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Friday, 21 April 2017

Yale visit shows anxiety and concern about Britain’s role in the world

On Tuesday 11 and Wednesday 12 April, I spent two days at Yale University in Connecticut. As one of the world’ best universities, and a key centre of research and teaching in the United States, it was an excellent vantage point from which to take the temperature of American Higher Education – and especially, as a British historian myself, in terms of US views of both British history and contemporary British politics. Invited by Yale’s Centre for International Security Studies to speak to both faculty and students, it was a fascinating visit that helped me to both sharpen my research questions and to see how others perceive the UK’s modern history.

As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, and now enters yet another election campaign, clearly many Americans were very interested to hear and talk about the situation the UK finds itself in. What I found most obvious was a puzzlement that Britain should chose to leave the EU, but perhaps more deeply an uncertainty as to where Britain stands – diplomatically, politically, even culturally and ideologically.

On the first day of my  visit, I helped take an undergraduate class, comprised not just of History students but drawing participants from subjects as diverse as Political Science and Computing, entitled ‘War at Sea in the Age of Sail’. Together with Dr Evan Wilson, who once taught with me here at Oxford Brookes as an Associate Lecturer, we looked with the students at different visions of Britain’s foreign policy in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: a so-called ‘blue water’ policy, or a European engagement. Nothing could seem more apposite in terms of present-day choices, and the students wanted to ask about the parallels with British diplomacy right now: to talk about trade, national self-image, and foreign relations, especially over Gibraltar, a running crisis at the time.

I then gave a paper to the ISS Brady-Johnson Colloquium in Grand Strategy and International History, entitled ‘Is the Sea Still Swinging into View? Contemporary British History and the Maritime Turn’. In this I attempt to show how the uncertainties stalking modern British politics have been transmuted into the way in which we think about Britain’s seagoing past: how modern concerns over networked economies, regional and continental trade blocs, gender and identity politics, and concepts of moveable, mutable space have fed back into the ways in which we perceive Britons’ engagement with the wider world. The questions were sharp, wide-ranging, and hard to field, mainly focusing on the way in which the British imagination lost touch with the oceanic emphasis that would have seemed second nature to most Georgian or Victorian Britons: again, the parallels with today’s debates about British as a ‘global’ or ‘European’ power were not hard to see.

On the Wednesday, I gave a lecture on Britain’s Brexit vote, trying to draw out the wider cultural, geographical, political and demographic issues that helped to bring about Britain’s ‘Leave’ vote. Here I argued that this decision was not primarily economic, but cultural – a protest against rapid change in and of itself, and (in England at least) a revolt of small towns and ‘provinces’ against London and other big cities. The audience were particularly interested in the parallels with the election of President Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election, as well as the emergence of so-called ‘populist’ movements across the developed world.

Overall, what was so noticeable about the reactions in my teaching session, and at my two talks, was the lack of clarity about Britain’s modern role in the world: is it a free-trading, ocean-going, globalised power, or a more ‘normal’ mid-ranking regional nation-state? And how do Britons now see their national past in the light of those dilemmas and choices? As a country that – as part of an Atlantic archipelago – looks inevitably outwards, or as a country with deep ties and interests in the heart of its own continent? It is no wonder that US students and lecturers are unclear, because Britain is very divided and uncertain about those issues too.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs regularly, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past, and writes about current public affairs for a number of publications, including The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog, The Staggers.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Meet Dr Tom Crook, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

Will you be voting on 4 May?

The local elections are almost upon us, which in Oxfordshire at least—elections are not taking place everywhere in England—means that upwards of 60 seats on the county council are up for grabs on 4 May. Democracy, so central to “our way of life,” is once more about to be practised at the ballot box. Excited?

