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.