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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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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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MONTHLY BLOG 33, CONTRACTING OUT SERVICES IS KILLING REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

‘Contracting out’ is a policy mantra especially of financial/services capitalism (as opposed to industrial capitalism or landowner capitalism), which has been gaining greater support year by year. As an ideal, it was succinctly formulated by Nicholas Ridley (1929-93), who held various ministerial posts under Margaret Thatcher government. Theoretically, he hated government expenditure of all kinds: ‘I was against all but the most minimal use of the taxpayer’s purse’.1

For Ridley – himself from a titled family with business interests in ship-owning – the ideal form of local democracy would be one in which the Councillors met no more than once yearly. At the annual meeting, they should set the rate and agree the fees for contracting out municipal services. Then they could all go home. His was an extreme version of what is known in political theory as a preference for the minimal ‘night-watchman state’.2

C17 print of night-watchman and dog. No mention from Ridley of Town Hall debates as providing a sounding-board for local opinion. No mention of community identity and pride in collective institutions. No mention of a proper scope for in-house services. No mention of elected control of key tasks, including regulatory and quasi-judicial functions. No mention even of scrutinising the contracted-out services. No mention therefore of accountability.

Above all, no mention from Ridley of what Edmund Burke called the ‘little platoons’3 (‘local platoons’ would have been better, as their sizes are variable) that bridge between private individuals and the central state. Hence no mention of representative democracy at a local level. This was aristocratic disdain worthy of Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution. Moreover, without representative politics at all levels of society, then popular democracy will, when provoked, burst through into direct action. Often, though not invariably, in an uncoordinated and violent manner.

France, in fact, provides an excellent historical example of the eventual follies of contracting out. The absolute monarchs before 1789 presided over a weak central bureaucracy. As a result, one of the key functions of the state, the collection of taxes, was ‘farmed out’, in the jargon of the eighteenth century. The Ferme Générale undertook the humdrum tasks of administration, absorbing the risks of fluctuating returns, while assuring the monarchy of a regular income. And, to be sure, this system survived for many years. Nonetheless, the French monarchy faced chronic financial problems by the later eighteenth century. And the great political problem was that all the tax profits went to the Tax Farmers, while popular hatred at high payments and harsh collection methods remained directed at the kings.4

In twenty-first century Britain, something of the same situation is developing. The state still has to provide basic services; and remains the guarantor of last resort, if and when private service firms fail. Thus the faults of the system are still the government’s faults, while the profits go to private companies. The other long-term costs are borne by the general public, left to face cut-to-the-bone services, provided by poorly-paid and demoralised casual labour. No-one is popular, in such a system. But the secretive and unaccountable world of the private providers, sheltered by commercial ‘secrecy’, saves them for a while from the wrath to come.

One notorious example is known to everyone. It occurred in July 2012, just before the start of the Olympic Games. The private firm G4S promised but failed to deliver security. The contract was worth £284 million. Two weeks before the opening ceremony, the same role was transferred to the publicly-funded army. It did the task well, to tremendous applause. G4S forfeited £88 million for its failure on this part of the contract.5 Yet, despite this ‘humiliating shambles’ in the words of its chief executive, who resigned just over six months later with a huge payoff,6 the firm remains a major player in the world of security services.

The British army on security patrol at the London Olympics August 2012 – replacing the failed private security firm G4S.So G4S today advertises itself as ‘the world’s leading international security solutions group, which specialises in secure outsourcing in countries and sectors where security and safety risks are considered a strategic threat’.7 No mention of regular overview and scrutiny, because there is none. It’s another of those businesses which are considered (wrongly, in practice) as ‘too big to fail’. The point of scrutiny comes only after an embarrassing failure or at the renewal of the contract, when nervous governments, having invested their prestige and money in privatisation programmes, don’t care or dare to rethink their strategy. In August 2013, G4S is being investigated by the Ministry of Justice for alleged over-charging on electronic ‘tagging’ schemes for offenders.8 Yet, alas, this costly imbroglio is unlikely to halt the firm’s commercial advance for long.

Overall, there is a huge shadow world of out-sourced businesses. They include firms like Serco, Capita, Interserve, Sodexo, and the Compass Group. As the journalist John Harris comments: ‘their names seem anonymously stylised, in keeping with the sense that they seemed both omni-present, and barely known’.9 Their non-executive directors often serve on the board of more than one firm at a time, linking them in an emergent international contractocracy. Collectively, they constitute a powerful vested interest.

Where will it end? The current system is killing representative democracy. Elected ministers and councillors find themselves in charge of dwindling bureaucracies. So much the better, cry some. But quis custodiet? The current system is not properly accountable. It is especially dangerous when private firms are taking over the regulatory functions, which need the guarantee of impartiality. (More on that point in a later BLOG). Successful states need efficient bureaucracies, that are meritocratic, impartial, non-corrupt, flexible, and answerable regularly (and not just at contract-awarding intervals) to political scrutiny. The boundaries between what should be state-provided and what should be commercially-provided are always open to political debate. But, given  that the state often funds and ultimately guarantees many functions, its interest in what is going on in its name cannot be abrogated.

The outcome will not be the same as the French Revolution, because history does not repeat itself exactly. Indeed, the trend nowadays is towards contracting-out rather than the reverse. Yet nothing is fixed in stone. Wearing my long-term hat, I prophecy that eventually many of the profit-motive ‘Service Farmers’ will have to go, rejected by democratic citizens, just as the ‘Tax Farmers’ went before them.

1 Patrick Cosgrave, ‘Obituary: Lord Ridley of Liddesdale’, Independent, 6 March 1993.

2 Another term for this minimal-government philosophy is ‘Minarchism’ or limited government libertarianism, often associated with free-marketry. Minarchism should be distinguished from anarchism or no-government, which has different ideological roots.

3 ‘To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind’: E. Burke, Reflections upon the Revolution in France (1790), ed. C.C. O’Brien (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 135.

4 E.N. White, ‘From Privatised to Government-Administered Tax-Collection: Tax Farming in Eighteenth-Century France’, Economic History Review, 57 (2004), pp. 636-63.

