2016-09 No1 Very-well-alone-David-Low-Evening-Standard-1940


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Britain has long had a yoyo-relationship with mainland or continental Europe. Its fluctuating nature has many well-known roots. One is geography, which maintains a maritime barrier between the British Isles and mainland Europe; or at least has done so since sea levels last rose significantly after the most recent Ice Age (c.6,200 BCE), inundating the ancient Doggerland between East Anglia and the Netherlands to create the North Sea.1 Another is the history of many generations of travel, settlement, and colonisation/decolonisation, which directs British attention to a global array of destinations in the Americas, Africa, India, the Far East and Australasia, as well as some parts of Europe (Spain’s Costa del Sol). Yet another is the cultural effect of shared language. That allows Britons to feel quick kinship with their fellow-English speakers anywhere around the world, in contrast to more laboured contacts with non-English speakers close at hand (although as English is fast becoming the world’s new lingua franca that barrier is diminishing).3

And the list could go on. As well as big general factors, there are particular symbolic moments too. The epic case remains that of Britain standing alone against the power of Hitler’s Germany and his allies in the summer of 1940, after Dunkirk. The story of the collective heroism of that generation remains deep, deep in the national sub-conscious, particularly since, after acquiring new allies of our own, we eventually won the war. Had we lost, then British resistance might have appeared as merely futile and foolhardy. But, as it is, there is a magic resonance still within the simple words: ‘Very Well, Alone!’

2016-09 No1 Very-well-alone-David-Low-Evening-Standard-1940

Fig.1: David Low’s most famous cartoon, ‘Very Well, Alone!’
expressing Britain’s national mood post-Dunkirk:
Evening Standard, 18 June 1940. Copyright © David Low.

Nonetheless, the history between Britain and continental Europe both was and is far more intricate than easy stories of isolationism imply. This short BLOG is not the place for a detailed history.4 Instead, I want to give two examples of positive British involvement with pan-European cooperation, to counteract the simple myth-history which claims that plans for ‘uniting Europe’ have always come from Britain’s enemies. Hostile examples often cited are: Charlemagne, Napoleon and Hitler. An unlikely trio, in that their aims, methods and historical epochs were very different. And none of them works as anything like a prototype for the European Union, which (whatever one thinks of it) remains a democratic project, which is not being undertaken by warfare.

Yet the myth-history does offer a just reminder that the foreign policy of Britain (and of England, before the 1707 Act of Union) has always been determined to prevent one hostile super-power bestriding continental Europe, leaving Britain in isolation. Even in those (comparatively rare) periods when the country was not deeply engaged in cross-Channel politics and alliances, it kept a watching brief on the state of play.

My two examples of positive initiatives both date from periods immediately after devastating warfare across continental Europe as well as in wider battlefields. The motives for intervention were obvious. The first was the Concert of Europe, also known as the Congress System. It was a system, established after the battle of Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 by Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, and (later) France, which was designed to maintain the balance of power.5 It did not set up new international institutions. Instead, it provided that, in the event of problems, a trouble-shooting Congress would be convened to iron out differences; and for some years such Congresses duly met. The only agreed rule was that the current state boundaries in 1815 could not be altered without agreement of the treaty powers.

In the long term, the Concert dwindled into abeyance. The system had no enforcement powers; and no agreed timetable for regular meetings. It remained ad hoc. And eventually its own member states began to flout its rules, as the national interests of the component members diverged. In July 1914, Britain (which had never been consistently sympathetic to the scheme) belatedly proposed to convene a Congress – but Austria-Hungary and Germany refused to attend.6 Nonetheless, the Concert of Europe can be seen as a potential move towards a framework of inter-national pan-European collective security. It also had made some moves, under pressure from campaigners, to support various humanitarian causes, such as abolition of the slave trade.7 However, the Congress system ultimately lacked any institutional timetable or authority. Before long, it seemed to represent a purely conservative force, and an inefficacious one at that. The frequency of the set-piece Congresses declined markedly from the 1830s onwards.8 In practice, therefore, the system had lost good will and support long before 1914.

Some of the same problems afflicted the League of Nations (1920-46), which was an international organisation, seeking to preserve world peace, but which again fell foul of great power rivalries. The challenges facing cooperation across one world-region were much multiplied when applied to the entire world.

For my second case-history, however, I am focusing specifically upon Europe – this time in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Having stood alone in 1940, British ministers were well aware of the perils of isolation. Hence they took a prominent role in the postwar creation of a new Council of Europe, launched by the Treaty of London (1949). Initially signed by ten member states, the number of signators has grown to 47,9 with only three independent state units not having membership.10 That total makes the Council much more representative of greater Europe, in contrast to the 28 states which are currently members of the European Union (of which more later). Its creation drew upon cross-party hopes in postwar Britain for better relationships with its closest neighbours. Winston Churchill was one who had floated the concept of some form of federation of the European states – an idea which had a lengthy prehistory.11

Based in Strasbourg, the Council of Europe has a Secretary General, who is elected by a Committee of Ministers (comprising the Foreign Secretaries of all member states, usually acting via a Permanent Ambassador) and its own Parliamentary Assembly (comprising parliamentarians from all member states, reflecting each country’s balance of political parties). This structure, which directly reflects the politics of its members, seeks to reduce the risks of conflict between the Council and the participant democracies.

Its core remit is the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Council itself makes no laws, working instead via conventions or codes of common legal standards.12 It does have, however, the task of upholding agreements made between the participant states. That role led to its most important achievement, the European Convention of Human Rights (1950), and its most powerful creation, the European Court of Human Rights (also located in Strasbourg). That body is composed of a judge from each member state, elected by the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly for a non-renewable period of nine years.

From this account, it’s apparent that the system is much more complex and thorough-going than the primitive arrangements, made under the Concert of Europe almost one hundred and fifty years earlier. But there is a recognisable legacy from one to the other – trying to uphold common values, seeking cooperative mechanisms, whilst not infringing upon the powers of the participant states. Today one set of criticisms comes from some British Conservative right-wingers, who object to judicial overview from Strasbourg (even though one key designer of the European Convention of Human Rights was the Conservative MP and lawyer Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe).13 However, the latest indications are that Prime Minister Theresa May does not wish to complicate further the tasks facing her. Withdrawal from the Council of Europe was not an option on offer in the British Referendum in 2016. So there is no electoral mandate for such a change. Hence it is likely that Britain may succeed in withdrawing, either wholly or partly, from the European Union, but will remain decisively within the Council of Europe.

Overall, it is remarkable that, since the Second World War, there have been not one but two creations of pan-European institutions, side by side. (In 2007, they resolved to cooperate more closely; but no amalgamations are envisaged). Cross-party British political leadership was highly important in founding the Council of Europe, although little effort has been made, during the last sixty-six years, to inform the British public about the Council’s work. It is a silent achievement.

No doubt that’s because the second of the two new pan-European institutional creations has stolen its thunder. The European Economic Community, or Common Market, was established in 1958, under the Treaty of Rome (1957), with six founding members.14 The new body immediately adapted the Council of Europe’s flag (see Fig.2) and (later) shared its chosen theme tune: Schiller’s Ode to Joy (1785), as set to music in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824).

Fig. 2: Closely associated flags
(L) Council of Europe (1950)
and (R ) European Economic Community (1958), later European Union (1993).
Neither flag was flown much in Great Britain, pre-Brexit Referendum.

