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.

IHR Modern British History Postgraduate Reading Group – Autumn Term 2017

The IHR Modern British History Reading Group is run for and by postgraduate students in London. The Group hosts notable historians of Modern British History, who lead discussions on topics they consider to be of burning historiographical importance. We also hold occasional work-in-progress sessions for postgraduate students. Please find our programme for the Autumn Term below and note that all sessions will take place at the IHR in Wolfson Room II between 17:15 to 18:45.

If you have any questions, or would like to be on our mailing list to receive regular information about the group, please get in touch with or

28/09/2017 – The Academic Job Market – Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Richard Vinen, Agnes Arnold-Forster and Jack Saunders

Largely led by recently employed young scholars, this session will look at the current academic job market for those seeking to work in modern British history. Not only will the discussion focus on what graduate students need to do to make themselves myself employable, we will also discuss criticisms of the modern university, particularly what recent changes to the academy mean for the future of scholarship and for the position of graduate students.

26/10/2017 – Emotions – Rhodri Hayward

This session will look at the history of emotions – an approach which has long promised to expand the disciplinary remit of history but which remains mired in fundamental disagreements over its theoretical aims and working concepts.  In particular, we will look at the problems of emotion and scale and ways that historians can connect intimate feelings to larger histories of political change.


Rhodri Hayward, ‘Busman’s Stomach and the Embodiment of Modernity’ Contemporary British History 31.1 (2017): 1-23.

Mark Fisher, ‘The Privatisation of Stress’, Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture 48 (2011): 123-33.

Further reading:

Kate Barclay, ‘New Materialism and the New History of Emotions’, Emotions: History, Culture and Society 1.1 (2017): 162-183

23/11/2017 – Social democracy and the psyche – Sally Alexander

Subjectivity and memory in 19th and 20th century British (and European) history will be the focus of this week’s seminar; how have people’s lived experience, fantasies and values shaped not just themselves but historical change?  Mid-twentieth century social democracy post-’45 was introduced by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, civil servants, and Liberal intellectuals, J. M. Keynes and William Beveridge, among others.  But the contribution of 150 years of labour movement, feminist and voluntary action prefigured the definition of need, dreams and forms of provision of the postwar moment.  

This session covers some of the same ground as last term’s focus on class, right wing populism and the uses of the social sciences to historians, but through the lens of subjectivity and everyday lives and knowledge.


Either Sally Alexander, ‘Women Class and Sexual Difference in the 1830s and 40s’, History Workshop Journal 17 (1984), 125-149; or the title essay in Sally Alexander, Becoming a Woman: Essays in 19th and 20th century British History (London, 1994).

Also see Selina Todd, The People: The rise and fall of the working class, 1910-2010 (London, 2017), chapter 7; or Tony Judt, Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945 (London, 2014) chapter 3.

Prof. Patrick Wright’s ‘The English Fix’ Second Series on BBC Radio 4

On Monday, 11 September Professor Patrick Wright’s ‘The English Fix’ is back for a second installment on BBC Radio 4.

The first episode will focus on George Orwell. Patrick visits the writer’s former Hertfordshire home (just down the road from Manor Farm of Animal Farm fame) to launch his second series of programmes exploring the way English identity is so often defined and clarified when under threat.

He talks to Orwell scholar Robert Colls, as well as people who find Orwell’s argument about a thread linking disparate groupings of English people to be a potent symbol for what might have been and what might yet be again in spite of a fracturing of vision as expressed in the Brexit vote last year.

Postman and writer CJ Stone, screen-writer Lissa Evans and former MP Michael Wills also share their thoughts on Orwell’s “characteristic fragments” and his famous lines about returning to England from any foreign country and having “immediately the sensation of breathing a different air”.

Is that air still there to be inhaled or are Orwell’s visions and arguments no longer valuable contributions to the debate about what it is to be English?

Dr Aimée Fox-Godden’s ‘Learning to Fight Military: Innovation and Change in the British Army, 1914–1918’ Available for Pre-Order

KCBH member Dr Aimée Fox-Godden’s new book, Learning to Fight Military: Innovation and Change in the British Army, 1914–1918, is now available for pre-order.

You can see Dr Fox-Godden give a paper on this subject here.

Congrats to Dr Fox-Godden for this great success! You can pre-order Learning to Fight here.

London’s Women Historians Website

On 13 March 2017, KCBH historians Dr Alana Harris and Laura Carter organised the ‘London’s women historians: a celebration and a conversation’ conference at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London (IHR). The event brought together 14 leading historians, and a 90-strong audience, to evaluate and celebrate the contribution of women historians working at the University of London and its colleges—from the early 1900s to the 2010s. As well as a celebration, the day was also a conversation. In 2017, gender equality remains one of the most pressing issues in the historical profession. This is evident from research published by the Royal Historical Society in 2015, longstanding efforts by the Economic History Society to elevate women in their discipline, and an initiative at the University of Oxford to launch a ‘manifesto’ for Women in the Humanities.