The answer is probably not—and that’s assuming you even know these elections are taking place. If past trends are anything to go by, turnout is likely to be between 25 and 35% in most divisions. The last time Oxfordshire county council elections were held in 2013 not one division recorded a turnout above 50%. A handful even dipped below 20%.
Oxfordshire is not alone. The fact is that the majority of those eligible to vote in local elections simply don’t bother. For sure, the situation is better when it comes to UK general elections. Even so, over the long-term, electoral participation has steadily declined. The best turnout was secured in the 1950 general election, when some 84% of those eligible to do so voted. And the figure didn’t dip below 70% until 2001, when only 59% voted. Since then things have improved, though we’re still nowhere near to hitting pre-2001 levels. In 2010, turnout was 65%. In 2015, it was 66%.
Why this should be the case is doubtless complex, and has been much debated, especially by political scientists. All can agree, however, that it is partly—and for some, mostly—a product of growing apathy, cynicism and indifference, or what some call “democratic disenchantment.”
It’s just these kind of anti-political sentiments and actions (or inactions) that form a crucial part of my new research project on public life in modern Britain, which besides looking at cynicism and apathy will also examine the political (or for some, anti-political) function of secrecy and economic self-interest. It’s a project, in short, about the corruption of public life, its decay and quiet subversion. And it’s a project that I look forward to developing in my upcoming period of sabbatical leave, which begins in September and is generously funded by the School of History, Philosophy and Culture.
To be sure, apathy, cynicism, indifference: these might seem like the dregs of our political culture, the lumpen stuff we should really put to one side—they’re like the anti-matter of our political universe. It’s no surprise that political historians have been more interested in people who care about politics and the aspirations and ideals that motivate politicians and those that vote for them. And yet, when it comes to understanding what democracy is, and how it is lived and experienced, apathy and cynicism surely deserve consideration alongside activism, engagement and idealism. The statistics quoted above certainly suggest as much.
In any case, they’re no less fascinating and no less historical than the wholesome stuff of active citizenship. Non-voting is a case in point. It will come as little surprise, perhaps, that the problem was first studied in the 1930s, shortly after mass suffrage had finally been fully secured in 1928. It was then that the non-voter was first upheld as a threat to democracy. Yet, as I want to argue, it was also at this point that non-voting began to pose a kind of conceptual challenge to British democracy and all those concerned with its health. The issue of compulsory voting, for instance, was first discussed in parliament in the 1930s, prompting the question of whether such a policy was good for democracy, by ensuring full participation, or bad for democracy, because it violated the right to abstain and do nothing.
Above all, there was the vexed question of why non-voting took place: was it simply that people weren’t interested in politics at all, or rather that they felt alienated from party politics in particular, though not politics per se? Consider the following, written by Tom Harrisson, from Mass Observation’s (unpublished) study of the “non-voter” in Bolton conducted in 1938, one of the first studies of its kind in Britain (the Americans conducted the first in the 1920s): “In this country the non-voter has received little attention either from politicians or political theorists, but it seems of prime importance at the present time for all democracies to discover why so many of their citizens neglect their electoral opportunities.”
He went on to explain that there were “two main schools of thought” on the matter. The first considered “the non-voter either too ignorant or apathetic to go to the polls once a year.” The second advanced “the directly contrary opinion that the non-voters are the elite of the electorate – the sensitive and high-principled who are disgusted with the modern political battlefield.”
Little has changed since and the causes of non-voting are still not clear today. For all the contemporary studies which point to apathy and ignorance, just as many point to the kind of “disgust” invoked by Harrison—and these are very different things indeed.

So, if elections are happening where you live, will you be voting on 4 May? If not, if you stay at home, you might at least ask yourself why.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Meet Dr James Cooper, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

What can you tell us about your research?

My research focuses on contemporary American history in a broader context.  In particular, it examines the transfer of political ideas and policies between the United Kingdom and the United States and how an issue in one country affects policy making elsewhere.  In short, my research revolves around the interaction between domestic politics, foreign policy and policymaking.  It has resulted in two books.  The first focused on Anglo-American policy transfer between the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government, debunking common myths about the similarities between Reaganism and Thatcherism (Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan:  A Very Political Special Relationship, Palgrave, 2012).  The second examined the role of U.S. presidents in the Northern Ireland conflict and is a significant contribution to the emerging scholarship about American influence on the Anglo-Irish process and Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ (The Politics of Diplomacy:  U.S. Presidents and the Northern Ireland Conflict, 1967-98, Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Why did you not just choose to study the History of one country?

