Category Archives: Prize

‘A report from the KCBH conference 2018: The UK through comparative and transnational perspectives’

As part of our ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’ conference, we were able to award a number of postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Our final winner is PhD student Matthew Myers (Oxford)  who discusses his thoughts on the day.

The second annual conference of KCBH took place in Kings College on 2 July this year. Bringing together scholars from across Britain and North America, this year’s event was aimed at situating academic work on the history of the United Kingdom in a comparative and transnational perspective. Spurred by the approaching exit of Britain from the European Union, the conference organisers wished to put Britain’s relationship with the world at centre stage.

Six separate sessions were hosted throughout the day, with forty two scholars presenting papers or chairing sessions. The program was organised around ten key books and themes which offered the potential for comparative and transnational perspectives. Subjects ranged from Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, the British empire and decolonisation, the Good Friday agreement, the response of government to the world 2008 financial crisis, the development of the British Welfare state, the development of suffrage, modes of warfare, and Keith Middlemas’s Politics of Industrial Society. Each session was chaired by leading scholars in the field, including leading academics based in the U.S.

Guy Ortolono (NYU) gave the conference-closing keynote, titled ‘Begrudging Market Liberalism’. Using an empirically rich analysis of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation as his starting point, Guy offered a rich exposition of the vagaries of Britain’s ‘property-owning democracy’, charting the shift from what he called ‘property-owning social democracy’ (where, from the post-war period to the late 1970s, there was a felt need on the side of government for balance between renters and owners) to ‘property owning democracy’ (where there was no such concern for balance). Guy punctured the myth of Thatcherite sloganeering which proclaimed the battle being between property owners and those advocating universal social housing provision. There was never a division between right and left on housing provision, he argued. Labour under Harold Wilson was committed in word and deed to hugely expand private home ownership. The question was of balance between public and private, not total common provision. The reality was that Labour’s housing policy was organised like its wider management of class conflict. It sought to find an uneasy balance between often contradictory social interests; a delicate balance the more nakedly market-orientated Tories had increasingly little time for.

What the conference outlined was the growing appetite amongst British historians to think outside the usual Britain-constricted frame, driven by a reading of current political developments. French and Italian historians like Patrick Boucheron (Histoire Mondiale de la France, 2017) and Andrea Giardina (Storia mondiale dell’Italia, 2017) have shown that it isn’t just the British who are taking up these questions.

Yet while the ambition to engage with these urgently necessary frames are present, the means (and possibly the will) to engage concretely with the comparative and transnational frame seem unfulfilled. As a participants noted in the first session on Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, the prolific figure of the British New Left made almost no mention of any figures outside the British Labour Party, let alone the world in his classic text. The chair, Professor Richard Vinen noted that Miliband’s only reference to a non-British socialist leader was Léon Blum. The choice of the book as a starting point for transnational and comparative perspectives only further highlighted the historic and deeply entrenched aversion to this perspective amongst many classic texts, as well as the distance still to travel.

To fulfil on the promise of the conference’s theme – which had been spurred by the context of Brexit and Britain’s relationship with Europe – the experience of the conference may indicate that new and possibly unsettling approaches may still be required. Questions and contributions during the sessions were often confined to the Britain-centric themes of many of the papers. To fulfil on the promise of the new comparative and transnational frame, next year’s sessions may need an explicit remit to compare British experiences with Europe and the world. As well as comparative approaches, a country historically highly integrated into global flows of people, commodities, and ideas offers immense material for transnational discussions within the discrete confines of the ‘national’ polity. Unfortunately, explicit internationally comparative frameworks were sparse throughout the day. To make such links may require engagement with non-English language scholarship in Europe and further afield.

As Britain’s place in the world is increasingly under the political spotlight, the need for a renewed engagement with comparative and transnational themes has never been more necessary. This conference was an important and necessary step in the right direction.

Matthew Myers is a History DPhil student at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the political and social history of Britain, France, and Italy during the 1970s.

KCBH 2018 Bringing New Formats and Perspectives

As part of our ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’ conference, we were able to award a number of postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is Amanda Hall (St Andrews) who discusses her thoughts on the day.

If you are organising a conference, consider this innovative format pioneered by Dr Maggie Scull and Professor David Edgerton at the King’s Contemporary British History conference. Instead of the traditional 20-minute paper format, panels were built around short introductions to an individual’s topic – such as my discussion of the how the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement has shifted debate of the Agreement’s legacy on the issue of ‘peace’ in the region – with over an hour set aside for discussion between panellists and with the audience. Rather than potentially only having the opportunity to answer a question or two after delivering prepared remarks this structure provided the chance for in-depth back-and-forth. As a non-historian attending a history conference, this format helped me to realise connections between my own work and that of scholars from other disciplines in a way that otherwise would not have been possible.