5 Reported in Event, 14 Feb. 2013.

6 Daily Mail, 21 May 2013, from Mail-online: www.dailymail.co.uk, viewed 9 Aug. 2013.

7 See ‘Who we are’ in website www.g4s.com.

8 Daily Telegraph, 6 August 2013, from Telegraph-online: www.telegraph.co.uk, viewed on 9 Aug. 2013.

9 John Harris on Serco, ‘The Biggest Company you’ve never heard of’, Guardian, 30 July 2013: supplement, pp. 6-9.

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MONTHLY BLOG 32, REACTIONS TO MAKING A HISTORY DVD

 If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

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 Having made the hour-long History DVD Red Battersea 1809-2008 (2008), what reactions did we get? The production team quickly became aware that Battersea CLP, among all Britain’s local constituency parties of all political persuasions, has done something unique. We’ve written a collective autobiography in mid-life, as it were. And we have done so on DVD, integrally combining script with images.

Since launching the DVD into the world, we are often asked not why we did it – but how? In response, a small panel of Battersea members have given DVD showings to other Labour constituency parties, to student film societies, to local community groups, to Heritage associations, and to academics, who are interested in twentieth-century social and electoral history. Attention is focused upon the technical as well as the intellectual challenges of constructing a filmic narrative from a mixture of research, images, beliefs, and memories. Here follow the discussion-points about sound and images that audiences often raise:

Voices: Why did we choose to tell the story in many voices rather than via one main narrator? The DVD uses a collage of voices from unseen narrators, led by the utterly distinctive voice of actor Timothy West. But he does not hog the soundwaves. We have a plurality of voices, some from professional actors and many from the Battersea community. Each narrator picks up the baton seamlessly, but some figure as witnesses, hence speaking as themselves. Even in those cases, I wrote their scripts, in order to avoid the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of real-life diction and to keep their remarks brisk. I did, however, write all such individual statements very carefully, following my witnesses’ natural speech cadences in the prior interviews.

As a result, the DVD does not have one lead narrator who keeps striding into and out of the frame, blocking the view of the historical evidence. That style has been fashionable for many years. Look at very many TV history series – and the Labour Party’s own Party history, which features Tony Benn. The aim of using a lead narrator is to familiarise and personalise. But the style can quickly become dated and liable to parody. Moreover, details of the narrator’s clothing, expressions, hair-styles, and body language can easily distract viewers, both first time round and then on later reruns, from the history that is being shown over the narrator’s shoulder. By no means everyone agrees. In my personal view, however, the narrator-striding-into-camera technique will eventually become obsolete – but perhaps not quite yet.

In contrast, expressive voices, blended together from unseen narrators, remain much more timeless. For my purposes, they also give a fair evocation of a collective movement. It is true that one or two of our local volunteers found it hard to sound natural when recording. Chronic mumblers had to be excluded. But most speakers took to the task very readily and, if they fluffed the first take, were happy to try again. Bearing in mind the need for clear communication, I had tried hard to make the script ‘read-aloud-able’.

One of our Battersea professional actors Su Elliott gives great advice on voice production for radio. Mimic the emotions with the face, even while unseen, she counsels. As one of our travelling panellists, she sobs convulsively in the character of the Mock Turtle, while giving as great a visual look of Lewis Carroll’s (and Tenniel’s) doleful beast as anyone could wish – always to much audience appreciation. Actually, none of our DVD speakers had to be that sad, even when Battersea Labour has to admit to reverses and failures during its more than hundred-year history. We are here for the long term – and march on!

Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland with the Gryphon and Mock Turtle (1865).Matching images to script: People in general express great appreciation of the visuals within the DVD. Credit here goes especially to the picture research of graphic designer Suzanne Perkins and to the film research of the producer/director Mike Marchant. Together they found masses of previously unknown material. Brilliant. It’s a great encouragement for researchers to realise exactly how much remains to be discovered (or sometimes rediscovered) in local archives and film libraries. Visual material is now getting a proper share of attention, transforming how history can be presented. That’s now being taken for granted, although there are still some bastions to fall before the incoming tide.

The question, however, that most intrigues our DVD viewers is not where we found the material but how we continually matched the flow of images to the flow of the script. When making a film, the two go seamlessly together, although both can be retouched later. But a DVD works by aligning a sound-track to a vision-track. Each can be worked on separately. Quite a different production style.

My July BLOG has already explained the no-doubt obvious point to the technically-minded – that the sound-track takes the lead, because it sets the crucial time parameters. The images then followed, many being researched to order. Mike Marchant would telephone saying: ‘Hello, I need two minutes worth of visuals on XXX’. After an initial feeling of exasperation (‘No, I don’t think about history like that’), I would respond more calmly: ‘What images would help viewers to get the point, especially if it is an abstract one?’ Often we sorted things immediately. At other moments, we struggled. Throughout, Mike and I strove for variety within our house-style, using a range of images (photos, film clips, video footage, texts, captions) to prevent a feeling of sameness.

Trying for visual diversity was good fun, especially for me. Eagerly but amateurishly, I would request various film manoeuvres (zoom, fade, etc), while Mike had the hard work of achieving that effect without the full panoply of film cameras, sound technicians, lighting engineers and so forth. I often felt guilty when he later revealed the time it took to respond to each casual request; but I’m sure ultimately that he enjoyed the challenge.

What struck me most was the vivid realisation of how easily, in a DVD production, the story can be made or marred by the alignment/ non-alignment of the image- and sound-tracks. We tried not to be too literal. Viewers don’t need to see an industrial plant every time we mention the heavy industries that used to line the Battersea river-front. It’s patronising to assume that people have no visual memory-banks of their own. Even a picture as striking as Whistler’s Smokestacks needs to appear just at the right moment.

Smokestacks by James Whistler (1834-1903) is a composite evocation of the industrial landscape of the Thames south bank at Lambeth/ Battersea in the 1880s.On the other hand, it’s very good to show a striking image just before it’s mentioned in the script. Then as the narrator stresses something or other, viewers share a sense of realisation. Whereas if the images follow just too late, the reverse effect is achieved. Viewers feel slightly insulted: ‘why are you showing me an XXX now, I already know that, because the narrator has just told me’.

So Mike Marchant and I spent ages together on fine-tuning the synchronisation. Generally, we managed to hide the late changes; but alert listeners to the DVD sound-track can pick up one or two jumps in continuity that we couldn’t conceal. Damn!
Finally, questions about bias. How can Battersea Labour present its own history without excessive political bias? How can individuals in our research team study their own political pasts without personal bias? Did our answers on those big questions satisfy our audiences? We also get asked: What’s next from Battersea Labour? There’s so much to say on all those points, that I’m keeping my answers for later BLOGs.

Copies of the DVD Red Battersea, 1908-2008 are obtainable for £5.00 (in plastic cover) from Tony Belton = tonybelton@btconnect.com.

