drives. His governments appeased big financiers and banks while granting workers the right to strike, renovated Parisian slums while expelling many of their residents, and ruled by plebiscites held under universal suffrage while all but outlawing conventional party politics.
We may not have seen a revolution in the past two months, but we are certainly living through another age of trans-European political disillusionment and ideological remixing. Brexit is but one symptom of the contradictions that are rapidly dismantling assumptions about the politics-as-usual status quo. Political forces across Europe and beyond are engaged in a struggle to fuse the popular appeal of protectionism and nativism with the interconnection and cosmopolitanism they see as intrinsic to modern societies and essential to their economies. At the same time, they seek to reconcile these divergent impulses with the distinctive features of their national political cultures – secularism and the republic in France, the union in Britain, and so on.
Yet just because these forces look irreconcilable does not mean that the Louis-Napoleons and Bismarcks of our age will not find ways to fuse them together, however delicately.
Faced with these challenges and a hostile public in much of England and Wales, pro-European Brits might be tempted to throw in the political towel altogether. But as writers such as Flaubert and Marx recognised from very different political perspectives back in the mid-nineteenth century, there is no ‘elsewhere’ outside history to which one can flee. Equally, while Britain’s role in the specific political institution of the European Union is now coming to an end, our implication in common European historical processes is, if anything, becoming even clearer.
On 26th June I tweeted:
No government, economic stagnation, anti-immigrant populism, political fragmentation: my fellow Brits, today at last we are true Europeans!
I was only half-joking. We may soon cease operating within some of the legal, administrative and economic channels with which we have become familiar, but there is no escaping the broader structural and cultural bonds between Britain and the rest of the continent. Only through sharing ideas with our neighbours will we be able to develop responses to the centrifugal forces of our age that can challenge the populist and quasi-democratic solutions on offer to European publics.
In recent decades Britain’s pro-Europeans did not always bang the drum about the benefits of certain forms of collaboration, integration and exchange with our neighbours loudly enough. We are now entering a new era, and we need a new drum.
The Brexit referendum was about something far bigger than Britain’s political and economic relationship with the rest of Europe. School pupils and university students spontaneously broke into tears on the morning the results came in, seeing their future life prospects destroyed. At the same time, people who look or sound different were told by triumphant leavers to ‘pack your bags and go back where you came from’, across the country and without any apparent coordination or official political backing. Such happenings are ominous, and they become more ominous still if serious incidents such as the murder of an MP as a perceived ‘traitor’ to the nation are factored in. Many of us historians have developed a special sense for such moments because we are trained to connect the dots intuitively and imaginatively. We have seen similar outbursts of collective emotion in the past and know what they can harbour – situations like 1789 in France, 1947 in India, 1990 in Yugoslavia.
There has been a widespread sense of disquiet about the state of the world for some years now. The ability to visualize a better future has never in living memory seemed so remote. It feels as if Francis Fukuyama’s much maligned ‘end of history’ has been stripped of its messianic optimism and then never gone away. A dark cloud of ‘there is no alternative’ has being hanging over us. There have been global pandemics like swine flu or Ebola, environmental disasters and unusual natural events, and the diffuse threat of Islamic terrorism has combined with a sense of economic crisis to produce a generalized climate of fear and foreboding. Yet until Brexit struck, this sense of impending doom still seemed to be somewhat intangible; perceptible below the surface but not powerful enough to disrupt the order of everyday life. Now, it feels as if things are at last kicking off for real. One historian on Twitter began to wonder half-jokingly whether people a century hence will speak of the ‘generalized crisis of the early 21st century’, others whether the year 2016 would be remembered as the date when the dissolution of the world as we know it began in earnest.
In times like these, history can be a great consoler. By standing back and contemplating larger connections and storylines, the febrile mind can at last find a grip, a resting place that offers some sense of ‘taking back control’. But such consolation should come with a health warning. Getting a grip is not the same as optimism, let alone offering a workable vision for political action. Some of the best long term analyses have been driven by the experience of defeat. Think of Fernand Braudel, who discovered the agency of geographic features over the longue durée when incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp. Or of Antonio Gramsci who wrote his exceptionally perceptive interpretations of history from a fascist prison cell. It is Gramsci’s ‘pessimism of the intellect’ rather than his ‘optimism of the will’ that colours the way we see the world today. Making sense of Brexit within a larger historical framework is like staring into the abyss in order to make one’s fears more manageable, an exorcism by anticipation, perhaps.
The books that I felt most compelled to revisit in response to the Brexit crisis all deal with the historical sociology of capitalism. I had come across some of this material as a student in the early and mid 1990s, but until recently, lost sight of it to explore other intellectual territories. Most of it is of Marxist provenance broadly construed – more precisely of North American Marxist provenance, where big picture analyses of the global economic system have received particularly careful attention. Relevant names include (among others) Immanuel Wallerstein, Saskia Sassen, David Harvey, Royal Holloway’s own Sandra Halperin, and somewhat peripheral to this tradition, the German historian of capitalist crises, Robert Kurz.
There are several reasons why this body of literature seemed to be particularly appealing when trying to make sense of Brexit. In the first instance, the referendum has been accompanied by the ongoing self-destruction of the British Labour Party, and a general reassessment of left theory and practice going back to first base seemed appropriate and pressing for the moment. Before we can even argue about what kind of politics we now need, we need to know where we stand in terms of big-picture stuff. In addition, the emotional flavour of this historical sociology chimed with the post-Brexit blues. The authors involved were all more or less shaped by the experience of belonging to an intellectual tradition – Marxism – which had not the slightest chance of wider political relevance where they lived or worked, the USA. But they carried on writing regardless, and with a heightened sense that at least intellectually they could defeat an otherwise overwhelming system. And, perhaps most importantly, there seemed to be an immediate fit with the empirical evidence. The map of how Britain voted over Brexit – with ‘remain’ areas coloured yellow and ‘leave’ areas coloured blue – was an almost perfect illustration of some key arguments that had been made in this body of scholarly writing.