The topic of the conference, ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’, was well-suited to this interdisciplinary success, as scholars across both disciplines and sub-fields concerned themselves with thinking about the history of the United Kingdom and how that may inform the near future (perhaps most obviously with Brexit). The broad theme, and its encouragement of diverse thinking and perspectives, was evident from the first panel I attended, ‘Empire, Nation, World and Decolonisation’, chaired by Dr Charlotte Riley, with presentations from Dr Michael Lambert, Dr John Wilson, and Professor David Edgerton. Using their 5-minute slots to their fullest extent, these presentations fitted together a narrative of empire-building and community-definition as an outward-facing process, even when such processes failed to bring about similar sentiments and support at home. The longer conversation between panellists and the audience contextualised the current moment in UK politics as part of a much longer historic narrative in the country, reframing the last seven decades as a period in which the current idea of ‘national identity’ was deliberately constructed, rather than organically developed.

After a short break, the second session of the conference included the panel on which I presented, ‘Post-Conflict Northern Ireland in the Transnational Lens’. Chaired by Dr Maggie Scull, I had the opportunity to contribute to the conference alongside presentations from Dr George Legg, Edwin Coomasaru, Alex Coupe, and Dr Katie Markham. My co-panellists presented on topics ranging from post-conflict issues of consociationalism; understanding Northern Ireland through the lens of pacifism, feminism, and queer studies; the role of the arts in generating cross-community space following 1998; and the role of the heritage sector in forwarding specific narratives of the conflict. I used my five minutes to discuss the question of whether the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland achieved ‘peace’ and what the definitional issues surrounding that label may be, particularly considering the development of a ‘culture war’ replacing active fighting. In my opinion, this fit into the larger conference theme through the uncertainty of the current moment in Northern Ireland and the issues regarding binary social division, a phenomenon seen in other contexts across the West today.

The success of the conference’s format was evident in the wide range of topics discussed by my fellow panellists, as well as the broad discussion with the audience that followed – both depth and breadth within a single panel that are unique among conferences I have attended in the past. The hour of discussion included topics ranging from the applicability of the lessons of Northern Ireland’s peace process to the Basque Country, the role of education in contact and division in Northern Ireland, counter-terrorism efforts, and the role of parades in drawing tourism. Despite coming from such varied academic backgrounds, the conversation allowed everyone in the room to contribute to the discussion – to the benefit of us all. I walked away from the panel with a new understanding of my own research and how it can be applied and communicated beyond the boundaries which I have previously considered. Being in the middle of my project, this helped me return to my fieldwork and notes with a wider-angle lens on the issue of the many forms of and actors in ‘peace’ in Northern Ireland, and my experience at KCBH 2018 will undoubtedly strengthen the final results of my doctoral research moving forward.

After speaking with others throughout the day, it was clear I was not the only one to walk away (after attending a final panel session on ‘Modes of Warfare’, keynote by Professor Guy Ortalano, and wine reception) with a new perspective not only on my own topic, but on the conference theme of ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’ – particularly the ways that this view of the UK is relevant across contemporary scholarship, even that which is largely focused outside of the present day. Such a broad view was only apparent due to the candour and openness of the conference: a feeling encouraged by the discussion-based nature of the day. Such a broad conference theme could have felt disjointed, particularly with participants from across a wide range of topics and disciplines. Instead, due to the opportunity to directly engage with presentations and other audience members, it felt like the kind of day I imagined at the start of my PhD: the chance to discuss ‘big ideas’ with people who see things from other perspectives, while trying to see my own topic in another light. Overall, I cannot say enough positive things about the day, its content, and its structure, and highly encourage others to attend future events or adopt the format for their own conference!

Amanda Hall is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on ‘inter-referendum’ Northern Ireland, from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to the 2016 Brexit vote, and considers the quality of peace in the region during that time.

Kings College British History Conference 2018: An Exploration in Alternative Historiographies

As part of our ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’ conference, we were able to award 3 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

First up is Dr Katie Markham (Newcastle) who discusses her thoughts on the day.

Whilst it’s always a pleasure to attend conferences run by well-respected colleagues, there is a particular pleasure to be had in attending conferences that lie almost entirely outside of your own subject speciality. Such was my experience at the recent Kings College Contemporary British History conference earlier this month where, as one of the few cultural theorists to be found amongst a committed group of historians, a more enjoyable day could not have been had.