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MONTHLY BLOG 31, ON SCRIPTING AND CO-DIRECTING AN HOUR-LONG HISTORY DVD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013) 

At first, it seemed simple. Based on research by myself and a keen group of historically-minded comrades, I gave an illustrated public lecture in June 2006 to mark the centenary of the Labour Party, with special reference to Battersea. There was much interest and applause, followed by the seductive enquiry: ‘Why don’t we make a DVD?’ Yes, we trilled collectively. Let’s do that. Rashly, I agreed to take the lead.

And we did it. In December 2008, we hired a screen in Clapham Picture House for a public viewing of the finished product: Red Battersea 1908-2008. Over 120 people turned out for the event. We got lots of praise, as well as some inevitable criticisms. Although the script runs right up to contemporary politics (in 2008), it hasn’t dated too much. So during the last four years, Battersea Labour Party has sold or distributed over 1,200 copies (more than many an academic publication) and still counting. Not bad going.

Red BatterseaBut very hard work. If I’d known at the start what it all entailed, I’d have declined to take on the octopus task of script-writing, co-directing, and organising lots of other people. Especially as I was doing all this in my so-called spare time, as a busy academic historian. Not that I can complain about the Battersea comrades, who shared in the research, the editing, the performances and the design of the DVD cover and publicity. The voices on the DVD are all those of local activists and residents, led by the celebrated actors Tim West and Prunella Scales. One and all were positive and very patient, during the 18 months of protracted effort.

Three points of note follow for budding historians, who might want to script and direct a lengthy video or DVD on recent history. The first is obvious. You have to have something to say and an authorial point of view. I provided that, happily enough, but my approach didn’t please all those who had collectively urged the making of a DVD. Nonetheless, it was apparent that scripts can’t be successfully written by committee. I tried to make the authorial tone as relatively cool and objective as possible, although obviously the DVD starts with a presumption of broad sympathy with the Labour Party. And there are a number of points within the grass-roots-based script that I think stand the test of time. (View it and see).

Much more tricky for me was the second point that I’d highlight: the need to find continuous visuals to accompany the script. Of course, I’m used to giving illustrated lectures. Most academics are these days. I generally enjoy documenting a point visually and also playing counterpoint to my words with a contrasting or joking image. That’s not the same, however, as providing a continuously flowing stream of relevant and non-repetitious visual materials for an entire hour. I loved working with my co-director Mike Marchant. He was the techie of the outfit: the co-director and producer who actually made the film. Wonderfully creative and utterly meticulous, as film-makers have to be. At times, however, I found Mike’s requests for ‘another two minutes of images’ to demonstrate this or that historical point very trying, since I think from the script to the visual, while he was really wanting non-stop visuality to come first – or at least to have equal parity with the script.

We worked it out eventually. As in the case of all collaborative effort, we had to find ways of communicating in terms that we could mutually understand. Mike, like many film-makers, took the view that ‘you can’t be too literal’. If you mention a cow, you show a cow. I thought that was far too patronising, protesting: ‘but people know what a cow looks like’. He also much preferred moving pictures to stills, whereas I’m quite happy with stills. On that we agreed to compromise, since we obviously had no early twentieth-century film footage. Mike managed very creatively, by zooming in and out of still pictures, and by moving them across the screen. He found some marvellous mid-century film footage (but The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), although named after a key feature of Battersea, turned out to have no local material). Mike also took his own videos of the current scene to illustrate past history. His busy, hooting traffic scene from Balham High Road went well with Peter Sellars’s famous joke about ‘Bal-Ham, gateway to the south’, as we introduced the areas within the Battersea constituency.

Much the most complex question with reference to the visuals related to illustrating abstractions. Here Mike at times protested. He wanted all discussions of abstract points removed from the script. But I couldn’t accept that, either theoretically, or, more importantly, in practice. I was writing about the impact of Battersea upon Labour (with lots of great visuals of the old industrial riverfront) but, equally, about the impact of Labour upon Battersea. That included discussing, for example, the party’s early debates between Fabian gradualists and revolutionary Marxists. Eventually, we illustrated those arguments by superimposing a picture of Rodin’s Thinker (1902) upon a contemporaneous map of pre-war Battersea. In context, the compound image works well enough. But this example highlighted our constant debates between the visually-led and textually-led approach.

july006The third and final point relates to the challenge of bringing a historical script up until the present day, without making the conclusion too dated. I decided to make the narrative gradually speed up, with a more leisurely style for the exciting early years and a more staccato survey of the later twentieth century. That manoeuvre was devised to generate narrative drive. But one result was that various sections had to be axed, late in the day. Hence one serious criticism was that the role of pioneering women in Battersea Labour Party, which had appeared in the first Powerpoint lecture, was cut from the DVD. It was a shame but artistically necessary, because too long a retrospective review undermined the narrative momentum. (With the later resources of my website, I could have published the entire script, including axed sections, as a way of making amends).

Another problem was making the ending ‘timeless’. As script-writer in 2007, I made the right decision to be relatively cool about Tony Blair, then Prime Minister and now a much less hegemonic figure. But other time-neutral changes proved to be technically tricky. For example, I had a sentence, which declared correctly that ‘the MP is Martin Linton’. But Labour might not hold the seat for ever. (Indeed, it lost in 2010). Therefore I asked Mike Marchant to cut the verb ‘is’ from the recorded sentence. Ever helpful, he agreed. But he told me later that cutting such a short word took him many hours, since the fiddly task had to be done without any loss of sound-continuity. Listening to the DVD now, one would never know that the sentence had ever referred to anything other than ‘the MP Martin Linton’.

All last-minute cuts to the script were, in theory, absolutely forbidden. The production sequence requires the sound-track to be laid down first and the image-track to follow. We did do that in outline. However, Mike Marchant allowed numerous late revisions to the script, basically because I was a beginner – and we both realised that in practice some of my original ‘bright ideas’ didn’t work. His creativity, meticulous dedication, technical virtuosity, and infectious gusto helped with the endless viewings and reviewing that we undertook together. At times, we were exasperated, though luckily not both at the same time. The result was that, working part-time, we took a year to create a DVD, which could have been made by a large team of experts in two months – though probably not with the same commitment.

Personally, I was very fortunate to have been initiated into the art of film-making by Mike. I wouldn’t do it again; but overall the experience was a positive one. The great tragedy was that the DVD turned out to be Mike Marchant’s swansong. We were unaware that he had a fatal cancer, which was diagnosed just as we were completing the final touches. As a result, we had to rush the finale and credits. Mike did come to the showing at the Clapham Picture House in December 2008 and was cheered by the plaudits. He died the following summer. Once he told me that he didn’t like doing things unless he could do them well. And the DVD confirms how splendidly he lived his own philosophy.

july007Copies of the DVD Red Battersea, 1908-2008 are obtainable for £5.00 (in plastic cover) from Tony Belton = tonybelton@btconnect.com.

