2017-08 No1 black mask

MONTHLY BLOG 80, WRITING ANONYMOUS ASSESSMENTS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

(*) This BLOG will be partnered
in September 2017 by a matching BLOG
on ‘Responding to Anonymous Assessments’

2017-08 No1 black mask 
Writing anonymously encourages a certain acidity to emerge. Instead of the conventional politeness (‘Does my bum look big in this?’ No … not really’), it seems at first that the unvarnished truth will break through (‘Yes, it does’). In fact, however, there are multiple reservations to be made about that first rush of apparent candour. It’s very like the caveats that need to be made to that drinker’s favourite maxim: ‘in vino veritas’. Well, yes, sometimes. But there is also scope for exaggeration, melodrama, and error, as well as anger, bile, and crudity, within every alcohol-fuelled tirade.

The psychological mechanism of anonymous writing is ‘release’ – release from the conventions of politeness and, especially when writing in a hurry, release from the normal constraints of prudence. It’s like a rush of blood to the head. And it can easily become addictive. Probably a considerable proportion of people who unleash a tide of vitriol anonymously via the new social media surprise even themselves by their ferocity and lack of inhibition. Thus when confronted with the real person behind their on-line target, a number of Twitter trolls have apologised abashedly.1 These anonymous critics have been living in a little bubble of self-created alternative reality. The power of expressing anger-at-a-distance, from a position of apparent immunity, seems hard to resist. It’s as though thousands of previously unknown madcap Mr Hydes have been electronically released from within thousands of normally conventional Dr Jekylls. Yet, as in Stevenson’s fable, the split isn’t real. Jekyll and Hyde are one, each persona having responsibility for the other.2

2017-08 No2 jekyll and hyde

Happily, very few academics have divided personalities that would score very highly on the Jeykll/Hyde range. Or at least they restrain themselves from going ape in their capacity as examiners. That’s no doubt because they are thoroughly trained in a degree of self-control through their regular experience of anonymous assessment. These days, it’s usual for the names of examiners to be anonymised, as are the examination scripts which they mark. That is rightly done in order to avoid cronyism, favouritism, and unconscious biases.

And in cases where the examiners’ identities are known (for example when marking small specialist courses), it’s usual for scripts to be double-marked, before the two examiners meet to decide upon a joint mark – all subject to the controlling overview of a third external examiner (from another academic institution or at least another department), who is available to decide if the examiners can’t agree. Examinations are thus safeguarded against the handiwork of an impetuously unbalanced Mr Hyde.

It’s more tempting to let rip, however, when making individual anonymous assessments, for example when reviewing manuscripts for academic journals, or for publishers, or for the award of academic prizes/grants. There’s a whole behind-the-scenes world of what is known as ‘peer review’. Editors or publishers or prize-givers can make preliminary assessments of work submitted to them. There’s a lot of initial weeding. Yet they need specialist help to assess specialist research, especially in highly technical subjects. That’s where the anonymous assessors come in. Almost all academics spend a considerable amount of time on this sort of technical labour, often without any extra fee. It’s done pro bono, for the wider good of scholarship. Assessors are prodded with a series of questions: is this work original? is it properly substantiated? what changes are needed to make it publishable? But, at the same time, assessors are invited to write with freedom, hence risking a rush of blood to the head.

Interestingly, many early book reviews were written anonymously. The sting of a hostile notice was worsened by the author’s ignorance of the perpetrator of the barb. In the early nineteenth century, for example, when the astringent Edinburgh Review paid very high fees (up to 20 guineas a sheet) for strong opinions, one eminent literary victim characterised the journal’s anonymous reviewers as the ‘bloodhounds of Arthur’s Seat’.3

Since then, the fashion has swung decisively in favour of signed reviews when those appear in public. These days, academic authors who have laboured to draft an earnest encomium or a pointed critique need to get acknowledgment for their work, to show that they are not slacking. For many years, the major redoubt of anonymous reviews was the Times Literary Supplement (launched in 1902). An insider-academic game was trying to guess who had written which waspish put-down. I remember that, whenever anything particularly acerbic appeared, senior Oxford dons would murmur knowingly ‘Ah, Hugh Trevor-Roper again’,4 even if it wasn’t. Students were often impressed, while laughing secretly at all the fuss. In fact, the pages of the TLS were rarely dripping in authorial blood; and, when reviewer anonymity was dropped from 1974 onwards, the journal sailed onwards serenely without much change in tone.

That leaves anonymous assessment as the chief remaining terrain for academics to pontificate without acknowledging their handiwork. Supreme power at last? But no. Behind-the-scenes assessments are delivered within a range of unstated conventions requiring academic fairness and balanced judgment – especially when bearing in mind that all seeking to publish in a peer-reviewed outlet are equally liable themselves to be at the receiving end of one or more anonymous assessments. (See my next BLOG).

For me, writing such verdicts constitutes a specialist form of conversation-at-a-distance. Thus anonymous assessments are usually brisk and direct. There’s no need for the normal interpersonal courtesies of a face-to-face encounter. (Often indeed the original author’s name has also been anonymised). So there is no need for shared enquiries about mutual health and wellbeing. But the one-way conversation still entails the assumption that ideas have to be explained clearly to a willing listener. In the event of disagreement, it’s not enough to write: ‘Rubbish!’ Instead, it’s necessary to spell out why particular arguments and/or evidence fail to convince. Assessors are also invited to correct outright errors; and, if a piece of research is only marginally publishable, to provide suggestions for required revisions.

As those requirements imply, it’s much the easiest and quickest to express total praise. It then takes longer to reject a piece outright, because the reasons for rejection have to be fully elucidated. But the longest and trickiest task is to assess research that’s on the margins of being publishable. It’s helpful to strike an initially positive note, appreciating the choice of topic and the effort undertaken. Yet the negatives have to be explained frankly too, complete with constructive advice on transforming negatives into positives. That’s a challenging task to undertake at a distance, without being able to discuss the details with the recipients. (I knew one hyper-sensitive colleague who was so annoyed by one anonymous critique that she refused to revise and resubmit a potentially important essay, on the grounds that the editors were wasting her time by deferring to such an idiotic and ill-informed assessor.)

Overall, the initial attractions of anonymity quickly disappear. Whatever the medium, communications don’t take place in a vacuum. They have social/legal/cultural contexts and they have consequences. So whenever I tap my keyboard, the best short motto remains the one that I and a group of frank-speaking friends chose for ourselves, one merry evening years ago: truth, yes; but, fundamentally, Truth with Tact. Note: Not tact instead of truth; but both. Fusion rather than Jekyll/Hyde-type fission.

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1 For an example, see Daily Mail on-line, ‘Shamed Twitter Troll makes Humbling Apology Live on TV to Professional Boxer he Abused for Eight Months after the Fighter Tracked him Down’, 14 March 2013: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2293235/Curtis-Woodhouse-Shamed-Twitter-troll-James-OBrien-makes-humbling-apology-live-TV-professional-boxer.html

2 R.L. Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and My Hyde (1886).

3 R. Watson, The Literature of Scotland, Vol. 1: The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke, 2006), p. 253.

4 For H. Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), historian, polemicist and sometime anonymous author, see A. Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (2010).

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2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

MONTHLY BLOG 79, 2017 – ANOTHER SUMMER OF LOVE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Youth, youth: ‘it’s wasted on the young’, etc. But not this time. Having in my BLOG/78 (June 2017) chastised the young for not voting,1 it’s only right now to applaud their mass re-entry into electoral politics at the June 2017 General Election. It makes a huge difference across the board. And I’m not writing that purely as a Labour Party grass-root (though the majority of new young voters did vote Labour). I’m writing that because systemic non-participation of those who can potentially play a role is bad for the wider community, generating a simmering mood of distrust, cynicism, negativism and alienation. Are we ready for another summer of love, fifty years after 1967?
2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

Aurora Goddess of Dawn
© Heidi Wastweet (2003)

Of course, there is an electoral proviso. In 2017, youth turnout was 57 per cent among 18 to 19 year-olds, 59 per cent among 20 to 24 year-olds, and 64 per cent among 25 to 29 year-olds.2 All those figures marked significant increases over comparable levels in 2015, when turnout by those aged 18-24 was somewhere between 43-44 percent.3 Yet there is still room for more. And there was no doubt much regional variation, with especially high youth participation in constituencies with many students on the electoral roll, and lower participation elsewhere. But, hey, no complaints: it is a great development, from the point of view of a properly functioning democracy, full stop. And the return to the language of solidarity and love, after recent atrocities, is a splendid antidote to years of political emphasis upon atomised individuals.

Many of the young electors in their 20s who joined the Labour campaign in Battersea 2017 remind me of my own peer group in our 20s when we joined the Labour Party in the later 1960s.4 We too were full of energy and optimism. Also slightly naïve, in retrospect. But full of collective and individual confidence that we could resolve the problems of the world.5

In sociological terms, there are similarities too: lots of well educated activists, coming from middle-class backgrounds or from rising families, one generation up from the working class. However, one visible difference now, in London at any rate, is a welcome one: the ethnic composition of young Labour activists is much more relaxedly mixed than it was in our youth – reflecting long-term changes in the broader society – and changes among our friends and within our own families too.

What happened to the current of youth optimism and participation in the 1960s? It achieved quite a lot, especially in cultural, gender and ethnic politics. But it got diverted in the 1970s into a rampant individualism in lifestyles (‘tune in, drop out and do your own thing’) which eventually led to a form of anti-politics. Youth protests fizzled out. Moreover, the leftish youth politics of the 1960s triggered a militant counter-cultural resistance from the right, which fostered the successes in the 1980s of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA. Their hostility to ‘the Sixties’ was, in its way, a compliment to the impact of youth culture. Their successful counter-attack, however, simultaneously revealed how vulnerable, divided, and disorganised the Sixties cultural moment was and remained. It lacked the capacity to organise and survive.