Contextualising itself in the UK’s impending withdrawal from the EU, the conference brief asked presenters to focus on histories of the UK through a transnational perspective, with the intention of ‘revist[ing] major debates and positions’ in light of the current political moment. Eschewing traditional paper formats, organisers of KCBH instead opted to organise panels around a ‘pecha kucha’ format, with presenters each allocated five minutes to speak on their area of expertise and the rest of the time given over to group discussion and contributions from delegates.

The success of this format was evident in the first panel that I attended, titled Empire, Nation, World and Decolonisation. Rigorously and considerately chaired by Dr Charlotte Riley, this opening panel of the day (which competed for crowds with the simultaneously held session on Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism) featured papers from Dr Michael Lambert, Dr John Wilson, and one of the conference’s own co-organisers, Professor David Edgerton. The synergy between these three panellists was evident and across their five minutes a range of links were made between post-war social work in the North West of England, the construction of Empire during WWII and the mediation of Britishness in the early 20th century. A consensus amongst all the panellists was that, whilst necessary, discussions of Empire have, until now, been dominated by the broad brushstrokes of colonial narratives at the expense of the more subtle considerations of the ways in which power, identity and policy is negotiated at a local, national level. Particularly provocative was Professor Edgerton’s suggestion that we should seek to dispense with colonial historiography all together and should instead seek to understand the nexus of power from a national perspective, focusing instead on the ways in which race in particular was constructed out of a British context. Naturally, such a suggestion prompted a number of questions from the audience, which lead to a particularly fruitful hour of debate about the impact that such reframed perspectives might have on the discipline as a whole.

After a brief coffee break a second, equally excellent panel (which, in the interests of full disclosure, I should announce I was also part of) was lead by the other esteemed conference organiser, Dr Maggie Scull, on the topic of The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Somewhat controversially, none of the presenters were historians by training and the conversation immediately focused on the cultural legacy of the Northern Irish Troubles, featuring reflections from Edwin Coomasaru and Alex Coupe about the role that art can play in mediating contemporary understandings of the Troubles, and some sharp analysis from George Legg and Amanda Hall about the impact that the Good Friday Agreement is having on social and political life now in Northern Ireland. Again, the format of the panel meant that ample time was left for audience contribution, with individuals making incisive connections between Northern Ireland and other, recently conflicted societies around the world. Although I was personally unable to attend, two other panels taking place at the same time as ours, on Welfare States and Government, Economics and Finance, were attracting rave reviews on Twitter, which are well worth checking out.

After a very sunny lunch on the balcony of the Strand, we encountered the last papers of the day, which were split between a panel on Modes of Warfare and Suffrage, Politics of Industrial Society. The latter topic was a particularly snug fit with the general tenor of the conference which, in a pleasing counterbalance to that ancient academic tradition, the ‘manel’, emphasised women’s contributions to the discussions throughout the day, with several chairs actively prioritising questions from women during the Q&A sessions. As chairs themselves pointed out, such decisions are particularly meaningful in spaces where womens’ voices have been historically marginalised and are an effective way of ensuring the inclusivity of an event.

Rounding off the conference was Professor Guy Ortalano’s keynote paper on ‘Begrudging Market Liberalism’ which, echoing the morning panel’s calls for greater specificity in how we approach British history, offered an incisive deconstruction of 1970s social housing in Milton Keynes, linking its particular approach to Thatcher’s market liberalism with decision making processes held elsewhere in the UK and the United States.

It was with heavy hearts, but parched throats, that the conference officially came to a close and we proceeded to the wine reception. Reflecting on the day’s proceedings with other colleagues, one thing that really stood out to me was the conviviality of the whole event. Such an atmosphere is a rarity in academia at times and the conference organisers and chairs should be commended for their efforts in carrying off such a feat.

As for me, this may have been my first experience of attending a history conference, but if the rest of the discipline’s conferences are to be judged on the merits of KCBH, it certainly won’t be my last.

The Death of Secularisation

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Ruth Lindley (Birmingham) who discusses the secularisation panel.

Many thanks to Maggie Scull and everyone at KCBH for organising ‘Contemporary British History Now’, especially for being brave enough to experiment with a new panel format that really seemed to work. My comments below are primarily concerned with the ‘secularisation’ panel on which I spoke; however, I also touch on the conference format and how we might usefully go forward from here.  

My one big disagreement with the experimental panels has more to do with the choice of themes and ‘big books’ than the format itself. Asking us to think about ‘declinism’ and ‘permissiveness’ seemed like turning back the debate thirty years rather than addressing the conference aim of surveying contemporary British history now. Haven’t sophisticated scholars already shown us that linear narratives of decline and resurgence flatten out all the bits of historical texture we love? And that terms like ‘permissiveness’ are not neutral analytic categories but come loaded down in historically specific political and cultural meaning?