Their conference was also therefore a continuation and deepening of this conversation. Panellists and audience members were asked to think about how twentieth-century London institutions have both enabled and constrained female achievements in history.

A website is now live which includes audio and video links to the conference as well as images of twenty London women historians. This is an incredibly valuable resource and we are very proud of our KCBH members’ success.

‘Remobilising Militant Pasts: Histories of Protest, Unrest and Insurrection in Politics and Culture’ Conference

‘Remobilising Militant Pasts: Histories of Protest, Unrest and Insurrection in Politics and Culture’ Conference

King’s College London, 31 August – 1 September 2017


Time Programme
9:30 – 10:00                Registration
10:00 – 12:00 Radical Histories in Fictional Texts
Speakers: Matthew Ingleby (Queen Mary University of London)

Fantasising 1887: Harkness, Nesbit and the Literary Afterimage of ‘Bloody Sunday’

Ruth Adams (King’s College London)

Popular Cultural Representations of the Suffragettes [Title TBC]

Rebecca Hillman (University of Exeter)

Resistance, Representation and Repetition: The Return of Socialist Imagery and Praxis

Elena Caoduro (University of Bedfordshire)

Epic Memories: Left-Wing Terrorism in Contemporary World Cinema

12:00 – 13:00 Lunch
13:00 – 14:30 The Place of the Past in Industrial Communities
Speakers: Daryl Leeworthy (Swansea University)

‘Dic Penderyn, Wyt Ti’n Fwy (Who Is He)?’: Class and Nation in (Re)Presentations of the Merthyr Rising, 1831

Andy Clark (University of Stirling)

‘We Don’t Only Build Ships, We Build Men’: Masculinity, Industrial Work, and the Forgotten Militancy of Scottish Women Resisting Industrial Closure

Liam Ó Discín (Historical Archives of the European Union)

‘It Almost Took Us Out … Almost!’: Reliving a Militant Past? The United Steelworkers of America

14:30 – 15:00 Break
15:00 – 16:30 Radical Mobilisations of Sonic Pasts
Speakers: Matt Clement (University of Winchester)

The Sound of the Crowd

Ananya Mishra (University of Cambridge)

Historicizing Early Adivasi Protest in the Song Cultures of Colonial Orissa

Dion Georgiou (King’s College London/University of Kent)

Rage against the X-Factor: Moral Economies, Temporalities and Intermedialities in the Christmas 2009 UK Singles Charts Contest

Time Programme
9:30 – 10:00                Registration
10:00 – 12:00 Religion, Radicalism and the Contestation of the Past
Speakers: Jurriaan van Santvoort (Institute of Historical Research)

A Faction Full of Falsehood and Malice: Thomas Carte, the Puritans and the Origins of the English Civil War

Radu Nedici (University of Bucharest)

Refashioning Early Modern Dissent: Inter- and Intra-Confessional Rivalries and the Making of Martyrs in Post-Socialist Romania

Ned Richardson-Little (University of Exeter)

We Are the People and You Are Not: The German Far-Right and the Appropriation of Democratic Historical Symbolism

Omar Al-Ghazi (London School of Economics)

The Past and Future as Spectacle: The Islamic State Group’s Performance of Temporality

12:00 – 13:00 Lunch
13:00 – 14:30 Using Militant Pasts in Urban Contexts
Speakers: Miranda Bembem Mutuwa (Jawaharlal Nehru University)

‘Protest and the City’ in Northeast India: Commemoration and Re-presentation of ‘People Protest’ in Imphal City

Geoff Brown (Independent Scholar)

Mobilising Militant Pasts, Verdrängung, Anti-Racism and Manchester

Andrés Brink Pinto (Lund University) and Johan Pries (Lund University)

The Risks of Remembering: Remembering and Forgetting Antifascist Struggles around the 2008 Riots in Lund

14:30 – 15:00 Break
15:00 – 16:30 Digital Media and Memorbry in Movements
Speakers: Red Chidgey (King’s College London)

Curating Live Protest Memory: Institutional Archive Activism following the 2017 Women’s March

Samuel Merrill (Umeå University)

The Woman with the Handbag: Tracing the Transductive Mobilisation of a Historical Photograph

Pawas Bisht (Keele University)

In Between Old and New, Local and Transnational: Social Movements, Media and the Challenges of Making Memories Move

16:30 – 17:00 Concluding Roundtable Discussion


Registration Details

Delegates’ Fees:

  • Speakers: Free
  • Students and Untenured: One Day: £10
  • Students and Untenured: Both Days: £20
  • Tenured Staff: One Day: £20
  • Tenured Staff: Both Day: £40

Click here to register

Deadline for Registration is Thursday, 24 August.

For any queries, contact Dr Dion Georgiou at


The Study of Contemporary British History at King's College London