MONTHLY BLOG 16, EVENTS LIVED THROUGH – PART ONE: 1968

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

Another way of thinking of influences (whether positive or negative) is to think of events lived through. There’s nothing like direct experience for augmenting or revising or contradicting the impact of books and people.

By contrast with my parents, I haven’t lived through a World War, so I have nothing to compare with the intense, anxious, sometimes exhilarating times that they knew as young adults. But impactful events can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The question is what is/was significant for the individual.

For myself, I would have to nominate the combination of events in and around two different years: 1968 and 1971. This set of meditations refers to the first of those: the year of world-wide student ‘revolutions’. I was then a postgraduate at the LSE and, technically at least, at the eye of the storm. For me personally, this was a great time. I was young, happily in love, beginning to become engaged in politics, and deeply absorbed in London life, in my historical research, and in endless discussions about the meaning of life with my friends and family.

Optimism, which is my personal default condition, seemed pervasive in the youth culture of the times. It was energising. (Not that I wrote my thesis very rapidly. I was almost too busy with my research to put pen to paper … a serious mistake, as I later came to realise). But the positive atmosphere was contagious. There were plentiful jobs; there was lot of talk about sex; there was great music; there were experimental films; and there was a cultural irreverence that opened eyes and minds. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, I taught so many sad-eyed and depressed students that I felt almost guilty at continuing to be cheerful. I always tried to jolly them along, on the grounds that an atmosphere of educational gloom is not good for learning, let alone for personal development. But cheeriness seemed more difficult under Thatcher, whereas in 1968 optimism – at least at first – was so easy.

This famous year, however, was much more complex in practice. As often happens, radical euphoria is hard to sustain. There are always plenty of serpents in Eden. One repellent shock was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21-22 August 1968, dousing liberal hopes invested in the Prague Spring. I remember halting in a street near Norwich, where I’d gone for research purposes, to watch with consternation as the invasion was blurrily shown on a black-and-white television in a shop-window. I was depressed – and angered that the Dubcek experiment had not had time to unfold. But I was not particularly shocked, as Hungary in 1956 had provided a prior warning. That crisis had triggered many left-wingers in Britain, like my uncle Christopher Hill, to leave the Communist Party – after the failure of their attempts at democratic reform within the British CP.
soviet-invasion-czechoslovakia-1968-illustrated-history-pictures-images-photos-008In the aftermath of Czechoslovakia, the response in Britain was not so drastic. I personally wasn’t so blind about the faults of the Soviet system. And I was not a member of the British CP, so couldn’t resign in protest. Nonetheless, the general effect was dispiriting. The political and cultural left,1 which at that time were still in synchronisation, were angered but also depressed.

Brute force had again triumphed. Totalitarian repression was bad enough in itself. But totalitarianism in the name of the left was worse, since it perverted the ideal of international brotherhood. That betrayal made it even more galling, in following years, to be denounced, by right-wing opponents in local politics, as an agent of Moscow. I certainly wasn’t. But the behaviour of communist Russia made it possible for hostile rhetoric to tar – however unjustly – all those on the broad spectrum of the left as advocates of totalitarian state power. It was particularly unfair when that accusation was made against the historian E.P. Thompson, who was actively encouraging East European dissidents.

At the same time, 1968 was full of much more immediate student politics at home. I enjoyed the alternative debates and attended, casually rather than systematically, a number of mass meetings. I also participated in a number of protest demonstrations, including the so-called ‘riot’ outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square on 17 March 1968.

But I didn’t join any of the sit-ins, primarily because I disbelieved the euphoric rhetoric that accompanied them. I remember one activist (now a Labour peer in the House of Lords) proclaiming, to cheers, that occupying the Principal’s room and opening the College files would promote the imminent overthrow of western capitalism. Even the enthusiasm of the moment, which surely permits a bit of exaggeration, could not excuse such an infantile level of analysis. I was offended not so much at the students’ actions but at their weak rationale for their behaviour and their lack of strategic sense. This vagueness signalled in advance that the protests in Britain were bound to fail, since the students’ ultimate aims were so utopian and their actions were so far from seizing or even challenging any real levers of political or economic power. (The situation was different in France, where the student and worker protests contributed to the resignation of De Gaulle in 1969. Yet even there, the eventual limitations to the student activism were very visible).

Capitalism is anyway a very protean force, liable to change and adapt. And, whatever form it took in 1968, it was highly unlikely to be overthrown by disrupting the universities. It was laughable, really. The outcome almost everywhere was a mouse, in the form of student representation on university boards and the creation of departmental staff/student committees. Good – but not revolutionary, even within the most hide-bound of academic institutions.

The energies and enthusiasms of 1968 were dissipated. And elsewhere, we learned in detail later, student radicalism in the form of the Red Guards was used cruelly by Mao as a party mechanism of social terror.
China Red Guards 1968So 1968 was an educative moment for me. Vague utopianism had to be rejected as much as totalitarianism. Indeed, utopianism had to be treated with even more suspicion, since it seemed the more seductive. The answer – between brute force and empty rhetoric – had to be more humdrum and more realistic. In company with my partner Tony Belton, I became more active within the Labour Party. In 1971, we were both elected as councillors in the London Borough of Wandsworth. The outcome of that experience also proved to be stimulating but far from simple – see my next month’s discussion-piece.

1 This definition takes attitudes towards the redistribution of wealth as the dividing line between the political left (in favour) and the right (opposed, unless undertaken by non-state charities). An alternative, supported by some neo-liberals, sees attitudes towards state power as forming the dividing line with neo-liberals (opposed) and statists (supportive). But the latter division, although psychologically important for some libertarians, is not very helpful practically as de facto all parties are inescapably embroiled in the modern state, thus lumping everyone de facto into just one category.

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MONTHLY BLOG 15, TWO HISTORIANS WHO INFLUENCED ME

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

Thinking of influences, two very different historians influenced me not only through their originality but through their intellectual ‘bite’. They were nothing if not challenging. In that they were very alike, although otherwise they were very different.

I tend to think of them as polar opposites: one representing the critical intellect and the other the creative intellect. In fact, however, that extreme contrast is unfair. Both men combined both qualities and both produced path-breaking historical studies. But they presented themselves to the world and to their students in different ways.

Actually I was formally taught only by one of them. He was F.J. Fisher (1908-88), universally known as Jack.1 He supervised my doctorate at the LSE. ‘Formal’ tutoring, however, was very far from Jack’s style. Often we walked round and round Lincoln’s Inn Fields (close to the LSE), sometimes for hours – talking about history and breaking off from time to time for a coffee or a drink.