Such close overlappings have distracted public attention. The major difference between the two pan-national organisations lies in the fact that the European Economic Community (EEC) has developed from its origins as a trading bloc into a hybrid form of closer integration, named as the European Union (EU). The new identity was instituted by the Maastricht Treaty (1993), at a time of optimism, even euphoria, at the success of democracy and the collapse of the old Soviet Union. However, there are many permutations of membership. Great Britain was cautious from the start. As is well known, it was slow to join the EEC (1975), and has since stayed outside the 1985 Schengen Area (no passport controls) and outside the 1999 Eurozone (common currency). Thus while all countries in the European Union have transferred some powers to the central institutions of the EU, they have not done so equally. Consequently, the EU’s hybrid organisation, and the uncertain constitutional relationship between its organising Council and Commissioners with the democratic parliaments within the membership states, together generate continuing tensions.

But this BLOG has not set out primarily to discuss the problems facing the European Union. Instead, it highlights the yoyo relationship of Britain with its nearest continental neighbours (separation/convergence); and notes that Britain has played a positive role at various times in creating new organisations to express pan-European solidarity. Historically, these bodies come and go, with changing efficacy in changing times. Clearly, too, this story is not yet concluded. Britain will not want to witness one powerful pan-European super-state, just across the North Sea, with which it has no relationship. Moreover, whatever happens to British plans for Brexit and to the internal development of the European Union, Britain still remains within the Council of Europe. Plus, all future generations of Britons will still have to work with the countries on the other side of Doggerland.

2016-09 No4 Doggerland

Fig.3 Doggerland before the sharp rise in sea levels c.6,200 BCE, named after today’s submerged Dogger Bank: based upon the work of marine archaeologists Gaffney, Fitch and Smith (2009).

1 V. Gaffney, S. Fitch and S. Smith, Europe’s Lost World: The Rediscovery of Doggerland (Council for British Archaeology: York, 2009).

2 C. Drew and D. Sriskandarajah, Brits Abroad: Mapping the Scale and Nature of British Emigration (Institute for Public Policy Research, 2006).

3 D. Crystal, English as a Global Language (Cambridge, 1997).

4 See e.g. B. Simms, Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (2016); and J.R. Gillingham, The EU: An Obituary (2016).

5 T. Chapman, The Congress of Vienna, 1814-15: Origins, Processes, Results (1998); M. Jarrett, The Congress of Vienna and its Legacy: War and Great Power Diplomacy after Napoleon (2013).

6 D. Stevenson, 1914-18: The History of the First World War (2005), p. 5.

7 B. Fladeland, ‘Abolitionist Pressures on the Concert of Europe, 1814-22’, Journal of Modern History, 38 (1966), pp.  355-73.

8 The list includes: Vienna (1814-15), Aix-la-Chapelle (1818); Carlsbad (1819); Troppau (1820); Verona (1822); London (1832); and Berlin (1878).

9 Alphabetically: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbeijan, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.

10 They are Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Vatican City. In addition, various other disputed territories, such as Kosovo, do not have independent membership.

11 P. Pasture, Imagining European Unity since 1000 AD (New York, 2015).

12 Many of these have gained international recognition; and the Council works closely with the United Nations on a range of humanitarian issues.

13 David Maxwell-Fyfe, 1st Earl of Kilmuir (1900-67), was a prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials (1946), later Conservative Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor (until 1963).

14 Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany.

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2017-08 No1 Adams Telegraph_cartoon


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Referenda seek to answer big questions with big answers: let the people speak. But they also constrain voters. They are called upon to choose between simple either/or alternatives. In practice, however, referenda are not always easy to answer. There are plenty of cases when many would reply: yes to the proposition, in this or that given set of circumstances; but no, in the event of another set of circumstances. And there is no scope (other than spoiling the ballot paper) for those who would reply to the options: neither of the above. In other words, referenda are unsubtle.

2017-08 No1 Adams Telegraph_cartoon

Fig.1 Daily Telegraph cartoon © Christian Adams (2015), satirising the Greek Bailout Referendum (2015) as a desperate choice between two equally disastrous options: either Scylla, the ravenous monster, or Charybdis, the fatal whirlpool.

The art of governance entails much more than answering a sequence of binary questions: yes/no. The complex arts of politics, balancing, assessing and deciding between often conflicting requirements, are still required.

For that reason, there are good, practical reasons for avoiding too many referenda; and, when they are deemed necessary, for ensuring that choices are posed with reference to one big clear issue, which, if it is to be accepted, requires the whole-hearted support of the people.

A fine example of good referendum-politics was seen in the twin referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in May 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement. In the Six Counties, the electorate was asked whether it wished to approve the deal brokered by the multi-party talks, envisaging a power-sharing executive. In a large turnout of almost a million voters, 71.1% voted in favour and 28.9% against. Simultaneously, the electorate in the Republic was asked whether it approved the British-Irish agreement, which entailed amending the Republic’s 1937 constitution to end its ‘territorial claim’ to the North. The turnout in this referendum (56% of the electorate) was much less emphatic. But the result was completely decisive: 94.39% voted yes; 5.61% no.1 That outcome still left scope for the potential reunification of Ireland, at some future date. The amended clauses express such a policy objective, but subject to consent on all sides. In other words, the victory was one for due political process, as opposed to civil war. It was a triumph for democracy, across two neighbouring countries with a shared and complicated history.

By contrast, the State of California has a long tradition of voting on ‘People’s Propositions’ which, if passed, add new and permanent clauses into the state constitution. These plebiscites enact a form of direct democracy, which functions alongside representative democracy, but not always with complete ease.

One obvious problem is what happens if two Propositions are both passed in the same year but directly contradict one another? The answer is that the referendum with the highest number (not proportion) of affirmative votes takes precedence and the other falls. But what happens if two Propositions are passed on different occasions, but still contradict or work against each other? That difficulty remains an unresolved problem.

Currently, the California state legislature has to work not only in the light of Proposition 13 (passed in 1978) which puts inflexible limits2 upon the amount of direct taxation raised upon real estate; but also with Proposition 98 (passed in 1988) which mandates specific percentages of the state budget to be spent on education. The result is that California’s politicians face severe constitutional constraints upon their budgetary flexibility. In effect, the politicians elected by today’s voters are being overruled by prior decisions made by voters a generation earlier.3 A democrat could well argue that levels of taxation and state expenditure are not constitutional fundamentals but matters of day-to-day, year-to-year politics.

Yet who is to decide what should or should not become a fundamental, unchangeable rule? If the people have solemnly so decreed, they have so decreed, unless there is some mechanism for constitutional review or updating.

Another case from California illustrates a different problem. Difficulties have followed from the ramifications of Proposition 65 (1986), which protects drinking water, and consumer products in California generally, from toxic chemicals, via a mandatory warning system. It has the beneficial effect of raising both consumer and business awareness of environmental hazards. Hard to object.

At the same time, however, the mandated system of enforcement was left deliberately open to private citizens as well as to state officials. As a result, it has opened the way to ‘bounty-hunting’ litigation, undertaken, so it is claimed, by private attorneys who prosecute any Californian businesses, which may not have listed every possible toxic element. All fees won go to the law firms, without any gain to the state’s citizens. To safeguard themselves, many businesses resort to vague general warnings, which spread alarm without providing any practical help. Here the problem is not the good intentions of the Proposition, but the mandated nature of its regulatory system.4 It deprives the state legislature of the chance to monitor its working and to adapt its procedures, if need be. Some management reforms to this Proposition were introduced by a consensus bill in the California Assembly in 2013; but further reforms, apparently being discussed by Governor Jerry Brown, have yet to materialise. There seems to be an impasse.

So what follows? For me, one immediate lesson is that the high status of a constitutional rule is such that a referendum to impose or change one should not be lightly used. Effectively, such plebiscites overrule and outrank ordinary democratic processes. In exceptional circumstances, such as in Ireland in 1998, that worked supremely well. But, at other times, it may produce conflicting answers, between the one-off verdict in a referendum and the iterative processes of daily politics, which are required to apply referendum results in practice. (As a result, there’s a possibility of eventual ‘Leave’ disillusionment after the Brexit vote in June 2016, which, when matched by continuing ‘Remain’ disappointment, will give the British electorate the worst of both options).