Will the current youth involvement also fade away and eventually become dissipated? It’s an obvious risk. It’s hard for a mass movement to remain radiantly optimistic all the time, especially when encountering defeats as well as victories. On the other hand, there’s no necessity for history to repeat itself. The anti-state, anti-regulation, laissez-faire nostrums of the hard political right are now in trouble. The time is ripe for a Zeitgeist shift, which is already happening.

Furthermore, the young electorate today has a lot of really practical issues upon which to focus: the cost of education; the lack of available housing; the degradation of work conditions in the gig-economy; the need to surmount ethnic, class and religious divisions; and so forth. Such issues should help to keep the political focus strongly upon the immediate and the practical. I hope that lots of youthful activists will stand for office, locally and nationally; and/or work in community and political organisations on the ground, to prevent the current surge of involvement from becoming atomised and dissipated.

Oh yes, and another thing: those who really want to achieve changes have to dig in for the long haul. It means getting into organisations and sticking with them. And that means working with the continuing ‘golden oldies’ from successive generations, who were once themselves optimistic youth. Let everyone, who wishes to be a youthful activist, be allowed to be one, without age discrimination.

Battersea Labour provides a sterling example. Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) campaigned for many causes during her long lifetime, after becoming triggered into grass-roots activism at the age of 40. Among other things, she was a suffragette, a founder of Labour in Battersea, and an advocate of non-violent resistance, who influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King.6 Charlotte Despard’s last public engagement saw her addressing a mass anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933. She was then a young old lady aged 89. Let’s hope that we all stay as committed and indefatigable as was Despard, so that Solidarity and Love last for more than a summer.

2017-07 No2 Despard in Trafalgar Square 1933

Charlotte Despard, at the age of 89, addressing an Anti-Fascist Rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933: photo by James Jarché for the Daily Herald

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Who Cares? Getting People to Vote’, Monthly BLOG/78 (June 2017)

2 Voters by Age from YouGov survey, as reported in The Independent, 14 June 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/election-2017-labour-youth-vote-under-40s-jeremy-corbyn-yougov-poll-a7789151.html

3 From Ipsos/MORI survey, as reported by Intergenerational Foundation (2015): http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/How-did-young-people-vote-at-the-2015-general-election.pdf

4 We appear in DVD Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008), directed by M. Marchant; scripted by P.J. Corfield. Available on YouTube: http://youtu.be/ahKt1XoI-II; and also via Battersea Labour Party website: http://www.battersealabour.co.uk/redbattersea

5 A. Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-74 (Oxford, 1998); T. Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York, 1993); J.S. Baugess and A.A. Debolt (eds), Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture (Oxford, 2012).

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Commemorating Battersea’s Charlotte Despard … in Battersea’, Battersea Matters, ed. J. Sheridan (Autumn, 2016), p. 11; M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989).

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13.4 Rowlandson Westminster Election 1808

MONTHLY BLOG 78, WHO CARES? GETTING PEOPLE TO VOTE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Elections again! And public moodiness at being asked to decide on weighty matters once more. The last thing that Britain’s campaigners for a democratic franchise ever imagined was that electors, once enfranchised, would not use their votes. Was it for nothing that the democratic campaigners known as the Chartists in the 1840s were thrown into gaol? or that imprisoned suffragettes in the 1900s were force fed? But it’s turned out that achieving a flourishing democracy, defined as the full participation of all citizens in the political process, requires more than simply legislating to extend the franchise.
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People have to want to use their vote. One immediate possibility is to adopt the Australian system, where since 1924 it been compulsory for all citizens to register for elections and to cast a vote.1 Spoiling the ballot paper, to cast a non-vote, is allowed. It amounts to ‘abstaining in person’, to borrow a resonant phrase from Frank McGuire (an independent Irish Republican MP), when he travelled to the House of Commons from Belfast on 28 March 1979 but declined to vote to save the Callaghan government. It then fell by a margin of one vote, ushering in eleven years of Margaret Thatcher.

I personally hanker after the benefits of compulsory voting, provided that the system always gives scope for returning a blank paper. On the other hand, there are arguments against as well as for this process. Voters don’t always like it – their democratic choice? Hence some countries have switched from compulsory to optional systems. Take, for example, the Netherlands: in 1917, it introduced compulsory voting, along with the advent of a universal adult franchise; but in 1967 it abolished this requirement.

Another complication comes when voters resist compulsion, even while it remains their legal duty. That’s reported as happening in Brazil, which is the world’s largest country to have compulsory voting. Nonetheless, at the presidential election in 2014, over 30 million electors (about 21 percent of all those registered) did not vote. It’s still a good turnout but the sheer number of people flouting the law is very high. In effect, their aggregate non-participation means that compulsory voting has been de facto sidelined.

Anyway, in Britain this option is not on the political agenda. So what else might be done to encourage voting? One answer is instrumentalist. Tell young people in particular that their interests are being overlooked because their percentage participation has fallen steeply from the levels once taken as the norm in the postwar years. In 1992, 66% of young adults aged 18-24 and on the electoral register voted, compared with 38% in 2005 and 44% in 2015.2 And the decline is even larger, if the number of young people who are not on the electoral register is taken into account. No wonder politicians have turned their attention to the older generations and there is talk of ‘intergenerational warfare’.

It’s true that there are no reserved ‘student seats’, so young people’s votes are widely scattered across many constituencies. Hence many say (rather than ask): why bother? Nevertheless, politicians will get their statisticians to pore over survey data to see which demographic groups bothered to vote. So the answer is: you have to bother, to get noticed politically.

Yet it’s clearly not good enough to view the questions in purely instrumentalist terms. Voting means contributing to the full democratic community, not just calculating ‘what’s in it for me?’ So it’s sad and even sinister for the good health of a democracy to have lots of young people who are either apathetic or alienated. Spoiling one’s ballot paper is one thing. Not bothering to turn out to vote is bad news for society as a whole and also for the absentee young voters themselves. They are depriving themselves of constitutional involvement (no matter how dry and dusty) in the world in which they live: as it were, consigning themselves to victimhood.

So what can be done to encourage voting among the won’t-vote brigades of all ages? Some of the answers point to the politicians. Their campaigning styles, for example. Electors are alienated if those seeking their votes appear too robotic, lacking spontaneity and authenticity. Even more depends on politicians’ achievements in office. If they offer high and perform low, then cynicism becomes rife. (A degree of scepticism is good – but not corrosive cynicism).

There’s an additional major problem from the mainstream press, which loves melodrama. It slams politicians as robotic if they conform boringly to the party line but equally attacks them as confused or ignorant or dastardly if they stray the tiniest bit off-message. Let alone the problems generated and multiplied endlessly by the social media, which encourage an unsavoury mix of either undue adulation or venomous personal hostility.3

Another big looming question focuses upon how much governments themselves can buck the big impersonal trends of global history. So many things – like international finance markets, international businesses, international social media, international terrorism, international crime, world-wide climate change, environmental pollution, and so forth – seem to operate beyond the current scope of democratic control and regulation, which is depressing, to say the least.4 If politicians in a national forum seem powerless, then no wonder that individual voters at grass roots level feel even less in control of their own or the nation’s destiny. But, in response to such challenges, the answers have to be more, not less, democratic engagement.

It’s not just the politicians who are responsible. So what about the voting process itself? Can the system be made more user-friendly? In the eighteenth century (in the minority of large constituencies with a wide franchise), voters cast their votes publicly.5 An election was a community occasion, with elements of the carnivalesque. Crowds turned out to hear the candidates speak from the open hustings and to cheer or boo the electors as they voted. Flags were flown and party favours sported. The fact that voters literally stood up to be counted, before all their friends and neighbours, made open voting the purest form of voting, in the opinion of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. It would force citizens to think of the public good, and not just their personal self-interest: ‘The best side of their character is that which people are anxious to show’.6

13.4 Rowlandson Westminster Election 1808

Fig.2 Rowlandson’s 1808 view of a Westminster parliamentary election, where candidates address the crowds from the specially constructed wooden hustings, erected in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden.

But, ever since the introduction of the secret ballot (1872 in Britain), the process of voting lost its element of community participation. And that’s become even more noticeable since the advent of postal voting on demand (2001 in Britain). The process has become not just secret but utterly individualised and secretive. No doubt that’s one of the reasons that the traditional party posters have virtually disappeared from people’s windows.

There were and are excellent reasons to protect electors from undue pressure. But it’s not good to lose the excitement and community involvement involved in an election, which is a collective event with a collective impact.

Perhaps there might be parties or at least a cup of tea on offer for those who vote in person in polling stations? And/or an on-line App for millions of people to record: ‘I’ve voted! Have you?’ And what about practice elections in schools? And constituency or regional Youth Parliaments? And networks of local societies – and/or student societies – linked for campaigning purposes? Let alone shop-floor democracy at work? And ways for isolated workers in large-scale enterprises to link up into organised networks? Plus, of course, an effective electoral registration system, which encourages rather than discourages people to get into the system.

Political life should never be a simple top-down process. Instead, democracy is an entire lifestyle and lifetime commitment to participation. Voters are invited to insert their own meanings into the processes. All the same, it’s no surprise that the Chartist demand for annual parliamentary elections is the only item of their visionary six-point programme that has not yet been adopted.7 Moreover, voters’ election-fatigue suggests that it is unlikely to gain mass support any time soon. Instead, it’s more important to revise and update the electoral processes to recover full community involvement in a true community event.