The historical sociology of global capitalism, then, is the grand narrative which can help us situate Brexit, its causes and consequences. It allows us to read the referendum result as an outward sign – local and specific to the UK – of a much wider structural contradiction which is currently transforming the world as we know it. What is at stake is enormous, and holds the frightening but real possibility that our future may be a good deal less democratic than our present.
Let us begin with a key contention: over its long historical formation, capitalism has only occasionally and in very particular locations marched in step with the two other trademark institutions of modernity, the nation state and democracy. For most of the modern period, capitalism has produced economic and political geographies that cut across the nation state in various ways, and relied on means of political organization that involved some degree of authoritarianism and coercion.
This is immediately evident when we take a global view of capitalism in its formative period from the 17th to the 19th centuries. This was never just a story of an industrial (or as some would have it, an ‘industrious’) revolution in one particular territory such as Britain, operating in tandem with the creation of new citizens equal before the law, and their gradual incorporation in political decision making. There was always another side to it: first, what Marx originally called ‘primitive accumulation’, the forcible appropriation of peoples, places and goods in the first rush for capital accumulation. It was exemplified by the enclosure of common lands, the infamous highland clearances or the robber-baron colonialism of the East India Company. Then came the no less brutal but more systematic disempowerment of the majority of the world’s population on racial grounds under European empires. In some places, and for three centuries or more, this included capitalist slavery, the most coercive system of labour management imaginable. The link between authoritarianism and capitalism did not end there. The twentieth century brought forth capitalist dictatorships around the world, including communist dictatorships. Against other sections of the Left, much of the literature under review argues that communists were politically successful in many parts of the global South and underdeveloped East not because they were anti-capitalist, but, on the contrary, because they offered a turbo-charged version of capitalist development directed and monopolized by the state. This is what Lenin’s famous celebration of ‘electrification of the whole country’ and Mao’s ‘great leap forward’ were all about. The untold horrors committed in the name of communist development are as much part of Robert Kurz’s ‘black book’ of global capitalism as modern slavery.
Whatever may have changed over these centuries, capitalist development was rarely confined within national boundaries (the communist path to development is a possible exception). More often than not, the global capitalist elite was transnational in orientation. The members of this elite shared a common culture built around such things as opera, a love for renaissance art and classical education. They intermarried across borders. They owned assets in several countries. Friedrich Engels, German industrialist with strong British connections, was by no means unique; even a quintessentially German company like Siemens had British as well as German family branches before the First World War. Capitalism constituted, as Immanuel Wallerstein once famously called it, an emergent ‘world system’ linking metropolitan core areas in Europe with colonial and semi-colonial peripheries around the globe. Colonial Guyana in South America provides a perfect example: labour came from Africa (initially as slaves), from India (as part of the indentured servitude system) and from China; they worked plantations owned by international shareholders to produce cash crops like sugar which had to be shipped across the Atlantic to be sold to mostly working class consumers in Europe’s industrial heartlands. The profits went into anything from railway companies to city banking houses and village church renovations. It should be noted that this self-fuelling and highly exploitative system continued, and become more efficient, in the 150 years after slavery was formally abolished in the region. At their most productive, around the mid-twentieth century, the sugar plantations of British Guiana were unique in that they produced not one but two annual crops.
There was only one relatively brief period when the common-sense picture of capitalism applied, when a flourishing ‘national’ economy coincided closely with the borders marked on a political map, and when economic reproduction went hand in hand with democratic governance. This was the time between the end of the Second World War and the emergence of a neo-liberal economic system in the late 1970s. Over these three decades – but even then not everywhere – an economic logic of industrial manufacture, mass consumption based on rising incomes across the working and the middle class, of state planning, and a more or less consensual form of politics prevailed. This is capitalism as it is most familiar to us: of workers manufacturing goods like cars or TV sets and earning enough to then buy these same items back for their personal enjoyment. This system still relied on the basic Marxist category of exploitation, but nevertheless functioned for some time as a self-sustaining engine of prosperity creation for the many.
All this began to change in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, which ushered in a global recession. Capitalism survived and reinvented itself, but with a new modus operandi that had become firmly entrenched by the 1990s, and is ultimately responsible for the dislocations that Brexit brought to the fore. The main method of surplus creation shifted from labour exploitation to financial speculation and ‘securitisation’, a new form of primitive accumulation by stealth, as Saskia Sassen describes it. This new system no longer requires people to be turned into capitalist labourers or consumers for it can create wealth without people. For the first time, this means that capitalism is no longer expanding – seeking to bring more people and territories under its control as it had done for the last many centuries. Instead it grows richer by ‘expulsions’ (again Sassen’s term), by getting rid of people in order to speculate with what they leave behind. Sub-prime mortgages foreclosed in dying American cities, landscapes ransacked by fracking or mining, bodies plundered for organ donations and patented for medical copyright, whole populations killed or displaced while the international arms trade makes a fortune.
Even though the wealth concentrated at the top has increased enormously since the days of the welfare state, this is not a self-sustaining system. As some historians of capitalism have pointed out, capitalism may well have entered a final crisis mode. The current slowing of growth around the world may be the first concrete evidence of this disturbing trend. While the rich economies of the North are in or close to recession, countries that have previously been held up as hopes for a globalised future are in deep trouble, too. China sits on a mountain of real estate debts while the economy slows, and India had to falsify official data by its Central Bank to maintain any semblance of economic growth outperforming population growth.