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MONTHLY BLOG 30, BUT PEOPLE OFTEN ASK: HISTORY IS REALLY POLITICS, ISN’T IT? SO WHY SHOULDN’T POLITICIANS HAVE THEIR SAY ABOUT WHAT’S TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS?

 If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

Two fascinating questions, to which my response to the first is: No – History is bigger than any specific branch of knowledge – it covers everything that humans have done, which includes lots besides Politics. Needless to say, such a subject lends itself to healthy arguments, including debates about ideologically-freighted religious and political issues.

But it would be dangerous if the study of History were to be forced into a strait-jacket by the adherents of particular viewpoints, buttressed by power of the state. (See my April 2013 BLOG). By the way, the first question can also be differently interpreted to ask whether all knowledge is really political? I return to that subtly different issue below.*

Meanwhile, in response to the second question: I agree that politicians could do with saying and knowing more about History. Indeed, there’s always more to learn. History is an open-ended subject, and all the better for it. Because it deals with humans in ever-unfolding Time, there is always more basic data to incorporate. And perspectives upon the past can gain significant new dimensions when reconsidered in the light of changing circumstances.

Yet the case for an improved public understanding of History is completely different from arguing that each incoming Education Secretary should re-write the Schools’ History syllabus. Politicians are elected to represent their constituents and to take legislative and executive decisions on their behalf – a noble calling. In democracies, they are also charged to preserve freedom of speech. Hence space for public and peaceful dissent is supposed to be safeguarded, whether the protesters be many or few.

The principled reason for opposing attempts at political control of the History syllabus is based upon the need for pluralism in democratic societies. No one ‘side’ or other should exercise control. There is a practical reason too. Large political parties are always, whether visibly or otherwise, based upon coalitions of people and ideas. They do not have one ‘standard’ view of the past. In effect, to hand control to one senior politician means endorsing one particular strand within one political party: a sort of internal warfare, not only against the wider culture but the wider reaches of his or her own political movement.

When I first began teaching, I encountered a disapproving professor of markedly conservative views. When I told him that the subject for my next class was Oliver Cromwell, he expressed double discontent. He didn’t like either my gender or my politics. He thought it deplorable that a young female member of the Labour party, and an elected councillor to boot, should be indoctrinating impressionable students with the ‘Labour line on Cromwell’. I was staggered. And laughed immoderately. Actually, I should have rebuked him but his view of the Labour movement was so awry that it didn’t seem worth pursuing. Not only do the comrades constantly disagree (at that point I was deep within the 1971 Housing Finance Act disputes) but too many Labour activists show a distressing lack of interest in History.

Moreover, Oliver Cromwell is hard to assimilate into a simplistic narrative of Labour populism. On the one hand, he was the ‘goodie’ who led the soldiers of the New Model Army against an oppressive king. On the other hand, he was the ‘baddie’ who suppressed the embryonic democrats known as the Levellers and whose record in Ireland was deeply controversial. Conservative history, incidentally, has the reverse problem. Cromwell was damned by the royalists as a Regicide – but simultaneously admired as a successful leader who consolidated British control in Ireland, expanded the overseas empire, and generally stood up to foreign powers.1

Interestingly, the statue of Oliver Cromwell, prominently sited in Westminster outside the Houses of Parliament, was proposed in 1895 by a Liberal prime minister (Lord Rosebery), unveiled in 1899 under a Conservative administration, and renovated in 2008 by a Labour government, despite a serious proposal in 2004 from a Labour backbencher (Tony Banks) that the statue be destroyed. As it stands, it highlights Cromwell the warrior, rather than (say) Cromwell the Puritan or Cromwell the man who brought domestic order after civil war. And, at his feet, there is a vigilant lion, whose British symbolism is hard to miss.2

Cromwell statue with lion
Or take the very much more recent case of Margaret Thatcher’s reputation. That is now beginning its long transition from political immediacy into the slow ruminations of History. Officially, the Conservative line is one of high approval, even, in some quarters, of untrammelled adulation. On the other hand, she was toppled in 1990 not by the opposition party but by her own Tory cabinet, in a famous act of ‘matricide’. There is a not-very concealed Conservative strand that rejects Thatcher outright. Her policies are charged with destroying the social cohesion that ‘true’ conservatism is supposed to nurture; and with strengthening the centralised state, which ‘true’ conservatism is supposed to resist.3 Labour’s responses are also variable, all the way from moral outrage to political admiration.

Either way, a straightforward narrative that Thatcher ‘saved’ Britain is looking questionable in 2013, when the national economy is obstinately ‘unsaved’. It may be that, in the long term, she will feature more prominently in the narrative of Britain’s conflicted relationship with Europe. Or, indeed, as a janus-figure within the slow story of the political emergence of women. Emmeline Pankhurst (below L) would have disagreed with Thatcher’s policies but would have cheered her arrival in Downing Street. Thatcher, meanwhile, was never enthusiastic about the suffragettes but never doubted that a woman could lead.4

Emmeline Pankhurst and Thatcher statue parliament
Such meditations are a constituent part of the historians’ debates, as instant journalism moves into long-term analysis, and as partisan heat subsides into cooler judgment. All schoolchildren should know the history of their country and how to discuss its meanings. They should not, however, be pressurised into accepting one particular set of conclusions.

I often meet people who tell me that, in their school History classes, they were taught something doctrinaire – only to discover years later that there were reasonable alternatives to discuss. To that, my reply is always: well, bad luck, you weren’t well taught; but congratulations on discovering that there is a debate and deciding for yourself.

Even in the relatively technical social-scientific areas of History (such as demography) there are always arguments. And even more so in political, social, cultural, and intellectual history. But the arguments are never along simple party-political lines, because, as argued above, democratic political parties don’t have agreed ‘lines’ about the entirety of the past, let alone about the complexities of the present and recent-past.

Lastly * how about broadening the opening question? Is all knowledge, including the study of History, really ‘political’ – not in the party-political sense – but as expressing an engaged worldview? Again, the answer is No. That extended definition of ‘political’ takes the term, which usefully refers to government and civics, too far.