I do not believe that events and issues can be studied simply through the history of one country.  The politics and policy making of countries do not occur in isolation from developments elsewhere and the writing of history should reflect this.    Therefore, despite my primary focus being the history of the United States, my research considers America in a global context. 

What are the highlights of doing your research?

My research has allowed me to visit plenty of interesting places and meet fascinating people.  I conduct research in a variety of American, British and Irish archives, including numerous presidential libraries.  My favourite presidential library is probably the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (partially because it has the best canteen), although I would recommend that anyone with an interest in American history should try to visit any presidential library if they can!  I was fortunate to be able to conduct over thirty interviews with key protagonists – including: Mr Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, former UK Foreign Secretary; Lord (Charles) Powell, leading adviser to Margaret Thatcher; Mr Edwin Meese, a leading figure in the Reagan administration; and, Lord (Neil) Kinnock, former Labour Party leader – and I am regularly able to consult the most recently available archival material.  Researching in archives often leads to all sorts of surprises.  I have read documents that detail the Reagan administration’s excitement about a visit by Michael Jackson to the White House and Bill Clinton’s offer to babysit Leo Blair, youngest son of Tony and Cherie, after his presidency ended in 2001.     

Do you compare history to current affairs?

The subject matter of my research certainly lends itself to comparisons with current events in both Britain and the United States.  I have blogged on ‘Cultural Thinking’ about the regularly asserted comparison between the Reagan-Thatcher relationship with the emergence and relationship of Donald Trump and Theresa May.  In addition to making anecdotal comparisons in my teaching between history and the present, I have contributed to American and British news coverage about the politics in both countries. 

What do people think about your research?


My research had led to very exciting opportunities.  For instance, in 2012-13 I was the Fulbright-Robertson Visiting Professor of British History at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri (where I also curated an exhibit, based on my research on Reagan and Thatcher, at the college’s National Winston Churchill Museum).  In November 2014 I was interviewed about the Reagan-Thatcher relationship on the BBC News Channel.  I was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo in May 2016.    My books have been positively reviewed by my peers and I am a regular contributor to academic journals, collections of essays and conferences.  Many people find it interesting that what I study is considered to be ‘History’ given that it happened in living memory – including my own!  

Meet Dr Marius Turda, Reader in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

What can you tell us about your research?

I’ve researched the history of eugenics for more than a decade, particularly in East-Central Europe and published a number of books on the topic. I have also researched the history of East-Central Europe more broadly, focusing on nationalism, fascism and biopolitics. I’m really interested at the moment in a global history of race and racism. This emerged from a 3rd year module that I taught last year when I was emboldened by my students to delve deeper into the labyrinthine meanings of race.

Why did you choose race and racism?

I have always been interested in the history of race, particularly in terms of its complicated relationship with philosophy, culture, science and politics. Historians must attend to specific historical traditions, but at the same time suggest the need for a new cultural and moral framework suitable for dealing with questions of collective, minority and individual identity in an increasingly polarised and divided world. In my teaching, I try to dispel the fears and insecurities our students may have when talking about race and racism in our society and in their communities. Tellingly, race as we now know it, in the twenty-first century, has not changed significantly by comparison to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, when it first emerged as a tool to interpret human difference. It is becoming clear that, despite historians deconstructing racism, racial narratives have proved to be enduring.

What is the contemporary relevance of your research?
I am known nationally and internationally as a specialist in the field of racial studies and eugenics in East-Central Europe, a field I spearheaded through my publications, research networks and student supervision. More recently I began looking at broader geographical areas. In this work, I re-conceptualise the history of nation and race by exploring the plurality of global racial heritages that are forgotten or misplaced. In my current book on race, to be published this year by Bloomsbury, I suggest that a more nuanced historical and critical perspective on race is needed in order to understand its growing appeal to contemporary sensibilities. After all, Brexit has highlighted the broader crisis of national and collective identity which Britain and Europe at large are experiencing at the moment. In its current personification, racism is expressed in a political vocabulary that utilises strategies of coping with an identity, which allegedly is under threat. In this respect, we need to understand the appeal of race within its historical context, as many of the images used by politicians today are often recycled historical narratives, so popular in 1920s and 1930s, and, indeed, in the nineteenth century.