Jack was a meta-critic, of great insight. He quickly moved from the immediate question in hand to the deeper implications of any intellectual position. ‘Your problem is this …’, he would commence, before peeling back layers and layers of argument. Another of his favourite ploys, used in public to deceive the unwary, was ‘I know nothing about this but …’, before posing a devastating question or deep observation. At the same time, he relished quick wit and intellectual banter. As a result, he was often surrounded by a crowd of people, laughing.

Above all, Jack Fisher was always ready to challenge any possible viewpoint. Indeed, his readiness to attack made him feared by some, including by a surprising number of senior historians. But while Jack was tough, he was also relatively kinder to beginners than he ever was to eminent scholars, when they came to lecture at LSE. In fact, he viewed it as part of his task to try to cut visiting grandees down to size, so that the students should learn to be critics rather than supine followers of ‘great men’.

Unsurprisingly, Jack rarely gave praise. But when he once said that something I’d done was ‘not bad’, I was much pleased. The result was a stimulating and enjoyable education not only in history but also in the art of thinking.

Jack Fisher was a miniaturist, writing a small number of lucid essays – not long books. That could not have been more different from the other historian who influenced me: E.P. (Edward) Thompson (1924-93). He wrote voluminously, elegantly, wordily, creatively, often amazingly. Never to other people’s deadlines, as is revealed in the most recent study of his oeuvre.2 Yet he produced books both long and short, essays and later commentaries on his own essays, historical studies, polemical tracts on current politics, theoretical interventions within the Marxist intellectual tradition(s), and countless long and informative letters, as well as poetry, and a novel.

Of course, he too was a critic. Edward Thompson was both sharp and robust in discussion and at times immensely polemical among his fellow left-wingers. Many experienced his volcanic wrath. Indeed some of his friendships were halted over political differences. His remarkable letters were also ready to rebuke, when he felt a rebuke was due, although their flowing pages might well continue with a torrent of wit and information alongside the chastisement.

It was this torrential outflow of ideas that made Edward Thompson represent for me the creative intellect, fusing ideas from sociology, anthropology, literature and history.3 I was never one of his students. Instead I met him socially, through his wife Dorothy Thompson, who was in the History Department at Birmingham University, where I was learning to teach on the job. At parties and gatherings, the Thompsons were enlivening and magnetic – and very far from didactic. But every time we met, I always got something new about which to cogitate.

In part, that was because Edward Thompson was himself in constant intellectual transition. He broke from the rigidities of the British Communist Party in 1956, after the failure of internal attempts at reform by himself and many fellow-historians including Christopher Hill. And then, slowly and agonisingly, Edward receded from strict Marxism. Instead, he strove to create his own humanist Marxism, but without falling entirely out of the Marxist embrace. Over time, however, that struggle became more difficult. He recoiled not only from the brutalities of communist regimes, perpetrated in the name of Karl Marx, but also from schematic intellectual edifices, such as the structuralist Marxism of Althusser, against whom Thompson polemicised in startling but effective style.

Overall, Edward’s utter seriousness in his commitment was compelling. He wanted to find a systematic answer – unlike Jack Fisher, who was not worried at its lack. So the travails of the left often made Edward deeply depressed. Yet his flow of wit, erudition, personal kindness and charm, plus intellectual creativity, never ceased.4

I consider myself lucky to have met both men. I don’t follow either in their views, but I do try to combine their creativity with their critical mode. The one time they both met in my presence (which was probably the one time overall that they met) was when Edward Thompson came to lecture at the LSE in the late 1960s. Crowds turned out to hear him. And they got a treat – an early version of his influential lecture, steeped in anthropology as well as history, entitled ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd’.5 In the discussion after the talk, Jack had the best of it. Wittily, he queried just how ‘moral’ the crowds were, when they rioted in protest at high food prices. Were they justly defending the communal welfare of the masses? Or were they, when they tried to stop grain from leaving their own areas, defending their sectional interest as one group of workers against those of other workers elsewhere? Was it ‘moral’ class solidarity? or a case of much-less-moral though readily understandable ‘I’m all right, Jack’? At the time, Edward Thompson laughed and said that he’d answer that in writing. But when he published the article, to much fame and controversy, he stuck unhesitatingly with the concept of the ‘moral’ crowd.

In a sense, they both gained. Edward Thompson succeeded in getting historians to take food riots seriously, refuting the assumption that the brutish masses reacted with knee-jerk violence whenever food prices soared. Human responses to economic crisis are far more complex, both in the eighteenth century and as we are witnessing today. But Jack was also right in that Thompson’s views would generate scholarly criticisms, from all points on the historiographical spectrum.

A final point. Neither man would fit into today’s academic world of continual assessment. Jack Fisher wrote far too little, for regular assessment purposes, though what he did write was vintage quality. Edward Thompson wrote too voluminously and eclectically, with many glittering jewels amidst much vivid polemics, without meeting deadlines – being an old-style ‘man of letters’ and not a career Prof. But so much the worse for today’s world of academic assessment. They were great historians, who don’t fit into any mould.

1 For further details and a collection of Jack Fisher’s path-breaking essays, see P.J. Corfield, ‘F.J. Fisher and the Dialectic of Economic History’, in P.J. Corfield and N.B. Harte (eds), F.J. Fisher: London the English Economy, 1500-1700 (1990), pp. 3-22.

2 See Scott Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: E.P. Thompson, The New Left, and Postwar British Politics (Manchester, 2011), reviewed by P.J.C. in electronic Reviews in History: IHR London – featured review no 1137 (29 Sept. 2011): see website www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1137. Another helpful overview is provided Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions: The Histories and Politics of E.P. Thompson (1994).

3 For further details, see P.J. Corfield, ‘E.P.Thompson, Historian: An Appreciation’, New Left Review, 201 (1993), pp. 10-17.

4 For a quick introduction, see Dorothy Thompson (ed.), The Essential E.P. Thompson (New York, 2001).

5 E.P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & Present, 50 (1971), pp. 76-136; repr. in his Customs in Common (1991), pp. 185-258, with his response to the debates in ‘The Moral Economy Reviewed’, ibid., pp. 259-351.

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MONTHLY BLOG 14, AN UNKNOWN BOOK THAT INFLUENCED ME

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

Writing my father’s obituary recently, I began to muse about people who have influenced me, who emphatically include my parents. And then, in parallel, I began to think about books which had an impact on me; and decided to write about one unknown tome, which I read as a teenager.

The book in question was given to me as a History prize in the sixth-form at Chislehurst and Sidcup County Grammar School for Girls (as it then was). Who chose the volume, I have no idea. I’ve never heard anyone else ever refer to it. It’s entitled The Living Past by Ivar Lissner, flowingly translated from the German by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, and published in 1957. Today the work is available via Googlebooks – and advertised among collections of rare books. The stout volume is well illustrated and mapped; and on the front cover are figures from an ancient script – encouraging the mind to fly to unknown places.
november001I remember reading this work with fascination as a teenager in the 1960s and then letting it lie fallow, as it was so far removed from anything in the normal History curriculum, either at school or university.