This issue seemed especially obvious during the secularisation panel, where Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain (2001) was selected to represent scholarship on religious change in modern Britain. As I said in my paper, sophisticated gender historians have done a huge amount to challenge linear narratives of inevitable religious decline. I’m thinking, in particular, of edited collections like Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan’s, Men Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth-Century Britain (2013) and Jacqueline Devries and Morgan’s, Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain (2010). These interventions are not empirical – wrangling over causal-moments and rates of decline – but challenge secularisation at its conceptual core. By applying gender theory to the binary analysis that underpins secularisation (and every other linear narrative), these scholars show us that the theory’s central tenets rest on easy assumptions about the nature of contemporary Britain (modern-secular-rational) as opposed to ‘the past’ (traditional-religious-superstitious). These taken-for-granted characteristics of modernity are not, of course, self-evident, they need historicising. This calls for embracing textured history and taking it seriously on its own terms, rather than squeezing it all into one big explanatory framework.

In saying that, going back to Brown was useful in that it revealed the tenacity of secularisation theory. The sociological grand narrative appears to have taken on a ‘common sense’ gloss, as if we are all in general agreement about its trajectory, rather than acknowledging that it is one idea about religious change among many. It even insinuated its way onto other panel discussions; woven into all kinds of different stories about mid-century Britain, endlessly participated in, reproduced and embellished upon. The death of secularisation still seems like a really long way off.

Why does any of this matter? Why should we be so suspicious of secularisation and its proponents? Because I think the same structures that privilege Brown with having delivered the ‘dominant’ narrative of religious change in modern Britain are the same structures that conceptualise ‘dominant’ religiosity in Britain as institutional and therefore necessarily pale and male. By holding up institutional religiosity as the marker of legitimate belief, historians collude with the religious institutions themselves that have all the say in who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’, who is ‘religious’ and who is ‘spiritual’, who is ‘orthodox’ and who is ‘heterodox’. Through the lens of these implicit value-judgements, women’s spirituality – and, as we learned, BME religious adherence – are ignored, or marginalised, or seen as signs of ‘resurgence’ rather than evidence of the ever-changing, myriad forms and modes of religiosity.

At the next conference, let’s spend less time thinking about exclusionary narratives and concepts, and more about the challenges facing us as we seek to write inclusive and socially responsible histories of modern Britain.

Ruth Lindley is an AHRC-funded doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis uses the feminist spirituality movement to open up histories of gender, secularism and religious change in post-1960s Britain. You can find Ruth on Twitter @RuthLindley

An interesting format, but needs some further thought

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Sean Male (Birmingham) who discusses the usefulness of this unique conference format.

I would first like to thank the organisers for both making this conference free, and for offering a generous travel bursary to postgrad students. This has enabled new researchers to take part in the conference, which of course allows for some exciting and fresh scholarship to be shared. And it appeared that many PG students took advantage of the offer, which was great to see.

It is inevitable that this one-day conference will be compared to the two well attended Modern British Studies conferences held at the University of Birmingham in 2015 and 2017. MBS2015 worked on the assumption that the field of modern British history was fractured and in crisis, and sought to forge new narratives and explanatory frameworks. At the end of MBS2015, the field, it turned out, was healthier than thought.

Similarly, KCBHnow returns to the idea that the field of modern British history needs reassessing, with the grand narratives and ‘big books’ of the past thirty years revisited. Calum Brown and Sally Alexander were in attendance to look back at their work, and long-established narratives and concepts such as ‘consensus’, ‘Thatcherism’, and ‘permissiveness’ were debated. If KCBH wanted to create a new year zero in the field of modern British history, looking to reassess the grand narratives would seem like a logical place to start.

If there were some parallels to be drawn in the premise of the conference, then the format promised something new. Papers were to be kept to five minutes, all addressing a ‘big book’ or grand narrative, followed by a discussion. The initial response to this format among the delegates was overwhelmingly positive, and the format certainly sparked some lively discussion.

Where I thought the format worked best was on the discussion of ‘consensus’. Fascinating mini-papers by Dr Ceci Flinn on post-war city planning, and Dr Chris Smith using a gender framework to assess the wartime role of Bletchley Park, both proved a great launching pad for debate. The audience were engaged, and the chair, Dr Helen McCarthy, kept the discussion flowing. The result of the panel, I am glad to report, is that there was no consensus on the concept of consensus.

I do, however, think the format could do with some extra thought elsewhere, especially when making authors the moderators of discussion on their own work. I think this practice has the potential to stifle discussion where the panel are in awe of the author, or where the panel are in complete disagreement with the work under discussion. For the most part, the discussions I attended avoided this. Professor Sally Alexander presided over a discussion which was both productive and allowed for critical discussion of her work. The discussion of Professor Calum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain, too, was for the most part lively. However, I think the points raised by Rev Dr David Goodhew’s on BAME church attendance figures, and Ruth Lindley’s case study of spirituality within the women’s liberation movement, could potentially have been given more time for discussion. Brown, nonetheless, provided a memorable session.