1 The information in this and the following two paragraphs comes from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_voting

2 E. Phelps, ‘Young Adults and Electoral Turnout in Britain: Towards a Generational Model of Political Participation’ (University of Sussex European Institute [SEI], Working Paper 92, 2006); ‘Why Aren’t Young People Voting?’ University of Warwick Background Paper’ (c.2006); and http://www.if.org.uk/archives/6576/how-high-was-youth-turnout-at-the-2015-general-election

3 Among a growing literature, see e.g. A. Bruns and others (eds), The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics (2015); T. Highfield, Social Media and Everyday Politics (Cambridge, 2016); S. Shaked (ed.), The Impact of Social Media on Collective Action (Oxford, 2017).

4 For a meditation on that theme, see J. Lanchester, ‘Between Vauxhall and Victoria’, in London Review of Books, 39/11 (1 June 2017), pp. 3.6.

5 See variously P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting, Standing Up to be Counted?’ Monthly BLOG/53 (May 2015), in http://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/; and website ‘London Electoral History, 1700-1850’, www.londonelectoralhistory.com.

6 J.S. Mill, Considerations upon Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-64, esp. p. 164.

7 The Chartists’ six demands were: (1) universal adult male franchise (achieved in 1918; and matched by the adult female franchise in 1928); (2) voting by secret ballot (achieved in 1872); (3) equal representation via roughly equal sized-constituencies (implemented by an independent electoral commission from 1885 onwards); (4) no property qualification for candidates to stand as MP (achieved 1858); (5) payment for MPs (achieved 1911); and (6) annual parliamentary elections (not achieved). See M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007); D. Thompson, The Dignity of Chartism: Essays by Dorothy Thompson, ed. S. Roberts (2015).

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2017-05 No1 Rising phoenix tattoo - Copy

MONTHLY BLOG 77, IDEAS TAKING A WRONG TURN

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

2017-05 No1 Rising phoenix tattoo - CopyMeditating about ideas taking a wrong turn (there are a lot of wrong turns around), I was reminded of the eighteenth-century saga of phlogiston – or the spirit of fire. It was a concept that held sway in scientific circles for many years, before it was found to be wrong. Not fruitfully wrong, stimulating fresh research and new developments. Just simply erroneous – in intellectual terms, a wrong turning.

There may be similarly erroneous ideas around in science today: superstring theories in theoretical physics,1 for example, or ‘dark matter’ in astro-physics (let alone ‘dark energy’ and/or ‘dark electromagnetism’).2 Such big concepts are intriguing ‘fillers’, often triggering intense debates. They fill a gap in knowledge, where there is perceived to be a problem but, as yet, no research-based solution with an accompanying explanatory theory. Sometimes such ideas are later empirically substantiated. Equally, however, sometimes not.

In the case of phlogiston, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientists were keen to understand what happens in the process of combustion. Some large logs are burned – and all that is left is a small pile of ashes. Hence one apparently logical answer was that combustion had released into the atmosphere a fiery element, almost like the spirit of fire itself, which, once freed, was released into the air. Substances that burned easily were full of this ignitable matter. The idea was formulated in 1667 by a German alchemist and physician, Johann Joachim Becher; and developed in 1703 by his former student Georg Ernst Stahl, a professor of medicine and chemistry. He was not the first to coin the term phlogiston, derived from the Greek for ‘inflaming’; but his analysis propelled the term into scientific currency.3

Research doubts, however, began eventually to circulate. Not all physical matter was reduced in weight by combustion. Some metals did the contrary. But somehow the principle of phlogiston as the spirit of fire remained an attractive one. The term remained widely in use among the developing community of researchers in Britain and France. Thus when in 1772 the Scottish chemist and botanist Daniel Rutherford4 managed to isolate and identify nitrogen as a separate gas, he named it ‘phlogisticated air’ (burnt air). The Nonconformist minister-cum-experimental-scientist Joseph Priestley was another who accepted the concept of phlogiston. In his path-breaking explorations of the composition of air, he was one of the first to identify oxygen as a gas. But he stuck with the old vocabulary, calling it ‘dephlogisticated air’. Accordingly, when Priestley was satirised for his radical political ideas, he was shown by the cartoonist as the fiery Dr Phlogiston – trampling underfoot the Bible, whilst simultaneously igniting the laws of England.5
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Satirical print of Priestley as Dr Phlogiston:
The Priestley Politician or the Political Priestley

However, chemical theories and practice changed fundamentally after 1778. The French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-94) not only identified and named ‘oxygen’ but also showed its key role as an oxidizer during combustion. There was no spirit of fire waiting to be released into the cosmos. References to phlogiston still lingered but were increasingly sidelined. Quietly, the entire theory behind the concept was dropped.6 Lavoisier also identified and named hydrogen (1783).7 The study of chemistry was advanced onto a new footing, aided by the increasingly international pooling of research. Henceforth ‘Air’ was not just air; and ‘Fire’ was not just fire.

Now phlogiston is known in the scientific lexicon as a category error. It commanded belief for a surprising amount of time, despite research doubts. But the concept did not lead to any interesting intellectual outcomes. It held sway and then quietly vanished.

Three morals for later generations. Firstly, there is often a hidden romantic idea (like the spirit of fire) or a cosmic vision behind apparently coldly rationalistic scientific concepts. Secondly, theories, even if very widely and genuinely accepted, remain no more than theories, until they are tested and confirmed empirically. Big organising ideas may become adopted because they are plausible or useful or powerful or attractive. Yet they don’t become world beaters, until they are verified. Thirdly and lastly, wrong turnings make for easy walking, until they suddenly don’t. Maybe that last proposition applies not only in the realm of ideas but in today’s politics too.

1 Compare B.R. Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions,  Theory, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (1999); and L. Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (Boston, 2006).

2 R.H. Sanders, The Dark Matter Problem: A Historical Perspective (Cambridge, 2010).

3 J.H. White, The History of Phlogiston Theory (1932).

4 For Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819), see wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Rutherford.

5 For Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), see R.E. Schofield, The Enlightenment of Dr Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1733-73 (Philadelphia, 1997); idem, The Enlightened of Dr Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1773-1804 (Philadelphia, 2004).

6 J.B. Conant (ed.), The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775-89 (Harvard, Mass., 1950).

7 F.L. Holmes, Antoine Lavoisier – The Next Crucial Year: Or, the Sources of his Quantitative Method in Chemistry (Princeton, 1998); J. Jackson, A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat and the Race to Discover Oxygen (New York, 2005).

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2017-04-No3-White-Queens-in-Looking-Glass

MONTHLY BLOG 76, HUMANS AS COLLECTIVE TIME-TRAVELLERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Particularly in troubled times, it’s enticing to think of escaping not just to another place but to another time: a temporal bridge over troubled waters. In the old folk stories, an individual falls very soundly asleep … and then awakens, to his or her surprise, in another epoch completely. What a relief? Or perhaps not. There’s a myriad of potential destinations both past and future.

Sleeping Beauty, cursed by an evil fairy, lies dormant for one hundred years.1 (Sometimes her hand-maids sleep alongside her too). When she awakes, the Beauty is as young and bonny as ever. The world has grown older but she has not. Moreover, she is being kissed by a young and handsome prince (technically, one hundred years her junior), with whom she falls in love. The story is charming, with many potential meanings, both erotic and otherwise. But what if (a) she recoils from the kiss? or (b) she suddenly shrivels and dies, since she must be well over one hundred years old. That fate befalls ‘She’ in Rider Haggard’s She (1886): the enigmatic and imperious beauty has lived, by dark magic, for endless aeons but, once her real age catches up with her, she ages with extreme rapidity and expires.2 So much for tarrying outside Time.

2017-04 No1 sleeping beauty william breakspeare
In another variant from an American author in 1819, Rip Van Winkle drinks too heavily and falls asleep for over twenty years. (Hangovers sometimes feel like that). But no-one is kissing him welcome. Van Winkle wakes to find that his beard is long and matted, his rifle rusty, his neighbours changed, and his faithful dog disappeared.3 The story is an updating of a very old folk tale, which appears in many variants in different cultures. It makes a personal drama about change over time. Rip falls asleep as a subject of George III but awakes to find that he an American citizen. There is another change too. His ‘nagging’ wife is dead. In the tale, other ‘henpecked’ husbands in the village wish that they had a similar chance to escape. Ho ho (sarcastically): the benefits of time travel.

2017-04 No2 RipvanwinkleInterestingly, however, there are very obvious conceptual limitations within this imaginary process. Time itself hasn’t actually been stopped or reversed or turned into something different. It’s the individual who has, notionally, jumped from one epoch to another. Within the entire time-travel genre, which was greatly boosted by H.G. Wells’s ingenious Time Machine (1895), it’s axiomatic that the travelling is done by humans while Time continues to unfold as a unidirectional force, in its own mysterious but unalterable style. Its trajectory is often referred to as temporal ‘flow’. Or, more poetically, as ‘Time’s arrow’.