Human knowledge, which does stem from, reflect and inform human worldviews, is hard gained not from dogma but from research and debate, followed by more research and debate. It’s human, not just political. It’s shared down the generations. And between cultures. That’s why it’s vital that knowledge acquisition be not dictated by any temporary power-holders, of any political-ideological or religious hue.

1 Christopher Hill has a good chapter on Cromwell’s Janus-faced reputation over time, in God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970), pp. 251-76.

2 Statue of Cromwell (1599-1658), erected outside Parliament in 1899 at the tercentenary of his birth: see www.flickr.com, kev747’s photostream, photo taken Dec. 2007.

3 Contrast the favourable but not uncritical account by C. Moore, Margaret Thatcher, the Authorised Biography, Vol. 1: Not for Turning (2013) with tough critiques from Christopher Hitchens and Karl Naylor: see www.Karl-Naylor.blogspot.co.uk, entry for 23 April 2013.

4 Illustrations (L) photo of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), suffragette leader, orating in Trafalgar Square; (R) statue of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), Britain’s first woman prime minister (1979-90), orating in the Commons: see www.parliament.uk.

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MONTHLY BLOG 29, SHOULD EACH SECRETARY OF STATE FOR EDUCATION REWRITE THE UK SCHOOLS HISTORY SYLLABUS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

The answer is unequivocally No. (Obvious really but worth saying still?)

History as a subject is far, far too important to become a political football. It teaches about conflict as well as compromise; but that’s not the same as being turned into a source of conflict in its own right. Direct intervention by individual politicians in framing the History syllabus is actively dangerous.

2013-4 Cavaliers and Roundheads

Rival supporters of King and Parliament in the 1640s civil wars, berating their opponents as ‘Roundhead curs’ and ‘Cavalier dogs’: the civil wars should certainly appear in the Schools History syllabus but they don’t provide a model for how the syllabus should be devised.

There are several different issues at stake. For a start, many people believe that the Schools curriculum, or prescriptive framework, currently allots too little time to the study of History. There should be more classes per week. And the subject should be compulsory to the age of sixteen.1  Those changes would in themselves greatly enhance children’s historical knowledge, reducing their recourse to a mixture of prevalent myths and cheerful ignorance.

A second issue relates to the balance of topics within the current History syllabus, which specifies the course contents. I personally do favour some constructive changes. There is a good case for greater attention to long-term narrative frameworks,2  alongside high-quality in-depth studies.

But the point here is: who should actually write the detailed syllabus? Not individual historians and, above all, not individual politicians. However well-intentioned such power-brokers may or may not be, writing the Schools History syllabus should be ultra-vires: beyond their legal and political competence.

The need for wide consultation would seem obvious; and such a process was indeed launched. However, things have just moved into new territory. It is reported that Education Secretary has unilaterally aborted the public discussions. Instead, the final version of the Schools History syllabus, revealed on 7 February 2013, bears little relation to previous drafts and discussions.3 It has appeared out of the (political) blue.

Either the current Education Secretary acted alone, or perhaps had some unnamed advisers, working behind the scenes. Where is the accountability in this mode of procedure? Even some initial supporters of syllabus revision have expressed their dismay and alarm.

Imagine what Conservative MPs would have said in 2002 if David Blunkett (to take the best known of Blair’s over-many Education Ministers) had not only inserted the teaching of Civics into the Schools curriculum as a separate subject;4 but had written the Civics syllabus as well. Or if Blunkett had chosen to rewrite the History syllabus at the same time?

Or imagine what Edmund Burke, the apostle of moderate Toryism, would have said. This eighteenth-century politician-cum-political theorist, who was reportedly identified in 2008 as ‘the greatest conservative ever’ by the current Education Secretary,5 was happy to accept the positive role of the state. Yet he consistently warned of the dangers of high-handed executive power. The authority of central government should not be untrammelled. It should not be used to smash through policies in an arbitrary manner. Instead Burke specifically praised the art of compromise or – a better word – of mutuality:

All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.6

An arbitrary determination of the Schools History syllabus further seems to imply that the subject not only can but ought to be moulded by political fiat. Such an approach puts knowledge itself onto a slippery slope. ‘Fixing’ subjects by political will (plus the backing of the state) leads to intellectual atrophy.

To take a notoriously extreme example, Soviet biology was frozen for at least two generations by Stalin’s doctrinaire endorsement of Lysenko’s environmental genetics.7 A dramatic rise in agrarian productivity was promised, without the need for fertilisers (or more scientific research). Stalin was delighted. Down with the egg-heads and their slow research. Lysenko’s critics were dismissed or imprisoned. But Lysenkoism did not work. And, after unduly long delays, his pseudo-science was finally discredited.

2013-4 Lysenko_with_Stalin - Copy

A rare photo of Stalin (back R) gazing approvingly at Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976)
speaking from the rostrum in the Kremlin, 1935

In this case, the Education Secretary is seeking to improve schoolchildren’s minds rather than to improve crop yields. But declaring the ‘right’ answer from the centre is no way to achieve enlightenment. Without the support of the ‘little platoons’ (to borrow another key phrase from Burke), the proposed changes may well prove counter-productive in the class-room. Many teachers, who have to teach the syllabus, are already alienated. And, given that History as a subject lends itself to debate and disagreement, pupils will often learn different lessons from those intended.

Intellectual interests in an Education Secretary are admirable. The anti-intellectualism of numerous past ministers (including too many Labour ones) has been horribly depressing. But intellectual confidence, tipped into arrogance, can be taken too far. Another quotation to that effect is often web-attributed to Edmund Burke, though it seems to come from Albert Einstein. He warned that powerful people should wisely appreciate the limits of their power:

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.8

1 That viewpoint was supported in my monthly BLOG no.23 ‘Why do Politicians Undervalue History in Schools’ (Oct. 2012): see www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

2 I proposed a long-span course on ‘The Peopling of Britain’ in History Today, 62/11 (Nov. 2012), pp. 52-3.

3 See D. Cannadine, ‘Making History: Opportunities Missed in Reforming the National Curriculum’, Times Literary Supplement, 15 March 2013, pp. 14-15; plus further responses and a link to the original proposals in www.historyworks.tv

4 For the relationships of History and Civics, see my monthly BLOG no.24 ‘History as the Staple of a Civic Education’, www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

5 Michael Gove speech to 2008 Conservative Party Annual Conference, as reported in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Gove, consulted 3 April 2013.

6 Quotation from Edmund Burke (1729-97), Second Speech on Conciliation with America (1775). For further context, see D. O’Keeffe, Edmund Burke (2010); I. Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (New York, 1977); and F. O’Gorman (ed.), British Conservatism: Conservative Thought from Burke to Thatcher (1986).

