Going backwards and forwards

While I’m on the subject of the Milibands and the past, I’ve been meaning to highlight this image, posted by the Spectator in response to Ed’s conference speech last week.

Its message is clear. Ed is socialist. Socialism is associated with the 1970s. To adopt Ed’s policies would be to go back in time. Of course we can (and very well might) dispute every one of these assertions, but their emotional power derives from our fear of regressing, of going against the natural order of linear time. In particular, it tries to undo the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party under Tony Blair.

While the 1970s actually look quite fun in the Spectator’s image, other news sources brought us a great deal of this







And this

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We were left in little doubt that Miliband’s supposed reversion to the policies of the 1970s would not be a retro-cool return to the ‘good old days’.

Yesterday, Jonathan Hopkin gave a very thought-provoking speech on ‘Cartel Parties and the Crisis’ at the University of Sussex. At the start he posed the question of why ‘zombie’ neoliberal policies refuse to die, despite the 6-year-old financial crisis and despite the availability of many alternate economic models. My answer to this is not original. It is simply that neoliberalism (like liberalism before it) is intrinsically associated with progress, and that progress has been accepted as an unqualified good. Therefore, to do something different looks far too much like ‘going back’ – especially when all of the alternate models are based on adaptations of Keynesianism, which is not only ‘not new’ but was supposedly ‘discredited’ in, yes, you guessed it, the 1970s.

It is worth remembering, however, that the neoliberal case against Keynesianism was all about ‘going back’. The basis of Margaret Thatcher’s  argument was that we had learned the wrong lessons from the war, taken the wrong path, and now needed to return to the past and correct our mistake. This was summed up in a 1978 party political broadcast called ‘Going Backwards and Forwards’ (see here from 10.17). As Tim Bell of Saatchi and Saatchi explained

…. the idea was that as a result of the way the country had been governed for the previous years, Britain had gone backwards in its achievements, whereas in the past it had gone forwards. And if we could bring the past into the future, into the present, then we could go forwards ourselves.

It was the success of this project which now makes it so difficult to argue that there might be another way to travel forward. But the idea of going backwards to go forwards, may itself be an idea that is worth resurrecting.

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Miliband, the Mail and the National Past

The controversy that has blown up over the Daily Mail’s attacks on Ralph Miliband raises two distinct questions about the way we use the past.

First is the matter of far it continues to influence the present. Should Ed Miliband be held accountable for his late father’s views? Should the Daily Mail continue to be tainted by its support for fascism and resistance to accepting Jewish refugees? This raises not only the possibility of apologising on behalf of our ancestors (a much contested issue in itself), but also the extent to which we are inevitably and irrevocably shaped by our historical inheritance.

It also highlights the idea that national identity can be held together by a straightforward story of the past (in this case oriented around the Cold War), in which you fall either on one side or the other. For Britain and capitalism. Or for socialism and Stalin’s gulags. But history and popular memory are both more complicated than that. As Michael Heseltine reminds us, there was a point when Stalin was Britain’s ally, and as Miliband’s biographer insisted, the man may have been a Marxist, but he was also a critic of Stalin and of the reality of Soviet communism. Moreover, as Simon Schama pointed out, by the Daily Mail’s reckoning, George Orwell must also have ‘hated Britain’, yet his writings reveal him to be an intense patriot.

Patriotism is not associated with an acceptance of the status quo. If it were, we wouldn’t have the campaigners for civil liberties and parliamentary democracy, for the abolition of slavery and for female suffrage that David Cameron lauded in his conference speech yesterday. This is the thing about true conservatism: it draws its former enemies in, weaving them into its version of national history. As John Vincent put it in a pamphlet called The Seven Voices of Conservatism (1991), ‘as a historical Party we know that history cannot be undone […]. We do not argue with the history of England: instead we absorb our national past.’ Not so the Daily Mail. Yet, this attempt by conservatives to claim a special role as guardians of the national past has also always been contested.  Witness the attempts by the Communist Party in the late-1930s to lay claim to a lineage of radicals and reformers – including not only Chartists, Levellers and the leaders of the Peasants Revolt but also Sir Thomas More and Simon de Montford. This very act of appropriation is itself wonderfully evocative of British identity and the way in which it coils around and between ideologies.