That non-stop background quality is needed to make time-travel stories work. The individual time-jumpers arrive in a new temporal location, either in the past or in the future. Generally, they are unharmed, if sometimes shaken or bemused (or naked, as in the husband of The Time Traveller’s Wife).4 Their subsequent encounters with other humans in either earlier or later worlds then lend themselves to comedy, romance, adventure, satire, terror, political philosophy, prophesy, and/or any combination of such reactions.5

Nonetheless, once in the new situation, the time-travellers find that Time is still flowing on equably. The aberrant circumstances which have permitted their personal shift has not stopped or otherwise disrupted the rest of the cosmos.6

One experiment with reversed-time living was imagined enjoyably by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871). The scatty White Chess-Queen experiences some of her life backwards. She cries: ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ first, and then pricks her finger painfully. Yet the White Queen does her time-reversal only fitfully. She doesn’t cry ‘Ho, ho, ho!’, as she would if she were yelling in a completely reversed temporal framework. Instead, she carries on talking to Alice in the normal way – not sdrawkcab.7
2017-04-No3-White-Queens-in-Looking-GlassIt’s virtually impossible to envisage absolutely everything in the world happening in total temporal reversal. When we run films backwards, often to amusing effect, we are still watching a sequence of images appear in the normal ‘onwards’ time-frame. We are not reversing Time or stepping outside our own temporal framework. If we were, then everything would be utterly transformed. Conversations, which unfold ‘onwards’, would be impossible in reverse-Time. We’d be getting younger, as well as speaking in reverse, thinking in reverse … including, no doubt, speaking before we think.8

Indeed, if Time did something totally astonishing, like disappearing down a cosmic black-plug-hole, then Space and everyone within Space-time would go there too. To our collective amazement and, no doubt, total consternation.

There is a cosmic ‘Chronology Protection Agency’, in the words of physicist Stephen Hawking.9 It binds each era into its own time, preventing it from overlapping or tangling with any other. And given that Time and Space constitute an integral continuum, it means that there is simultaneously a ‘Space-Time Protection Agency’ within the cosmos. Different experiences of motion and speed may occur within its ambit. At ultra-supersonic speeds, the process of time dilation will slow things down, affecting relative time measurements.10 None of those conditions, however, occur outside the framework Space-time.

Two observations follow. One is that we are all time-travellers, travelling collectively at the pace of Time, nano-second by nano-second – or, more accurately, at the pace of Space-time. We can’t jump off on our own. But we do have company for the ride.

And secondly, because we live in Space-time, we can study its manifestations. We are synchro-meshed into the immediate moment: the ever-changing Now! And we are also diachro-meshed into the long term, which means that we can think about both past and future.11 Time is our medium, around us, within us: in all our bodies and in our minds.

Sleeping Beauty began as a traditional folk tale, conveyed in classic form by Charles Perrault (1697), adapted by the Brothers Grimm (1812), and much reworked in literature, dance and film: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleeping_Beauty.

H. Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure, first published in The Graphic (1886/7).

3 From W. Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819). For antecedents and cultural variants, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rip_Van_Winkle.

4 A. Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife: A Novel (2004; 2014).

5 See A. Roberts, Science Fiction (2000); D. Wittenberg, Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative (New York, 2013); J. Gleick, Time Travel: A History (2016).

6 P. Davies, How to Build a Time Machine (2001); J.R. Gott, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time (2001); E. Everett and T. Roman, Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Time and Space (Chicago, 2012); and M. Rothman, A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism: Applying Laws of Physics to Faster-than-Light Travel, Psychic Phenomena, Telepathy, Time Travel, UFOs and Other Pseudoscientific Claims (Buffalo, NY., 1988).

7 L. Carroll, Alice through the Looking Glass (1871).

8 Incidentally, not all cultural systems describe Time as flowing ‘onwards’ or ‘backwards’. Some reverse those directions, identifying Time as coming from ‘in front’ and disappearing ‘behind’. And others prefer ‘upwards’ and ‘downwards’. In all cases, however, there is one prime direction and its reverse.

9 S. Hawking, ‘The Future of the Universe’, in L. Howe and A. Wain (eds), Predicting the Future (Cambridge, 1993), p. 22.

10 P. Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (1995), pp. 57-8.

11 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. xiv-xv, 19-25.

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2017-03 No1 wallpaper_stardust3

MONTHLY BLOG 75, HUMANS AS TIME-SPECIFIC STARDUST

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

‘We are stardust’, sang Joni Mitchell in ‘Woodstock’ (1970) soulfully and, as it transpires, presciently.1 Poets, song-lyricists and writers of scifi are often ahead of the scientific curve (as well as sometimes barking completely up the wrong tree). A.E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad (1896) had voiced a similar starry thought:

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.2

Today scientists confirm that the physical materials, from which humans are composed, ultimately originate from interstellar dust, which swirls throughout the cosmos. As it does so, it transports a range of elements which are the outcomes of distant galactic explosions. These prove to be vital for life on Earth. Our genetic blueprint comes in the form of the slowly evolving human genome. And our parents, whether with or (chiefly) without medical help, are our immediate progenitors. Yet, beyond that, all human bodies contain combinations of six core elements of calcium, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, plus five trace elements of chlorine, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and sulphur. These materials reach earth from outer space, in the form of stardust.

2017-03 No1 wallpaper_stardust3

Illus.1 Stardust Wallpaper
Source: http://wallpaperswide.com/star_dust-wallpapers.html

It’s a stirring thought, whilst simultaneously being rather romantic. This theory (with many rival variants) is known as Panspermia and has been around in scientific communities for some time.3 It seeks to explain the origins of the organic building blocks for all living beings, linking our small segment of the universe with the much, much wider context. ‘The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff’, remarked the American cosmologist Carl Sagan, adding the further striking thought that: ‘We are a way for the universe to know itself’.4 And a recent study extends the analysis to stress that humans are life-long dynamic works-in-progress, absorbing star-sourced organic nutrients from plants and using them constantly in renewing all our bodily cells.5

A summary might state that all living beings exist in Space (defining that phenomenon as stretching from our immediate physical locality into the farthest reaches of Outer Space), whilst Space is simultaneously within all living beings. As George Harrison and the Beatles sang (1967): ‘Life flows on within you and without you’.6 And since the arrow of Time is integrally linked with Space, it’s as true to remark that all living beings exist in Time, just as Time is also within all living beings. No surprises there.

Space as place is the easier phenomenon to understand, as it is visible in all its three-dimensional glory and locally tangible in the form of our immediate environments. Time, by contrast, is famously intangible and invisible. However, since the two are integrally linked, it may be argued that Space/place is actually the physical manifestation of Time/temporality. So a more accurate proposition is that all living creatures exist in Space-time, just as the combined force of Space-Time is simultaneously within all living creatures.7

What does that mean for people-as-stardust? It means that, as packages of living star-dust, we are time-specific. Individuals appear at one date and depart at another. The materials that make and continually remake us come from before our living existences and survive thereafter. But those same elements combine to form specific humans at specific points in Space-time. Incidentally, that proposition remains true even for those who believe that, via reincarnation, we live multiple lives. Each period of existence is still time-specific and sequential, so that any repeated lives are lived successively rather than concurrently.

Immediately, living in Time means that exhortations to positive self-help, which offer to teach Ten Steps to Achieving Anything You Set your Mind To, don’t really mean ‘anything’.8 Humans can’t stop Time or even alter its pace by a fraction. Hence, while people might sincerely want to be younger – or older –they can’t make themselves belong to another era which is not their own.

2017-03 No2a You Can Do Anything2017-03 No2b I want to be younger

Illus.2.1 YouTube and many other variants;
2.2 Muriel’s Good Sense of Humour, from
www.facebook.com/Muriels-Good-Sense-Of-Humour-Quotes-Pics-Sayings-166181823474070/

True, individuals sometimes manage to look younger – or older – than their actual years. They can also act younger – or older. They can try every known biological, medical, sporting and psychological method to modify their age-related physical condition. They can even try to fool the world by doctoring their birth certificates, if they think that would help. Yet people still can’t make themselves to have been born (say) one hundred years earlier than their actual birth-date – or wait to be born one hundred years later – no matter how much they might prefer an epoch change.

That proposition may seem a bit too fatalistic for go-getters in today’s aspirational culture. People can’t inhabit any era in history that they want. But, viewed the other way round, there is a reverse consolation. Each individual occupies his or her own specific slice of Space-time that can be taken by no other person. Twins, triplets or children of multiple births come very close. Yet they are still birthed in sequence and occupy neighbouring spaces. And the many other non-related people, who may be born on the same day at the same split-second, occupy their own specific segments of Space-time and have their own individual destinies. People’s life-chances may fall into broad patterns which can be analysed. Each specific trajectory, however, is individual. Thus (for example) only one of all those born in Ulm (S. Germany) on 14 March 1879 went on to become world-renowned.

Some theoretical physicists argue the opposite. They speculate whether it is possible for the same mix of physical materials to recombine at different times and in different places to form duplicates, not just of the human species, but of specific individuals, as known to history. The argument, put in non-technical terms, states that: ‘In an infinite universe, anything that can happen will happen, and happen infinitely often’.9 Of course, there is a large proviso at the start of that sentence. But, given an infinite universe, there’s scope for endless permutations and material duplications.

Hence, it is suggested that at different times and places across the cosmos: ‘There may be a trillion Albert Einsteins’.10 That would mean countless physical replicas of one baby born in Ulm on 14 March 1879. What an apparent bonus for the cosmic stock of genius.

2017-03-No3-Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)

Illus.3 Multiple Images of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) aged 42, in official 1921 portrait as winner of Nobel Prize in Physics.

However, that multiple-beings argument does not take Time seriously, as an integral part of Space-time. It would be a major surprise to identity an identical physical replica of Albert Einstein, to say the least, at some other point in the galaxy … or even down the road, in Basingstoke. Yet there’s a big difference between finding a genetically identical twin and rediscovering a historically identical personage. To find a complete historical duplicate, we would have to go to a duplicate point in Time and Space.

An Einstein physically identical twin, born in another galaxy at another time, would have a different life: he would not have learned the same languages as did the 1879 Einstein, would not have learned the same mathematics and physics, would not have worked as a junior official in the Bern Patent Office, would not have encountered Jost Winteler, the Swiss linguist who wrote on language relativity and was an intellectual mentor, and so on and so forth. In short, it was not just nature but also nurture, as welded into his own lived experience, which made Einstein into the historically pre-eminent Einstein. Equally, in another era the reception of Einstein’s physics of relativity might also be completely different. Perhaps, in another galaxy many light years away, a pronouncement from a proxy-Einstein that E = mc 2 would be greeted with yawns of boredom and the remark: why labour the obvious?