7 Z. Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko (New York, 1969).

8 Albert Einstein (1879-1955), in Essays Presented to Leo Baeck on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday (1954), p. 26. The quotation is sometimes (but wrongly) web-attributed to Edmund Burke’s critique of Jacobin arrogance in his Preface to Brissot’s Address to his Constituents (1794).

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MONTHLY BLOG 28, ANSWERING QUESTIONS POST SEMINAR PAPERS/ LECTURES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

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If post-seminar questions are less memorable that the papers or lectures which precede them, then the answers tend to be even less anecdotable. I can think of only a handful, among thousands of intellectual encounters, which remain in my memory.

Nevertheless, answers in an academic setting (as in a political one) need to meet certain criteria. They can enhance a good presentation. And wrongly handled, answers can backfire and, at worst, they can ruin an apparently successful paper or lecture by failing to rebut a fundamental criticism.

Hence the overwhelming rule is to reply rather than to evade the question. Nothing is more annoying to an audience when it detects that the presenter is intellectually absconding. If the speaker can’t immediately answer (it happens to us all), the best reply is: ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer off-hand; but I will check it out and get back to you’.

On rare occasions, it is acceptable to prevaricate. Queen Elizabeth I was once in a political quandary. In response to the strong advice of a parliamentary deputation in 1586 that she execute her close relative and fellow monarch, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth equivocated by giving them what she herself honestly termed as an ‘answer, answerless’.

march010
In other words, she would not say.2 Yet very few scholars find themselves walking the same sort of political highwire upon which Elizabeth I walked coolly for years. Academic waffle is thus best avoided. I have done it myself but always felt suitably remorseful afterwards.

The academic cut-and-thrust is instead predicated upon an open exchange of views and, if need be, a frank confession of an inability to answer immediately, rather than a fudge-and-mudge.

But, while too much evasive verbiage can be disappointing, too much brevity can prove equally annoying. One terse response that I can remember came from Balliol’s Christopher Hill. It was in a series of interviews with senior historians,3 in which some staple questions had been supplied by the organisers. As the interviewer, I was allowed to improvise but also requested to cover the basics. Accordingly I asked politely: ‘Would you like to explain your methodology?’ It was a relevant question, since Hill had been sternly criticised in 1975 by his fellow historian J.H. Hexter for the alleged sin of being a ‘lumper’. Even more damagingly, Hexter accused Hill being seriously unprofessional by quoting selectively from the sources, to support his big argument.4 ‘Lumpers’, by the way, lump everything together to form one big picture, while ‘splitters’ (of whom Hexter was a pre-eminent example) demur and say: ‘No, hang on – things are really much more complicated than that’.

Nonetheless, when invited to comment, Christopher Hill replied, gruffly: ‘No’. Like many of his generation, he bristled at the very word ‘methodology’. I laughed and continued to the next question, which was a mistake on my part. I should have changed the wording and tried again. In the event, the unsatisfactory exchange was cut from the final version of the interview. Not that there was any doubt that Christopher Hill was a ‘lumper’. Many (though probably not most) historians are. Yet Hill did not accept that he distorted or read sources selectively. In my view, it would have been best for him to restate a firm rebuttal of Hexter. But Hill would probably have responded, not ‘who cares?’ (he did), but ‘read my books and judge for yourselves’.

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Single-word replies, of the ilk of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, should thus be avoided as a general rule. They generate an initial laugh, especially when following an over-long and tedious question. Yet single-word replies are not playing fair with the questioner or the audience. They appear to give but don’t really. It is ok to start with a single brisk word, on the other hand, provided that the speaker then justifies that verdict.

So … not too short but also … not too lengthy. In my experience (and it’s a fault that I share) most answers are too long. It’s tempting to give a reprise of the paper or lecture. But that’s a mistake. A crisp reply: to the point, and nothing more, is best. Also gives time for more questions.

Three specific tips for respondents. When first listening to a question, it can be difficult to grasp the real point and simultaneously to formulate a good answer. The best way to cope is to start with a ‘holding’ reply: such as ‘That’s an interesting question’ or ‘I’m glad that you raised that point’. During the brief postponement, it’s amazing how often a reply formulates itself in one’s mind. But it’s best to use many variants of such ‘holding’ replies. It sounds too saccharine if every question is welcomed with the same apparent rapture. Incidentally, the reverse also sounds false. A former MP of Battersea was prone to start every reply with ‘I welcome your criticism’ even if none was offered. It eventually became something of a joke, which was counter-productive.

A second tip is to have a sheet of paper discreetly to hand and always to jot down a short note, summarising the topic that’s been raised. Having that reminder is especially useful in the event of two-pronged questions. When answering one half of a query, it’s too easy to forget about the other half. A short note concentrates the mind. In the long run, too, awareness of the points raised is personally invaluable. A free consultation with experts. Soon after every public presentation, I turn the list into a personal debriefing, noting all points that need clearer explication next time; and especially noting all criticisms of my main argument, so that I can decide how to refute them next time (or, sometimes, to amend my own case).

Which brings me to the third and most important piece of advice. It’s fine to give way graciously to challenges on all sorts of points, especially if one is in the wrong. Yet if the critique is focused upon the absolute core of one’s argument, it is essential to stand fast. I once heard the historian Lawrence Stone, another well-known ‘lumper’, confront a fundamental criticism of his latest publication.5 He began frankly: ‘Oh, dear, I think I’ve been holed below the water-line’. Then, with a cheerful laugh (shared with the audience), he rallied, with words to the effect that: ‘Your evidence/argument, although important, does not invalidate my central case’. Stone then, on the hoof, thought through his response to the fundamental (and valid) criticism, without rancour or any sign of being flustered. It was a sparkling moment.

Sometimes, there is not one single ‘right’ answer; but a there is a right process of debate. That’s the aim. And it’s nice to win the argument as well. Which means keeping on one’s toes intellectually. Having given the presentation, don’t relax too soon. Keep replies crisp and pertinent. And, basically, enjoy the dialectic. Out of reasoned argument comes … knowledge.

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1 From Icon Archive, at www.icongal.com: downloaded 22 February 2013.

2 Elizabeth I’s non-reply was nonetheless gracefully worded: ‘[I] pray you to accept my thankfulness, excuse my doubtfulness, and take in good part my answer, answerless.’

3 ‘Christopher Hill with Penelope Corfield’ (1986), in series DVD Video Interviews with Historians, available from London University’s online store: www.store.london.ac.uk.

