‘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.

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