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.

Talk on ‘Assembling Anti-Imperialist Networks in London in the Early 1980s’

Professor Gavin Brown (University of Leicester) will speak on ‘Assembling Anti-Imperialist Networks in London in the Early 1980s’ at King’s College London on 22 November. You can find more details about his talk here.

From Professor Brown: “I have in my office two crates stuffed to bursting with papers belonging to the late Steve Kitson. These papers record his political activity in London in the early 1980s (when he was in his early twenties). As the son of one of the longest serving white political prisoners in apartheid era South Africa (and on the back of his own short detention in South Africa in 1982) Kitson was embedded in a range of anti-apartheid, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist networks passing through London at the time. His mother’s flat in Highbury served as a salon for anti-colonial intellectuals and politicians from across the ‘Third World’. The politics of anti-imperialism was embedded in Kitson’s everyday life, and it was embedded in his London. I use the samples from Steve Kitson’s papers to investigate the ways in which anti-imperialist politics functioned in London in the late Cold War period and how transnational anti-imperialist networks were articulated through specific events and practices. This rich empirical material is brought into dialogue with assemblage theory and recent debates about the materiality of diplomatic cultures to examine how subaltern forms of diplomacy were assembled at the time.”

A drinks reception will follow the lecture. This talk is part of the King’s Human Geography seminar series.

‘Period Piece’ at the Science Gallery London

‘Period Piece’, designed by KCBH member Dr Alana Harris is on display at the Science Gallery London from 7 to 13 November 2017.

Period Piece seeks to provoke critical dialogue about shifts in contraceptive technologies and constructions of the ‘natural’ around women’s bodies from the rise of the pill to the emergence of period tracking apps. Through an audio-visual installation juxtaposing a biometrically-derived choral composition with holograms and film footage, we invite you to see and listen to the inside rhythms often hidden by secrecy and taboo.

Period Piece was conceived through collaborative conversations between the historian Alana Harris, classical composer Ion Marmarinos and contemporary artist and designer Stephanie Bickford-Smith.

This new audio-visual installation, Period Piece, explores this same fraught and freighted emotional landscape – seeking to break the stigma and taboo that, for some, still surrounds the discussion of women’s menstruation, fertility and contraception.

For more information, see the Science Gallery’s website. You can read Alana’s article for the Guardian here.

The Death of Secularisation

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 Ruth Lindley (Birmingham) who discusses the secularisation panel.

Many thanks to Maggie Scull and everyone at KCBH for organising ‘Contemporary British History Now’, especially for being brave enough to experiment with a new panel format that really seemed to work. My comments below are primarily concerned with the ‘secularisation’ panel on which I spoke; however, I also touch on the conference format and how we might usefully go forward from here.  

My one big disagreement with the experimental panels has more to do with the choice of themes and ‘big books’ than the format itself. Asking us to think about ‘declinism’ and ‘permissiveness’ seemed like turning back the debate thirty years rather than addressing the conference aim of surveying contemporary British history now. Haven’t sophisticated scholars already shown us that linear narratives of decline and resurgence flatten out all the bits of historical texture we love? And that terms like ‘permissiveness’ are not neutral analytic categories but come loaded down in historically specific political and cultural meaning?

This issue seemed especially obvious during the secularisation panel, where Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain (2001) was selected to represent scholarship on religious change in modern Britain. As I said in my paper, sophisticated gender historians have done a huge amount to challenge linear narratives of inevitable religious decline. I’m thinking, in particular, of edited collections like Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan’s, Men Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth-Century Britain (2013) and Jacqueline Devries and Morgan’s, Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain (2010). These interventions are not empirical – wrangling over causal-moments and rates of decline – but challenge secularisation at its conceptual core. By applying gender theory to the binary analysis that underpins secularisation (and every other linear narrative), these scholars show us that the theory’s central tenets rest on easy assumptions about the nature of contemporary Britain (modern-secular-rational) as opposed to ‘the past’ (traditional-religious-superstitious). These taken-for-granted characteristics of modernity are not, of course, self-evident, they need historicising. This calls for embracing textured history and taking it seriously on its own terms, rather than squeezing it all into one big explanatory framework.

In saying that, going back to Brown was useful in that it revealed the tenacity of secularisation theory. The sociological grand narrative appears to have taken on a ‘common sense’ gloss, as if we are all in general agreement about its trajectory, rather than acknowledging that it is one idea about religious change among many. It even insinuated its way onto other panel discussions; woven into all kinds of different stories about mid-century Britain, endlessly participated in, reproduced and embellished upon. The death of secularisation still seems like a really long way off.

Why does any of this matter? Why should we be so suspicious of secularisation and its proponents? Because I think the same structures that privilege Brown with having delivered the ‘dominant’ narrative of religious change in modern Britain are the same structures that conceptualise ‘dominant’ religiosity in Britain as institutional and therefore necessarily pale and male. By holding up institutional religiosity as the marker of legitimate belief, historians collude with the religious institutions themselves that have all the say in who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’, who is ‘religious’ and who is ‘spiritual’, who is ‘orthodox’ and who is ‘heterodox’. Through the lens of these implicit value-judgements, women’s spirituality – and, as we learned, BME religious adherence – are ignored, or marginalised, or seen as signs of ‘resurgence’ rather than evidence of the ever-changing, myriad forms and modes of religiosity.

At the next conference, let’s spend less time thinking about exclusionary narratives and concepts, and more about the challenges facing us as we seek to write inclusive and socially responsible histories of modern Britain.

Ruth Lindley is an AHRC-funded doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis uses the feminist spirituality movement to open up histories of gender, secularism and religious change in post-1960s Britain. You can find Ruth on Twitter @RuthLindley

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