4 J.H. Hexter, ‘The Historical Method of Christopher Hill’, Times Literary Supplement, 25 Oct. 1975, repr. in J.H. Hexter, On Historians: Reappraisals of Some of the Makers of Modern History (1979), pp. 227-51; with riposte by C. Hill, ‘The Burden of Proof’, in Times Literary Supplement, 7 Nov. 1975, p. 1333.

5 See Lawrence Stone (1919-1999) and J.C.F. Stone, An Open Elite? England, 1540-1880 (1984); and alternative view in S.E. Whyman, ‘Land and Trade Revisited: The Case of John Verney, London Merchant and Baronet, 1660-1720’, London Journal, 22 (1997), pp. 16-32.

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MONTHLY BLOG 27, ASKING QUESTIONS POST SEMINAR PAPERS/LECTURES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

 

What?

What? what? what? Always good to ask questions. Not always easy to manage a good one. In the debates following the thousands of public lectures and seminar papers that I’ve heard, a few examples stand out.

One was simplicity itself. It caught out a senior figure on a point of detail that refuted her argument – which she should have known but didn’t (or had forgotten). The question took five words: ‘What about the Quebec Act?’ Under this legislation (1774) Britain allowed freedom of worship to the French-speaking Quebec Catholics and enabled them to swear allegiance to the British crown without reference to Protestantism. It was a major factor in preventing the potentially rebellious province from joining the American colonial revolt. This flexibility ran contrary to the speaker’s stress upon the immovable Protestantism of eighteenth-century British state policy. There were various possible replies, such as: it was the exception to prove the rule. But she fell silent and the chair took the next question. Since then, I often think, when listening to a lecture: Is there a Quebec Act equivalent knock-down? Often there isn’t. But, if there is, it should always be done with great simplicity.

Another was a question that I asked after a public lecture (not necessarily the best; simply one that I remember). In fact, interventions from the floor are much more forgettable than the preceding oration, which is one reason not to worry too much about what to ask. In this case, a polemical speaker had castigated all historians who used anachronistic terms instead of sticking exclusively to the language of the relevant past period. Then, oblivious of his own strictures, he defined the eighteenth-century European states (including Britain) as ancien regimes. But – whether ‘ancien’ be translated as ‘old’ or ‘former’ – this descriptive term is clearly retrospective. From the floor, I argued that the historians’ art entails not only studying past societies but also communicating their findings about the past in the language of a later day. So yes to linguistic care and attention to definitions; but no to linguistic obscurantism and a quest for the impossible. Otherwise historians of pre-Conquest England would have to delete all words derived from Norman French; historians of the pre-speech era would have to grunt; and so forth. In the light of his own retrospective terminology, would the speaker like to reconsider his criticisms of others? He replied; but, it was generally agreed, not convincingly.

Those two examples reveal two possible approaches to asking questions: either working from prior knowledge; or generating a debating point from the content of the talk. Both approaches are equally valid. The point of asking questions is constructive: to probe the case that has been presented and to extend the collective discussion. A good debate helps speakers by giving them a free consultancy, allowing them to refine their arguments before bursting into print. And ditto: good discussions help listeners to stretch their minds; to learn how to joust intellectually; and to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

Obviously enough, beginners giving their first paper should be treated comparatively gently, but not to the extent of allowing serious errors to pass unchallenged. And senior performers should be given the compliment of a bracing set of questions, which they will expect.

Most enquiries start from a wholesome quest for further information or clarification. What did you mean by statement A? How do you define concept B? Did you also check source C? … How good is the evidence for X? Can that proposition not be tested against Y? And what are the implications of Z? All of those approaches are useful. Another substantial range of questions focus upon the speakers’ methods of classification, selection, or organisation of research material. Challenges are especially required if the criteria have not been well explained in the presentation. Social classification systems, in particular, always benefit from debate, whether focusing upon class; ethnicity; nationality; or any other special identities. One phenomenon that is often under-studied is the extent of intermarriage between ostensibly different groups: ask about that.

Meanwhile, a minority of questions, which are often the best, take the form of a conceptual or philosophical depth-charge or counter-argument. Listen to the general argument and think: could the reverse or something very different be the case instead? That may mean playing devil’s advocate. But, intellectually, ‘opposition is true friendship’, to quote William Blake.1 Above all, it’s good to listen closely to the speakers, in order to identify their often-buried fundamental assumptions – and then challenge those. It’s rare that such interventions fail to stimulate. Sometimes speakers are surprised; sometimes indignant; but they are generally gratified to have been listened to with serious attention.

2013-2 Marriage Heaven and Hell 1790 Bodl p.20

From William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Bodleian Library copy, 1790, fo. 20)
showing the writhing serpent of knowledge and the enigmatically faded words ‘Opposition is True Friendship’

My former supervisor, Jack Fisher, the economic history guru of LSE, was famed for provocative depth-charges, which he signalled with the opening words: ‘I know nothing about this but …’. However, his formula is best used sparingly. I have heard others bodge the same tactic, leading audiences to wonder why such a self-declared ignoramus is wasting everyone’s time with fatuous questions.

Given the above range of possibilities, postgraduate students should be encouraged to start with short, punchy wholesome-quests-for-information. In that way, they get used to the invariable stir of people turning round to look at the questioner, which can be disconcerting for beginners. Then, in time, students should progress to making longer enquiries and eventually to offering counter-arguments. My own system also requires that, after the first term at a new seminar, postgraduates ask at least one question per term, rising to a specified larger number as they move through their four years of study. That instruction sounds a bit mechanical. But it’s actually easier to ask a question when one has determined beforehand to do so. Otherwise, a lot of time is spent dithering: shall I, shan’t I? Yes, go for it.

Coda: I’ll end with a personal anecdote on heckling. It’s not something that I often do. But once I heckled, unintentionally, and found that I had posed a great question or, rather, prompted a great response. It happened in the early 1970s, at a public debate in the University of London’s Beveridge Hall, with perhaps two hundred dons in attendance. Two eminent historians, Keith Thomas and Hugh Trevor-Roper, had jousted fiercely in print about seventeenth-century witchcraft. They were invited to a special debate to continue the argument. But face-to-face, as often happens, the antagonists were very polite to each other. The occasion as a whole proved to be a damp squib.