While many things can be replicated within this cosmos, unidirectional Time cannot. So, while we are stardust, we are also, as living beings, time-specific combinations of stardust. Viewed one way, that’s frustrating. Viewed another way, each one has his/her personal slice of Space-time which is shared with no-one else. Optimistic/pessimistic? Either way unavoidable. Yet, in our minds, we can and do travel to different times and places … So we must cultivate our star-dusted brainpower and imaginations instead.

1 J. Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’ (1970): ‘We are stardust./ We are golden./ And we’ve got to get ourselves/ Back to the garden’.

2 A.E. Housman, ‘From Far, from Eve and Morning’, A Shropshire Lad, Poem 32 (first pub. 1896; in Penguin edn. 1956), p. 61.

3 F. Hoyle and C. Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space (1981).

4 C. Sagan, Cosmos (1980); and see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xaj407ofjNE.

5 K. and I. Schrijver, Living with the Stars: How the Human Body Is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets and the Stars (2015) and interview in http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/150128-big-bang-universe-supernova-astrophysics-health-space-ngbooktalk/.

6 G. Harrison’s song on The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), subsequently covered by many other musicians.

7 Again, a minority of analysts, myself included, prefer the formulation of Time-space, rather than Space-time, in recognition of the unidirectional leading power of Time. But the conventional usage is adopted here for the purposes of discussion.

8 See e.g. M. Seetubtim, ‘Ten Steps’, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mo-seetubtim/10-steps-to-conquering-an_b_8101046.html (2015; updated 2016).

9 P. Davies, Are We Alone? Implications of the Discovery of the Extraterrestrial Life (1995), p. 97.

10 Ibid., p. 98.

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2017-02 No3 Earth-from-Space-Vector

MONTHLY BLOG 74, WHY CAN’T WE THINK ABOUT SPACE WITHOUT TIME?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Well, why not? Why can’t we think about Space without Time? It’s been tried before. A persistent, though small, minority of philosophers and physicists deny the ‘reality’ of Time.1 True, they have not yet made much headway in winning the arguments. But it’s an intriguing challenge.

Space is so manifestly here and now. Look around at people, buildings, trees, clouds, the sun, the sky, the stars … And, after all what is Time? There is no agreed definition from physicists. No simple (or even complex) formula to announce that T = whatever? Why can’t we just banish it? Think of the advantages. No Time … so no hurry to finish an essay to a temporal deadline which does not ‘really’ exist. No Time … so no need to worry about getting older as the years unfold in a temporal sequence which isn’t ‘really’ happening. In the 1980s and 1990s – a time of intellectual doubt in some Western left-leaning philosophical circles – a determined onslaught upon the concept of Time was attempted by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). He became the high-priest of temporal rejectionism. His cause could be registered somewhere under the postmodernist banner, since postmodernist thought was very hostile to the idea of history as a subject of study. It viewed it as endlessly malleable and subjective. That attitude was close to Derrida’s attitude to temporality, although not all postmodernist thinkers endorsed Derrida’s theories.2 His brand of ultra-subjective linguistic analysis, termed ‘Deconstruction’, sounded, as dramatist Yasmina Reza jokes in Art, as though it was a tough technique straight out of an engineering manual. In fact, it allowed for an endless play of subjective meanings.

For Derrida, Time was/is a purely ‘metaphysical’ concept – and he clearly did not intend that description as a compliment. Instead, he evoked an atemporal spatiality, named khōra (borrowing a term from Plato). This timeless state, which pervades the cosmos, is supposed to act both as a receptor and as a germinator of meanings. It is an eternal Present, into which all apparent temporality is absorbed.4 Any interim thoughts or feelings about Time on the part of humans would relate purely to a subjective illusion. Its meanings would, of course, have validity for them, but not necessarily for others.

So how should we think of this all-encompassing khōra? What would Space be like without Time? When asked in 1986, Derrida boldly sketched an image of khōra as a sort of sieve-like receptacle (see Fig.1).5 It was physical and tangible. Yet it was also intended to be fluid and open. Thus the receptacle would simultaneously catch, make and filter all the meanings of the world. The following extract from an explanatory letter by Derrida by no means recounts the full complexity of Derrida’s concept but gives some of the flavour:6

I propose then […] a gilded metallic object (there is gold in the passage from [Plato’s] Timaeus on the khōra […]), to be planted obliquely in the earth. Neither vertical, nor horizontal, a extremely solid frame that would resemble at once a web, a sieve, or a grill (grid) and a stringed musical instrument (piano, harp, lyre?): strings, stringed instrument, vocal chord, etc. As a grill, grid, etc., it would have a certain relationship with the filter (a telescope, or a photographic acid bath, or a machine, which has fallen from the sky, having photographed or X-rayed – filtered – an aerial view). …
2017-02-No1b-Derrida's-sketch-and-Khora

Fig. 1 (L) Derrida’s 1986 sketch of Spatiality without Time, also (R) rendered more schematically
© Centre Canadien d’Architecture/
Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

In 1987, the cerebral American architect Peter Eisenman (1932- ), whose stark works are often described as ‘deconstructive’, launched into dialogue with Derrida. They discussed giving architectural specificity to Derrida’s khōra in a public garden in Paris.8   One cannot but admire Eisenman’s daring, given the nebulousness of the key concept. Anyway, the plan (see Fig. 2) was not realised. Perhaps there was, after all, something too metaphysical in Derrida’s own vision. Moreover, the installation, if erected, would have soon shown signs of ageing: losing its gilt, weathering, acquiring moss as well as perhaps graffiti – in other words, exhibiting the handiwork of the allegedly banished Time.2017-02-No2-Model-of-Choral-Works

Fig.2 Model of Choral Works by Peter Eisenman
© Eisenman Architects. New York

So the saga took seriously the idea of banishing Time but couldn’t do it. The very words, which Derrida enjoyed deconstructing into fragmentary components, can surely convey multiple potential messages. Yet they do so in consecutive sequences, whether spoke or written, which unfold their meanings concurrently through Time.

In fact, ever since Einstein’s conceptual break-through with his theories of Relativity, we should be thinking about Time and Space as integrally linked in one continuum. Hermann Minkowski, Einstein’s intellectual ally and former tutor, made that clear: ‘Henceforth Space by itself, and Time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality’. In practice, it’s taken the world one hundred years post-Einstein to internalise the view that propositions about Time refer to Space and vice versa. Thus had Derrida managed to abolish temporality, he would have abolished spatiality along with it. It also means that scientists should not be seeking a formula for Time alone but rather for Space-Time: S-T = whatever?

Lastly, if we do want a physical monument to either Space or Time, there’s no need for a special trip to Paris. We need only look around us. The unfolding Space-Time, in which we all live, looks exactly like the entire cosmos, or, in a detailed segment of the whole, like our local home: Planet Earth.
2017-02 No3 Earth-from-Space-Vector

Fig.3 View of Planet Earth from Space
© http://boxist.com/view-of-planet-earth-in-space/

1 For anti-Time, see J. Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe (1999), esp. pp. 324-5. And the reverse in R. Healey, ‘Can Physics Coherently Deny the Reality of Time?’ in C. Callender (ed.), Time, Reality and Experience (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 293-316.

2 B. Stocker, Derrida on Deconstruction (2006); A. Weiner and S.M. Wortham (eds), Encountering Derrida: Legacies and Futures of Deconstruction (2007).

3 Line of dialogue from play by Y. Reza, Art (1994).

4 D. Wood, The Deconstruction of Time (Evanstown, Ill., 2001), pp. 260-1, 269, 270-3; J. Hodge, Derrida on Time (2007); pp. ix-x, 196-203, 205-6, 213-14.

5 R. Wilken, ‘Diagrammatology’, Electronic Book Review, 2007-05-09 (2007): http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/intermingled

6 Letter from Derrida to Peter Eisenman, 30 May 1986, as cited in N. Leach (ed.), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (1997), pp. 342-3. See also for formal diagram based on Derrida’s sketch, G. Bennington and J. Derrida, Jacques Derrida (1993), p. 406.

7 A.E. Taylor, A Commentary of Plato’s Timaeus (Oxford, 1928).

8 J. Derrida and P. Eisenman, Chora L Works, ed. J. Kipnis and T. Leeser (New York, 19997).

9 Cited in P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), p. 9.

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2017-02-melting-clock

MONTHLY BLOG 73, WRITING INTO SILENCE ABOUT TIME

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

Time – great subject. Lots of it around. Universal application. Paradoxical too: time flies, time crawls … time heals, time festers … time is short, time is long … time is money, time is priceless. And the list continues: humans can do time, have time, lose time, borrow time, gain time, forget time, remember time, miss time, or beat time. What a cornucopia of possibilities. Just right for the turning of the year, with its phoenix-like imagery of interlocking death and rebirth.

2017-01-no1-rising-phoenix-tattoo
What’s more, it’s a great subject for historians. Our subject focuses upon the workings of Great Time, as evidenced in human history. (Or as evidenced in cosmic history, for those who stretch Big History to cover the entire existence of the cosmos).1   So, one way or another, Time lies at the heart of all historical studies. Without temporality, there is no chronology and no sequencing; no cause and effect; no short term and no long term.

