Category Archives: Event

‘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.

KCBH 2018 Bringing New Formats and 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.

Next up is Amanda Hall (St Andrews) who discusses her thoughts on the day.

If you are organising a conference, consider this innovative format pioneered by Dr Maggie Scull and Professor David Edgerton at the King’s Contemporary British History conference. Instead of the traditional 20-minute paper format, panels were built around short introductions to an individual’s topic – such as my discussion of the how the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement has shifted debate of the Agreement’s legacy on the issue of ‘peace’ in the region – with over an hour set aside for discussion between panellists and with the audience. Rather than potentially only having the opportunity to answer a question or two after delivering prepared remarks this structure provided the chance for in-depth back-and-forth. As a non-historian attending a history conference, this format helped me to realise connections between my own work and that of scholars from other disciplines in a way that otherwise would not have been possible.

The topic of the conference, ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’, was well-suited to this interdisciplinary success, as scholars across both disciplines and sub-fields concerned themselves with thinking about the history of the United Kingdom and how that may inform the near future (perhaps most obviously with Brexit). The broad theme, and its encouragement of diverse thinking and perspectives, was evident from the first panel I attended, ‘Empire, Nation, World and Decolonisation’, chaired by Dr Charlotte Riley, with presentations from Dr Michael Lambert, Dr John Wilson, and Professor David Edgerton. Using their 5-minute slots to their fullest extent, these presentations fitted together a narrative of empire-building and community-definition as an outward-facing process, even when such processes failed to bring about similar sentiments and support at home. The longer conversation between panellists and the audience contextualised the current moment in UK politics as part of a much longer historic narrative in the country, reframing the last seven decades as a period in which the current idea of ‘national identity’ was deliberately constructed, rather than organically developed.

After a short break, the second session of the conference included the panel on which I presented, ‘Post-Conflict Northern Ireland in the Transnational Lens’. Chaired by Dr Maggie Scull, I had the opportunity to contribute to the conference alongside presentations from Dr George Legg, Edwin Coomasaru, Alex Coupe, and Dr Katie Markham. My co-panellists presented on topics ranging from post-conflict issues of consociationalism; understanding Northern Ireland through the lens of pacifism, feminism, and queer studies; the role of the arts in generating cross-community space following 1998; and the role of the heritage sector in forwarding specific narratives of the conflict. I used my five minutes to discuss the question of whether the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland achieved ‘peace’ and what the definitional issues surrounding that label may be, particularly considering the development of a ‘culture war’ replacing active fighting. In my opinion, this fit into the larger conference theme through the uncertainty of the current moment in Northern Ireland and the issues regarding binary social division, a phenomenon seen in other contexts across the West today.

The success of the conference’s format was evident in the wide range of topics discussed by my fellow panellists, as well as the broad discussion with the audience that followed – both depth and breadth within a single panel that are unique among conferences I have attended in the past. The hour of discussion included topics ranging from the applicability of the lessons of Northern Ireland’s peace process to the Basque Country, the role of education in contact and division in Northern Ireland, counter-terrorism efforts, and the role of parades in drawing tourism. Despite coming from such varied academic backgrounds, the conversation allowed everyone in the room to contribute to the discussion – to the benefit of us all. I walked away from the panel with a new understanding of my own research and how it can be applied and communicated beyond the boundaries which I have previously considered. Being in the middle of my project, this helped me return to my fieldwork and notes with a wider-angle lens on the issue of the many forms of and actors in ‘peace’ in Northern Ireland, and my experience at KCBH 2018 will undoubtedly strengthen the final results of my doctoral research moving forward.