The geographic shape of the new system once again transcends national boundaries. There are new and reinforced global links cutting across the old division between a rich North and a poor South, exemplified by new areas of global ‘outsourcing’ and glittering global cities on all inhabited continents. The new structures also create growing regional disparities within national economies, between the nodal points of a still thriving global network and areas of ‘expulsion’ for which the system no longer has any use. This brings us directly back to the referendum map mentioned above. The yellow areas voting for ‘remain’ in England and Wales coincided almost perfectly with areas that still have a stake in the global economy: London and its wealthy hinterlands, the M4/M40 corridor of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, Britain’s knowledge cities like Manchester, Cambridge, Leeds or Aberystwyth. Those areas that voted ‘leave’ by the largest margins, in contrast, were the old industrial heartlands and rural areas now left behind.
This explanation of the geographic shape of the Brexit vote is powerful but not in itself particularly original. Many have made this point without recourse to Marxist meta-history, not the least ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown who demanded that globalization had to work for everyone not just the few. Other commentators believe that Brexit will usher in a wider people’s revolt against the excesses of neo-liberalism. It is here that the perusal of the historical sociology literature offers a starkly different perspective. If the likes of Harvey, Sassen and Kurz are right with their grand narratives of capitalist development then it is unlikely that a political upset like Brexit can alone reverse deep structural developments. Unless it is forced into a yet completely unknown new modus operandi – for which there is little evidence – global capitalism will continue to rely on ‘expulsion’ as its main method of surplus extraction. That it has also entered crisis mode can only mean that regional disparities between core areas and left-behind areas will grow further still. Tax and spend, or a politics of redistribution, will no longer work as a remedy. Insofar as Brexit was a vote to take us back to the days of a national economy it cannot fulfil its core promise. (It is worth noting that there was also a leave argument at play that argued for more rather than less globalization – David Owen’s new ‘blue water diplomacy’, for instance, or Andrea Leadsom’s new trade deals, but this theme was quickly overshadowed by a rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ over national borders.)
This is not simply speculation. In countries with longstanding regional disparities across Europe – Italy with its industrial North and mezzogiorno South, say, or East and West Germany – the divide has become sharper over recent decades, despite long-standing and hugely expensive ‘development efforts’ by the countries themselves or by the EU. Meanwhile, across Europe, the gap between the networked core – located mostly in the North – and the expulsions areas in the South has also intensified. It is happening elsewhere, too, from Nigeria’s increasingly unbridgeable split between North and South to India’s great divergence between the Western and Southern coastal regions and the Northern ‘cow-belt’. It is very unlikely that the people of Sunderland or the Welsh Valleys will be any luckier than those in Greifswald in East Germany, Trapani in Sicily, or indeed Patna in India’s Bihar, when it comes to their state’s ability to overcome inequality through redistribution or protectionism.
This brings us to the crux of this exercise in historical analysis: what will be the political effects of these structural contradictions? A steady growth in the number of people who are of no use to the system, not even good enough to be exploited or to buy useless commodities, and a simultaneous crisis of the system as a whole will produce a colossal amount of discontent. Those who still have a stake in global capitalism, meanwhile, will seek to protect their life chances tooth and nail – as the emotional reaction of so many ‘remainers’ to Brexit demonstrated beyond doubt. The interests of those living in the still thriving network core and those in left-behind areas have become irreconcilable. One’s dream has become the other’s nightmare, while there is still no alternative political economy that could overcome such divisions in sight. How is this conflict going to be managed through democratic institutions? How is system compliance and consent going to be generated within a geographic framework – the nation state – that no longer fits the shape of the political economy?
One can think of several possibilities here. Discounting the unlikely event that the people of Britain collectively decide to leave the capitalist order altogether and try out some other system on their own, two alternatives stand out. First, areas that are small enough, well-connected enough and have the kind of identity politics in place to sustain such a move, may seek to become small independent nation states that play the new global system for what it is worth. Catalonia in Spain is a good example. Scotland is clearly weighing up its options to follow this path.
Where such secessionist moves are less feasible – as in England and Wales – some kind of artificial consent will have to be manufactured by means of an authoritarian political order. The Chinese Communist leadership is perfectly open about the need to manage regional disparities in their own country through repression, and justifies it with reference to a Confucian political culture. Elsewhere – as developments in Hungary and Poland, in Erdogan’s Turkey, Modi’s India and Putin’s Russia suggest – there is a trend towards majoritarian pseudo-democracy. A climate of radical nationalism prevails, post-truth politics becomes the norm, universities and the media are purged of opposition, perceived minorities are used as scapegoats, an artificial and hollow ideology of consumption and development spectacle papers over deprivation. But people are still able to vote, in fact, are even invited to vote to periodically consecrate the holy union of popular will and populist leadership.
It is not even necessary for a rabidly authoritarian party with genocidal urges, such as Narendra Modi’s BJP, to gain power for such a system to work. It is sufficient if such a party is strong enough to compel everybody else to rally behind a pro-establishment alternative that governs solely on the promise of keeping the barbarians at bay. Such a perennial party of power would have a free hand to resort to authoritarian measures as long as they remain marginally less off-putting than those demanded by the other side. Discontent will remain high, but has nowhere else to go but to the radical nationalists who stand in perpetual opposition, thereby only reinforcing the dominance of the ‘centre’.
Such a situation is by no means inconceivable in post-Brexit Britain. In fact, one can already see the contours of it taking shape: witness the implosion of the Labour Party in line with what is happening to other social democratic parties around the world, the emergence of the Tories as the only ‘centrist’ alternative in a world where the ‘centre’ has moved very considerably to the right, and an entrenchment of UKIP and assorted right-wing extremists as the attack dogs that prop up the system from the outside.
You have been warned – historical analysis in times like these is likely to yield depressing results. The only consolation is that even the best structural analysis does not fully accommodate human agency which will always remain unpredictable. The best historians can hope for at this juncture is that they are wrong.
I’m not British but I did get to vote in the referendum on British membership of the European Union. Irish people resident in the United Kingdom were one of just three non-Commonwealth immigrant groups that were afforded this privilege, which I felt gave me a real stake in the future of the country that is now very much my home.