Despite my reservations, it was a format that was well worth exploring. The discussion format was helpful, I thought, in exploding some of the grand narratives – or at least in complicating them. And as with the two Modern British Studies conferences, KCBHnow has shown a discipline that is healthy and still willing to question some of the narratives which dominate our field.

Sean Male is a second year PGR at the University of Birmingham. He is researching the response to post-war immigration within the children’s homes system in England and Wales.

Permissiveness: A Useful Framework for Historical Analysis?

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Katie Jones (Birmingham) who discusses the usefulness of the ‘permissiveness’ panel.

For this blog post I wish to share some initial thoughts on attending the recent inaugural King’s Contemporary British History conference as a young, female PhD researcher, my opinions on the general format and give my response to the panel centred on the narrative of ‘permissiveness’.

My first impression of the conference was that – as a PhD researcher – I immediately felt included. The four panels I attended exploring key themes and texts (permissiveness; reflections on Sally Alexander’s, Becoming A Woman; revisiting Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain and Thatcherism), PhD/ECRs were panellists, as well as also being visibly present amongst the audience. The overall representation of ECRs, doctoral students and even MA students was encouraging and for this alone the organizers deserve due commendation. This was largely helped, I’m sure, by incentivising PhD students with travel bursaries to attend the conference. Practically, this made it possible for those of us outside of London, whilst also helping to us to feel included, welcome, and ultimately, valued.

The experimental format of the conference, which saw panellists give short, five minute papers followed by an hour-long discussion, in my opinion, really worked. Yet, it would have perhaps been useful for speakers to have been allocated slightly longer time slots in which to pitch their initial thoughts, allowing them to expand on their points and bring in further evidence and examples from their research. However, the format facilitated lively debate and allowed for much more interaction between the speakers and the audience than the traditional conference format.

One panel generating such debate was the panel most closely related to my own research on masculinities, contraception and sexual health in late-twentieth century Britain was centred on the narrative of ‘permissiveness’ and the concept of the ‘permissive society’. This panel raised important questions centred on methodology we use to ‘get at’ permissiveness and secondly, around the term itself, which in turn prompted questioning of the language we use to make sense of historical processes. To me, the debate seemed to reveal that permissiveness was a somewhat unhelpful, vague ‘catch-all’ term which excluded the experience of certain groups and individuals. Hannah Charnock’s case for the uses of oral history and personal testimony was strong, exposing the limits of this narrative. Charnock argued for the uses of qualitative, which stood somewhat in opposition to the use of opinion poll data by fellow panel member Marcus Collins. These differing methodological standpoints proved for lively debate, encouraged further by the experimental format. Jodi Burkett’s paper was also hugely thought-provoking. Like Charnock, drawing on the personal testimony of black Britons, Burkett argued that when they spoke about their experiences of life in post-war Britain, ‘permissiveness’ was not a narrative they used and if ‘permissiveness’ did have an impact on the lives of black Britons, it did not take effect until the 1980s and 1990s. Surely then, ‘permissiveness’ loses legitimacy as a useful interpretive framework when it excludes the experiences of certain groups and individuals? Collins attested to the usefulness of the term in that it helps us to thread together often disparate subjects (homosexuality; prostitution; race relations etc.). However, during the discussion, delegate Lucy Delap was quick to draw attention to its inherent loftiness. I for, one would agree with her. Especially after hearing papers by Charnock and Burkett, as a historian dealing with experience and personal testimony myself, I doubt that ‘permissiveness’ remains a useful interpretive framework for understanding contemporary Britain, as this narrative clearly fails to match up with the lived experience of individuals. It seems a focus on individual lives reveals the limitations of this well established narrative by exposing who and what it excludes. Perhaps, then, it is time to rethink the some of the terms we use to try and make sense of contemporary Britain.

The conference format certainly revealed the usefulness of revisiting old debates in order to revise current frameworks for contemporary British history in the here and now. Yet, with a conference called Contemporary British History Now, it would have been exciting to hear even more new research. For speakers to go into greater depth of course you need time. From an organizational perspective, necessarily this would have meant reducing the discussion time and thus risk sacrificing the lively debate which followed the individual papers. Within a limited timeframe something has to give. I’m aware that when utilising an experimental format organizing a longer conference can be a risk, but perhaps this could be something to consider when organising future events after this recent success – I, for one, am intrigued by the approach taken by KCBH and will gladly return for more.