Secondly, there’s a good case for developing a set of conventions to regulate when and how such processes happen. Britain’s uncodified constitution benefits from its flexibility and openness to the exercise of British empiricism. Yet it can also lead to muddle, incoherence and a potential risk to fundamental principles.5 So there’s a good case for a constitutional pre-agreement between all parties about the whys and wherefores of these big popular inputs into the political system. Obviously, referenda need to be subject to clear and fair rules. They should decide on principles, and not upon administrative details and enforcement. Ideally, too, they should be accompanied by equally thorough documentation of the case for and against the proposition (provided by an independent constitutional commission), so that the electorate is not deciding in the dark. And there’s a good case for pre-agreeing the required percentage majority on a sliding scale (the greater the change the larger the proportion required?) before a decision becomes constitutionally final. Otherwise, referenda which are inconclusively close become symptoms of deep-rooted divisions – and not the answer. They tend to bring politics and politicians further into disrepute. That’s not good for democracy, especially when the outcome appears to pit different regions against one another.

Lastly, there’s much to be said for pre-agreeing the valid circumstances in which big constitutional referenda are to be held. They don’t work very well as tools of day-to-day politics. That way, there’s too much of a risk that the electorate will vote in response to the popularity or otherwise of the government of the day. Indeed, if politicians call referenda for immediate political reasons, it’s logical for the electorate to respond similarly. On the other hand, there’s an excellent case for testing major constitutional changes in the form of government – whether proposed as a matter of internal policy or in an overseas treaty with constitutional implications – by an immediate popular referendum. Not years after the event. But at the time. The twin 1998 referenda on the Good Friday Agreement showed how the deed can be done, and done well. Referenda viewed long? Yes; no; and maybe, in a fitting context.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Friday_Agreement#Referendums

2 That limit remains one percent of the full cash value of the property, and the Proposition, part of the so-called Taxpayers’ revolt of the late 1970s, also contained clauses requiring two-thirds majority votes in both Houses of the Californian state legislature for any future increases in rates of state tax on income, sales or property.

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_ballot_proposition

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_65_(1986)

5 See I. McLean, What’s Wrong with the British Constitution? (Oxford, 2010)

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2016-07 No1 1564 Baptism of W Shakespeare


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

First find your evidence and check for provenance; reliability; and typicality.But what next? Here are three golden rules; and three research steps.

Rule One: Approach every source with a keen mixture of critical excitement. That is, embrace new evidence whilst being prepared to understand all its flaws and omissions. At all times, you need to sustain a vigorous mental debate between your research theories/hypotheses/questions/arguments – and your critical interrogation of the sources.

Rule Two: Think of the obvious ways to use any given source … and the not-so-obvious. Historical evidence can be used for many purposes, including those for which it was not originally intended. Be prepared to improvise and to think of different ways of using material.

Rule Three: Play fair with the evidence. That is, don’t use it to show things that it doesn’t show. Don’t misquote or mangle. Don’t use quotations taken out of context. And, while taking note of what the sources don’t say (as well as what they do), don’t let the practice of ‘reading the silence’ turn into an exercise of castigating the past for not being the present – or of interpolating your own issues into historic sources. Playing fair with the evidence means playing fair with research methods too. Keep a constant check to ensure that you don’t, unintentionally, pre-build your answers into your research procedures.

Then, when focusing upon a specific source or group of sources, there are three steps to consider in sequence.

Step One: understand the source’s context. This step is really important and requires work. Evidence gains meaning in the context of time and place. There are many handy guides to the different types of sources and their contexts.2 But, if none are available, researchers should investigate for themselves.

Finding a sheet of paper inscribed with five words, ‘William, son of John Shakespeare’, would not get a researcher very far. But finding them in the parish book of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, dated 26 April 1564, provides good evidence of the baptism of the world’s most famous William Shakespeare. [The actual source contains four words in Latin, as shown in Fig.1; and a later hand marked the entry with three crosses – a rather endearing sign of research excitement but one which would rightly attract the wrath of archivists today].

2016-07 No1 1564 Baptism of W Shakespeare

Fig. 1 Baptismal record of Gulielmus filius Johannis Shakspere [sic] on 26 April 1564 in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon – entry marked in R margin by three crosses in a later hand. There is no evidence for Shakespeare’s actual birthday, but a patriotic tradition dating back to the eighteenth century ascribes it to 23 April – St George’s Day.

Step Two: understand the source’s characteristic style (or ‘Register’, in the terminology of literary scholarship). This step entails identifying and allowing for the characteristic style of the source(s) under examination, including their strengths and weaknesses. Again, there are guides to the common characteristics of (say) different literary genres, such as autobiographies, diaries, letters. But again, where none exist, researchers should work it out for themselves.

At a very basic level, there are obvious differences in written texts between fiction and non-fiction. Poems, stories and songs are not intended to be taken literally. And within the ranks of non-fiction, there are many different types of writings, and levels of specificity. Private thoughts expressed casually, in (say) letters and diaries, do not necessarily constitute people’s final considered views. By contrast, signed and sealed legal documents may be taken as formal statements, even while the conventional legal language brings its own restrictions.

When Shakespeare bequeathed to his wife Anne Hathaway their ‘second best bed’, he was not comparing her to a summer’s day. He was leaving her a specific item of household furniture. It can be debated whether the legacy was a considered snub or a tender personal testimonial or a utilitarian disposal of family assets or a casual after-thought.3 But the terse legal language expresses absolutely nothing about motivation.

2016-07 No2 Shakespeare's will p3

Fig.2: Extract from p. 3 of Shakespeare’s will dated March 1616, penned by a lawyer but signed by William Shakespeare. (from original in Probate Registry, Somerset House, London). The bequest I gyve vnto my wife my second best bed with the furniture, is contained in the interpolated line of text (seventh from top), indicating that it was a late addition, made after the first draft, and hence inserted very shortly before Shakespeare’s death in April 1616.

Step 3: after assessing both context and register, it’s time to savour in full the contents of any given source or set of sources. That includes every last detail. In a written text, it’s essential to study the choice of language, as well as its content(s) and meaning(s). As my former research supervisor Jack Fisher used to say: squeeze every last drop of juice from the lemon.

Moreover, while it’s wrong to read too much cosmic meaning into every passing fragment of evidence, it’s always worth remembering that some information will turn out to be more telling than others. Keep an eye open for sources which have a significance beyond their immediate remit. (Sometimes that becomes apparent only upon later reflection, sending the researcher scurrying back to the source material for a fresh appraisal.)

The possibilities are bounded by the availability of evidence. We cannot rediscover everything about the past. So, without fresh finds, it is unlikely that researchers will ever know Shakespeare’s actual date of birth. Nonetheless, the multiplication effect of multiple sources, multiple methodologies, and endless research ideas/debates, in the context of changing perspectives over time, means that historical understanding is always expanding and always being tested. The critical assessment of bounded evidence is the launching pad for unbounded knowledge. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio …’

1 This BLOG is the pair to BLOG/ 66 (June 2016) and is equally dedicated to all past students on the Core Course of Royal Holloway (London University)’s MA in Modern History: Power, Culture, Society.

2 For a super-exemplary analysis of sources and their context, see The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913 on-line, co-directed by Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker: www.oldbaileyonline.org.