Personally, while I can certainly understand popular disaffection with the EU, I was never in the slightest doubt about voting against Brexit. On every conceivable level – economic, social, political and cultural – remaining within the Union seemed to make such obvious sense. The blatantly xenophobic aspects of the leave campaign just made the decision to vote in favour of remaining all the easier; a vote for staying in the EU wasn’t simply an informed political choice, it was a vote against Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, and every mean and petty thing for which they stand. So the result of the referendum came as a shock, not because I hadn’t realised that an ‘out’ vote was a real possibility, but because, in the blinking of an eye, a truly great country seemed to have become palpably smaller and colder.
But the outcome of the referendum is an inescapable reality and, with it, a page has turned in British history. Historians had a lamentably limited impact on the debate about Brexit, despite the best efforts of at least some of them. There is still hope, however, that they may be able to influence the choices people make in the coming months.
The pitfalls of Brexit seem almost too numerous to contemplate. They also seem to increase daily as we descend yet further into political chaos. Indeed, the atmosphere of national jeopardy fuelled by the hour-by-hour machinations of the political elites would be pretty exciting if it wasn’t all so serious. So many things about the result of the referendum give cause for concern that it’s hard to focus on one especially unsettling outcome. Yet whatever else may worry us, the degree to which the UK’s impending exit from the EU has undermined Britain’s relationship with Ireland, and the integrity of the peace process in Northern Ireland, should give everyone on these islands pause for thought.
Given the shadow of uncertainty the result of the referendum has cast over the ongoing peace process, it seems like a good time to reflect on the role history played in respectively fuelling violence and helping people move beyond violence in Britain and Ireland within living memory. The story of the Northern Irish conflict is one of cruelly unexpected death, widespread bereavement, and lives blighted by fear, anger and bitterness. But it is also the story of a remarkably resilient people whose desire for peace led them ultimately to reconsider their attachment to the past and embrace compromise and reconciliation.
For this was a war – and a peace – that was all about the memory and interpretation of history.
* * *
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with another EU state. From the early 1970s until the late 1990s that border was heavily militarised and dotted with army checkpoints and watchtowers. The peace process, which, crucially, was aided a great deal by the EU context in which it evolved, meant that the border had essentially ceased to exist physically for the past fifteen years. The region is unlikely to be re-militarised, but when the UK leaves the European Union there will have to be a functioning border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will presumably have to be policed as such, if the Leave campaign’s promises of controlled immigration are to be delivered upon. These altered dynamics will directly threaten the close political, social and cultural relations between North and South that have been painstakingly fostered since the emergence of the peace process in the mid-1990s. As with so much about the referendum, no plans seem to have been put in place to address this potentially very dangerous outcome.
One of the more compelling arguments David Cameron put forward as he led the ill-fated campaign to keep the UK in the EU is that steadily increasing levels of inter-state communication and collaboration have helped preserve peace in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. It is certainly true that those who envisioned a more unified Europe during the darkest days of the Nazi terror hoped that greater economic and political integration would ensure that European states would become so interconnected that it simply wouldn’t be possible for them to go to war against each other. It is also quite obviously the case that no inter-state conflict has occurred in Western Europe since 1945. Yet while no two western states have gone to war over the past 70 years, there has been a great deal of political violence in the region, most notably within the United Kingdom, which was the scene of consistent and often intense violence throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
The peace process has trundled on since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and in the past decade or so Islamic fundamentalism and right-wing extremism have generally been regarded as greater threats to British security than Irish republicanism. It has thus been quite easy in recent years to forget just how devastating the conflict we still euphemistically refer to as ‘the Troubles’ actually was. In strictly military terms, the war in Northern Ireland could accurately be regarded as a ‘low-intensity’ conflict, a case of asymmetric warfare that required a military commitment but never the full deployment of the armed forces. And yet between 1969 and the Provisional IRA ceasefire of 1994, over 3,500 people lost their lives as a direct result of violence in Northern Ireland or emanating from the region. This includes approximately 1,000 members of the British security forces, over 720 of whom were British soldiers, and about 500 Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. As is usually the case with urban guerrilla warfare or terrorism, however, most of those who died were unarmed civilians; no fewer than 1,800 British and Irish civilians were killed over the course of the conflict, often in extremely violent circumstances.
Quite apart from those killed, about 50,000 people – again, mostly civilians – were injured during the Troubles, many of them to the point of permanent disability. These figures, of course, don’t take into account people who escaped injury but were psychologically traumatised by their experiences and those who suffered intense bereavement as a result of the killing (and mental health problems remain a major issue in Northern Ireland). Nor was the conflict contained within the relatively small area of the six counties, a region not much bigger than Yorkshire; violence consistently bled across the border to the Republic of Ireland and to Britain, where London, Birmingham, Brighton, and Manchester were all bombed with significant loss of civilian life. The sheer number of British soldiers stationed in the North – some 22,000 at the height of the Troubles in the mid-1970s – also meant that families in Britain who had no other connection to Ireland were touched by the conflict in a very real way. In diplomatic terms, the war put a continuous strain on relations between the UK and Ireland, with the North being a constant bone of contention between the British Foreign Office and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. Atrocities committed by the British security forces also occasionally stoked popular Anglophobia across the island. At a time when Anglo-Irish relations are warmer than at any other point in history, it is sobering to remember that in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in 1972, an angry mob burned the British embassy in Dublin to the ground.
* * *
Rigid, exclusive and often highly territorial understandings of the past directly fuelled the violence that erupted so catastrophically in 1969 and the polarisation and cultural entrenchment that would mark the next few decades. On the one hand, nationalists across the island, and Republicans in the North in particular, regarded themselves as heirs to a rich and ancient Gaelic culture, whose ancestors had been systemically dispossessed, marginalised, exploited, and murdered by colonists from the neighbouring island. On the other, many Ulster unionists were proud of a history of colonial settlement dating back to the early 17th century, in which industrious, god-fearing Scottish and English Protestants carved out a niche of British civilisation in an otherwise wild and inhospitable corner of Ireland. Importantly, the memory of moments of suffering or victimhood experienced by the tribes that clung to these narratives helped sustain them. For Unionists, there was, and remains, the 1641 Rebellion, the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne. Nationalist identity, by contrast, was informed by memories of the Cromwellian conquest, the 1798 Rebellion, the Great Famine of the 1840s, and a hundred other moments of calamity and betrayal.