Chris Brooke’s brilliantly titled post ‘Who do you think you are kidding Mr Dacre?’ describes all this far more beautifully that I ever could. He also makes clear that the reclamation of the national past from the Daily Mail and all who sail in her is about far more than including a few alternate histories in ‘Our Island Story’. It is far more combative, far more challenging than that. It is his final thought that has stuck with me over the past two days:

Finally, I’m thinking about the way that if Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour is to amount to anything worthwhile […] then it has to be clear what it is against, as much as what it is for; to exclude and to marginalise and to stigmatise and to accuse, as well and as much as to include and to celebrate, to commemorate and to affirm.

And this evening I feel that I might really be able to get behind One Nation Labour, in a way that I really didn’t before.

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New review of History, Heritage and Tradition in Contemporary British Politics

A very generous and thought-provoking review by Scott Anthony of History, Heritage and Tradition has just been published in Twentieth Century British History. An extract is available here (subscribers can view the full text). The comparison it draws with Adam Curtis’ film The Attic is particularly interesting. I started writing from a similar position to Curtis – focusing on the extent to which Margaret Thatcher’s politics were driven by a nostalgic recreation of the national past. However, as the review points out, I ended up arguing much the opposite. Hers was not a conservative committment to the past for its own sake; it was a whiggish position which always asked ‘what can the past do for us?’ She had, in Maurice Cowling‘s words, ‘only a low-level, Neville Chamberlain-type conception of the spiritual glue which is one of the Conservative Party’s special needs.’

The implication of all this is that a lack of a deeper  historical sensibility (as exhibited by so many contemporary politicians) is a problem. I certainly believe that the past can provide an important way of defamiliarising the present, of reminding us that things do not have to be as they are. Without this, we risk becoming stuck in an endlessly self-perpetuating present in which it is much harder to imagine other forms of politics. However, I’m not sure I am as committed to the view that ‘deeper historical self-knowledge must always be liberating’ as I may seem (and as the review suggests) -although I’m aware that most of my arguments seem to draw me in this direction. I’ve been quietly struggling with this tension for some time but need to reflect on it in a more sustained way. One way to do this would be through the question that Scott Anthony poses at the end of his review: ‘ is it simply the absence of “real” history in party politics the problem or is it the presence of something else?’ I’ll let you know when I have an answer…!

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Margaret Thatcher and The Invention of Industrial Pasts

ImageIn a week dominated by the death of Margaret Thatcher and ongoing contestation over her memory and legacy, it seems fitting to receive my copy of a new book on The Invention of Industrial Pasts edited by Peter Itzen and Christian Müller. The themes of deindustrialisation, memory and heritage (in Germany as well as the UK) echo through its chapters.

My own focuses on the politics of ‘Remembering the Industrial Past in Modern Britain’ and the way that has changed since the 1980s, largely in response both to Thatcher’s own use of heritage and to the legacy of her period in office. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the industrial past was a source of active contestation, centering on critiques of the ‘heritage industry’, which was seen by many on the left to be playing into Thatcherite narratives by celebrating the capitalist values of the industrial revolution at the same time as framing large-scale manufacturing as inherently ‘of the past’. Industrial heritage projects were criticised for deriving a commercial benefit from a sanitised version of working-class history.

Since the 1980s and the conflicts which took place over the industrial present (and future) in that decade, industrial heritage projects have tended to play something of a cathartic role – reasserting local and regional pride in the wake of deindustrialisation and using history and memory as a way of coming to terms with the traumas of the recent past. This has been particularly important in former mining communities, which have undertaken oral history, local heritage and banner-making projects and also larger events such as Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave and the BBC/AHRC Open Archive Project. Where this differs from older forms of labour movement heritage is that it is about using the past to create a liveable present, rather than paying tribute to the past for its own sake. It is about inspiration, rather than obligation.

I haven’t yet processed the outpourings of this week – the intertwining of national history, personal reminiscence and political nostalgia (both for and against Thatcher) that has taken place. Remembering that history and heritage were a deep source of contestation both during her governments and in the wake of them is perhaps a good place to start.