3 See J. Rogers, The Second Best Bed: Shakespeare’s Will in a New Light (Westport, Conn., 1993); M.S. Hedges, The Second Best Bed: In Search of Anne Hathaway (Lewes, 2000); G. Greer, Shakespeare’s Wife (2007); and BBC report www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/what-will-s-will-tells-us-about-shakespeare (2016).

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from Battersea Labour Party
Annual Report (2015), pp. 23-4


Lily Harrison had a strong, feisty, ‘giving’ personality, with an intense civic commitment to the Shaftesbury Estate community in particular and to Battersea in general. In another generation, when opportunities for working-class women were greater, she would have taken a front-seat role. But she did more as an active grass-root, throughout a long and non-stop life, than many front-benchers. Her award of an MBE in 2008 was a justified honour.
For Battersea Labour Party, Lily was not only the longest lived of a post-war generation of committed working-class activists who ran Labour in its unchallenged prime within the area – but she was also a personal link between three generations of truly remarkable women in Battersea left-wing politics. Lily worked closely with Caroline Ganley (1879-1966), who was Labour MP for Battersea South (1945-51) and a long-standing Battersea Councillor (1919-25, 1953-65). And in turn Caroline Ganley had worked closely with Charlotte Despard (1844-1939), the pioneering suffragette and left-winger, who lived in working-class Nine Elms and stood (alas, unsuccessfully) for Labour in Battersea in the 1919 general election. It was Charlotte Despard who purchased 177 Lavender Hill as BLP’s headquarters; and it was Lily Harrison who for many years ran 177 as its guardian figure.
Lily was born in Canning Town, East London, into a family of working-class Tories. After a sickly childhood, she grew into a wiry and indefatigable adult. She left school at 14, working as a sewing machinist. In 1941 she joined the WAAF and had a ‘good’ war, proud of her contribution to London’s home defence. At one stage, she was in charge of a team of women operating the huge barrage balloons on Sydenham Hill in south London, which were used to disrupt the flight of enemy bombers as they tried to blitz Battersea’s industries and rail networks. It was a challenging task, Lily told me, not just technically but also because she had to manage a team of ‘flighty’ young women who were not used to physical labour and were all too keen on enjoying wartime London’s night-life. Later, she was in charge of a similar team operating barrage balloons on the cliffs of Dover at the time of D-Day.

When stationed on war duties in Cambridge in 1944, Lily met her husband Herbert (Bert) Harrison, nicknamed ‘Ginger’ for his auburn locks. Married in 1947, they were devoted to one another and to their growing family: two surviving sons, Edward and Derek, and a daughter Joan, who had Down’s Syndrome and died from pneumonia at the age of two. At that time, many parents used to put Down’s children into institutional care. But, as Derek Harrison recalled: ‘Not Lily! She dressed Joan in a red coat and displayed her to the world, lovingly declaring “That’s my daughter”.’ The little coat was kept as a treasured family memento, and was buried with Lily.
Bert Harrison came from a politically committed Labour family. His own father, another Herbert Harrison, had been a Labour Councillor and Mayor of Battersea (1953); and Bert followed in his footsteps, representing Shaftesbury Ward on Battersea Borough Council. For Lily, joining the Harrison clan meant that her leftish sympathies were suddenly jolted into non-stop activism. ‘It was a steep learning curve’, she admitted, but one that she thoroughly enjoyed.
When interviewed for the making of BLP’s DVD Red Battersea (2008), Lily gave me the following account of her role in Battersea Labour: ‘After Bert was elected for Shaftesbury ward, I attended every Council meeting for fifteen years. I became a dedicated Party nut! I lost half a stone in weight during my first General Election campaign, in 1964 – but it was worth it because we got Ernie Perry in [as MP for Battersea South] with a big majority. Later, I ran the BLP Afternoon Section for the older ladies: we had jumble sales, garden parties, raffles, knit-ins, and dinner parties, the annual Bazaar. You name it, I’ve organised it. It’s been my life.’
Lily and Bert, who lived on the Shaftesbury Estate, were also part of the strong community life of the Estate; as well as busy in many other local projects. After Bert’s death in 1990, Lily continued her civic involvement, being active on: Battersea Arts Centre Board (founder member from 1971 and later Trustee); Battersea United Charities (Trustee from 1960 and chair 1990-2006); Bolingbroke Hospital Friends; St George’s Hospital Friends; Tooting & Balham Carnival Committee (member from 1971; secretary 1984-94); and SHARE Community (Self-Help Association for Rehabilitation & Employment), of which she became Life Vice President. She wound down only when halted by illness, late in life.
As that account indicates, Lily had the gift of working well with others. She always did what she’d promised to do, with efficiency and good humour. She got on well with most people, and faced the twists and turns of politics with a certain stoicism. In organisational terms, her greatest regret was that Bert did not become Mayor of Battersea, as his father had done before him, or Mayor of Wandsworth, the larger authority that swallowed Battersea Borough Council in 1965. And there’s no doubt that Lily would have made a great Mayoress.
Yet her tireless activism showed that civic individuals don’t need an official position to get involved. By the end of her long life, Lily had friends across the political spectrum. That’s because – unofficially – she was for many years the equivalent of an uncrowned Lady Mayor of Battersea. But she was no mere ceremonial figure. Lily was nothing if not hands-on. It’s how she lived her life.

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2016-07 No1 Dancing House Prague


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

‘Evidence, evidence: I hate that word’, a vehement colleague in the English Department once hissed at me, when I had, all unawares, invoked the word in the course of an argument. I was surprised at his vehemence but put it down to a touch of dyspepsia, aggravated by an overdose of (then) ultra-fashionable postmodernist doubt. What on earth was he teaching his students? To disregard evidence and invent things as the passing mood dictated? To apply theory arbitrarily? No need to bother about dates, precision or details. No need to check one’s hunches against any external data or criterion of judgment. And certainly no need to analyse anything unpleasant or inconvenient or complexly difficult about the past.1

But I thought my colleague’s distaste for evidence was no more than a passing fad. (The date was sometime in the later 1990s). And indeed intellectual postmodernism, which was an assertive philosophy of doubt (a bit of a contradiction in terms, since a philosophy of doubt should be suitably doubtful), has faded even faster than the postmodernist style of architectural whimsy has been absorbed into the architectural lexicon.2

Fig. 1 The Rašin Building, Prague, known as the Dancing House, designed by V. Milunić and F. Gehry (completed 1996) – challenging classical symmetry and modernist order yet demanding absolute confidence in the conventional solidity of its building materials. Image by © Paul Seheult/Eye Ubiquitous/Corbis

Fig. 1 The Rašin Building, Prague, known as the Dancing House, designed by V. Milunić and F. Gehry (completed 1996) – challenging classical symmetry and modernist order yet demanding absolute confidence in the conventional solidity of its building materials.
Image by © Paul Seheult/Eye Ubiquitous/Corbis

Then, just a week ago, I was talking to a History postgraduate on the same theme. Again to my surprise, he was, if not quite as hostile, at least as hesitant about the value of evidence. Oh really? Of course, the myriad forms of evidence do not ‘speak for themselves’. They are analysed and interpreted by historians, who often disagree. But that’s the point. The debates are then reviewed and redebated, with reference again to the evidence – including, it may be, new evidence.

These arguments continue not only between historians and students, but across the generations. The stock of human knowledge is constantly being created and endlessly adjusted as it is transmitted through time. And debates are ultimately decided, not by reference to one expert authority (X says this; Y says that) but to the evidence, as collectively shared, debated, pummelled, assessed and reassessed.

So let’s argue the proposition the other way round. Let’s laud to the skies the infinite value of evidence, without which historians would just be sharing our prejudices and comparing our passing moods. But ok, let’s also clarify. What we are seeking is not just ‘evidence’ A, B or C in the cold abstract. That no more resolves anything than does the unsupported testimony of historian X, Y or Z. What we need is critically assessed evidence – and lots of it, so that different forms of evidence can be tested against each other and debated together.