Yet the modern historical episode that would have by far the greatest influence on the perpetuation of divided identities in Northern Ireland, and across these islands more generally, was the First World War. Well over 200,000 Irishmen, from both political traditions and all walks of life, fought in the war, and somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 of them died as a result of military service. They served in every branch of the British armed forces and often served with great distinction. As military conscription was never enforced in Ireland, moreover, most of the Irishmen who fought in the conflict were wartime volunteers. Their motivations for volunteering were often quite complex, but one major reason that so many Irishmen joined up is that they were strongly encouraged to do so by their political and spiritual leaders, and by the British government. The war was consistently sold to the Irish people as a conflict in which Irish interests were very much at stake, and in which Ireland was a quasi-independent and willing participant. The conflict was also widely interpreted by Irish political leaders, both Nationalist and Unionist, and indeed by the Catholic and Protestant clergy, as a morally righteous endeavour; as a just war. Irrespective of their religious or political backgrounds, many Irishmen who joined the armed forces, at least during the first two years of the war, thus believed they were fighting for Ireland and were regarded as patriots.
And while Unionists and Nationalist soldiers rarely served together, they shared similar experiences of violence, loss and deprivation on the Western Front and elsewhere. Yet the Easter Rising of April 1916, and the social and cultural forces it unleashed, would fundamentally transform the country to which many Irish veterans returned in 1919. Ultimately, the Rising, the subsequent War of Independence, and the partition of the island would ensure that the ways in which the Unionist Community in the North and the Nationalist community across the country engaged with the memory of the First World War were very different indeed.
For the men and women of the Unionist community in Ulster, the memory of the Great War in general and the Battle of the Somme in particular took on an almost sacred significance over the course of the 20th century. The blood sacrifice of the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division, who sustained such terrible losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, was regarded as having purchased the right of the six counties to remain within the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence. Commemoration of the war is thus not simply an element of Unionist culture, it is absolutely central to way Unionists understand themselves and their place in the world.
In independent Ireland, and among nationalists in Northern Ireland, commemoration of the war was much more complex and usually more muted. In the 20s and 30s, major Armistice Day ceremonies were held in Dublin, Cork and Limerick and poppies were quite commonly worn in the Free State between the wars. Nationalist politicians, including Eamon DeValera, also expressed a certain amount of reserved sympathy for Irishmen who had died while serving in the British Army. Indeed, in terms of housing, employment and pensions, veterans of the Great War were often treated reasonably well by the Irish Free State. And yet there can be no doubt that at a popular and official level, there was much more commemorative emphasis on the rebels of the Easter Rising and the men who served in the IRA during the War of Independence than on the Irishmen who served on the Western Front or at Gallipoli. There was also something of a popular notion that the Irishmen who fought the British Empire at home were more patriotic, and indeed heroic, than those who fought the German or Turkish empires. As the century wore on, the memory of the Great War faded across much of the island, and, outside the Unionist community, service in the British Army was rarely recalled with pride or recognised with esteem.
This division in memory between Unionists and Nationalist was very clearly revealed in 1966, the year in which the fiftieth anniversaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme occurred. Commemorations of these events were highly divisive and fed into the cultural polarisation in Northern Ireland, which directly fuelled the violence that erupted in 1969 and would continue until the mid-1990s. The public Nationalist celebration of the men and women of the Easter Rising in parades and ceremonies across the region was regarded with great suspicion, and indeed contempt, by many Unionists, who focused exclusively on the anniversary of the Somme offensive later in the year. The intense focus on the past in 1966 further polarised communities across Ulster and contributed to the rise in prominence of Ian Paisley, a firebrand preacher whose intransigent anti-papist rhetoric was taken straight from the 17th century. In the Republic, virtually all of the commemorative emphasis that year was on the Easter Rising. The mid-sixties thus marked the emergence of the simplistic and misleading idea that, during the First World War and in its immediate aftermath, Irishmen either fought for the British Empire or they fought against it.
By the 1980s, nationalist memory of the period of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence was not necessarily triumphalist, but it was exclusive and territorial in the sense that there was little room in the popular or official imagination for anyone who did anything other than fight against the British in 1916 or in the years afterwards. The 200,000 Irishmen who fought in the Great War and, importantly, those who had been against all forms of violence, were thus largely forgotten in the Republic. Commemoration of the First World War was also generally regarded as an exclusively British or Irish Unionist tradition. The Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday ceremonies that did occur in the Republic during the 1970s and ‘80s took place behind the closed doors of Protestant churches or schools. In a key indicator of division, the public wearing of poppies, a custom staunchly adhered to by northern Unionists, was virtually unheard of among the rest of the population during this period.
The sense on the part of many nationalists throughout the 1960s and the following decades that commemoration of the First World War was, and should be, the preserve of Unionists and Brits was generally a function of ignorance or indifference rather than antipathy towards those who had fought in the conflict. Any cultural association with the British armed forces was anathema to extremist republicans, however, and in November 1987 the Provisional IRA expressed its contempt for Unionist commemoration with one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. The bombing of the Remembrance Sunday service at the cenotaph in Enniskillen was not simply an attack on unarmed civilians, but a sectarian assault on Unionist culture and the public remembrance of the dead of the two world wars. The bombers took the lives of eleven people, all Protestant and most of them elderly, and the incident was widely condemned as an indefensible massacre. Expressions of sympathy for the victims poured in from across the Britain, Ireland and the wider world, and many within the republican movement began to question their either tacit or active support for the IRA’s armed campaign.