My first interest in the book, which is written with luminous ease, was triggered by its ambitious global coverage. Subtitled The Great Civilisations of Mankind, the title bears the imprint of its age. Today we know all too well just how uncivilised the behaviour of allegedly ‘civilised’ nations can be. So possibly the author would have chosen to refer to ‘cultures’ instead. But putting that niggle aside, the book starts with Mesopotamia and then tours through the archaeological/social history of: Egypt; Anatolia; Phoenicia; Persia; Palestine; India; Cambodia; China; Central Asia; Japan; Australia; Polynesia; Melanesia; North America; South America; Central America; Crete; Greece; Italy; and Carthage.

Later I noticed that most of Africa; northern Europe; and Russia were excluded. But the effect of Lissner’s light, gliding prose was such that it was easy to imagine that, with more space, he would have encompassed these other areas with equal aplomb. His text offered sweep rather than universality; and his sweep was determined to take all cultures equally seriously.

A second immediately impressive element was Lissner’s quest to make the ‘dead’ past come alive. Readers were encouraged into efforts at empathy across the generations. Many of the pithy chapters have evocative labels. ‘Cursing their Master behind his Back’ examines the nature of slavery in classical Greece, whilst the author breathes humanist sympathy for the slaves. ‘Babylon was well lit at night’ evokes the bright lights of ancient Babylon and the city’s social mores. And at the end of the Babylonian chapter, Lissner quotes moving scraps of texts from cuneiform messages, songs, and love-letters, written on clay tablets dating from thousands of years ago.

It was such personal declarations from long-dead people which, many years later, jogged my memory about Lissner’s book and got me rereading it. His impressionistic style today seems old-fashioned and I can see many points with which I would later argue. But he had influenced me and also my teaching. ‘Long-sweep’ history need not just be about assessing impersonal trends but should also incorporate the mental effort of imagining/evaluating past experiences of work, wars, loves, joys, griefs – echoing through time.
november002Above all, the text conveyed the implicit assumption that, with historical effort and study, one human could understand, even if not approve, the culture of any other, anywhere around the world – and at any time.
Lissner himself seems to have taken a cyclical view of history. Great ‘civilisations’ would rise and then fall (p.41). His book did not, however, follow anything like a chronological narrative. Instead, he stressed the interconnections between different cultures and the power of continuity.

Ultimately, for him, the key to ‘modernity’ was the emergence of Greek democracy. Its teachings were then conveyed to Rome, which welded ‘the spiritual order of Greece with Christianity’ (p.361). Yet Lissner’s final chapter was surprising. The book ends with ‘the tragedy of Hannibal’. Had Carthage won the Punic wars, Lissner argued, then it would have been the Carthaginians, rather than the Romans, who would have become the historic middlemen ‘between the heritage of the Mediterranean and modern Europe’. Somehow history’s flow was destined but the key actors in achieving it were not. The argument was faintly strange. But I did not worry about that upon first reading, being moved by his approach rather than his conclusions.

Long after reading the book, I discovered that Ivar Lissner (1909-67) came from a Baltic German family with Jewish ancestry but, repellently, had become an active Nazi. He joined the party in 1933 and provided military intelligence for Hitler in the Far East. Falling between several stools, he was imprisoned in harsh conditions by the Japanese from 1943-5. One would not guess any of that from the book. The international humanism seems sincere. And the chapters on Japan are affectionate. Perhaps the deep past gave him a mental escape-route from his fascist years. Certainly, the book’s tone is melancholic. It warns against praising the present at the expense of past cultures. And the nearest to explicit repentance comes in Lissner’s disparaging reference to the ‘so-called “New” Orders of our own small age’ (p.24), although that remark probably reflected anti-communism as much as anti-fascism.

Anyway, as I’ve indicated, upon first reading I was utterly uninterested in the author. Instead, I was stirred by the clarion call to study The Living Past, in the skilled translator’s effective choice of words.1  Not dead history. But a living process. The book thus acted as a ‘sleeper’ in my mind, nurturing my interest in the long-span history,2  even when it was out of fashion. Now that ‘big history’ (or cosmic history) is returning to serious attention,3  I am thoroughly glad that I was pre-primed long ago. The Living Past is a part of my own living past.

1 The German title was So Habt Ihr Geleb = literally Thus Have They Lived.

2 My contribution is Time and the Shape of History (Yale University Press, 2007).

3 The International Big History Association recruits from many disciplines, scientific as well as historical: see website www.ibhanet.org for Newsletter and call for papers at first international conference to be held in 2012.

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MONTHLY BLOG 13, CROSS-CLASS MARRIAGE IN HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

People often imagine that class barriers were more rigid in the past, notwithstanding historical fluctuations in social attitudes. As a result, it is always assumed that cross-class marriages were especially rare. Yet matters were never so simple. Among the many individuals in the past, who had sexual relationships across class boundaries (a comparatively frequent occurrence), there were always some who were bold enough to marry across them.

One case, among several aristocratic examples from the eighteenth century, was the marriage of the 5th Earl of Berkeley to Mary Cole, the daughter of a Gloucester butcher. She made a dignified wife, living down the social sneers. The Berkeleys began to live together in 1785 and did not marry publicly until 1796, although the Earl claimed that there had been an earlier ceremony.
october001This confusion led to a succession dispute. Eventually, the sons born before the public wedding were disbarred from inheriting the title, which went to their legitimate younger brother. Here the difficulty was not the mother’s comparatively ‘lowly’ status but the status of the parental marriage. It affected the succession to a noble title, which entitled its holder to attend the House of Lords. But the disbarred older siblings did not become social outcasts. Two of the technically illegitimate sons, born before the public marriage, went on to become MPs in the House of Commons, while the legitimate 6th Earl modestly declined to take his seat as a legislator.

Another example, this time from the nineteenth century, was that of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. He was the wealthy owner of Uppark House (Sussex), who in 1825 married for the first time, aged 70. His bride was the 21-year-old Mary Ann Bullock, his dairymaid’s assistant. She inherited his estate, surviving him for many years. Everything at Uppark was kept as it was in Sir Harry’s day. The estate then went to her unmarried sister who, as ‘her leddyship’ in her very old age, appeared to epitomise the old landed society – so much did outcomes triumph over origins. The young H.G. Wells, whose mother was housekeeper at Uppark, mused accordingly:1

In that English countryside of my boyhood every human being had a ‘place’. It belonged to you from your birth like the colour of your eyes, it was inextricably your destiny. Above you were your betters, below you were your inferiors…

The social conventions, within such a hierarchy, did allow for some mobility. High-ranking men raised their wives to a matching status, giving aristocratic men some room for manoeuvre. Against that, noble families generally did their best to ensure that heirs to grand titles did not run away with someone entirely ‘unsuitable’.

