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.

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