This August is the 80th Anniversary of the start of the London Blitz. We will no doubt see a mass of stories about brave besieged Britain, standing alone against the might of Nazi Germany. For historians who believe that historical events and commemorations should be more nuanced and the hidden aspects of the mainstream story need to be highlighted, the year gives an opportunity to develop a more balanced view.
History Press has commissioned Stephen Bourne to write Under Fire: Black Britain in Wartime 1939-1945 which will combine his the two earlier books Mother Country (2010) & The Motherland Calls (2012) into one covering the Home Front & armed services with new additional stories and photos. The aim is to publish it in August for the 80th anniversary.
Inspired by the Gay Liberation Front in the United States and the Stonewall riots in the United States the UK GLF held its first meeting at the London School of Economics on 13 October 1970. December 1970 saw the start of the Mangrove Nine trial, following clashes between the police and sections of the black community in Notting Hill.
2020 provides many opportunities to look at past historical events and their significance today.
Leaving aside the Russian Revolution and Civil War in which Britain intervened, 1920 sees the start of the League of Nations, in which Labour’s Arthur Henderson played a key role. In America the clamp down and mass arrests of socialists and communists began leading to the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union. In Germany Adolph Hitler published his programme and set up the Nazi Party. Britain troops occupied Constantinople. Jerusalem saw riots between Jews and Arabs. In October thousands of unemployed demonstrated in London. During the Irish Civil War British troops burnt down the centre of Cork. Partition in North and South was approved by Parliament. In July the London County Council banned foreigners from almost all council jobs. The Communist Party of Great Britain was formed on 1 August. Among a number of women’s equality initiatives in October the first one hundred women were admitted to study for full degrees at Oxford, and a number of former students were retrospectively awarded degrees. October saw a strike by the miners with a state of emergency agreed by Parliament, the strike ending on 3 November. Culturally November saw the first complete public performance of Holst’s The Planets and William Owen’s Poems were published.
Potential historic commemorations with particular relevance to debates in Britain today, include:
· the South Sea Bubble financial scandal in 1720 which reminds us that the Government of the day fined the Directors of the South Sea Company, rather than pumping last sums of money into the financial system as was done by George Brown;
· the Scottish affirmation of independence in the Declaration of Arbroath in April 1320;
· the nationalisation of the private telegraph companies by the creation of the General Post Office on 28 January 1870.
Many labour and women’s historians in particular will want to focus on the Cato Street Conspiracy (resulting from the failure of the Government to take action against the perpetrators of the Peterloo Massacre and the passing of the six repressive Acts against popular action, and after the accession of George IV as King), the Scottish Radical War and the Queen Caroline Affair in 1820, and from 1870 the passage of the Elementary Education Act creating the School Board system on which women were eligible to stand and vote, and of the Married Women’s Property Act confirming that wives may own property of their own.
The Challenge of Reaching Out to Wider Audiences
The challenge is how to reach a much wider audience people to influence the way they think about British historical development and what that means for politics today. After all there is no such thing as historical objectivity; things are shaped by the aims and objects, the values and principles people hold and the strategies and tactics they use, and the conflicts between individuals and between and within collective groups, partially influenced by the way in which each individuals brain is wired.
Just as we make history through these processes so we also use history in the controversies of the present day.
In the General Election the Conservatives survived the Windrush Generation scandal, got away with continuing to blame Labour for austerity, and with the help of the media and sections of the Labour Party discredited the Labour Leader for his past political stands on issues such as Northern Ireland and Palestine. They got away with presenting itself as patriotically One Nation while stoking up the likelihood of the United Kingdom breaking up. Sections of the Labour Party are trying to give their view of recent history to hide their failure to understand what was happening in the Red Wall constituencies, and their role in undermining their Leader.
North East Labour History Society’s First Tuesday talks for the first four months of 2020 all have relevance to the politics of today. (https://seancreighton1947.wordpress.com/2020/01/15/north-east-labour-history-society-talks-february-april)
Labour movement historians reach small audiences, and we have no idea whether increasing people’s knowledge and understanding changes the way people think. This is not to denigrate the efforts of groups like Labour Heritage, the Socialist History Society, the North East and North West Labour History Societies and other local groups and individuals.
We need to find ways of reaching out to more people. Sometimes a lot can be achieved as when John Charlton spoke to thousands across the North East on slavery and abolition between 2007 and 2010. But what we do not know is what lasting influence this had on his audiences.
Even if one looks at social groups like students we have to understand that at any University they mostly come from elsewhere. They have no knowledge or understanding of the town or city they are based in. This hit me when I was doing the walk, archive session and talk during last year’s Durham’s Black History Month. How does one build student/community joint action except on occasional national issues. I am reminded of my own student days (Sheffield 1966-69) when I considered it more important to be politically active on student affairs and did not engage in political activity in the City. While I did have a general overview of the historical development and nature of the City this was only because I had read the British Association for the Advancement of Science volume on Sheffield published for its Conference there in 1956.
Perhaps Universities put compulsory modules for new students on the history of the town/city and region where they are based.