Katie Jones is a second-year doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her broader research interests centre on the histories of gender, sex and sexuality and emotion in modern Britain and her thesis explores masculinities, contraception and sexual health in late-twentieth century Britain, 1967-1997. You can also find Katie on Twitter @klhjones

The Shadow of Brexit

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student George Morris (Cambridge) who discusses the ‘shadow of Brexit’ which hung over the conference.

The shadow of Brexit hung over KCBH. Over a year on from the June 2016 referendum, academics, like politicians, journalists and the population as a whole, are still scratching their heads. Every discussion I attended at KCBH inevitably referenced Brexit, whether in light of Nairn-Anderson or declinism, Beveridge or permissiveness. How do we do contemporary history in the context of the current crisis, which few of us expected, and which seems to have drastically altered the course of the history we seek to write? If unfolding events alter the stories we tell about ourselves, Brexit may well be an important historiographical, as well as political and cultural, juncture.

Anthony Seldon spoke about the lack of knowledge of contemporary British history among politicians and the media in his opening remarks, and nowhere has this been more visible in recent years than during the referendum campaign. One of the most commonly deployed historical analogies in the campaign was to the Reformation, the five-hundredth anniversary of which has been celebrated this year. Such comparisons are uncomfortably reliant on an idea of an immutable national identity – implicitly English, (Protestant) Christian, vaguely nationalist and politely parochial. Examination of the ways in which this narrative was itself historically rooted, and perhaps not particularly good history, was overlooked. Newspaper editors show significantly less incredulity towards metanarratives than do historians.

It seems likely that our understanding of what is happening is hampered if we do not reflect critically on the role that our universities play in reinforcing cultural inequality in contemporary Britain. Hostility to experts is not necessarily the sign of a vulgar anti-intellectualism, but may well reflect a very realistic understanding of inequalities in what those experts might call cultural capital. That experts seem to be drawn from a rather narrow strata of schools and universities, that they often look and sound alike, and that they live in the same places and move in the same circles, cannot but reinforce the suspicion that who is sanctioned as an expert is a question of caste rather than real qualification.

This is not to say that we should start ignoring experts; as several speakers at KCBH pointed out, historians – experts on history – clearly have an important role to play in helping us make sense of the current crisis. But the reasons the current crisis faces us with such difficulty may be similar to the reasons for the disenchantment with experts. Thinking about how we acquire, distribute and think about expertise has never been more important.

KCBH’s willingness to innovate not just in the types of questions we ask, but also in the ways in which we ask them, is therefore refreshing in the current context. Making sense of contemporary British history requires us to think again about our place within it, not in terms of the self-hatred of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’, but in understanding that the current crisis asks us not just to think about how we do contemporary British history, but also what we do when we do it.

George Morris is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, and a commissioning editor for Renewal: a journal of social democracy.

KCBH Conference: A Rewarding Experiment

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is recently submitted PhD student Michelle Gordon (Royal Holloway) who offers her insights on the conference.

It is always interesting to attend a conference that tries to do things a bit different and this was certainly the case at the KCBH ‘Contemporary British History Now’ event. Each presenter was given five minutes for their position papers, which allowed for a wide range of arguments to be presented and gave an insight into the diverse range of research that is currently taking place in the field of British history: from women’s cricket to British emigration, to the role of colonial troops in World War I to Declinism and decolonisation as well as the many ‘ways’ of British warfare – it will certainly take me a while to process all that I heard and learnt! Debates and the repercussions on Brexit loomed large throughout the day, particularly on the key debates that continue regarding ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and of particular interest and very worryingly, it seems there is something to be said for the argument that imperial nostalgia played a key role in the referendum result. With these debates in mind, Professor Patrick Wright’s keynote on ‘The English Fix: Perspectives on Brexit’ was certainly a fitting end to a fascinating day.

An aspect of the experimental format that was particularly effective was the few minutes’ discussion amongst ourselves before the debate began; this method took me back to being a student! This approach both allowed for time to reflect on the variety of perspectives we had just heard and prevented those dreaded first few awkward moments at the end of paper in which no one wants to speak first. Furthermore, the strict timeframe was a great way to hear a range of arguments and research in a very short space of time, and I feel that the format encouraged greater audience participation than the standard twenty-minute paper followed by a ten-minute Q&A. I have never witnessed such successful timekeeping by academics before!