Meet Dr Katherine Watson, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

What is your research about?

I research the history of crime and forensic medicine in Britain, especially England and Wales, since about 1700, with a particular focus on the period up to the First World War. I’m especially interested in the role played by doctors in solving crimes and how that changed over time, given the increasing presence of lawyers and police in the criminal justice system. Because these links are most visible in cases of violent crime, I tend to spend a lot of time reading first-person accounts of murder and other grisly goings-on. This might sound rather grim, but really it’s not!

Why did you choose the history of forensic medicine?

It was a lucky accident, really. My original intention was to become a chemist, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that although the scientific information I’d gained from my undergraduate degree might be interesting, it wouldn’t make for a rewarding research career. But it led me to the history of chemistry and from there I began to explore the history of toxicology – a science that has always been closely associated with poisoning crimes. From there it became obvious that doctors, rather than chemists, were always there or thereabouts when there’d been a murder – somebody had to examine the victim and provide a report for the courts, and usually it was a local practitioner. This led me to explore notions of expertise, a subject of broad interest to historians, criminologists and lawyers. And the forensic focus of my research means that my training as a scientist remains useful.

What makes your research different?

I’m a little unusual in having scientific training and in that my interest in forensic medicine has led me to combine several different aspects of social and legal history: the workings of the criminal justice system, laws and how they’re applied, the development of policing, the expertise of the medical profession, and the motives and methods of accused criminals. This connects to broader social problems like domestic violence and poverty, in many cases. Most or all of these issues are instantly related and brought vividly to light the moment a violent crime is committed, and it is important to realise that this was no less the case in the eighteenth century than today. Of course it wasn’t quite the same then, but it was more similar than most people assume. My research aims to show how we got to where we are now when it comes to crime investigation – students always find that fascinating.

What are the highlights of doing your research?

There are lots! The sense of stepping in to the shoes of a person who lived decades or centuries ago brings the past alive for me, particularly when I can see on the page in front of me their signature, or an ink blotch, or a prosecuting barrister’s trial notes (usually involving lots of underlining and a few shorthand comments using blue pencil), or the occasional doodle. I’m particularly drawn to a weird fanged dog that a Welsh judge drew in his trial notebook in 1814; I hope he did it between trials, which were conducted pretty speedily by modern standards. The point here is about evidence in court: who presented it, what they said and what the jury and judge made of it! The insights that people’s comments, questions, decisions and actions provide to attitudes and beliefs about family, medicine, law, the police, criminality, violence and justice are windows into the past but still speak to today’s concerns.

What will your research show?

Nowadays when a crime occurs our first thought is to call the police, and they immediately call in a forensic team: a pathologist to examine the victim and a separate forensic scientific expert (often more than one) to photograph and examine the crime scene. My research shows how and when these patterns became established during the course of the nineteenth century. The development of forensic practices that we now take for granted was closely linked to the expansion of policing and an increasingly lawyer-dominated courtroom practice, and I see this beginning in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Modernist architecture and design in inter-war England