The Remembrance Sunday bombing was a particularly dark episode in the history of the Troubles, but it also arguably marked a turning point in the way in Irish memory of the First World War. Over the next number of years, the Farset Youth Project, an initiative that was already bringing disadvantaged teenagers from both sides of the divide in Belfast and from Dublin together to explore early Christian history, began to focus on the Irish experience of the Battle of the Somme. These efforts led to a well-attended cross-community event at the Ulster Tower at Thiepval in 1989 and to the formation of the Somme Association, an organisation committed to honouring the ‘sacrifices of all those from Ireland who served in the War’ in 1990. Attempts to raise awareness about the cross-community experience of the war in the North coincided with a resurgence of interest in the First World War in the Republic and gathered pace in the aftermath of the Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1994.
The Good Friday Agreement, a historic British-Irish treaty that was years in the making and enshrined some fairly major concessions on both sides, was signed and ratified by voters across Ireland in 1998. In November that year, President Mary McAlesse and Queen Elizabeth II came together to open the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in West-Flanders. The men of both the mostly Nationalist 16th (Irish) Division and the mostly Unionist 36th (Ulster) Division had fought at the Battle of Messines in June 1917 and the location was deemed appropriate for a manifestly all-Ireland site of memory, mourning, and commemoration. The park features a modern re-construction of an ancient Irish round tower, which really stands out in the Belgian countryside, along with several stone tablets inscribed with the words of Irish soldiers who served on the Western Front. Importantly, the park also contains a memorial plaque that expresses unreserved regret, on behalf of both communities, for the years of violence in Northern Ireland.
The creation of the Island of Ireland Peace Park, conceived of by the Unionist activist Glenn Barr and Fine Gael politician, Paddy Harte, was a ground-breaking moment in the history of commemoration on these Islands. It is, of course, notable, however, that the memorial was established in neither Britain nor Ireland but on the ‘neutral’ territory of a former war zone in Belgium. Since 1998, instances of cross-community or Anglo-Irish remembrance of the First World War have become more common in the UK and Ireland and still have the power to impress. The first British state visit to Ireland, which took place in May 2011, was such a success partly because Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese directly and publicly confronted the historically troubled relationship between the islands. When the Queen bowed her head at the Republican memorial in the Garden of Remembrance on the second day of her visit, with the same reverence she shows every November at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, even the most cynical among us were won over.
More recently, in July 2014, a project jointly supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the British Government and the Glasnevin Trust, culminated in the dedication of a Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. These stone crosses, inlaid with a bronze sword, were originally erected in cemeteries across the globe containing the graves of more than forty British or British Imperial dead of the Great War in the 1920s. The one place in which this tradition was not observed was the Irish Free State, where the political climate was such that iconography associated with the British Empire was unwelcome. The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War felt like an appropriate moment to rectify this cultural anomaly and, importantly, to organize an event that would bring Irish and British representatives together to express solidarity with the suffering experienced by their ancestors. One of the most symbolic and moving features of the ceremony was the presence of two colour parties composed respectively of soldiers of the Irish Defence Forces and the Royal Irish Rifles, a British regiment composed largely of recruits from Northern Ireland. The latter were the first British soldiers to be seen in Dublin since the early ‘20s, and the sight of them greeting their counterparts in the Irish Army with broad smiles and handshakes made the event seem all the more powerful and momentous. The choice of Glasnevin for the unveiling of a monument to the Irish dead of the First World War was both deliberate and highly significant. The cemetery is also the final resting place of hundreds of men and women who participated in the Irish struggle for independence and the unveiling of the Cross alongside more manifestly nationalist memorials complicates our understanding of the period of the First World War and the Irish Revolution. The message this juxtaposition of monuments sends is that there was a remarkable degree of overlap between the Irishmen who fought imperial tyranny on the continent and those who fought it at home, and one group does not have to be remembered at the expense of the other.
These events, and dozens of other less official but no less meaningful projects, reflect the emergence of a new, more positive and conciliatory commemorative culture on these islands over the past two decades. Politicians, diplomats, community leaders and ‘ordinary’ men and women from very disparate backgrounds now regularly come together to remember their dead in a way that would have been unthinkable just fifteen years ago. There is a distinct irony in promoting a shared memory of the bloodiest war in British and Irish history to help people come to terms with, and move away from, the violence of the much more recent past. But it’s an irony that anyone with an interest in lasting peace should be prepared to embrace.
* * *
Through its border and its shared history with Ireland, Britain is even more connected to Europe than it sometimes remembers. That same shared, complex, troubled history should remind us of other things. It is not so long since conflict tore lives apart within the borders of this state. Cooperation between neighbours helped resolve it. The European Union helped resolve it. Finally, a recognition that Britain’s history is inextricably intertwined with those of its neighbours, helped resolve it.
As we enter an undeniably new era in the history of North/South and Anglo-Irish relations in the aftermath of the referendum, we should remember that the road to peace in Northern Ireland and positive relations between the UK and the Republic was long and arduous. The relative stability that prevails in the North now simply could not have been achieved without years of effort on the part of political leaders, diplomats and, crucially, without the goodwill of ordinary Irish men and women from both of the ancient traditions and both sides of the border. The process of using more complex historical narratives to help people move away from a conflict that was shaped by understandings of the past will not be jeopardised by the UK’s break with the European Union. Peace in Northern Ireland, and thus within the United Kingdom, is dependent, above all, on people’s desire for peace. That desire remains strong, but the climate of uncertainty that now pervades these islands should remind us that lives are potentially at stake and that lasting peace should never be taken for granted.
Edward Madigan is Lecturer in Public History and First World War Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and co-editor of the Historians for History blog.
In October 1997 the oral historian Wendy Rickard interviewed Richard Desmond as part of a project to capture the life stories of people with AIDS (PWAs) in Britain. The project, now archived in the British Library under ‘HIV and AIDS Testimonies’, aimed to ‘record and preserve the unique experiences, opinions and memories of people with HIV and AIDS … both as an historical reference about the AIDS crisis and as an educational resource for researchers, campaigners and interested individuals’.