While I felt that overall the experiment was a success, I think that a few keywords on the conference programme may have been useful to indicate the focus of individual papers, thereby allowing an informed choice on which session to attend and I feel that this may have better prepared the audience for the sheer variety of perspectives. However, I think that the format encouraged debate and the conference had a warm and friendly atmosphere in which to hash out our differences. The range of topics and opinions demonstrates not only a thriving field, but also the cross roads at which Britain currently finds itself: our understanding of British history and perceptions of that history are more important than ever: perceptions of Britain’s relationship with violence, decolonisation and declinism are all integral to this ongoing discussion, and events such as ‘Contemporary British History Now’  are essential in keeping an open dialogue.

Michelle Gordon has recently completed her PhD on ‘British Colonial Violence in Perak, Sierra Leone and Sierra Leone’ at Royal Holloway, University of London. Michelle’s work explores extreme violence in British colonial warfare and also examines British colonial violence within a wider framework of both European genocidal violence in twentieth-century European warfare and the Holocaust. 

Race and Britain- A Research Agenda or Public History?

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Rebecca Nelson (Hull) who offers her insights on ‘Race and Britain’ panel.

I recently attended the King’s Contemporary British History conference addressing the question of, ‘what is contemporary British history now?’ There was a really exciting program which included a variety of themes, from Thatcherism and secularization, to warfare and gender. Academics working on a range of topics from across the UK and the wider world (I personally met at least two delegates from the United States) came together to discuss some of the issues facing historians working on contemporary British history, as well as share ideas on how to develop the field going forward.

The structure of the conference was unlike any I have been to before. The presentations from the panelists were delivered in five minute slots – just enough time for them to outline the ideas behind their own research, as well as raise points that the audience may want to address further in the rest of the session that remained. Each session was an hour and fifteen minutes, with the presentations taking only twenty to thirty minutes, there was an extended amount of time for discussion. Once the presenters had finished speaking the audience were invited to converse amongst themselves about their responses to what had been said, and then the floor was open to questions. I thought this was really effective in drawing in all audience members to the discussion, enabling networking between attendees who may not have previously known each other to chat, and providing time to formulate thoughtful questions which would move the conversation started by the panelists forward.

As my own research investigates antislavery in UK museums, one of the most pertinent panels for me was the one on race and Britain. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the different racial voices in stories of abolition and antislavery and how museums choose to represent or neglect these. I thought this session might give me some new insights into how other scholars are thinking about similar things. It also interested me that this was the only panel where academics were joined by professionals from the heritage sector; Iqbal Hussain an outreach officer at the National Archives and Munira Mohamad the learning manager of the Black Cultural Archives.

I was not disappointed by the panel; each of the panelists were working on very different projects from Hussain’s work on the anniversary of the partition of India, to Dr Anna Maguire’s study of colonial experiences in the First World War. From all of the presentations it was clear that there is a significance and ‘responsibility’ as Maguire said, attached to uncovering these histories, both for and with the communities who are usually missing from traditional historical narratives. Issues were raised from the audience about the need to integrate these histories within national narratives, particularly via embedding them within history degrees- one suggestion was to make a module on race a compulsory part of the first year of an undergraduate course. This lack of race within education, in schools and at university, was also credited as being one of the barriers which prevents more scholars from ethnic minorities taking up history. The national curriculum was also considered, as perhaps needing a review to redress the current neglect of diverse narratives. It was overwhelmingly clear from these panels that whilst we often discuss ‘black history’, and in one way this separate categorization is a reflection of the importance of recognizing histories of ethnic minorities alongside national narratives, it may be misleading because these histories are ultimately a crucial part of understanding both British and world histories.

As the conference suggested, the panel addressed an issue of practicing history in terms of race. Another theme which came out of the audience discussion was the question of what type of history this is; ‘are we discussing a research agenda, or public history?’ The panel were quick to reply in agreement that actually this is both. The academics were keen to indicate the involvement of community groups in their research and the reception their work has then had from those communities. The heritage professionals also strongly supported this, with Mohamad describing her role as bridging the gap between the academics and the public- that without facilities like public archives and museums, academic research would remain firmly within the academy. This debate about whether history has to be an ‘either or’ surprised me- with the REF now requiring impact from academic work, I think the distinction between public history and ‘proper’ history will become increasingly blurred. While race is an issue central to both historians and communities, I think a follow up event could invite exploration of how historians see their role within the public sphere, encouraging further interaction between the academy and the heritage sector on a range of different themes.

Rebecca Nelson is a PhD student at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation. Her research is funded through the AHRC’s Antislavery Usable Past project and explores the way in which UK museums have, over the past century, engaged with antislavery as both a historic and contemporary issue.

Keeping History Contemporary: Reflections on ‘What is Contemporary British History Now?’