A tabulation of the first-marriage choices of 826 English peers, made between 1600 and 1800, showed that, in sober reality, most (73 percent) chose a bride from an equally or nearly equally titled background.2 The homogeneity of the elite was generally preserved.

Interestingly, however, just over one quarter (27 percent) of these English peers – a far from negligible proportion – were more socially venturesome. Their wives from ‘lower’ social backgrounds tended to be daughters of professional men or of merchants. In particular, a splendid commercial fortune was an ideal contribution in terms of bridal dowry; and, in such circumstances, aristocratic families found themselves willing to accept theoretically humbler connections with businessmen ‘in trade’.

Marriages like that of Sir Harry were ‘outliers’ in terms of the social distance between bride and groom. But his matrimonial decision to leap over conventions of social distance was not unique.

For women of high rank, meanwhile, things were more complicated. By marrying ‘down’, they lost social status; and their off-spring, however well connected on the mother’s side, took their ‘lower’ social rank from the father.

Nonetheless, it was far from unknown for high-born women to flout convention. In particular, wealthy widows might follow their own choice in a second marriage, having followed convention in the first. One notable example was Hester Lynch Salusbury, from a Welsh landowning family. She married, firstly, Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, with whom she had 12 children, and then in 1784 – three years after Thrale’s death – Gabriele Piozzi, an Italian music teacher and a Catholic to boot.3

Scandal ensued. Her children were affronted. And Dr Johnson, a frequent house-guest at the Thrale’s Streatham mansion, was decidedly not amused. Undaunted, Hester Lynch Piozzi and her husband retired to her estates in north Wales, where they lived in a specially built Palladian villa, Brynbella.
october002So little was damage done to the family’s long-term status that her (estranged) oldest daughter married a Viscount. Furthermore, the Piozzis’ adopted son, an Italian nephew of Gabriele Piozzi, inherited the Salusbury estates, taking the compound name Sir John Salusbury Piozzi Salusbury.

If, after the initial fuss, the partners in a cross-class union lived respectably enough, the wider society tended sooner or later to condone the ‘mésalliance’. Feelings were soothed by respect for marriage as an institution. And the wider social stability was ultimately served by absorbing such dynastic shocks rather than by highlighting them.

Little wonder that many a novel dilated on the excitements and tensions of matrimonial choice. Not only was there the challenge of finding a satisfactory partner among social peer-groups but there was always some lurking potential for an unconventional match instead of a conventional union.

Such possibilities – complete with hazards – applied at all levels of society. In the early twentieth century, the family of D.H. Lawrence epitomised a different set of cross-class tensions. His father was a scarcely literate miner from Eastwood, near Nottingham, while his mother was a former assistant teacher with strong literary interests, who disdained the local dialect, and prided herself on her ‘good old burgher family’. From the start, they were ill-assorted.
october003In his youth, D.H. Lawrence was his mother’s partisan and despised his father as feckless and ‘common’. Later, however, he switched his theoretical allegiance. Lawrence felt that his mother’s puritan gentility had warped him. Instead, he yearned for his father’s male sensuousness and frank hedonism, though the father and son never became close.4

Out of such tensions came Lawrence’s preoccupation with man/woman conflict and with unorthodox sex and love. His parent’s strife was also more than mirrored in his own turbulent relationship with Frieda von Richtofen, the daughter of a Silesian aristocrat, who was, when they met, married to a respected Nottingham University professor.

Initial social distance between a married couple could lend enchantment – or the reverse. Cross-class relationships have been frequent enough for there to have been many cases, both successful and the reverse. Later generations always underestimate their number. But we should not ignore the potential for cultural punch (positive or negative) when couples from different backgrounds marry, even in times when class barriers are less than rigid. Nor should we underestimate society’s long-term ability to absorb such shocks, which would have to happen in great numbers before a classless society might be achieved.

1 H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay (1909; in 1994 edn), pp. 10-11. For more about the Fe(a)therstonhaugh marriage and the context of Sussex landowning society, see A. Warner, ‘Finding the Aristocracy, 1780-1880: A Case Study of Rural Sussex’ (unpub. typescript, 2011; copyright A. Warner, who can be contacted via PJC).

2 Figures calculated from data in J. Cannon, Aristocratic Century: The Peerage of Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1984), p. 85: Table 20. Note that the social status of each bride is derived from the rank of her father, so possibly obscuring a more variegated background in terms of her maternal inheritance.

3 Details of their courtship and Hester Thrale’s meditations on their disparities in rank are available on the website: www.thrale.com.

4 R. Aldington, Portrait of a Genius but …: The Life of D.H. Lawrence (1950), pp. 3-5, 8-9, 13, 15, 334.

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MONTHLY BLOG 12, WHAT IS A RIOT?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

What’s a riot? Some people prefer to name the recent disorder in numerous English cities between 6-10 August 2011 as ‘looting sprees’. But there is no absolute right-or-wrong definition.

Riots usually involve crowds in substantial numbers, who are flouting the law in a tumultuous and out-of-control manner. They may or may not have a specified aim. Yet if disorderly crowds resort to public displays of criminal violence against people and/or property, then their actions are riotous.

Mass campaigns of civil disobedience do not fall into the same category. In such cases, campaigners may also break the criminal law. An example was the 1932 mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. The action, however, was conducted in an orderly way, to make their campaign point. The ramblers were asserting their right of access to the countryside (see plaque) – a right that was eventually confirmed by legislation.1
september001

Running wild:

It is the out-of-control element which makes riots not only nerve-tingling for rioters but also, potentially, exhilarating. Normal order is being flouted. People make snap decisions, in strange circumstances. Generally, the excitement is greatest in the early stages of a riot, before official repression follows.

One historical example displayed carnival elements. At the Nottingham Goose Fair Riots in 1764, the crowd rebelled at a sudden steep rise in food prices. Market stalls were ransacked and giant cheeses were rolled down the street. One struck the Mayor, flattening his dignity. Although serious in intent, the crowd’s antics parodied the Fair’s normal carnival atmosphere.