Incidentally, the reference to temporality should properly be spatio-temporality, because, since Einstein, the integral linkage of Time and Space must be understood as a given. The usual summary of that proposition is encapsulated in the terminology of Space-Time, as coined by Minkowski in 1908. But a minority of analysts, including myself, prefer Time-Space. That formulation gives the dynamic priority to temporality, which seems right.

Writing my own study of Time and the Shape of History (2007) took me many years and was thoroughly enjoyable. Mostly I worked on my own. And, having published the book and numerous related essays, I find that I’ve basically written into silence. Not complaining. Simply an observation.

Some people say vaguely: ‘how fascinating’. Or even: ‘Wow’. But mainly they don’t say anything. Even many close colleagues, with whom I’ve worked and debated for years, never mention the book. They don’t mock or laugh or give me a critique. They simply don’t mention it. That attitude is strange to me but instructive. It’s been that way for ten years, ever since the book was published. Very few reviews. And only modest sales.

Why should that be? One general reason is that Time is one of those things that’s always around but it’s so intangible and abstract that it’s taken for granted. It’s in the aether, as it were. Why bother to say more? People do write excellent books about the history of attitudes to Time, including clocks, watches and time measurement.3   And, of course, some (not many) physicists and philosopherswrite books about the evolving study of Time and the tensions/paradoxes/mysteries within the concept. But there is relatively little literature from historians on the nature of temporality, rather than on the effects of change over Time. As a result, there were very few people willing to act as publisher’s readers, before the book was published; few willing to review; few who teach anything along these lines; and few who are interested enough to read for themselves.

Yet obviously I’ve also reflected upon the qualities of the book itself. There are two major criticisms. One is that the book’s too long. In fact, at 309 pages, it’s not exceptionally lengthy. But readers tell me that they find it so. From my point of view, the length was exactly what it took for me to work through my views. I couldn’t then have written less. Maybe now I might publish a more accessible short version, with illustrations.6

My original hope was that the brief self-contained interlink sections, appearing between each big chapter, would provide different ways into reading the whole. The book does not have to be read sequentially. The main chapters are more like the spokes of a turning wheel. So the interlinks were intended as way-stations on the journey. They play with different ideas about Time, such as time travel; time cycles; time lines; time ends; time pieces; and so forth. Furthermore, I ideally wanted these interlinks to appear on different coloured paper, to alert readers to the reading options. Alas, however, that did not prove technically possible. The compromise was to print them with a different type-face; but the visual variation is not marked enough. Perhaps I should have held out for shaded paper, or distinctive margins, for the interlinks – but anyway I didn’t.

The second criticism is related to the first. Some readers do find the book hard to read. I find that verdict difficult to understand, because it’s not written in technical language. Nor are the concepts in themselves very difficult to grasp. I think it’s because the book is densely crammed throughout with information and ideas. The effect is a ‘heavy read’. Ouch! I’m deeply sorry to have written a seemingly boring book. Particularly because to me, it’s enthralling and completely the reverse of tedious.

Having said that, it’s also good to record some cheering responses. I’ve applied my three-dimensional interpretation of Time and History to a global overview essay entitled ‘Cities in Time’. People have found that instructive rather than boring.7

And I have had one truly great compliment. An early reader told me that it made her ‘think strange thoughts’. (She meant the comment in a positive way). I was thrilled. My aim is/was to get readers to look at Time and History anew.

2017-02-melting-clock
Writing into silence is a valuable learning experience. I have not stopped communicating my ideas on my ‘home period’ in research terms, the long eighteenth century. Nor have I stopped writing concept-pieces about History, Time and the long term.8   Interest in such matters is growing. Scattered evidence comes in the form of unexpected invitations from colleagues to contribute to conferences/books. Or messages from students, raising fresh questions.

Meanwhile, I’m trying even harder to make my ideas as plain and clear as I can. And I use humour wherever possible. Interestingly, there are only few jokes about Time itself (as opposed to jokes about the effects of Time) … it’s not that sort of subject. Glad to say that I can laugh at myself instead. And, yes, I’m persevering. Time isn’t going to disappear.

1 D.G. Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley, Calif., 2004).

2 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (London, 2007).

3 E.g. L. Holford-Strevens, The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005) and a popular overview in S. Garfield, Timekeepers: How the World became Obsessed with Time (Edinburgh, 2016).

4 See the best-selling S. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London, 1988); and the more accessible J. Gribbin, The Birth of Time: How We Measured the Age of the Universe (London, 1999).

5 E.g. D. Cockburn, Other Times: Philosophical Perspectives on Past, Present and Future (Cambridge, 1997); J.T. Fraser, Time, the Familiar Stranger (Amherst, Mass., 1987).

6 For shorter accounts, see P.J. Corfield, ‘History’s Big Picture in Three Dimensions’, The Historian: Journal of the Historical Association (Winter 2007), pp. 26-30; idem, ‘History Viewed Long’ (2008), for London University’s Institute of Historical Research History: Making History Website www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/long_history.html; also posted within PJC website as Pdf2; and idem, ‘Teaching History’s Big Pictures: Including Continuity as well as Change’, Teaching History: Journal of the Historical Association, 136 (Sept. 2009), pp. 53-9; also posted within PJC website as Pdf3.

7 P.J. Corfield, ‘Cities in Time’, in P. Clark (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History (Oxford, 2013), pp. 828-46; also posted within PJC website as CorfieldPdf29.

8 P.J. Corfield, ‘History and the Temporal Turn: Returning to Causes, Effects and Diachronic Trends’, in J-F. Dunyach (ed.), Les âges de Britannia: Repenser l’histoire des mondes Britanniques – Moyen Âge-XXIe siècle (Paris, 2015), pp. 259-73; also posted within PJC website as CorfieldPdf37; idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and T. Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91; also posted within PJC website as CorfieldPdf38.

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MONTHLY BLOG 72, REMEMBERING CONRAD RUSSELL, HISTORIAN of STUART BRITAIN AND ‘LAST OF THE WHIGS’

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

After contributing to a panel discussion on 22 September 2016 at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, I’ve expanded my notes as follows:

When remembering my colleague Conrad Russell (1937-2004),1 the first thing that comes to mind is his utterly distinctive presence. He was an English eccentric, in full and unselfconscious bloom. In person, Conrad was tall, latterly with something of a scholar’s stoop, and always with bright, sharp eyes. But the especially memorable thing about him was his low, grave voice (‘Conrad here’, he would intone, sepulchrally, on the phone) and his slow, very precise articulation. This stately diction, combining courtesy and erudition, gave him a tremendous impact, for those who could wait to hear him out.

He once told me that his speaking manner was something that he had consciously developed, following advice given to him in his youth by his father. In fact, given his life-long wish not to be overshadowed by his famous parent, Conrad spoke very rarely about the mathematician and public intellectual Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Conrad, the only child of Russell’s third marriage, was brought up by his mother, who lived in isolation from the rest of the family. But the eminent father had once advised his young son to formulate each sentence fully in his mind, before giving voice to each thought.2 (Not an easy thing to do). The suggestion evidently appealed to something deep within Conrad, for he embraced the slow, stately style from his youth and maintained it throughout his lifetime.

One result was that a proportion of his students, initially at London University’s Bedford College (as it then was),3 were terrified by him, although another percentage found him brilliant and immensely stimulating. Only very few disliked him. Conrad was manifestly a kindly person. He didn’t seek to score points or consciously to attract attention as an eccentric. Yet his emphatic speaking style, laced with erudite references to English politics in the 1620s, and witticisms with punch-lines in Latin, could come as a shock to undergraduates. Especially as Conrad did not just speak ‘at’ people. He wanted replies to his questions, and hoped for laughter following his jests.

Because he thought carefully before speaking, he was also wont to preface his remarks with a little exclamation, ‘Em …’, to establish his intention of contributing to the conversation, always followed by a Pinteresque pause. That technique worked well enough in some contexts. However, when Conrad took up a prestigious academic post at Yale University (1979-84), a number of his American students protested that they could not understand him. And in a society with a cultural horror of silence, Conrad’s deliberative pauses were often filled by instant chatter from others, unintentionally ousting him from the discussion. A very English figure, he admitted ruefully that he was not psychologically at ease in the USA, much as he admired his colleagues and students at Yale. Hence his relief was no secret, when he returned to the University of London, holding successive chairs at University College London (1984-90) and King’s College (1990-2003). By this time, his lecturing powers were at their full height – lucid, precise, and argumentative, all at once.

And, of course, when in 1987 he inherited his peerage as 5th Earl Russell, following the death of his half-brother, Conrad found in the House of Lords his ideal audience. They absolutely loved him. He seemed to be a voice from a bygone era, adding gravitas to every debate in which he participated. Recently, I wondered how far Conrad was reproducing his father’s spoken style, as a scion of the intellectual aristocracy in the later nineteenth century. But a check via YouTube dispelled that thought.4 There were some similarities, in that both spoke clearly and with authority. Yet Bertrand Russell’s voice was more high-pitched and his style more insouciant than that of his youngest child.

The second unmistakable feature of Conrad’s personality and intellect was his literal-mindedness. He treated every passing comment with complete seriousness. As a result, he had no small talk. His lifeline to the social world was his wife Elizabeth (née Sanders), a former student and fellow historian whom he married in 1962. She shared Conrad’s intellectual interests but was also a fluent conversationalist. At parties, Elizabeth would appear in the heart of a crowd, wielding a cigarette and speaking vivaciously. Conrad meanwhile would stand close behind her, his head slightly inclined and nodding benignly. They were well matched, remaining devoted to one another.

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Fig.1 Conrad and Elizabeth Russell on the stump for Labour in Paddington South (March 1966).