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

First up is PhD student Murray McLean (Edinburgh) who offers his insights on the day.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the inaugural King’s Contemporary British History conference, ‘What is Contemporary British History Now?’ As a PhD student living in Scotland, I was initially somewhat hesitant about attending; however, the conference organisers’ goal of revisiting key texts in twentieth-century British history – surveying the field and establishing a strong framework of debate within which to move forward – promised a timely and necessary intervention, an unmissable event for a relatively uninitiated researcher like myself. The generous offer of a travel bursary ultimately made the decision a complete no-brainer. Below are some reflections on the innovative format of the conference, the discussions it created, and the overall impression left by the day.

The conference was divided into four panel sessions and, instead of the traditional twenty-minute papers, each speaker gave a five-minute intervention, followed by a two-minute pause for reflection before the discussion was opened to all present. As organiser Dr Maggie Scull explained in her opening remarks, this experimental format was meant to encourage active debate among delegates and panellists, in line with the conference’s role in inaugurating a new phase in the field of contemporary British history. Despite Dr Scull’s cheerful disclaimer that this was an experiment and so vulnerable to failure, I think most attendees would agree that it was a welcome innovation. It offered the practical advantage of avoiding the inevitable fatigue that sets in (particularly post-lunch) after a series of longer papers – no matter how interesting. More importantly, however, the emphasis on discussion allowed panellists’ expertise to be applied to broader questions of scope and purpose raised by delegates, often in reference to points encountered in other sessions. The conference thus had a cohesion that can be lacking with the traditional format.

This was brought to my attention by an intervention from Dr Lucy Delap, who noted – as delegate rather than panellist – during the session on Thatcherism that the question of periodisation had recurred throughout the day, and that contemporary British history has so far been wedded to a fairly strict decade-by-decade chronology. Indeed, this resonated strongly with discussions in earlier sessions: on the Permissiveness panel, Dr Jodi Burkett suggested that, from the perspective of black Britons, the period of permissiveness should be shifted from the 1960s to the 1980s and ‘90s, while the debate on Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain posited the need for both a longer and a shorter timeframe when considering religion in Britain. In response to Dr Delap’s remarks, it was debated whether Thatcherism might be extended back to the advent of inflation as the major technical challenge to government in 1959/60, and forward to the financial crisis of 2008, or whether we ought to periodise in terms of debates rather than events. On this point, Dr James Freeman neatly underlined what felt like an emerging consensus by suggesting that we need to become more comfortable with multiple periodisations. For me this was the most striking example of how the format of the day had facilitated a discussion across specialisms, resulting in the proposal of a future direction for the field as a whole.

The format did not only allow for consensus: the relative freedom of individual sessions to determine the terms of debate allowed significant points of contention to come to the fore. The variation in this regard was most striking in the panels on specific texts, chaired in the case of the two I attended by the author of the text in question. In Sally Alexander’s panel, there was a sense of reverence and personal reflection: responding to the nature of the text, panellists spoke of the profound effect Becoming a Woman had had on them as scholars and as people, leading to a wide-ranging discussion of the state of Women’s History and of feminism across the discipline. By contrast, Callum Brown’s panel, likewise responding to the central text’s provocation, took a much more combative approach to its subject, with several of the panellists objecting in particular to Brown’s centring of ‘dominant culture’, ignoring as it does their work on religion beyond mainstream institutions. In some ways this disagreement was just as promising for the future of the field as the more consensual reflections on periodisation: placed alongside that call for multiple parallel frameworks, the plurality of views on the contemporary history of religion in Britain seems like an opportunity for a more capacious future historiography, rather than a polemical impasse.

The panel sessions thus left me convinced of the vibrancy of the field, and this turned out to be vital fortification against the rather more existential concerns raised by Professor Patrick Wright’s keynote address. In this, he reflected on the uses of history in public debate and popular imagination in light of Brexit, implicitly asking us as “experts” (to use the loaded term quite deliberately chosen by Professor Russell Goulbourne in his closing remarks) to reflect on our relationship to national life and the divisions becoming increasingly evident at its core. Brexit had loomed large in the panel sessions, but Professor Wright’s focus on Englishness introduced a paradigm that hadn’t come up in any of those I attended. As a Scot I found this a particularly suggestive end to the day’s proceedings: if the panel discussions had displayed the internal intellectual vigour of KCBH’s project, the keynote, by situating the conference in the context of Brexit and discontented Englishness, offered a link to the outside world, challenging contemporary British historians to channel that vigour into an engagement with these questions. From my perspective, this seemed like an auspicious – if necessarily fraught – start to a new chapter.


Murray McLean is a second-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow. He has written on civic culture and industrial relations in local perspective, and his current research explores identity, tradition, and modernity in weddings in Scotland since 1945, using material culture, local newspapers, and oral history. You can find him on Twitter @McLeanMurray.