That element of being out-of-control makes riots into very blunt instruments as a form of political protest. They are hard to direct and focus. Thus, while riots may start as demonstrations of public anger on classic issues (eg: politics; religion; policing; high prices; unemployment; or any combination of those), they often develop, if unchecked, into disorganised violence and attacks on property. As things escalate, blazing buildings and uncontrolled streets (see illustration from London in August 2011) mimic scenes of disasters or war zones. In one sense, the flames are an emphatic display of anger. Yet any issues at stake in the riot are obscured by the urgent need to restore order.
september002

Repressing riots:

Repressing riots in Britain was, historically, governed by special legislation. Under the 1715 Riot Act,2 a disorderly and threatening mass of twelve or more people was not held to be riotous until the Mayor or local magistrate had read the Riot Act – and one full hour had elapsed. That way, people were warned.

If the crowds did not disperse, the authorities were then entitled to use force, in the form of armed troops. Shots were fired; and sometimes one or two rioters lost their lives. State violence in retaliation hit its peak in the aftermath of London’s Gordon Riots in June 1780. These began as anti-Catholic demonstrations but, while the authorities dithered, ‘King Mob’ took over. Prisons were thrown open. Wealthy residences, including that of the Lord Chief Justice, were sacked. And the Bank of England was attacked. When the troops were finally summoned to restore order, they killed several hundred people and wounded as many again. It was at once the apogee of political violence – and its nadir, since these riots alienated many of the original protestors.
september003However, the authorities needed – and still need – to strike a balance. On the one hand, they had to restore civil peace. On the other hand, it’s always wise not to provoke more people to join the mayhem. The use of troops today remains a reserve power. But riot control, in a democracy, is essentially viewed as a task for policing – and, ultimately, for community self-control.

 So do riots ‘work’?

Because riots are hard to control and often provoke a backlash, riots are usually taken as a negative form of campaigning. For that reason, organised protestors generally try hard to prevent marches and demonstrations from turning violent. Nonetheless, the authorities do also pay attention to the crowd grievances, if only through prudence. For example, historic riots in protest at high food prices often encouraged magistrates to bring extra grain into town. Or, much more recently, the 1990 riot in Trafalgar Square against the Poll Tax was one of the salient factors which helped to bring about that tax’s demise. Hence activists sometimes comment pointedly that violence attracts a greater degree of attention from the powers-that-be than does civil protest.

So riots can ultimately be defined as inarticulate (or non-articulated) forms of protest, which take the form of collective violence. They include riots which end or even start with looting. In sum, all upheavals make a point. They shock the complacency of the powers-that-be. But riots don’t usually ‘win’ directly. Instead, they draw attention to an issue or range of issues. In the old days, rioters were suppressed without too much angst. They were rarely voters. What democracies decide to do about those non-articulated issues, however, is much more significant. It is unlikely that there will be plaques to commemorate the 2011 riots. But there will be responses – and repression alone won’t suffice.

1 The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949) laid the foundation for all subsequent legislation, most recently the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000).

2 This legislation remained on the statute book until 1967, when it was replaced by the Criminal Law Act.

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MONTHLY BLOG 11, WHERE IS THE POLITICAL LEFT TODAY?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

WHERE IS THE POLITICAL LEFT TODAY?1
august001

2
Today’s political scene is a blurred rainbow. Gone are the old simplicities – if they were ever that simple – when one reactionary party of tradition and privilege (the Right) was confronted by one progressive party of reform and egalitarianism (the Left).

A heartfelt cry for ‘social justice’ still has resonance. But how does that translate into politics, as opposed to single-issue campaigning? It’s always easier to know what is not wanted than to know what to put in its place. And even harder to know how to achieve the alternative.

Claims for progressive thought today are found in the Green Party, generating red-greenery. Ditto among some Liberal Democrats, whose social democratic component came from Labour: the result, red-orange (alongside orange-blue). Some Tories also use community-based language, as in the red-blue thought of Phillip Blond.3 And campaigners within Labour today advocate a return to localism and mutualism:4 a blue-red vision.

That latter position recalls Christopher Logue’s 1966 poem, with its only partly tongue-in-cheek conclusion: ‘I shall vote labour because/ deep in my heart/ I am a conservative’.5

So what now? Of course, there are other possibilities for direct action outside the conventional political parties, such as via the Transition Network.6 But we can all rethink. For Labour activists, some of the big questions relate to its underlying political philosophy.

One issue is Labour’s attitude to the state, and specifically to central government. Although part of the movement historically sprang from local unions, cooperatives and mutuals, there has also been throughout the twentieth century a push towards centralisation. (The same pressures also operated upon the Conservative party in power). Control of the levers of central government seems necessary as a means of introducing change.

On the other hand, centralised control, introduced to remedy injustices, can work against itself, as novelists like George Orwell and Arthur Koestler have urgently warned.7 Excess centralisation risks cutting national politicians off from their roots. And, even more importantly, it risks alienating the masses, to and for whom policies are enacted at a distance.

Furthermore, in a development that is post-Orwellian but often carries Orwellian connotations, the growth of an adjunct state of regulatory quangos (which has happened under both Conservatives and Labour in the later twentieth century) is also intervening extensively between the state and its citizens.8 This development also risks introducing another source of political alienation at many levels in society and of diminished social trust.

Consequently, how to recombine the local and the central is one resonant question for today – a question which does not require yet another ‘top-down’ answer.

A second question asks not just about the mechanisms for promoting change but about the presumed beneficiaries. Who are the underdogs in society today whose cause(s) should be prioritised by progressive politics? Without a realistic set of answers, national politicians end up inventing policies in the name of abstractions (‘choice’ ‘competition’) – and often contradicting themselves, as one hand undoes what the other hand achieves.

In fact, there is not one universal victim whose wrongs stand proxy for all others. Complex urban/industrial societies generate very complex social relationships. There are divisions and conflicts at all levels, as well as cooperation and solidarity. One person’s underdog might be another person’s oppressor. An exploited and impoverished husband might beat his wife and children. A subjugated wife might submit her daughters to genital circumcision.

Divisive issues are often triggered by religion; ethnicity; immigration; gender relations; age; and lifestyles. Economic conflicts may also arise between different groups among the working class, as the trade union movement is well aware. Well-paid ‘labour aristocrats’ may not feel solidarity with the low-paid. The poor in employment may resent the unemployed poor. And vice versa. The unemployed may resent those in employment – and be divided

What is to be done? Again, the answers need realistic debates. Not just top-down pronouncements. Not just competitions to discover who is the ‘most victimised’. Novels and especially plays, with multiple voices in a compressed scenario, are good vehicles to explore these themes. But either way, progressive change and social cooperation will require good local governance (not another top-down reorganisation) as well as the contribution of the central state. To repeat: Social justice is not just one THING. It’s a process.

1 With thanks to all those who attended the Battersea Labour Party’s reading-group on Wednesday 19 July 2011 for a vigorous debate on this question; and to Tony Belton for a robustly critical reading of my first draft.