My own experience of Conrad’s literal-mindedness came from an occasion when we jointly interviewed a potential candidate for an undergraduate place in the History Department at Bedford College. (That was in the 1970s, before individual interviews were replaced by generic Open Days). A flustered candidate came in late, apologising that the trains were delayed. Within moments, Conrad was engaging her in an intense discussion about the running of a nationalised rail service (as British Rail then was) and the right amounts of subsidy that it should get as a proportion of GDP. The candidate gamely rallied, and did her best. But her stricken visage silently screamed: ‘all I did was mention that the train was late’.

After a while, I asked if she’d like to talk about the historical period that she was studying for A-level. Often, interview candidates became shifty at that point. On this occasion, however, my suggestion was eagerly accepted, and the candidate discoursed at some length about the financial problems of the late Tudor monarchy. Conrad was delighted with both elements of her performance; and, as we offered her a place, commented that the young were not as uninterested in complex matters of state as they were said to be. The candidate subsequently did very well – although, alas for symmetry, she did not go on to save British Rail – but I was amused at how her apparent expertise was sparked into life purely through the intensity of Conrad’s cross-questioning.

His own interest in such topical issues was part and parcel of his life-long political commitment. At that time, he was still a member of the Labour Party, having stood (unsuccessfully) as the Labour candidate for Paddington South in 1966. But Conrad was moving across the political spectrum during the 1970s. He eventually announced his shift of allegiance to the Liberals, characteristically by writing to The Times; and later, in the Lords, he took the Liberal Democrat whip. He wanted to record his change of heart, to avoid any ambiguity; and, as a Russell, he assumed that the world would want to know.

Conrad’s literalness and love of precision were qualities that made him a paradoxical historian when interrogating written documents. On the one hand, he brought a formidable focus upon the sources, shedding prior assumptions and remaining ready to challenge old interpretations. He recast seventeenth-century political and constitutional history, as one of the intellectual leaders of what became known as ‘revisionist’ history.5 He argued that there was no evidence for an inevitable clash between crown and parliament. The breakdown in their relationship, which split the MPs into divided camps, was an outcome of chance and contingency. Those were, for him, the ruling forces of history.

On the other hand, Conrad’s super-literalism led him sometimes to overlook complexities. He did not accept that people might not mean what they said – or that they might not say what they really meant at all. If the MPs declared: ‘We fear God and honour the king’, Conrad would conclude: ‘Well, there it is. They feared God and honoured the king’. Whereas one might reply, ‘Well, perhaps they were buttering up the monarch while trying to curtail his powers? And perhaps they thought it prudent not to mention that they were prepared, if need be, to fight him – especially if they thought that was God’s will’. There are often gaps within and between both words and deeds. And long-term trends are not always expressed in people’s daily language.

In case stressing his literalism and lack of small talk makes Conrad sound unduly solemn, it’s pleasant also to record a third great quality: his good humour. He was not the sort of person who had a repertoire of rollicking jokes. And his stately demeanour meant that he was not an easy man to tease. Yet, like many people who had lonely childhoods, he enjoyed the experience of being joshed by friends, chuckling agreeably when his leg was being pulled. Common jokes among the Bedford historians were directed at Conrad’s unconventional self-catered lunches (spicy sausages with jam?) or his habit of carrying everywhere a carafe of stale, green-tinged water (soluble algae, anyone?). He was delighted, even if sometimes rather bemused, by our ribbing.

Moreover, on one celebrated occasion, Conrad turned a jest against himself into a triumph. The Head of Bedford History, Professor Mike (F.M.L.) Thompson, was at some date in the mid-1970s required to appoint a Departmental Fire & Safety Officer. It marked the start of the contemporary world of regulations for everything. Mike Thompson, with his own quixotic humour, appointed Conrad Russell to the role, amidst much laughter. Not only was he the caricature of an untidy professor, living in a chaos of books and papers, but he was, like his wife Elizabeth, an inveterate chain-smoker. In fact, there were good reasons for taking proper precautions at St John’s Lodge, the handsome Regency villa where the History Department resided, since the building lacked alternative staircases for evacuation in case of emergency. Accordingly, a fire-sling was installed in Conrad’s study, high on the top floor. Then, some months later, he instituted a rare emergency drill. At the given moment, both staff and students left the building and rushed round to the back. There we witnessed Conrad, with some athleticism,6 leap into the fire-sling. He was then winched slowly to the ground, discoursing gravely, as he descended, on his favourite topic (parliamentary politics in the 1620s) – and smoking a cigarette.

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Fig.2 Frontage of St John’s Lodge, the Regency villa in Regent’s Park,
where the Bedford College historians taught in the 1960s and 1970s.
Conrad Russell’s room was on the top floor, at the back.

Later, Conrad referred to his years in Bedford’s History Department with great affection. Our shared accommodation in St John’s Lodge, five minutes away from the rest of the College, created a special camaraderie. The 1970s in particular were an exciting and challenging period for him, when he was refining and changing not only his politics but also his interpretation of seventeenth-century history. The revisionists attracted much attention and controversy, especially among political historians. (Economic, demographic, social and urban historians tended to stick to their own separate agendas). Collectively, the revisionists rejected the stereotypes of both ‘Whig’7 and Marxist8 explanations of long-term change. Neither the ‘march of progress’ nor the inevitable class struggle would suffice to explain the intricacies of British history. But what was the alternative big picture? Chance and contingency played a significant role in the short-term twists and turns of events. Yet the outcomes did not just emerge completely at random. In the very long run, Parliament as an institution did become politically more powerful than the monarch, even though the powers of the crown did not disappear.

By the 1990s, the next generation of political historians were beginning to revise the revisionists in turn. There were also new challenges to the discipline as a whole from postmodernist theory. In private conversation, Conrad at times worried that the revisionists’ critique of their fellow historians might be taken (wrongly) as endorsing a sceptical view that history lacks any independent meaning or validity.

Meanwhile, new research fashions were also emerging. Political history was being eclipsed by an updated social history; gender history; ethnic history; cultural history; the history of sexuality; disability history; world history; and studies of the historical meanings of identity.

Within that changing context, Conrad began to give enhanced attention to his role in the Lords. His colleagues among the Liberal Democrats appreciated the lustre he brought to their cause. In 1999 he topped the poll by his fellow peers to remain in the House, when the number of hereditary peers was drastically cut by the process of constitutional reform. And, at his funeral, Conrad Russell was mourned, with sincere regret, as the ‘last of the Whigs’.

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Fig.3 Conrad Russell, 5th Earl Russell, speaking in the House of Lords in the early twenty-first century.

There is, however, deep irony in that accolade. In political terms, it has some truth. He was proud to come from a long line of aristocrats, of impeccable social connections and Whig/Liberal views. Listening to Conrad, one could imagine hearing the voice of his great-grandfather, Lord John Russell (1792-1878), one of the Whig architects of the 1832 Reform Act. Moreover, this important strand of aristocratic liberalism was indeed coming to an end, both sociologically and politically. On the other hand, as already noted, Conrad the historian was a scourge of both Whigs and Marxists. Somehow his view of history as lacking grand trends (say, before 1689) was hard to tally with his belief in the unfolding of parliamentary liberalism thereafter.9 At very least, the interpretative differences were challenging.

Does the ultimate contrast between Conrad Russell’s Whig/Liberal politics and his polemical anti-Whig history mean that he was a deeply troubled person? Not at all. Conrad loved his life of scholarship and politics. And he loved following arguments through to their logical outcomes, even if they left him with paradoxes. Overall, he viewed his own trajectory as centrist: as a historian, opposing the Left in the 1970s when it got too radical for him, and, as a politician, opposing the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s, when they became dogmatic free-marketeers, challenging the very concept of ‘society’.

If there is such a thing as ‘nature’s lord’ to match with ‘nature’s gentleman’, then Conrad Russell was, unselfconsciously, one among their ranks. He was grand in manner yet simple in lifestyle and chivalric towards others. One of his most endearing traits was his capacity to find a ‘trace of alpha’ in even the most unpromising student. Equally, if there is such a thing as an intellectual’s intellectual, then Conrad Russell was another exemplar, although these days a chain-smoker would not be cast in the role. He was erudite and, for some critics, too much a precisian, preoccupied with minutiae. Yet he was demonstrably ready to take on big issues.

Putting all these qualities together gives us Conrad Russell, the historian and politician who was often controversial, especially in the former role, but always sincere, always intent. One of his favourite phrases, when confronted with a new fact or idea, was: ‘It gives one furiously to think’.10 And that’s what he, courteously but firmly, always did.

Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell (1937-2004), 5th Earl Russell (1987-2004), married Elizabeth Sanders (d.2003) in 1962. Their sons, Nicholas Lyulph (d.2014) and John Francis, have in turn inherited the Russell earldom but, post Britain’s 1999 constitutional reforms, not a seat in the House of Lords.

Conrad volunteered this information, in the context of a discussion between the two of us, in the early 1970s, on the subject of parental influence upon their offspring.

Merged in 1985 to become part of Royal Holloway & Bedford New College, these days known simply as Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), located at Egham, Surrey.

Compare the BBC Interview Face-to-Face with Bertrand Russell (1959; reissued 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bZv3pSaLtY with Conrad Russell’s contribution to The Lords’ Tale, Part 18 (2009), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJ_u1WM7CYA.

The intellectual excitement of that era, among revisionist circles, was well conveyed by fellow-panellist, Linda Levy Peck (George Washington University, Washington, DC).

Talking of Conrad Russell’s athleticism, some of his former students drew attention to his love of cricket. He could not only carry his bat but he also bowled parabolic googlies which rose high into the sky, spinning wildly, before dropping down vertically onto the wicket behind the flailing batsman, often taking the wicket through sheer surprise.