Desmond himself was an active campaigner with a very personal stake in the issue. A gay man living in London, his life was to change forever when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, one year before what the historian Virginia Berridge has described as Thatcher’s ‘wartime response’ to the crisis. Shaken by the loss of his partner, Bob, and several of their friends to the virus, Desmond describes how he ‘threw himself into work’ on a project to rebuild the Savoy Theatre which had burnt down in February 1990.
Yet despite his initially prominent role in agitating for LGBT civil rights in the 1980s, very little is publicly known about Desmond’s work as a gay activist. In 1982 he began legal proceedings against the British state, arguing that the disparity in the legal age of consent between heterosexuals and homosexuals was a violation of his human rights, namely his right to respect in private life. In a 1997 interview with Rickard, Desmond recalled, ‘I was very motivated at the time, being a sixteen year old gay man … to do this, believing passionately in equality of the age of consent being terribly important’. In 1982, however, the European Convention on Human Rights had not been adopted as part of British law, as it later was. Because of this, the 16-year-old Desmond had to travel to Strasbourg in order to have his case heard. Already on a tight budget, such self-funded travel undoubtedly had an impact on the success of the campaign. In 1984 the judgement ruled that the Desmond’s case was ‘manifestly unfounded’.
In 1997, however, the European Commission ruled in favour of Euan Sutherland, another young gay man who had made virtually the same case Desmond had made over a decade earlier. Sutherland v United Kingdom ultimately led to the incumbent Labour government legislating for parity of the age at which sexual consent may be given by gay and straight people. Reflecting on this in 1997, Desmond observed:
‘I was in the paper last week, but that’s because Euan Sutherland has now succeeded, and my bit of history can be recalled. Someone had to try … It’s part of the process, in the same way as adopting the European Convention of Human Rights into English Law so that people don’t have to go to Strasbourg is going to make a difference for all sorts of issues.’
The British adoption of a progressive human rights framework produced in the European Union thus arguably had a major impact on the lives of gay people in the UK and should be regarded as a key milestone in the struggle for LGBT civil rights in this country. Yet I fear we are in danger of forgetting this. The current debate as to whether Britain should remain in or leave the European Union seems to be sorely lacking an informed historical basis. The Historians for History blog began as an attempt to counter this, and was initially very vocal in its response to the more nationalistic histories which were emerging from Historians for Britain. Yet there has been an obvious lull in this crucial historical debate, both from the academy and as part of public discourse.
We would do well, I feel, to remember the ways in which the EU has historically supported campaigns for human rights (and workers’ rights in particular, though that is perhaps a matter for another piece). Of course, the Commission was the same when Desmond and Sutherland respectively made their cases to it. Yet what is crucial here is the fact that Desmond identified Britain’s increasingly close relationship with Europe, legally speaking, as one of the factors in explaining Sutherland’s success.
Sticking with the AIDS epidemic as a case study, activists and interested parties would have struggled to make their cases to those in positions of power without the legislative support provided by the EU. John Campbell, an AIDS activist involved in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) London, Frontliners, and Positive Youth, was instrumental in securing funding that enabled a great many activists from Britain to attend the 1993 AIDS Conference in Berlin. ACT UP London had led the march to the opening of the 1991 AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, and so in terms of the activism he wanted to see in Berlin, Campbell set off with high ambitions. Most notably, he planned to host a news conference in which he would suggest that Queen Elizabeth II was responsible for the deaths of her PWA subjects, a move he later recalled as follows:
‘What I proposed we do was we read out a letter to the Queen basically saying that it was her who was accountable for the deaths of people with AIDS in Britain, because ultimately it’s her government – they act in her name – she is responsible, what was she going to do?’
Ultimately, Campbell was overruled by other members of the group at the last minute, and ACT UP London’s news conference ended up addressing the perceived inactivity of drug companies. This, coupled with the mixed success the group had in demonstrating with ACT UP Paris against the French government’s handling of the crisis, might perhaps prompt the conclusion that the 1993 conference was a failure for the AIDS activists who attended.
Yet Campbell was clearly able to make a positive difference to the experiences of the lay PWAs in attendance. Due to the toxicity of the drugs that many were taking, a sizeable proportion of the PWAs came to Berlin with special dietary requirements. When Campbell saw that activists and lay PWAs were being given basic meals of bread, cheese and sausage, compared to the scientists who were enjoying all-expenses-paid meals in Berlin’s finest restaurants, he immediately took action. Targeting the management of the drug company Wellcome, who were hosting the vast majority of activists with AIDS from Europe, Campbell recalls that ‘we just said, look, there is no other option here, you either change the food or we’re going to the press, you have no other option’. The threat of several European chapters of ACT UP and other activist groups ‘going to the press’ was enough to force Wellcome to change the menu afforded to lay PWAs both immediately and generously. Campbell would die of AIDS-related illness in 2007 aged just 39, but his international collaboration is a key element of his legacy as an AIDS rights activist.
Would this have been possible without the free movement of people across Europe? I think not. The fact that so many activists were able to attend the Berlin conference and force those in government and in positions of power in drug companies to consider the particular needs of PWAs in whose interests they were supposed to be working, was down to a large extent to the rights afforded to European citizens to move freely. One only has to consider the position of many politicians today against allowing PWAs entry into the UK, and by extension, the right to freedom of movement, to grasp how significant the gatherings European PWAs en masse in Berlin were.
The European AIDS crisis, then, ought to be borne in mind more often than it currently is when discussing the merits of EU membership. Campaigners during the 1980s have looked back and seen Britain’s closer union with Europe as a positive factor in improving the lot of LGBT people in Britain, whilst activism for the rights of PWAs and disabled people during the 1980s and 1990s often benefited from the rights afforded to activists as EU citizens.