2 Blurred Rainbow 2 by Amazing-Love: from amazing-love.deviantart.com (downloaded 30 July 2011).

3 See Phillip Blond, Red Toryism (2010).

4 See Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White (eds), The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox: The Oxford/London Seminars, 2010/11 (2011).

5 Christopher Logue, ‘I Shall Vote Labour Because …’ (1966).

6 This network ‘supports community-led responses to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness’: see www.transition.network.org.

7 See esp. George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1948); Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940).

8 For a helpful overview, see Carsten Greve, Matthew Flinders, and Sandra Van Thiel, ‘Quangos – What’s in a Name? Defining Quangos from a Comparative Perspective’, Governance, 12 (1999), pp. 129–46.

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MONTHLY BLOG 10, WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE ARTS & HUMANITIES RESEARCH COUNCIL CITING POLITICAL SLOGANS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

Why are many Humanities researchers so angry at the conduct of the Arts and Humanities Research Council? Its chief executive Prof. Rick Rylance has not yet managed to assuage his critics. They fear that the AHRC has not kept due operational distance from the present coalition government and the David Cameron slogan ‘the Big Society’.

The ins-and-outs of what has happened are subject to dispute (see reports by Paul Jump in The Times Higher: 29 March 2011; 7 April 2011; 27 June 2011). But there is genuine concern about the AHRC’s Connected Communities project. This cross-research-council programme, led by the AHRC, appears to have become politically partisan. Its draft consultation paper in June 2010 declared that: ‘Radical new policies on the ‘Big Society’ & localism at the heart of the new Coalition Government’s strategy in England … require a step change in research engagement with local communities and groups, the third sector and local government’. That statement is in itself contentious. Should research methodologies really change with every change of government policy?

Moreover, the AHRC website features a 2010 policy context paper (pdf.2053kb) by Dr Bert Provan, Deputy Director in the Department of Communities & Local Government. His presentation quotes David Cameron extensively. It is stated as a truth, and not as a research question, that, in ‘broken Britain’, government is ‘a large part of the problem’. It has allegedly ‘drained the lifeblood’ from community life. Has it really? Internationally, Britain is often envied for its strong tradition of civil society by post-dictatorship countries, where civic associations have long been discouraged. But Provan’s presentation under the title of ‘Connected Communities or Building the “Big Society”’ seems to imply that the CC project (launched in 2008) is being refashioned to endorse and promote the ‘Big Society’ political agenda.

So what’s going wrong here?

Firstly: the terminology. The ‘Big Society’ has clear party-political connotations. It is not a general term of art. The usual phrase for voluntary activities undertaken communally is ‘civil society’. That term has a clear meaning, with historic and current traction. It is true that, in practice, the boundaries between civil society, the private sector, and central government are blurred. Yet a degree of ‘fuzziness’ attaches to many terms that sub-divide the interlocking nature of human societies. The important thing is that the term ‘civil society’ links to a body of existing research and organisational effort. For example, the South African-based international society Civicus (founded 1993) already offers a Civil Society Index and policy recommendations to enhance citizen participation.1 The term is descriptive and politically neutral – whereas the ‘Big Society’ is used specifically to advocate ‘small government’.
july001For that reason, David Cameron’s slogan enrages many people, not only on the centre and left in politics, but also on the Thatcherite right, who prefer individualist rather than communal alternatives to the state. In addition, plenty of non-political grass-roots activists dislike the term too. It appears as though a currently powerful section of one political party is trying to ‘own’ the countless manifestations of community life.2
july002But organic expressions of civil society began long before David Cameron invoked the ‘Big Society’ to purge the Tory’s anti-society image and will continue long after the current government has disappeared.3
july003Secondly: the pre-committed research framework. Programmes should not start by ruling out all the research options. In this case, it cannot be taken for granted that ‘the’ central state is ‘the’ problem for those seeking to build communities. Governments in contemporary societies are very variegated and diverse in their roles and structures. Their impact can in some circumstances be inimical or discouraging to community activism.

Yet that proposition needs to be investigated, not just asserted. At the same time, the state can foster various forms of community developments, not least by framing a helpful legal context (for example, in support of cooperatives) or by providing grants and support systems for charitable endeavours. So favourable aspects of government also need exploration and debating.

Once political slogans begin to be taken as axiomatic, then the research rot commences. Subjects atrophy, if they are forced into pre-determined moulds. The extreme example – taking the extreme to make the case – can be seen in the fate of biological sciences in Stalin’s Russia. Elevating ‘practice’ above abstract academic theory, Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) claimed to have pioneered a new genetics that would raise agrarian productivity dramatically, without investment in fertilisers. Stalin was delighted. [See the following photo, which shows his approving gaze at Lysenko’s 1935 Kremlin speech] Lysenko was lauded as an authentic ‘barefoot professor’, his peasant wisdom outwitting the ‘bourgeois’ academics. From 1940, Lysenko led the USSR’s Institute of Genetics. Critics were dismissed or imprisoned. Lysenkoist biology based upon environmental-manipulation rather than slow evolution was taught as a new orthodoxy.
july004But it didn’t work. Long before Lysenko’s teachings were officially discredited as fraudulent in 1964, they were sidelined in practice. In wartime, Stalin learned the hard way that he had to trust his generals to fight the war. Yet he did not get the message in science, or indeed in other subjects, like history, where he intervened to support one argument as Marxist orthodoxy against another as ‘bourgeois’ revisionism. Between them, Stalin and Lysenko halted Russian biological studies and palpably harmed Soviet agriculture for over a generation, greatly weakening Soviet Russia as an international power.4

Of course: this example is the extreme case. But it constitutes the classic warning. As soon as powerful politicians want one result from research and researchers are tempted to provide it, then knowledge halts.

Thirdly and lastly: research hubris.

A programme for Connecting Communities is tempting fate, not only by invoking a partisan slogan but also by promising too much. Its Vision hopes ‘To mobilise the potential for increasingly inter-connected communities’ by promoting connected research.5 Fragmented information from many sources and authorities will be united. And a sequence of benevolent Aims follow upon the generation of ‘world-leading’ research. One is the desire to ‘Create attractive, resilient, safe and sustainable environments in which communities can thrive and adapt successfully to the environmental, economic and social challenges that they will face in the twenty-first century’.6 Amen to that – but hang on a minute …

Such an aspiration does not just sound like a political manifesto, it is a political manifesto. It is not just providing research but it highlights desired research outcomes that no research council can possibly deliver. Even politicians, with their hands on the levers of power, fail to mould society to their wishes. It is certainly helpful for academic researchers to be aware of the practical applications of their work. And it would be splendid if politicians took notice of such studies.