For historians, anything and everything is grist to the mill. If there was a time when we studied nothing but written documents, that era has long gone. Any and every legacy from the past is potential evidence: fragments of pottery, swatches of textiles, collections of bones, DNA records, rubbish tips, ruined or surviving buildings, ground plans, all manufactured objects (whether whole or in parts), paintings from cave to canvas, photos, poems, songs, sayings, myths, fairy tales, jokes … let alone all evidence constructed or reconstructed by historians, including statistics, graphs, databases, interpretative websites … and so forth. Great. That list sounds exhausting but it’s actually exhilarating.

However, the diversity of these potential sources, and the nebulousness of some forms of evidence (jokes, fairy tales), indicate one vital accompaniment. Historians should swear not only by the sources but by a rigorous source critique. After asking: what are your sources? the next question should be: how good are your sources, for whatever purpose you intend to deploy them? (These stock questions or variants upon them, keep many an academic seminar going).

Source auditing: here are three opening questions to pose, with reference to any potential source or set of sources. Firstly: Provenance. Where does the source come from? How has it survived from its original state through to the present day? How well authenticated is it? Has it been amended or changed over time? (There are numerous technical tests that can be used to check datings and internal consistency). No wonder that historians appreciate using sources that have been collected in museums, archives or other repositories, because usually these institutions have already done the work of authenticating. But it’s always well to double-check.

Secondly: Reliability of Sources and/or Methodology. A source or group of sources may be authentic but not necessarily reliable, in the sense of being precise or accurate. Evidence from the past has no duty to be anything other than what it is. A song about ‘happy times’ is no proof that there were past happy times. Only that there was a song to that effect. But that’s fine. That tells historians something about the history of songs – a fruitful field, provided that the lyrics are not taken as written affidavits.3 All sources have their own intrinsic characteristics and special nature, including flaws, biases, and omissions. These need to be understood before the source is deployed in argument. The general rule is that: problems don’t matter too much, as long as they are fully taken into account. (Though it does depend upon the nature of the problem. Fake and forged documents are evidence for the history of fakery and forgery, not for whatever instance or event they purport to illuminate).

One example of valid material that needs to be used with due caution is the case of edited texts whose originals have disappeared, or are no longer available for consultation. That difficulty applies to quite a number of old editions of letters and diaries, which cannot now be checked. For the most part, historians have to take on trust the accuracy of the editorial work. Yet we often don’t know what, if anything, has been omitted. So it is rash to draw conclusions based upon silences in the text – since the original authors may have been quietly censored by later editors.4

When auditing sources, it also follows that a related test should also be addressed to any methodology used in processing sources: is the methodology valid and reliable? Does it augment or diminish the value of the original(s)? Indeed, is the basic evidence solid enough to bear the weight of the analytical superstructure?

Thirdly: Typicality. With every source or group of sources, it’s also helpful to pose the question as to whether it is likely to be commonplace or highly unusual? Again, it doesn’t matter which it is, as long as the historian is fully aware of the implications. Otherwise, there is a danger of generalising from something that is in fact a rarity. Assessing typicality is not always easy, especially in the case of obscure, fragmentary or fugitive sources. Yet it’s always helpful to bear this question in mind.


Overall, the greater the range and variety of sources that can be identified and assessed the better. Everything (to repeat) is grist to the mill. Sources can be compared and contrasted. Different kinds of evidence can be used in a myriad of ways. The potential within every source is thrilling. Evidence is invaluable – not to be dismissed, on the grounds that some evidence is fallible, but to be savoured with full critical engagement, as vital for knowledge. That state of affairs does include knowing what we don’t (currently) know as well as what we do. Scepticism fine. Corrosive, dismissive, and ultimately boring know-nothingism, no way!

*NB: Having found and audited sources, the following stages of source analysis will be considered in next month’s BLOG.

1 BLOG dedicated to all past students on the Core Course of Royal Holloway (London University)’s MA in Modern History: Power, Culture, Society, for fertile discussions, week in, week out.

2 For the fading of philosophical postmodernism, see various studies on After- or Post-Postmodernism, including C.K. Brooks (ed.), Beyond Postmodernism: On to the Post-Contemporary (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013); and G. Myerson, Ecology and the End of Postmodernism (Cambridge, 2001), p. 74: with prescient comment ‘it [Postmodernism] is slipping into the strange history of those futures that did not materialise’.

3 See e.g. R. Palmer, The Sound of History: Songs and Social Comment (Oxford, 1988).

4 A classic case was the excision of religious fervour from the seventeenth-century Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow by eighteenth-century editors, giving the Memoirs a secular tone which was long, but wrongly, accepted as authentic: see B. Worden, Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity (2002).

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2016-06 No3 Woman not inferior to man titlepage


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Talking of taking a long time, it took centuries for women to break the grip of traditional patriarchies. How did women manage it? In a nutshell, the historical answer was (is) that literacy was the key, education the long-term provider, and the power of persuasion by both men and women which slowly turned the key.

But let’s step back for a moment to consider why the campaign was a slow one. The answer was that it was combating profound cultural traditions. There was not one single model for the rule of men. Instead, there were countless variants of male predominance which were taken absolutely for granted. The relative subordination of women seemed to be firmly established by history, economics, family relationships, biology, theology, and state power. How to break through such a combination?

The first answer, historically, was not by attacking men. That was both bad tactics and bad ideology. It raised men’s hackles, lost support for the women’s cause, and drove a wedge between fellow-humans. Thus, while there has been (is still) much male misogyny or entrenched prejudice against women, any rival strand of female misandry or systematic hostility to men has always been much weaker as a cultural tradition. It lacks the force of affronted majesty which is still expressed in contemporary misogyny, as in anonymous comments on social media.

Certainly, for many ‘lords of creation’, who espoused traditional views, the first counter-claims on behalf of women came as a deep shock. The immediate reaction was incredulous laughter. Women who spoke out on behalf of women’s rights were caricatured as bitter, frustrated old maids. A further male response was to conjure up images of the ‘vagina dentata’ – the toothed vagina of mythology. It hinted at fear of sex and/or castration anxiety. And it certainly dashed women from any maternal pedestal: their nurturing breasts being negatived by the biting fanny.
2016-05 No1 Picasso Femme (1930)

Pablo Picasso, Femme (1930).

Accordingly, one hostile male counter-attack was to denounce feminists as no more than envious man-haters. If feminists then resisted that identification, they were pushed onto the defensive. And any denials were taken as further proof of their cunningly hidden hostility.

Historically, however, the campaigns for women’s rights were rarely presented as anti-men in intention or actuality. After all, a considerable number of men were feminists from the start, just as a certain proportion of women, as well as men, were opposed. Such complications can be seen in the suffrage campaigns in the later Victorian period. Active alongside leading suffragettes were men like George Lansbury, who in 1912 resigned as Labour MP for Bow & Bromley, to stand in a by-election on a platform of votes for women. (He lost to an opponent whose slogan was ‘No Petticoat Government’.)

Meanwhile, prominent among the opponents of the suffragettes were ladies like the educational reformer Mary Augusta Ward, who wrote novels under her married name as Mrs Humphry Ward.1 She chaired the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (1908-10), before it amalgamated with the Men’s National League. Yet Ward did at least consider that local government was not beyond the scope of female participation.

