Thinking Allowed

Rather belatedly, here’s the link to me talking about History, Heritage and Tradition in Contemporary British Politics on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed. I haven’t yet dared to listen to it, so can’t give you the time code, but it should be about halfway through.


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Does TV history make us complacent about the present?

Alex Graham the producer of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? was on Start the Week on Radio 4 this morning. I find the philosophy of the programme very interesting. It was created to tell an ‘alternative history of Britain’ and clearly has a levelling message: focusing on the lived experience of ordinary people; highlighting the prevalence of migration and racial mixing in Britain’s past; and showing that even today’s celebrities have humble roots. However, it is this final point that causes me (and seemingly many others) something of a problem.

Graham mentioned that the most frequent criticism he encounters is the programme’s exclusive focus on the ancestors of celebrities rather than those of ‘ordinary people’. On one level, his response to this criticism is valid: most celebrities are first-generation and so – for the purposes of a genealogy programme – are themselves ‘ordinary people’, with ‘ordinary’ family trees. This is clearly true. There is nothing special about these people’s ancestors. They are descended from same mixture of fame, infamy and obscurity as the rest of us. However, what he didn’t acknowledge was the effect the focus on celebrity has on our perceptions of history and the relationship between past and present.

Earlier in the programme Graham had highlighted that problem of seeing history as a straightforward story of linear progress; we can regress as well as progress. Yet, focusing  only on people who have transcended their backgrounds seems – probably unintentionally – to reinforce exactly that idea of progress. As Deborah Cohen, one of the other guests on Start the Week, commented, modern celebrity represents the ‘most distilled form of social mobility’. On an individual level, this means that Who Do You Think You Are? is not trading in stories of privileged pasts. Yet, on a cumulative level, I worry that it gives an overriding impression of social progression. The programme is predicated on the gap between past and present. The tears, the realisation, the sympathy all spring from the discovery of how tough things were ‘back then’ and the contrast with the celebrity’s current situation. Poverty, discrimination, shame are therefore seen to be resolutely ‘of the past’.

This problem is not exclusive to Who Do You Think You Are? If we think of historical reality TV shows – 1900 House,* 1940 House,* Victorian Farm, Coal House, for example – the drama comes from the supposedly privileged and pampered citizens of modern Britain undergoing the hardships of the past. While these programmes may be asking us (and the participants) to identify personal and emotional continuities across time, the economic and social situation they face is conceived as entirely other. This means that although we may feel outraged about poverty, discrimination or inequality in the past, this does not translate into outrage about similar situations in the present.

Current discussions about food banks are a good example of the way these attitudes towards the past can inform opinions in the present. On the one hand such poverty is described as ‘Dickensian’, with the idea that any return to it is deeply shocking. On the other hand, we see a persistent belief that food poverty simply can’t exist in modern Britain, that it belongs to the past, and that therefore anyone using food banks must be somehow feckless, lazy and irresponsible (see for instance the comments thread under this article).

Ironically, of course, this echoes the condemnation of the ‘undeserving poor’ in the nineteenth century. Few people today would agree that the Victorian poor were undeserving – we see them as victims of time and history as much as of economics. Yet it is precisely because we pride ourselves on having left such ‘Dickensian’ conditions and attitudes behind that we continue to judge their modern counterparts as the architects of their own misfortune. They don’t live in the past; therefore they have no excuse.

This is clearly not the message that Alex Graham wants to send out. He is clearly committed to recovering and honouring lives that would otherwise be forgotten and to unsettling many of our perceptions about Britain and its past. This is all for the good. Yet, it is worth remembering that obscurity, poverty, discrimination and inequality persist. For some people this is the reality of who they are now; not just how their ancestors were then.

*1900 House and 1940 House were also created by Alex Graham and his company Wall to Wall. As was Edwardian Country House, which examined historical inequality from the opposite angle, asking a modern family to experience life at the top of the Edwardian social hierarchy.

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My ‘Shadow CV’

I am becoming increasingly aware of the gap between how academic careers look from the outside and how they feel from the inside. I have been exceptionally lucky in that I have not yet had a period of unemployment and this can make it look as though I’ve achieved everything I’ve aimed at. This simply isn’t true. The ‘rejections’ file in my job applications folder is so large I’ve had to split it by year.

I recently came across the idea of building a ‘shadow CV’ (on this blog, pointed out to me by Sarah Punshon), in which all of these failures, as well as rejected journal articles, conference papers and funding applications are listed. This Shadow CV will inevitably be many times longer than your real CV – no matter how sparkling!

The idea is that the Shadow CV is hidden away in a secret folder until you are in a secure position – academically and institutionally – and can afford to reveal that the path wasn’t as smooth as it may have seemed. I am going to do this, but I just wanted to give a little taster here, in the midst of what has been outwardly a particularly successful autumn, but which, secretly, has been marked by as much failure as triumph.


I got a permanent lectureship BUT was rejected from ten jobs this summer alone, nine without being shortlisted – one of these was re-advertised.

I had a lovely book launch and got a tiny amount of media attention (BBC Parliament and Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed) BUT I put myself forward for two categories in the Political Book Awards and was not shortlisted in either. I also proposed a couple of radio programmes based on my research which were rejected.

I have had three conference papers accepted and been invited to give a couple of talks BUT had a journal article rejected. As this was based on the research I’d been working on for the past year (and the criticisms were all spot-on), it was particularly galling.