However, communities have an organic life of their own. They can be encouraged or discouraged. But they do not depend upon politicians or upon researchers eager to please politicians.

Alas, the Connected Communities programme has fallen into a heffalump trap. It is true that successive governments would not like it if all scholars were suddenly to specialise in ‘The Economic Influences of Developments in Ship-Building Techniques 1450-1485’. (No disrespect to fifteenth-century ship-building, by the way. The example has been chosen because, as readers of Kingsley Amis will remember, it was the historic target of his anti-intellectual satire in Lucky Jim (1954).)7 Yet the remit of research in the Humanities stretches far and wide in chronology and location. It is generally researcher-led, in the interests of creativity and innovation (and including the risk of routine and dullness). Some big themes are encouraged by the research councils, which influence patterns of funding. But they take advice in choosing such themes, which usually reflect rather than create intellectual growth areas.

We don’t want to fall into the Lucky Jim trap of a researcher hating his research task, in which he had absolutely no interest. That’s clearly not productive, either intellectually or socially. Yet we don’t want to fall into the opposite trap of claiming to effect grandiose plans, which fall beyond researchers’ competence to deliver, in order to please political pay-masters.

Talking of the vogue for Localism on the part of a repentant central government, I remember Hazel Blears, then Labour’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, proudly informing a group of local community activists in Putney (2008) that: ‘It has fallen to me to regenerate Britain’s communities’. She got a collective raspberry from her audience, who daily struggled to promote citizen engagement. They were not impressed. Voters weren’t enamoured either. While politicians necessarily include some hot air in their armoury, it should be good quality rhetoric. And researchers should avoid it entirely.

1 This World Alliance for Citizen Participation is self-defined as ‘an international alliance of members and partners which constitutes an influential network of organisations at the local, national, regional and international levels, and spans the spectrum of civil society’, committed to expanding democracy and citizen participation: see www.civicus.org. The interesting website is, however, insufficiently clear about the actual leadership and membership of Civicus.

2 David Cameron presenting 2010 Big Society awards: issued by the Prime Minister’s office, number10.gov.uk.

3 The illustration shows the hand-drawn advertisement for village fete on 6 May 2011 at Hernhill Village (Kent): see hernhill.net.

4 See N. Roll-Hansen, The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science (2006); and V. Soyfer, Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, transl. L. and R. Gruliow (1994).

5 AHRC website: Connected Communities Revised Draft Outline for Consultation (July 2010) – Vision.

6 Ibid: Aims – the second of seven bullet-points.

7 Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954; in Penguin 1977 edn), p. 15.

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MONTHLY BLOG 9, WHAT HAS GONE WRONG WITH THE AUDIT CULTURE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

june001As the sorry tale of FIFA currently implies, oligarchies without external audit and accountability sooner or later get corrupted. So there was a serious principle as well as praxis behind the late Labour Government’s extension of the audit culture to so many aspects of public administration.

The result was a state of close watchfulness. And the government, relying upon good intentions and a mountain of audited data, used the mantra of ‘accountability’ to micro-manage swathes of local government and public administration by setting targets and penalising those who fell behind.

Excluded from the process was the economy, which was left to ‘light touch’ state regulation and to commercial auditors. The result was paradoxical. It was the economy, and particularly the financial sector, which turned out to need more attention. Yet, conversely, the target culture was overdone. There was no happy balance, either in economic or social governance.

Labour’s targets included supervising the professions, which since the early nineteenth century had evolved the ethos of professional self-regulation under parliamentary sanction. Labour also emulated the previous Tory administrations under Thatcher and Major by increasingly subjecting local government to central direction. The traditional partners in the country’s governance, with their own democratic mandate, were undermined. Not surprisingly, turnouts in local elections began to fall, although a stubborn percentage of the electorate do continue to support the historic pluralism of the British system.

Many earnest New Labour supporters have repeated to me their favoured mantra: ‘If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it’. The argument seems yet another extension of the dire posthumous influence of Jeremy Bentham, who thought that the essence of government was calculation. But the measurement mantra needs critical questioning. It seems to make sense but actually doesn’t.

For a start, successful (and indeed failed) managements in earlier times have long preceded the mass supply of measured and audited data. Good information certainly provides a sound basis. But the art of management requires more than that – including qualities such as leadership, enthusiasm, wise policies, sensitivity to context and public opinion, and the capacity to forge a team.

Furthermore, the proposition can also be faulted by noting that today’s massive supply of information has not obviated many cases of weak or poor management. ‘Drowning in data’ can even be a prime cause of failure.
june002Alternatively, the quest for measured information can insensibly become itself a substitute for effective management. The false impression is gained that managers can organise everything if only they have a large enough database. That way, vast sums of money are wasted only to find that giant systems don’t work.

So it is worth repeating every time that: ‘Data is only as good as the people using the data’. And, especially: ‘Information is not knowledge’. Advanced management means being able to cope with things that cannot easily be quantified and with the moving processes of real life.

Too much of the audit-and-target culture becomes excessively directive from on high. Assessors assume ever greater importance, thus generating a new technocratic elite which creates yet one more tier of apparent authority between the citizens and the state. Auditors are greeted with outward servility but secret resentment. Their often subjective judgements, once pronounced, are turned into apparently objective outcomes without any easy check upon their own performance. Auditors become a new vested interest in their own right, hence colluding with power and tending instead to pick upon the weak.

Service providers who are subject to constant and often subjective measurement and invigilation feel resentment and alienation. Rational people are pressurised to work towards the targets, since tangible rewards for their business (and sometimes for individuals personally) depend upon meeting the targets. That applies whether the targets are well chosen or not. All too often, the measurements seem to take priority over the services being measured. The number of exam passes seems more important than the content of what is taught and examined. Through-put of hospital patients seems more significant than the nature of the healthcare provided.

In these circumstances, public service threatens to become a risk-averse culture of diligent and generally joyless conformism. Professional knowledge and initiative seems to be undervalued and undermined. As a result, individual enthusiasm and commitment risks being lost. People’s moods are often unproductive, ranging from anger to bitterness or cynicism and/or (in some cases) to destabilising fear.

There is every incentive for service providers to massage the figures, if they can, in the interest of their services. And in certain circumstances, the stage is set for collusion. When providers are marked by clients who depend on good reports from the providers, implicit deals may be struck: good marks in return for good reports.

Hostility to this ethos contributed to the fall of New Labour, not least by alienating the professionals who traditionally formed an important constituency for Labour. These people will not, however, be appeased by the Coalition. Its reforms of the audit culture are very hit-and-miss. Indeed the Coalition is even more hostile to public service providers than was New Labour. The current Tory preference is for contracting out services to commercial businesses and charities – all bodies that need more public scrutiny than they currently get. Some private-sector scandals have already emerged. More are bound to follow.