Regarding the wider impact of the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s, John Campbell said that ‘AIDS had an impact on society which made it a much more empowering place for disadvantaged people’. The extent to which this is the case can be debated by historians of the epidemic ad infinitum, though the fact that Campbell and others like him believed this is significant. We would do ourselves a disservice, I believe, if we forget the part that the EU had to play in forming attitudes like these, and in facilitating the campaigns and changes which Desmond and Campbell were remembering.
George J. Severs is a finalist in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he is writing a dissertation on the oral history of the British AIDS crisis.
Our next guest blog – ‘Aids Activism and the European Union’ by George J. Severs – will be posted tomorrow afternoon. The author takes an informed look at the impact of European Commission legislation on the welfare of British people living with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s and offers a fresh angle on the ongoing debate on Britain’s relationship with the EU. George Severs is a final year student at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he is writing a dissertation on the oral history of the British AIDS crisis. Watch this space!
Given its relevance to communities across the continent, and its implications for future generations, one might reasonably expect the forthcoming EU membership referendum to prompt an informed and balanced public debate. Yet there is little evidence of such a debate taking place in the public media: discussions on the issue are often highly emotive and demagogic and draw on the fears and, of course, the ignorance of potential voters. Experts in the field and other intellectuals are not, unfortunately, so willing to contribute. The agenda is then, at times, set up by an often better organized anti-EU camp.
A bizarre, but noteworthy, example is the output of the self-nominated Historians for Britain group, which features a handful of Oxbridge professors who nonetheless describe themselves as being composed of ‘Dozens of … leading historians’ who ‘are not scared to fight to achieve’ the ‘return of powers from the EU’. They received some media coverage last year when they started challenging what they perceive as the ‘myth’ of European democracy while promoting an historical exceptionalism for Great Britain. They struck again early in the new year. In a letter published in the Telegraph on 16 January, they essentially attempted to defend the ‘out’ campaign by citing the scare tactics of pro-EU propaganda. But what does it mean to be so frightened?
According to the signatories of the letter, it is the argument that the EU secured peace in Europe is ‘historically illiterate’ and ‘groundless’. For them, NATO was the main guarantor of peace, and they thus seek to challenge the European narrative of a pro-peace European integration. To this end, Historians for Britain have published an online pamphlet entitled, Peace-makers or credit takers? The EU and peace in Europe. Strangely, and despite their claim that ‘existing groups … do not have our academic focus’, almost none of their experts works on modern Europe or the history of EU integration (expertise in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Napoleon, and North East England is much more apparent), and two out of three of the signatories claiming such research interests have basically no noticeable peer-reviewed academic publications in the field.
Yet as one of the volume contributors, Dr Lee Rotherham, puts it, ‘The concept of the EU bringing peace to ‘Europe’ is by its very terminology a nonsense’. Setting aside the fact that their letter contains some unclear historical references to the Treaty of Rome (which was actually preceded by the Schuman Declaration in 1950 and the Treaty of Paris in 1951) as a foundational act of the integration of some Europe’s lands, their little volume also takes quite a narrow, if not peculiar, understanding of the concept of ‘peace’. Although, the NATO alliance surely had a fundamental role, by exclusively highlighting its importance, one provides a narrowly military reading of peaceful relations among states. This also shows a bizarre portrayal of the conditions that prevailed in Europe after 1945 and what happened at least from 1914 to the outbreak of the Second World War. Lasting peace was and is, in fact, also made and sustained by social, political, cultural, and economic collaboration and exchanges.
In this sense, NATO provided only a very limited form of belonging. Nationalist impulses were also curtailed through integration – economic nationalism was discouraged by trade agreements from the market for steel and coal to the common market, political nationalism through inter-state power sharing and decision-making, and, importantly, social nationalism was countered by stressing similarities, sharing educational standards, and allowing the free movement of workers. This process slowly undermined the sense of cultural and ethnic superiority, along with the resentments among nations, which were a legacy of the previous years. This is what the (unfinished) process of the European integration has attempted to do. Counter-arguments related to the wars outside the EU borders and the tensions created by the Eurozone downturn and following austerity, are really another business.
Given this, and accepting their lack of expertise on postwar Europe, one might wonder why Historians for Britain, a supposedly independent and non-partisan group that is so apparently interested in the wellbeing of the British public, do not start campaigning for change within their own educational system. The Historical Association is, for example, working to highlight the very limited presence of ethnic minorities in the sector, and to promote the role history, in schools and universities and amongst the wider public, has to offer critical perspectives on the modern world. The Council for the Defence of British Universities is also defending academic institutions and the production of culture from an increasingly evident process of marketization and customerisation. Similarly, as Stefan Collini suggests (see the recent LRB piece, ‘Who are the spongers now? Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’), reforms promoted by governments do not necessarily improve higher education, including the recent proposals for a means of teaching assessment, because the recent Green Paper is not really aware of ‘what it means by ‘teaching quality”’.
The reason for their interest in dismantling the EU is clear enough, and it is political. They are inextricably linked to the Eurosceptic think tank ‘Business for Britain’. Their ambition is thus not merely to promote informed debate on EU membership and the referendum. Matthew Elliott, founder of Business for Britain, writes in the preface of their Peace-makers or credit takers?. ‘A vote to leave the out-of-date, undemocratic institutions of the EU is not a vote against our closest friends and neighbours’. Lee Rotherham also clearly has some involvement with Better Off Out and with the Campaign for an Independent Britain. This latter promotes ‘the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union’. Another contributor to the pamphlet, Oliver Lewis, is the Special Projects Director at Vote Leave and works for Business for Britain.
All of this reveals a great deal about the allegedly “non-political” motivations of Historians for Britain, which might be instead be classified alongside other anti-EU organisations. This being the case, although they surely represent a position in the ongoing debate, they are far from being the voice of the historical discipline and of academic culture at large.