BUT – and the biggest BUT of all – that rejected journal article was also (bar the job!!) the best thing that happened to me, as all of that painfully incisive criticism gives me the means to write it again, and to write it better. Yes, it puts my schedule out and means I won’t complete half the things I’d aimed to this year. But at least I’ll have one damn good article to show for it…  At least that’s what I’m telling myself!

Do any of you have shadow CVs? Maybe it is something History Lab Plus could encourage…


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Book launch

Here are some photos from my book launch, last week. It was held at the House of Lords – thanks to Baroness Dianne Hayter and Ian Parker – and chaired by Mary Riddell (Daily Telegraph).

Jon Cruddas MP and Prof. Patrick Wright (KCL) both spoke about the role of heritage and history in contemporary politics and society.

It was a really lovely evening, and it was particularly great to see so many of the people I had interviewed for the book there.

Thanks to all who came!



















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LSE review of my book

You can read Prof. Krista Cowman‘s review of History, Heritage and Tradition in Contemporary British Politics on the LSE Politics and Policy blog.

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The Politics of the Past

In her column in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, Mary Riddell drew on my book to argue that Cameron is at risk of destroying his party’s link to the national past; of concreting over the connection to the native soil reawakened by the Olympics.

Part of the argument of my book is that Thatcher (and those who came after her) had already lost the reverence for the past that marked previous generations of Tories and socialists. Instead, they made free use of ‘heritage’, drawing together certain elements of the past to underpin their intentions in the present – whether of Victorian Values or an ‘historic’ progressive alliance, more authentic than the hard left’s class politics. The past here served the present; it did not challenge or unsettle it.

Yet, as Riddell points out, Cameron seems at risk of jettisoning even this rather weak and instrumental sense of the past. He is taking inspiration from the iconoclasm of the Thatcher and Blair years, without realising that they were built upon a very subtle negotiation with the past: rejection, rewriting and reclaiming went hand in hand.

Thatcher was described by Maurice Cowling as having ‘only a low-level, Neville Chamberlain-type conception of the spiritual glue which is one of the Conservative Party’s special needs.’ Yet, she was able to weave together her own myth, based on pickings from Conservative and Liberal history, and from national and intensely personal heritage. Even Blair, the arch-moderniser, was more nuanced than might first appear. In the debates over party modernisation, he first dismissed the appeal of Labour’s past, casting his opponents as simply sentimental and nostalgic. But then he rewrote it –claiming an alternate heritage, based on co-operative values and the Edwardian progressive alliance. Because this pre-dated the commitment to public ownership, it could be claimed as necessarily more authentic.

As Riddell notes, Ed Miliband does seem to have grasped this better than Cameron. As I wrote about his appearance at the Durham Miners’ Gala, he too is managing to construct a sense of shared heritage based on local and national identities, which draws together a narrative that is both partisan and patriotic.

In doing so, he could do worse than take inspiration from Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony. For all the cries of ‘socialism’, this was a relatively unifying portrayal of the national past – in fact it was its presentation of the multicultural present which seem to have caused the most upset on the Tory right. Boyle’s image of the pastoral idyll destroyed by capital could have come straight from the socialist pageants of the 1930s. Yet, this past was also presented as the fount of national greatness and technological progress. It was the route by which, for good or ill, we came to be the country we are today. And by the end of the performance we were left in little doubt that this was undeniably for good. Even the references to the great touchstones of radical history – the Jarrow marchers, the Suffragettes, the NHS – were placed in a nostalgic frame of ‘pastness’. They could be celebrated as part of our heritage, without challenging the basis of the present.

This attitude to the past – affirmative, celebratory – is very much in tune with wider cultural attitudes. Tracing our history and preserving our heritage has become a way of enhancing and affirming our sense of who we are, both individually and collectively. While the past may no longer impose any obligations on us, instead it serves as an inspiration. And the wisest of our politicians know how to appeal to just this sentiment.

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Open Access: How Open Is It?

And in a final post before I get on with some actual work, some initial thoughts on Open Access publishing.

I am very much in favour of open access academic journals and was delighted when Harvard academics publicly backed the idea.

However, this sense that we are on the cusp of something great has now overtaken by the gradual realisation that the UK Government’s plans as put forward in the Finch Report, don’t represent open access at all. They will be opening up academic work to all readers, but closing down access to being published to those who can afford to pay. Rather than challenging the nature of academic publishing, they are protecting the existing commercial structures, while simply shifting the cost from the reader to the author. This does nobody any good.

As this blog explains, it is particularly bad news for early career researchers, without jobs or large funding grants. Building up a solid body of published work is pretty much the only way into academic positions at the moment. If publishing is restricted to those who are already in secure posts, this route will be barred to most. Even for those already within university departments, the idea of having to compete for funding to publish your next article is an alarming prospect. It will inevitably have an impact of the type of work that is put forward for publication.

I have been assured on twitter this morning that this won’t come to pass that in the social sciences (and, I imagine, that extends to the humanities) – at least not unless ‘a big pot of cash is found behind the sofa’.

Let’s hope that’s true…!

(This post is all down to Catherine Feely who got me going on this topic this morning – and also Ben Anderson & Christopher Lasch for their contributions and links. I’m sure it’s a debate to which we will all return shortly)

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