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


Dr David Morgan-Owen ‘The Fear of Invasion’ Book Launch

On 27 September, the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War will launch KCBH member Dr David Morgan-Owen’s The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914.

Britain’s entry into the First World War and the subsequent decision to send her Army to fight on the continent remains one of the most controversial topics of her modern history. How and why the Army was committed to the battlefields of Europe—where it would suffer such terrible losses over the next four years— and whether Britain might have fought the War in a different way are questions that continue to provoke debate over a century later. The Fear of Invasion tells the story of how Britain entered the First World War with the strategy it did, and reveals how this approach came about. It charts how the British government’s capacity to co-ordinate the activities of the Army and Navy into a coherent ‘grand’ strategy fluctuated between 1880 and 1914, with insidious effects for the nation’s preparedness during the July Crisis. It does so by focusing on the key issue which acted as a nexus between the activities of the two services and which, in the absence of a willingness to consider how to fight a major war, came to act as the de-facto determinant of British strategy. That issue was the defence of the British Isles against invasion: the area of policy where the roles of the two services overlapped most directly and most obviously, and the one aspect of strategy which politicians were prepared to pronounce meaningfully upon prior to 1914.

David G. Morgan-Owen is an historian of war and lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London. He was previously a Visiting Research Fellow at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth, and an Associate of the Centre for Maritime Historical Studies at the University of Exeter, where he gained his PhD in 2013. Dr. Morgan-Owen has published on British strategy before and during the First World War in the English Historical Review, War in History, Journal of Strategic Studies, and the International History Review.

This event is free to attend but registration is required here.

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