The term ‘Whig’, first coined in 1678/9, referred to a political stance which had considerable but never universal support throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in support of parliamentary constraints upon the unfettered powers of monarchy, a degree of religious toleration, moderate social and political reforms, and opposition to the more pro-monarchical Tories. The ‘Whig interpretation of history’, which again was never universally supported, tended to view the unfolding of British history as the gradual and inexorable march of liberal constitutionalism, toleration, technological innovation, and socio-political reforms, together termed ‘progress’.

On which, see S. Rigby, Marxism and History: A Critical Introduction (Manchester, 1987, 1998).

This point was perceptively developed by fellow-panellist, Nicholas Tyacke (University College London).

10  Conrad showed no sign of being aware (and probably would have laughed to discover) that this phrase originated with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, in Lord Edgware Dies (1933), ch.6.

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MONTHLY BLOG 71, HOW IS GROWING INEQUALITY DIVIDING THE BRITISH TORIES FROM WITHIN?

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

How will history interpret the views of millions of Tory voters who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum on the EU? It’s a good question that merits further attention. Since June, many commentators have defined the motivations of the Labour supporters who voted Leave – 37 per cent of all those who voted Labour in 20151 – as an angry rejection of the status quo by the socially and economically ‘left behind’. These electors have justified concerns about the impact of globalisation in eroding traditional industries and of immigration in undercutting working-class earnings. It’s a perception specifically acknowledged by the new PM Theresa May. At the Conservative Party Conference on 5 October 2016 she promised to remedy past injustices with the following words: ‘That means tackling unfairness and injustice, and shifting the balance of Britain decisively in favour of ordinary working-class people’.2

It’s a significant political ambition, albeit complicated somewhat by the fact that a majority of Labour voters in 2015 (63%) actually voted for Remain. May was clearly trying to shift the post-Referendum Conservative Party closer to the centre ground. And it’s a long time since any front-line British political leader spoke so plainly about social class, let alone about the workers.

But Theresa May’s pledge strangely omits to mention the rebellious Tory Leavers. After all, the majority of the national vote against the EU in 2016 came from the 58% of voters who had voted Conservative in the General Election of 2015. They voted for Leave in opposition to their then party leader and his official party policy. In the aftermath of the Referendum, many known Labour supporters, such as myself, were roundly scolded by pro-EU friends for the Labour Party’s alleged ‘failure’ to deliver the vote for Remain. But surely such wrath should have been directed even more urgently to Conservative supporters?

Either way, the Referendum vote made clear once again a basic truth that all door-step canvassers quickly discover. Electors are not so easily led. They don’t do just what their leaders or party activists tell them. Politics would be much easier (from the point of view of Westminster politicians) if they did. That brute reality was discovered all over again by David Cameron in June 2016. In simple party-political terms, the greatest ‘failure’ to deliver was indubitably that of the Conservatives. Cameron could possibly have stayed as PM had his own side remained united, even if defeated. But he quit politics, because he lost to the votes of very many Conservative rank-and-file, in alliance with UKIP and a section of Labour voters. It was ultimately the scale of grass-roots Tory hostility which killed both his career and his reputation as a lucky ‘winner’ on whom fortune smiles.

Divisions within political parties are far from new. Schematically considered, Labour in the twentieth century drew ideas, activists and votes from reform-minded voters from the professional middle class and skilled working class.3 That alliance is now seriously frayed, as is well known.

So what about the Conservatives? Their inner tensions are also hard to escape. They are already the stuff of debates in A-level Politics courses. Tory divisions are typically seen as a gulf between neo-liberal ‘modernisers’ (Cameron and Co) and ‘traditionalists’ Tory paternalists (anti-EU backbenchers). For a while, especially in the 1980s, there were also a number of self-made men (and a few women) from working-class backgrounds, who agreed politically with the ‘modernisers’, even if socially they were not fully accepted by them. It remains unclear, however, why such divisions emerged in the first place and then proved too ingrained for party discipline to eradicate.

Viewed broadly and schematically, the Conservatives in the twentieth century can be seen as a party drawing ideas, leadership and activists from an alliance of aristocrats/plutocrats with middle-class supporters, especially among the commercial middle class – all being buttressed by the long-time endorsement of a considerable, though variable, working-class vote. Common enemies, to weld these strands together, appear in the form of ‘socialism’, high taxes, and excessive state regulation.

Today, the upper-class component of Toryism typically features a number of socially grand individuals from landed and titled backgrounds. David Cameron, who is a 5th cousin of the Queen, seems a classic example. However, he also has a cosmopolitan banking and commercial ancestry, making him a plutocrat as much as an aristocrat. In that, he is characteristic of the big international financial and business interests, which are generally well served by Conservative governments. However, appeals and warnings from the political and economic establishment cut no ice with many ‘ordinary’ Tory members.

Why so? There’s a widening gap between the very wealthy and the rest. The Conservative Leave vote was predominantly based in rural and provincial England and Wales. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different agendas, reflecting their different histories). The farming communities were vocally hostile to regulation from Brussels. And, above all, the middle-aged and older middle class voters in England’s many small and medium-sized towns were adamantly opposed to the EU and, implicitly, to recent trends in the nation’s own economic affairs.

Tory Leavers tend to be elderly conservatives with a small as well as large C. They have a strong sense of English patriotism, fostered by war-time memories and postwar 1950s culture. They may not be in dire financial straits. But they did not prosper notably in the pre-crisis banking boom. And now the commercial middle classes, typified by shopkeepers and small businessmen, do not like hollowed-out town centres, where shops are closed or closing. They don’t like small businesses collapsing through competition from discount supermarkets or on-line sales. They regret the winnowing of local post-offices, pubs, and (in the case of village residents) rural bus services. They don’t like the loss of small-town status in the shadow of expanding metropolitan centres. They don’t like bankers and they hate large corporate pay bonuses, which continue in times of poor performance as well as in booms. With everyone, they deplore the super-rich tax-avoiders, whether institutional or individual.

Plus, there is the issue of immigration, which puts a personal face on impersonal global trends of mobile capital and labour. Tory-Leavers are worried about the scale of recent immigration into Britain (though tolerant of Britons emigrating to foreign climes). It is true that many middle-class families benefit from the cheap food and services (notably within the National Health Service) provided by abundant labour. But sincere fears are expressed that too many ‘foreigners’ will change the nation’s character as well as increase demand for social welfare, which middle-class tax-payers have to fund.7

A proportion of Tory Leavers may be outright ethnicist (racist). Some may hate or reject those who look and sound different. But many Leavers are personally tolerant – and indeed a proportion of Tory Leavers are themselves descendants of immigrant families. They depict the problem as one of numbers and of social disruption rather than of ethnic origin per se.

Theresa May represents these Tory-Leavers far more easily than David Cameron ever did. She is the meritocratic daughter of a middle-ranking Anglican clergyman, who came from an upwardly mobile family of carpenters and builders. Some of her female ancestors worked as servants (not very surprisingly, since domestic service was a major source of employment for unmarried young women in the prewar economy).8 As a result, her family background means that she can say that she ‘feels the pain’ of her party activists with tolerable plausibility.

Nevertheless, May won’t find it easy to respond simultaneously to all these Leave grievances. To help the working-class in the North-East and South Wales, she will need lots more state expenditure, especially when EU subsidies are ended. Yet middle-class voters are not going to like that. They are stalwart citizens who do pay their taxes, if without great enthusiasm. They rightly resent the super-rich individuals and international businesses whose tax avoidance schemes (whether legal, borderline legal, or illegal) result in an increased tax burden for the rest. But it will take considerable time and massive concerted action from governments around the world to get to serious grips with that problem. In the meantime, there remain too many contradictory grievances in need of relief at home.

Overall, the Tory-Leavers’ general disillusionment with the British economic and political establishment indicates how far the global march of inequality is not only widening the chronic gulf between super-rich and poor but is also producing a sense of alienation between the super-rich and the middle strata of society. That’s historically new – and challenging both for the Conservative Party in particular and for British society in general. Among those feeling excluded, the mood is one of resentment, matched with defiant pride. ‘Brussels’, with its inflated costs, trans-national rhetoric, and persistent ‘interference’ in British affairs, is the first enemy target for such passions. Little wonder that, across provincial England in June 2016, the battle-cry of ‘Let’s Take Back Control’ proved so appealing.
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Fig.1 Slogan projected onto White Cliffs of Dover
by Vote Leave Cross-Party Campaign Group
(June 2016).

1 See http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/

2 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-speech-tory-conference-2016-in-full-transcript-a7346171.html

3 What’s in a name? In US politics, the skilled and unskilled workers who broadly constitute this very large section of society are known as ‘middle class’, via a process of language inflation.

4 See A. Windscheffel, Popular Conservatism in Imperial London, 1868-1906 (Woodbridge, 2007); and M. Pugh, ‘Popular Conservatism in Britain: Continuity and Change, 1880-1987’, Journal of British Studies, 27 (1988), pp. 254-82.

5 Queen Elizabeth II is descended from the Duke of Kent, the younger brother of monarchs George IV and William IV. William IV had no legitimate offspring but his sixth illegitimate child (with the celebrated actor Dorothea Jordan) was ancestor of Enid Ages Maud Levita, David Cameron’s paternal grandmother.

6 One of Cameron’s great-great-grandfathers was Emile Levita, a German Jewish financier and banker, who became a British citizen in 1871. Another great-grandfather, Alexander Geddes, made a fortune in the Chicago grain trade in the 1880s: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_of_David_Cameron

7 This sort of issue encouraged a proportion of Conservative activists to join the United Kingdom Independence Party UKIP), which drew support from both Left and Right.

8 https://blog.findmypast.co.uk/famous-family-trees-theresa-may-1406260824.html

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