Such intricate cross-currents explain why the process of change was historically slow and uneven. Women in fact glided into public view, initially under the radar, through the mechanism of female literacy and then through women’s writings. In the late sixteenth century, English girls first began to take up their pens in some numbers. In well-to-do households, they learned from their brothers’ tutors or from their fathers. Protestant teachings particularly favoured the spread of basic literacy, so that true Christians could read and study the Bible, which had just been translated into the vernacular Indeed, as Eales notes, the wives and daughters of clergymen were amongst England’s first cohorts of literary ladies.2 Their achievements were not seen as revolutionary (except in the eyes of a few nervous conservatives). Education, it was believed, would make these women better wives and mothers, as well as better Christians. They were not campaigning for the vote. But they were exercising their God-given brainpower.
2016-05 No2 Eighteenth-century women's literacy

Young ladies in an eighteenth-century library, being instructed by a demure governess, under a bust of Sappho – a legendary symbol of female literary creativity.

As time elapsed, however, the diffusion of female literacy proved to be the thin end of a large wedge. Girls did indeed have brainpower – in some cases exceeding that of their brothers. Why therefore should they not have access to regular education? Given that the value of Reason was becoming ever more culturally and philosophically stressed, it seemed wise for society to utilise all its resources. That indeed was the punchiest argument later used by the feminist John Stuart Mill in his celebrated essay on The Subjection of Women (1869). Fully educating the female half of the population would have the effect, he explained, of ‘doubling the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity’. Not only society collectively but also women and men individually would gain immeasurably by accessing fresh intellectual capital.3

Practical reasoning had already become appreciated at the level of the household. Throughout the eighteenth century, more and more young women were being instructed in basic literacy skills.4 These were useful as well as polite accomplishments. One anonymous text in 1739, in the name of ‘Sophia’ [the spirit of Reason], coolly drew some logical conclusions. In an urbanising and commercialising society, work was decreasingly dependent upon brute force – and increasingly reliant upon brainpower. Hence there was/is no reason why women, with the power of Reason, should not contribute alongside men. Why should there not be female lawyers, judges, doctors, scientists, University teachers, Mayors, magistrates, politicians – or even army generals and admirals?5 After all, physical strength had long ceased to be the prime qualification for military leadership. Indeed, mere force conferred no basis for either moral or political superiority. ‘Otherwise brutes would deserve pre-eminence’.6

2016-06 No3 Woman not inferior to man titlepage
There was no inevitable chain of historical progression. But, once women took up the pen, there slowly followed successive campaigns for female education, female access to the professions, female access to the franchise, female access to boardrooms, as well as (still continuing) full female participation in government, and (on the horizon) access the highest echelons of the churches and armed forces. In the very long run, the thin wedge is working. Nonetheless, it remains wise for feminists of all stripes to argue their case with sweet reason, as there are still dark fears to allay.

1 B. Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (1978; 2013); J. Sutherland, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-Eminent Edwardian (Oxford, 1990).

2 J. Eales, ‘Female Literacy and the Social Identity of the Clergy Family in the Seventeenth Century’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 133 (2013), pp. 67-81.

3 J.S. Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869; in Everyman edn, 1929), pp. 298-9.

4 By 1801, all women in Britain’s upper and middle classes were literate, and literacy was also spreading amongst lower-class women, especially in the growing towns.

5 Anon., Woman not Inferior to Man, by Sophia, a Person of Quality (1739), pp. 36, 38, 48.

6 Ibid., p. 51.

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2016-04 No2 Despard and Women's Freedom League


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Women can certainly make it to the top of the political greasy pole. Indira Gandhi (India), Margaret Thatcher (UK), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar) are just four among several eminent examples, in very different political systems. Nonetheless, such women are still comparatively rare. Their political pre-eminence, past or present, is not ‘normal’ and taken for granted. But … why ever not? In liberal democracies it’s now a fairly long time since women got the vote and became able to stand for office. So what factors have slowed down the transition from electoral rights to political eminence?

Put like that, one fundamental answer replies that ‘these things take time’. Getting the vote is not the same as getting power. It was/is quicker and easier to change the franchise (and that took some doing) than it was/is to change the day-to-day practice of politics, which paves the way for individual participation and advancement. Over the long term, it can be argued that democracies have become relatively ‘feminised’ in the sense that issues concerning women are now routinely part of the agenda. Yet that is not the same as female participation.

Between them, women usually carry out a range of customary tasks within the household, such as childcare, dependent-adult care, home-provisioning, and housework. All of these are time-consuming and preoccupying chores, often round-the-clock. Hence, to accommodate the political participation of women, the timetables and practices of political life need to be adjusted, as does the habitual allocation of tasks within the household – and/or the delegation of some tasks to other bodies outside the household.

A very long history lies behind the assumption of an ingrained specialisation, originating in biology and sustained by cultural expectations. Women were and often still are expected to focus upon the domestic and the familial. Men take care of the ‘outside world’. A traditional phrase pronounced that: ‘Ladies have nothing to do with politics’. Such attitudes were early challenged by feminist writers. In 1834, the feisty Maria Edgeworth denounced that attitude as ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘little missy’, in her novel entitled Helen. The heroine of the story was admonished: ‘You can hardly expect, Helen, that you, as a rational being, can go through the world as it now is, without forming any opinion on points of public importance.’1

Nonetheless, great numbers of women traditionally did and do leave such things to ‘the men’. And in Edgeworth’s novel, disappointingly, her staunchly self-denying heroine does not rise to the challenge, whether by campaigning for the female franchise or for anything as halfway radical. It was very difficult, in that era, for women to propose proto-feminist views without being satirised or pilloried; and the convention against women speaking on public platforms was almost universally upheld, by women as well as by men.2

One of the central arguments against giving the vote to women was that they were ‘virtually’ represented by their menfolk. Civic activities by husbands were taken to articulate the views of the entire household. It was specialisation in practice. Man and wife were one. She had tasks at home; he spoke for both in the wider world. On such grounds, many Victorian conservatives opposed giving the vote to women, on the grounds that such a move would give married men two votes and thus be unfair to bachelors, who were left with just one. (Spinsters, meanwhile, were supposed to be ‘virtually’ represented by their fathers).

Such views depended upon an ideal-type of ‘the household’. However, in nineteenth-century Britain (as long before), there were plenty of women who either lived alone or who lived in female-headed households. And, of course, many married couples held divergent views – or followed the lead of the wife, not the husband. (Such men were unmanly and known as ‘hen-pecked’).

Yet the ideal type was precisely that, an ideal whose power did not depend upon individual case histories. Instead, it appeared founded upon biology, tradition, culture, and, for those with committed religious views, divine will. One term for this set of attitudes is ‘patriarchy’, although this concept is not a timeless verity which stands outside history, as some argue. Yet the concept and its supporting social structures certainly had enough continuing plausibility for the idea of specialist roles and separate spheres to become convincing for many, including for those women who campaigned against the female franchise.

Eventually, however, the anti-suffragists – constituting both men and women who opposed ending the traditional male monopoly – lost the argument. At a guess, most of the female vote-deniers did in time hold their noses and exercise their new electoral rights. But such attitudes showed that ‘women’ were not and are not a single social category, speaking with one voice. They may be divided by age, wealth, social class, religion, ethnicity, politics, gender orientation, marital status, maternity or childlessness, and/or their attitudes towards feminism and to men. However, the case for women’s rights does not depend upon any need for unity or homogeneity. They participate as citizens, no more or less, sharing the range of concord and disagreements that are found within any body politic.

Today, the old arguments of the anti-suffragists are being repeated and updated by a very similar mixture of venom and ridicule on the part of the anti-feminists (both male and female), who flourish with vigour, especially on social media. They express themselves sometimes ironically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes with violent misogyny.

Detail from Thomas Rowlandson’s partly affectionate, partly brutal satire of an all-woman Bluestocking Club (1815) as an unbridled cat-fight.