There was, however, a moment of excitement. One of the speakers, referred rather contemptuously to ‘useless old women’ and, without intending to do so, I found that I had cried out ‘Shame!’ Everyone around me recoiled. The speakers said nothing. But the chair of the meeting, the historian Joel Hurstfield, responded with aplomb: ‘Madam, contain your just indignation!’ His old-fashioned courtesy effectively rebuked my uncouthness. Yet he upheld my complaint, accepting that the tone of the debate had been too dismissive of the women accused of witchcraft. Immediately, the people around me smiled with relief and reversed their physical recoil. The debate was resumed, and I don’t suppose anyone else remembers the exchange. Nonetheless, I have waited ever since (both in politics and as an academic) for someone to heckle when I’m in the chair, to see if I can respond as brilliantly. It hasn’t happened yet; but maybe one day … In the meantime, let there be questions: what? what? what?

1 From William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), fol. 20.

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MONTHLY BLOG 26, WORST AND BEST ACADEMIC LECTURES THAT I’VE HEARD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

Apart from the routine lectures that form the bread-and-butter of an academic’s job, we constantly give special lectures and/or papers. These presentations are made to a miscellany of research seminars, public meetings, specialist societies, academic conferences and other outlets, at home and overseas. From the early 1970s onwards my private log tells me that I’ve given almost 300 of these extra performances.

At the same time, I am a seasoned listener to presentations from fellow academics. During my career, I must have heard many thousands. Trained by my incisive supervisor to have a critical response up my sleeve, I decided early on always to ask a question. Which I do – almost invariably, provided that the event allows for audience participation. Preparing a range of potential questions, from a dolly to an underwater torpedo, keeps the mind focused. It’s not hard to respond to a good paper. But what’s the best way to critique a dull or weak or off-beam interpretation, without being rude or dismissive? It’s a good challenge.

Over time, the standard of papers and lectures has undoubtedly risen. People are more professional and time-keeping is much more reliable. There are things that still could get better. Talking from notes (but not reciting a list of points on a screen) is much more engaging for the audience than reading aloud from a prepared script. William Hogarth long ago indicated how boring a droned lecture-from-text can be.

William Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture, 1736

William Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture, 1736

On the other hand, it can be hard for beginner-historians to manage without a script. They generally have to convey a great deal of factual information and quotations, which have to be accurate. So there is scope for progression. I usually recommend starting with full scripts but then, with greater experience, expanding the amount of free-speaking.

Ultimately, however, it’s not the style of an exposition but the content that counts. The two worst presentations were similar in format and outcome. Both were intended sincerely, by speakers who were so entranced by their material that they had lost sight of the need to explain it.

One was a seminar paper, given by an eminent professor of eighteenth-century political history, who decided to branch out into the history of political thought. As a first foray, it was not a success. Announced as ‘The Debate between Edmund Burke’s Conservatism and Thomas Paine’s Radicalism’, Professor Ian Christie itemised at length the differing views of these two hegemonic political thinkers. His conclusion was unequivocal. It consisted of the simple observation: ‘Well, there you are! Burke was right’. A deep silence fell. I felt very sorry for the chair. We struggled to coax a debate from the speaker. But he merely replied: ‘Well, you’ve heard Burke’s views’. The unsatisfactory session drew to an early close. Alone among those present, the speaker remained serenely happy.1

A second dreadful session was of the same ilk. A famously combative professor of the fifteenth-century English economy offered a seminar paper on ‘Continuity in History’. The title was one that I found especially attractive, since I love macro-sweep. Obviously others agreed, because crowds assembled. Tony Bridbury’s paper, however, consisted of a close exposition of the fifteenth-century history of the Paston family, buttressed by readings from the well-known Paston Letters.2  There were no new insights. We were supposed to understand that family life and the small concerns of daily existence are universal preoccupations. Even that point, however, was not stated explicitly. Nor was there any conclusion, other than a gleeful: ‘You see? Nothing changes’. The following discussion spluttered briefly but got nowhere.
2013-1 Paston Letters

A first select edition of the Paston Letters was published by John Fenn in 1787, with new edn by A. Ramsay (1849)

Was there anything that the seminar chairs could have done to retrieve these situations? Perhaps they might have organised rival groups from the audience, to argue the respective cases for and against the core propositions. That manoeuvre would have been possible in an established class, where the course director has more control over the format. In a seminar, with a changing attendance from session to session, it would have been more tricky. But worth a try. Certainly more positive than the disgruntlement that actually prevailed.

Needless to say, the seminar/lecture norm has always been much better than either of those examples. And I have heard many very good and some completely outstanding presentations. How to pick one from the pack?

My choice is a master-exposition by the historian E.P. Thompson. His first degree was actually in English at Cambridge. On this occasion, he regaled an adult education conference in Preston with a lecture which combined the English-literary technique of close-reading with a historian’s detective work and attention to context. It showcased Thompson’s distinctive style at its very best.
E.P.Thompson

E.P. Thompson at Glastonbury Festival 1986, by Giacomino Parkinson,from www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk.

In Preston, the lecture began with his quiet reading of a poem by William Blake: ‘The Garden of Love’ from The Songs of Experience.3  Thompson then launched into his analysis, entirely without notes. At the end, he recited the poem again, with added emphasis. The result was startling. In the second reading, all the meanings and allusions within the poem sprang intensely to life. It was like stepping from a monochrome world into a world of vivid colour. Whether his general exposition of Blake was sustainable remained to be tested when, later, Thompson published his Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law.4  But, as a single lecture, it was exemplary in its entirely original mixture of literary detail and historical breadth.

The thirty-odd people who had assembled on a cold November afternoon in the mid-1980s for a routine local-history conference were challenged in true Blakeian style ‘to see the world in a grain of sand’. It was an inspiration that revealed what a great lecture can do.
2013-1 Blake garden of Love

1 This session, chaired by John Dinwiddy, occurred in the later 1970s. Subsequently Ian Christie (1919-98) amplified his study of the ‘intellectual repulse of revolution’ in his Ford Lectures, published as I.R. Christie, Stress and Stability: Reflections on the British Avoidance of Revolution (Oxford, 1984).

2 This session, chaired by F.J. Fisher, occurred in the early 1970s. In other contexts, A.R. Bridbury (1924- ) was happy to detect change: see variously his Economic Growth: England in the Later Middle Ages (1962; reissued Brighton, 1975); The English Economy from Bede to the Reformation (Woodbridge, 1992); and his Medieval England: Its Social and Economic Origins and Development (Leicester, 2008).

3 W. Blake, ‘The Garden of Love’’, from his Songs of Experience (1794).

4 E.P. Thompson (1924-93), Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993). For more on EPT and bibliographic references, see my earlier Blog/14, dated Dec. 2011.

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