What is your research about?
I work on the history of modernist architecture and design in inter-war England. I’ve long been interested in moving away from the standard narratives about this, which have tended to focus on individual practitioners, and which tend to lament the tardiness of the English modern movement and to equate it solely with the work of émigré practitioners. Instead, my work has shown how from the early 1920s onwards, there was much debate in England about how the country might be re-formed and the new types of architecture that might help facilitate this. I’ve looked at the networks of people who shared these ideas and the coming together of clients and architects which enabled transformative environments to be created not just in the domestic sphere, but also in arenas such as housing and education. I’m also really interested in the ways these ideas were promoted – through media as diverse as architecture periodicals, radio talks, film and books –and how this created what I call ‘narratives of modernity’ that embedded these ideas more widely, creating a progressive consensus that manifested itself after 1945 in the architectural forms of the Welfare State.
Another key area of interest, and one that often intersects with my work on modernism, is the ways in which women have contributed to the formation of the built environment. This has been a key preoccupation in architectural history for the past 20 or so years, and I’ve been at the forefront of an impulse that has favoured expanding our understanding of what constitutes the design process rather than pursuing a quest for ‘great women architects.’ So I’m really interested in women who’ve written about, for example, new forms of domesticity, campaigned from better housing, or been the clients of radical projects and who’ve played a formative role in their creation.

Why did you choose these subjects ?

As an undergraduate and then a Masters student, I had developed 2 main interests – modernist architecture (especially in the UK) and in re-thinking art and architectural history in the light of the feminist approaches which had really started to take hold when I was doing my BA in Art History. I can pinpoint exactly when I found a subject that enabled me to move these interests into a sustained research career. I was looking at an article on a key modernist project – Kensal House – which was completed in 1936 and noticed that the attribution of the project was rather an unusual one 

For a start it listed a number of individual architects (rather than one only, or the name of a practice, which would have been more typical) and then, at the end, was the name of a woman (the architects were all men) who was described as a ‘housing consultant.’ I was already really interested in Kensal House because, as an early example of modernist social housing, it was always featured in histories of English modernism but no one ever went into detail about it. In particular, it was the attribution line that intrigued me. Why were all these people listed? Who, I wondered, was Elizabeth Denby, and what was a housing consultant? No one had bothered to ask such simple questions before. I did, and it led me to a study of a fascinating individual in Denby who played a major role in developing modernism in England but who was not an architect, and who, despite being very well-known and much admired in her day, had been ‘disappeared’ from history. I wanted to put her back, but in a way that changed the nature of that history. 

In this respect I had a lot of help from Denby herself. She left very few personal papers so I had to re-create the environments from which she emerged and in which she practised - the networks of people with and from whom she developed her ideas about housing and design – in so doing it became apparent that to think about architecture as the work of one single individual was utterly simplistic. The sort of projects with which Denby was involved, like Kensal House, were formed by – among other things- a client’s (the Gas,Light and Coke Company) need to promote its goods and services and itself as a modern enlightened corporation; an evolving politics of housing which now emphasised slum clearance and inner-urban regeneration; a network that linked Denby to a local employer in an area in which she’d worked as a housing campaigner in the 1920s (north Kensington) and her ability to steer a project to embody her own philosophy of housing. The latter she promoted both through buildings like Kensal House but also in her influential book, Europe Rehoused, which was published in 1938.

What makes your research different?

In many ways all my writing since then has sought to simulate this  idea of architecture as an ongoing process of being made – whether I’ve been writing about Denby or inter-war modernism more generally (like in my 2007 book Re-forming Britain). I’ve been concerned to show how networks of people and ideas and circumstances intersect to make our built environment and then how those environments continue to evolve through their use, and their mediation in the press and so forth. Most recently, I’ve taken these ideas to a slightly earlier period and place – early 20th–century Edinburgh – to explore how a range of women reformers transformed the everyday lives and environments of the women and children who lived in the slums of the city’s Old Town. It’s been fascinating to document the way women doctors, kindergarten teachers and housing reformers worked together to effect change and how their contribution to reform has been sidelined by the much-better known (and really rather over-rated) Patrick Geddes. 

My next project takes me back to the inter-war period: From Networks to Receivers – Material and Spatial Cultures of Broadcasting in inter-war England will be a history of the design of BBC Broadcasting House (1932) and the wireless sets through which its programmes were heard. I am privileged to have been the recipient of one of the University’s Research Excellence Awards, which will support the writing of book manuscript.

Dr Elizabeth Darling is Reader in Architectural History and teaches on the History of Art programme at Oxford Brookes University.