After speaking with others throughout the day, it was clear I was not the only one to walk away (after attending a final panel session on ‘Modes of Warfare’, keynote by Professor Guy Ortalano, and wine reception) with a new perspective not only on my own topic, but on the conference theme of ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’ – particularly the ways that this view of the UK is relevant across contemporary scholarship, even that which is largely focused outside of the present day. Such a broad view was only apparent due to the candour and openness of the conference: a feeling encouraged by the discussion-based nature of the day. Such a broad conference theme could have felt disjointed, particularly with participants from across a wide range of topics and disciplines. Instead, due to the opportunity to directly engage with presentations and other audience members, it felt like the kind of day I imagined at the start of my PhD: the chance to discuss ‘big ideas’ with people who see things from other perspectives, while trying to see my own topic in another light. Overall, I cannot say enough positive things about the day, its content, and its structure, and highly encourage others to attend future events or adopt the format for their own conference!

Amanda Hall is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on ‘inter-referendum’ Northern Ireland, from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to the 2016 Brexit vote, and considers the quality of peace in the region during that time.

Kings College British History Conference 2018: An Exploration in Alternative Historiographies

As part of our ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’ conference, we were able to award 3 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

First up is Dr Katie Markham (Newcastle) who discusses her thoughts on the day.

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.

‘Women at Watney’ Exhibit

Excellent new resource: ‘Women at Watney: Voices from an East End market’. Created in partnership with KCBH’s own Dr Alana Harris, UCL and LAHP funding.
 
This exhibition captures women’s memories of Watney Market, past and present. It draws from interviews recorded by East End Women’s Museum volunteers in spring 2017.
 
You can find more information about the exhibit here.

Reconfiguring the British/Modern British seminar: 1 February 2018: Teaching modern British history after the Brexit vote

Instead of the usual seminar format of a speaker + Q&A, the next Reconfiguring the British seminar on Thursday 1 February 2018 at 5.30 in the Wolfson Room II, IHR, will be an open discussion, chaired by Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, on Teaching modern British history after the Brexit vote (and after the postcolonial turn, amidst growing recognition of gender inequalities)

Our teaching – particularly survey courses on modern Britain – is a key way that we disseminate key findings, themes, questions and concepts from the cutting edge of historical research. Indeed, in 2021, this ‘Impact’ will apparently be eligible for recognition in the Research Excellent Framework (REF). Our students will, in the main, go on to careers outside academia, taking with them critical approaches and narratives that we develop in our teaching. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, we believe that it is, therefore, worthwhile to think collectively about what themes and questions we place at the heart of such courses. In thinking about this question we should, of course, be aware that graduates did tend to vote more for Remain than for leave, as did the young.

This session will be an open debate, inviting participation from all attendees, organised around the following questions:

  1. Should we rethink any aspects of our teaching of modern British history in the light of the Brexit vote? For example, race and xenophobia, nation and nationalism?
  2. How do – and how should – we balance thinking about Europe, the ‘special relationship’, and the Empire in our teaching?
  3. What are the intellectual and practical barriers that keep us from rewriting courses over time? How might these be overcome?
  4. Where does gender history fit in pre-post-Brexit histories of Britain?
  5. How does teaching surveys shape research agendas?
  6. Postgrad teaching assistants – what are your experiences teaching survey courses? How useful is it as teaching experience? Has it cross-fertilised your research?

‘Bonfire of Britain: Does Brexit spell the end of the UK?’ 1 March Talk

Brexit is a breakdown of an old regime. Under Thatcher and then Blair, British power tried to renew itself as a world leader by embracing an extreme form of neoliberalism – which crashed 2008. Their successor is project Brexit: an attempt to forge an independent ‘Global Britain’. It too will fail, as it external ambition is frustrated by internal incoherence and the UK itself divides.

King’s Contemporary British History invites you to a talk by the writer Anthony Barnett, the founding Editor of openDemocracy. Author of Iron Britannia, his latest book is The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump; described by Andrew Sparrow, Editor of the Guardian’s Politics Live as “a dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis of the Brexit vote, easily the best of its kind in print, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking”.

This event is free to attend and all are welcome. Refreshments will be served after the talk. Registration is required here.