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Tony Blair’s own ‘Spirit of ’45’

ImageKen Loach’s new documentary The Spirit of ’45 is a romantic tribute to the achievements and ideals of the 1945 Labour government, with a clear political message. It cuts from an idealised social democratic nation celebrating the Festival of Britain (with no mention that within months Churchill would be back in power), straight to the dismantling of the welfare state, nationalised utilities and the ethos of community, first by Thatcher and then by Blair. Loach is famously no fan of New Labour, and recently called for a populist party to do for the Left what UKIP has done for the Right.

It is surprising then to note that Tony Blair produced his own tribute to the Spirit of ’45, in this case a national roadshow, marking the 50th anniversary of Attlee’s victory. The accompanying souvenir brochure (pictured) is unashamedly sepia-tinted and like Loach’s film includes features on the health service, employment, education and housing, extracts from the 1945 Manifesto and reminiscences from those who helped elect Labour. It was also similarly keen to contrast the politics of 1945, with those of the 1980s and ’90s, under columns headed ‘1995: The rich get richer and the poor get forgotten’, ‘Cash before care – and the sick are stranded in the middle’ and ‘Two million jobless pay price for enterprise culture’.

Of course, the omissions are as striking as the inclusions – there is no eulogy to nationalised industry here. That this was no accident was made explicit in Blair’s speech to the Fabian Society on the fiftieth anniversary of 1945, in which he explained that socialism (or ‘social-ism’ as he put it) needed to be ‘liberated’ from the question of ownership and ‘economic dogma’. He also made clear that his narrative of British democratic socialism included ‘Lloyd George, Beveridge and Keynes and not just Attlee, Bevan or Crosland.’ Blair was not straightforwardly ahistorical or iconoclastic, as many have believed. Instead, he skilfully used different interpretations of the party’s and the country’s past, honouring and rewriting them at the same time.

The attraction of 1945 for Blair was the way in which ‘Labour spoke for the national interest and offered hope for the future while the Tories spoke for sectional interest and represented the past.’ He ‘passionately want[ed] to lead a party which once again embodies and leads the national mood for change and renewal.’ Well, who wouldn’t? But this emphasis on the future, on change and renewal also allowed Blair to distance himself from the specific policies and ideals of 1945: ‘It was a government for its time. Our challenge is not to return to the 1940s but instead to apply them afresh to our time.’

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can be used to open up questions and to close them down. Steven Fielding has pointed out that the history and politics of 1945 were far more complicated than Loach allows, noting that the film might be better titled The Myth of ’45. But even myths are complicated and slippery. With its ‘One Nation’ message, Labour is again trying both to unite the country behind a shared vision for renewal, and to invoke particular memories of British history. Again, the message is open to radically different interpretations. 

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Academia and the War of the Words

When I started my first university teaching position I was amazed, and slightly shocked, by all the acronyms that were floating around. And I’m not just talking about those for specific organisations and processes – AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council), REF (Research Excellence Framework), but also those which stood in for perfectly serviceable everyday words – UG (undergraduate), PGR (postgraduate research student), PGT (postgraduate taught student). Last week I was even more shocked to discover that my resistance had cracked, as I caught myself writing about ECRs (early career researchers) in HEIs (Higher Education Institutions).

I’m not averse to the odd acronym if it makes things easier (BA, MA and PhD seem to work quite well!). But by using this highly specific professional jargon, we are removing ourselves from the reality of the subjects we are discussing. Much as academics complain about the managerial culture that is seeping into universities, too many of us have slipped into using the language it brings with it. This cannot but affect the way we think.

This is not a question of being precious or elitist about language. If anything, it is the opposite. If the terms we use cannot be understood by an undergraduate, a friend in another profession or even an academic in another country, then we really need to think again.

Call it a contribution to Orwell Week, if you like…

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What does progressive really mean?

Last year, YouGov asked 1,651 people what they understood by the term progressive.

The exact question asked was: Sometimes in politics people talk about things being ‘progressive’. In your own words, how would you define the term ‘progressive’?

Here is a word cloud of the answers they received:

Progressive word cloud 2

Bearing in mind that the question specifically mentioned politics, it is striking how few of the words relate to political positions. ‘Left’ and ‘liberal’ are in there, as are ‘political’, ‘policy’ and ‘government’, but you have to look quite hard for them.  A general sense of forward movement, improvement and change are more prominent.

But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that most of us simply don’t know what ‘progressive’ means at all!

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