The mix of backlash, uncertainty, and a confused sense of upheaval, indicates how fundamental are these long-unfolding changes in the respective roles of men and women – but also how ultimately flexible are social organisations. There are some crucial biological constants, like the fact that it is women (though not all women) who give birth to children. Yet the social arrangements for child rearing are not immutable over time. Things are not set in stone – but they don’t get transformed overnight either.

So, given that, any changes designed to help women to participate fully in political life should be matched by changes to relationships and the distribution of tasks within the household. The two ‘spheres’ are not separate, but integrally linked. If one variable is to be adapted, then the others have to adapt too. And the same applies to all areas of public and private life.
2016-04 No2 Despard and Women's Freedom League

Battersea’s Charlotte Despard, leading a march of the Women’s Freedom League (1907), campaigning for the vote with her fellow sisters, in company with a representative of the next generation, in the form of a decorously dressed young boy in the front row.

Lastly, it’s important for women to press for structural changes to help women. History needs a helping hand. And female solidarity is a good antidote to anti-feminism. At the same time, however, it’s best not to be too dogmatic about the merits of all women, simply because they are women. I’m sure that there’s no female consensus on the respective political ratings of Indira Gandhi; Margaret Thatcher; Angela Merkel; and Aung San Suu Kyi. Onwards; not always upwards; but still, yes, onwards.

1 M. Edgeworth, Helen (1834; in 1890 edn), p. 260.

2 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Women and Public Speaking’, Monthly BLOG/47 (Nov. 2014).

3 For rival perspectives, see G. Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford, 1986); J. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester 2006); and S. Goldberg, Male Dominance: The Inevitability of Patriarchy (1979).

4 B.H. Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (2013); A.M. Benjamin, A History of the Anti-Suffrage Movement in the United States, from 1895 to 1920: Women against Equality (Lewiston, 1991).

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Many more voters than previously realised cast their votes in local and national elections in eighteenth-century England. They were thereby creating – sometimes riotously and casually, but generally decorously and seriously – a culture of constitutionalism. It amounted to an emergent proto-democracy. It was not yet a full democracy, in which all adult men and women have a vote. Yet it was a culture which, importantly, chose to decide certain key disputes by casting equal votes and by then accepting the verdict of the majority.

Satirical sketch of election placard in Westminster (1784), showing opposition candidate Charles James Fox as a wily fox with his slogan ‘the Rights of the Commons’.
Despite the brickbats and satire, Fox won.

This procedure was much safer and more rational than deciding by fighting; much more effective in winning wider consent than deciding by bribery; and much more involving for all participants than deciding by the casting of lots. Even if not all the eligible electorate actually chose to use their vote (and there were invariably some non-participants), they always had the option.

A proto-democratic culture of constitutionalism promoted public debate about the candidates and the issues, as well as a basic respect for other points of view, which might turn out to have majority support.

In the eighteenth century, the franchise was unfair and unequal, which made it a valid target for reformers. Nonetheless, in a few large constituencies with ‘open’ electorates, the number eligible to vote, via an urban freeman or rate-payer franchise, was very great. The key examples were the cities of London, Westminster, Norwich and Bristol. They had many voters (all men in this era), from a wide range of social backgrounds: from aristocrats to artisans, shopkeepers, and even some labourers. Votes were cast publicly – which meant that votes were open to challenge if the witnessing crowd doubted the eligibility of the voter – and the results were taken as registering public opinion, in the nearest the eighteenth-century constitution offered to a serious test of the views of political ‘outsiders’.

Historically, the fact that Georgian England already had a voting tradition helps to explain how the country later made the transition into full democracy so bloodlessly. Already in the eighteenth century the rudiments of the electoral process were evolving: candidate speeches; party manifestoes; electoral slogans and placards; party colours; door-to-door election canvassing; ward organisations; celebrity endorsements; shows of public support in rival demonstrations and mass meetings; close scrutiny of the voting process; declaration of the results with, upon occasion, a formal challenge and recount; and, finally, acceptance of the outcome. (The Georgian custom of chairing the successful candidate around town was not always implemented then and is today not considered obligatory).

Not only were parliamentary and civic elections contested in these large open constituencies, but during these years the practice of constitutional voting was becoming adopted in many other, different circumstances. It pointed away from the troubled civil wars of earlier times towards a calmer, safer society. Many different non-governmental institutions used the mechanism of voting, for example to determine their own membership.

For example, in numerous private clubs and societies, potential recruits had first to be nominated by one or more existing members. Then votes were cast secretly, for or against; and any candidate who was ‘blackballed’ (negatived) was declared to have lost. This practice continues in some private clubs to this day. It was (is) a particularly severe test, since the excluded candidate might have won a large majority of all votes cast. In that case, it could be accused of being anti-democratic, allowing a small group to negative the will of the majority. The moral, in all cases, is that the rules for voting are crucial in framing how each voting system works.

Other non-governmental organisations which used some version of balloting in the eighteenth century included bank management boards and charitable institutions like London’s Foundling Hospital, established in 1739. That body used voting by its Trustees to recruit new Trustees, when existing ones died or retired. Clearly, these were socially exclusive bodies. But they were upholding the convention that each vote from a valid voter has equal value and that the will of the majority should prevail.

Importantly, too, it’s known that some middling- and lower-class groups used the mechanism of voting to resolve disputes over appointments. For example, a number of Nonconformist churches chose their ministers by such means. The Congregationalists in particular valued this procedure. Potential candidates would appear before a congregation, preach a sermon, and then submit to a vote, no doubt after further behind-the-scenes canvassing and enquiries. In these ways, many people had the experience of participating equally in a collective decision to find out what the majority (including those who were not so vociferous) really wanted.

So what follows? Firstly, the culture of voting is one to be appreciated – and used. Secondly, the constitutional rules for each system of voting really matter. They should be clearly framed to allow each system to operate fairly within its remit – and the rules, once established, should not be tampered with for partisan advantage. And lastly, electors should not be summoned frivolously to the polls. That way, disillusion and apathy develop.

Look at the low turnout for elections to the European Parliament. And there’s a good reason for that. Electors know that the institution has no real power. It is not a supreme legislative or tax-raising body; and, unlike a national Parliament, no executive government is either constituted from its ranks or is scrutinised closely by it. The current arrangements do no good for either the European Union or participatory democracy. Sham elections are destructive of a genuinely civic process, which needs to be cultivated, valued, and made real – not mocked.

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Short Summary: Proto-Democracy’, section 1.7, in E.M. Green, P.J. Corfield and C. Harvey, Elections in Metropolitan London, 1700-1850: Vol. 1 Arguments and Evidence (Bristol, 2013), pp. 55-67; also in www.londonelectoralhistory.com, section 1.7.

2 See P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting: Standing Up to be Counted?’ BLOG no. 53 (May 2015).

3 BLOG illustration from Rowlandson’s Procession to the Hustings after a Successful Canvass (1784) in http://www.magnoliasoft.net/ms/magnoliabox/art/547698/procession-to-the-hustings-after-a-successful-canvass-no14 (detail).

4 Over time, however, the clergy’s professional qualifications tended to be emphasised over the power of congregational election: see J.W.T. Youngs, The Congregationalists: A History (New York, 1990; 1998), pp. 69-70.

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2016-02 No1 Frohawk_Dodo-1905


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Is the past dead or alive? Posing such a binary question insists upon choice; but the options constitute a false dichotomy. Nonetheless, the death of the past is often proclaimed. This BLOG examines the arguments for and against; and highlights the snares of binary thinking.

Firstly, the past, dead or alive? The ‘death of the past’ is a common, possibly reassuring notion. If you have forgotten the History dates learned at school, then don’t worry, you are in good company. Most people have. In the USA there is a sad debate entitled: ‘Is History history?’ There is at least one book entitled The Death of the Past.1 In fact, that particular study laments that people forget far too much. Nonetheless, emphatic phrases circulate in popular culture. ‘Never look back. The past is dead and buried’. ‘The bad (or good) Old Days have gone’. Something or other is irrevocably past – rendering it ‘as dead as the proverbial dodo’, which was last reliably sighted in Mauritius in 1662.2016-02 No1 Frohawk_Dodo-1905

Illus. 1: The Dodo by F.W. Frohawk,
from L.W. Rothschild’s Extinct Birds (1907).

At the same time, however, there’s a rival strand of thought, which asserts that the past is very much alive. The most famous and often quoted claim to that effect comes from William Faulkner, writing in the American Deep South in 1951, where memories and resentments from Civil War times have far from disappeared. ‘The past is never dead’, he wrote. ‘It’s not even past’. 2

Another strong statement to that effect came from Karl Marx in 1851/2. He thundered at the unpastness of the past. Revolutionary activism was constantly hampered by old thinking and old ideas: ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living’.3

Opposition to old thinking was accordingly expressed by many later Communist leaders. The ‘new’ was good and revolutionary. Antiquity was the dangerous foe. Chairman Mao’s campaign against the ‘Four Olds’ – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas – was a striking example, at the time of his intended Cultural Revolution in 1966.4 Yet the fact that various traditional aspects of Chinese life still persist today indicates the difficulty of uprooting very deeply embedded social attitudes, even when using the resources of a totalitarian state.

For historians, meanwhile, it’s best to reject over-simplified choices. Many things in the past (both material and intangible) have died or come to an end. Yet far from everything has shared the same fate. Ideas, languages, cultures, religions persist through Time, incorporating changes alongside continuities; biological traits evolve over immensely long periods; the structure of the cosmos unfolds over many billennia (an emergent neologism) within a measurable framework.

Hence there’s nothing like a rigid divide between past and present. They are separated by no more than a nano-second between NOW and the immediate nano-second before NOW, so that legacies/contributions from the past infuse every moment as it is lived.

Secondly, thinking in terms of binary alternatives: Having to choose between bad/old/dead versus good/new/alive is a classic example of binary thought. It is an approach commonly cultivated by activists, for example in revolutionary or apocalyptic religious movements. Are you with the great cause or against it? Such attitudes can be psychologically powerful in binding groups together.

Binaries can also be useful when assessing the strength and weakness of an argument or a proposed course of action. As bimanual creatures, we can consider the pros and cons, using the formula ‘on the one hand’ … ‘on the other hand’. Indeed, when making a case, it’s always helpful to understand the arguments against your own. That way, when facing a fundamental critic, you are prepared. (Binary options also provide a good way to bully a witness on oath: Come on, answer, Yes or No! When the truthful reply might be ‘Somewhat’ or ‘Maybe’.)

It’s even been argued that some human societies are intrinsically binary in their deepest thought patterns. Russian culture is one that has been historically so identified.5 Hence binary switching may have helped to familiarise the population with the country’s dramatic twentieth-century lurches from Tsarism to Communism and, later, back to a different form of oligarchic Democracy. (Do today’s Russians agree; or perhaps, agree somewhat?)

Either way, there is no doubt that binary thought, like binary notation, has its uses. But studying History requires the capacity to grapple with complexity alongside simplicity. Is the past dead or alive? The answer is both and neither. It falls within the embrace of ever-stable ever-fluid Time, which lives and dies simultaneously.

J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969; reissued Harmondsworth, 1973; Basingstoke, 2003).

W. Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951), Act 1, sc. 3.

K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1851/2), in D. McClellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford, 1977), p. 300.

P. Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History (Cambridge, 2008); M. Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (2008).

Y.M. Lotman and B.A. Uspensky, ‘Binary Models in the Dynamics of Russian Culture’, in A.D. and A.S. Nakhimovsky (eds), The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History (Ithaca, NY., 1985), pp. 30-66.

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Review of play seen on 30 December 2015

If in the early twentieth century Sarah Bernhardt in her 70s could move audiences to tears, whilst wearing a wooden prosthetic leg, why could not Samuel Foote in his 50s stir eighteenth-century audiences to laughter, wearing a similar appendage? The answer was that he could – and did. But it takes an actor of fine ability to make today’s audiences both sympathise with his painful disability and laugh at his wit and antic comportment. Simon Russell Beale manages the task with a truly bravura display. If upon other occasions his performances can seem too fidgety (in my view), this time he is in his element. His repeated grin alone would win him acting prizes – as he sets his mouth in a laughing grimace that is at once innocent but knowing, cheerful but melancholic, loveable but menacing, spontaneous but somehow pre-ordained.

Simon Russell Beale as Mr Foote
in Mr Foote’s Other Leg
at the Haymarket Theatre London (2015)
Photo © www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/sep/22/mr-footes-other-leg-review

The play itself is not without problems. It has been developed into a stage version by Ian Kelly, who also acts the part of George III, from his earlier book on Samuel Foote (published in 2013).2   That textured study looked closely at the acting history and social context of the Georgian theatre. It did not demand a tremendously dramatic plot, other than the unfolding of Samuel Foote’s career as an actor-director-dramatist. The big crisis of his life was indeed the amputation of his gangrenous left leg, which is enacted with suitably squirming relish at the end of Act 1. But as Mr Foote rhetorically demands, while the curtain falls, what an earth is left to happen in Act 2?

What follows is episodic, in the style of Act 1, but in a much more melancholic vein. In real life, Samuel Foote became increasingly unpredictable in his later years, quite possibly as a result of head injuries sustained in the accident which cost him his leg. A series of vignettes show him as demanding, fretful, and isolated, as well as thwarted in his passion for his Jamaican theatre-dresser, whilst continuing to present Foote’s comic persona on stage – witty, scabrous, dressed in drag, and twice as large as life. It’s a well-known trope about comic actors and entertainers, who make audiences laugh while their own hearts are, if not quite breaking, then bruised and sombre. On with motley!

However, the point of this play is not to uncover fresh secrets about the art of comic acting but to celebrate its sheer ludic power. That opportunity drew eighteenth-century audiences to see Mr Foote; and twenty-first-century audiences should hasten to see Simon Russell Beale for the same reason. It should be noted too that the direction by Richard Eyre is splendid; the stage-sets are inventive and generate a dynamic framework for the succession of short scenes; the script is witty (complete with lots of jokes about feet); and the ensemble acting is outstanding.

For eighteenth-century experts, there is the additional fun of seeing real-life historical personalities – such as David Garrick [Joseph Millson], Peg Woffington [Dervla Kirwan], Francis Barber [Micah Balfour] – portrayed on stage with invented dialogue which allows the actors to bring them to life, complete with individual idiosyncrasies. It is not ‘real’ history but it does encourage historical empathy. The moment when the dark-skinned Jamaican Francis Barber comes face-to-face with two actors, both blacked-up and bewigged in the part of Othello, is funny but simultaneously challenging to fresh thought about historic acting conventions. (By the way, Foote’s employment of Francis Barber, the trusted factotum of Dr Johnson, is a flight of fancy from Ian Kelly). Nonetheless, while this play is structurally somewhat meandering and thematically incongruous, it offers a feast of theatricality and musings on the art of theatre. The wooden leg of Simon Russell Beale’s Mr Foote can walk tall alongside the legendary limb of Sarah Bernhardt.

Reports differ as to whether she actually wore such a limb after her amputation.

I. Kelly, Mr Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London (2013).

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