What is to be done? The route of endless centrally-directed audit-plus-targets undermines the public sector and creates a top-heavy state. We need scrutiny. But audit should not be turned into an extra layer of management by another guise. Instead, we need due proportionality, accepting common sense, understanding local variations, allowing for operational discretion, and extending true participation by both providers and clients. Let’s keep the long arms of Jeremy Bentham under control. We have to do more than count!
june003

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MONTHLY BLOG 8, THE BRITISH LABOUR PARTY: VIEWED SOCIOLOGICALLY, ORGANISATIONALLY AND IDEOLOGICALLY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

What follows is an account of the British Labour Party, organised not by chronology but in answer to three broad thematic questions: who support it? how is the Party organised? and what ideology does it represent?

My commentary was first presented as a short talk at the Battersea Labour Party in late April 2011, where it provoked some interest. So I decided to expand it into my May Discussion-Point – for people of all parties – and not just those who, like me, have stuck with the Labour Party, often with very mixed emotions. As I wrote, the text expanded into a short essay, which can be read in the attached pdf file.

In summary, the arguments run as follows:

Who? The Labour Party has never been just the party of the ‘workers’. Instead, it’s a coalition between the organised and unionised workforce plus the professional middle class and the left-wing intelligentsia. Clause IV of the 1918 constitution cheerfully defined them as ‘workers by hand or by brain’. (These are generalisations, which don’t apply to all individuals, needless to say).

Ranked against them is the rival alliance of the patriarchal upper class with the now predominant commercial middle class and the right-wing intelligentsia (again a generalisation), seeking votes from working-class Tories. Meanwhile, the unskilled working class, which is non-unionised, very poor, politically inactive, and to an extent electorally non-registered, tends to be neglected on all sides.

On this basis, the Labour coalition has continuing strength in its urban and industrial heartlands, tho these are vulnerable to economic erosion (cf the disappearance of the mining industry). And the core alliance between the ‘industrial’ and ‘political’ wings of the movement needs constant renewal.

How organised? Political parties on the left (and on the far right) tend to be more fissiparous and liable to splits than are those on the centre-right. Labour has long experience with rival parties. After all, it was not the first in the field. The Independent Labour Party began in 1892 and operated as a left-wing ginger-group within the new Labour Party (formed 1906). Then in the political crisis of 1931, the ILP split from Labour, which was hammered at the polls. Only after the Labour landslide of 1945 did the remaining ILP MPs join the mainstream, leaving the ILP to dwindle into a quiet demise in 1975.

After that, there was a quite different crisis in 1981. This time the split was on the Labour right. The four senior politicians (quickly named as the Gang of Four by the press) left to form a moderate Social Democratic Party, now merged into the Liberal Democrats. In the event, the scale of the secession was not nearly as great as was feared. But internal arguments between left and right, later updated as debates between Old and New Labour, long continued. Little wonder that party leaders always stress the need for internal concord: ‘Unity is Strength, Brothers’. Considerable harmony was achieved in the 1990s, when all were united against the Thatcher/Major governments.

Then Labour in power from 1997-2010 continued a top-down command style that discouraged internal party debates. It worked up to a point, but alienated too many among the rank-and-file. Labour’s individual membership post-1980 (when reliable records start) reached a peak in 1997 but by 2010 had fallen to less than half that level. Now the party is not feuding; but it does need some rebalancing between unity and constructive debate.

What ideology? Both in power and in its programmes, Labour has tended in practice to be pragmatic. The remark ‘Socialism is what a Labour government does’ – regularly attributed to Herbert Morrison – marked an aversion to ideological purity that was characteristic, although not universal, among Labour’s leaders. However, political parties must have some sort of political compass. Debates cannot be avoided, both about aims and best means of implementation.

Two prominent strands within Labour thinking can be defined as the socialist and the social democratic, although actual policies have often blurred the differences. The first, sometimes also known as Old Labour, wanted radical redistribution of wealth and power, as well as public ownership of the ‘means of production and distribution’. (But, unlike the communist parties, this tradition did not advocate a one-party date). The second, or social democratic tradition (although not using that name, especially after the Gang of Four split) has also endorsed redistribution as an aim but has always been much more favourable to the market economy. In recent times, the New Labour formulation has become predominant, with its mantra of ‘choice’. That seemed to move away from state control, especially in the economy. On the other hand, the Blair/Brown governments proved to be increasingly fond of centralised direction, with attempts at micro-managing via the unpopular targets culture almost all aspects of central and local administration, and the work of many arms-length institutions as well. That contradiction generated more than a little tension.

Today things are moving on from the disputes between Old and New Labour. The first tradition has lost conviction; the second has lost momentum. People now want to debate, without tearing the Party apart. New recruits want action, not philosophy seminars. There is much to do. In its first century, Labour has waxed and waned and waxed again, in the characteristically episodic manner of left-wing movements. Between 1910 and 2010 it was in government for no more than 33 years.1 But Labour has helped to define British politics, both in and out of power. Above all, its mid-twentieth-century creation of the Welfare State was truly monumental. And, in a new guise in a new century, there is much yet to do …

1 This calculation is a crude year-count, totalling Labour governments in 1924, 1929-31, 1945-51, 1964-70, 1974-79, and 1997-2010 – but excluding Labour’s contribution to the wartime coalition 1940-45.

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MONTHLY BLOG 7, WHY ARE BRITISH UNIVERSITIES POLITICALLY SO SUPINE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

I know that I am not the only person with an interest in and affection for Britain’s Universities, who is deeply worried by the Universities’ collective failure to stand up to successive central governments. Many people raise this point with me. There is a general perception that Britain’s Universities do not stand up strongly enough for the values of education – and for the supreme importance of knowledge that is not subject to tampering by political leaders. The old arms-length system of governance has already been much eroded. Ministers now talk as though Universities are agencies of the central state, instead of being independent self-governing institutions.

So why are the Universities supine vis-à-vis successive governments, whether Tory, Labour or Coalition? In reply, I generally comment, rather supinely myself: ‘Oh well, he who pays the piper calls the tune’.

Yet consider the British Army. Or the National Health Service. Both are funded by central government. But both they and their supporters among the wider public can rally formidable protests at changes which they consider undesirable. So my answer doesn’t really tackle the question.

Of course, there is never universal agreement as to which policies of successive governments are or have been detrimental to academic life. That point, however, is not my concern here. Public opinion is often divided over changes to the Army or Health Service but that has not stopped campaigns either against specific changes or in favour of other innovations. The debates over what is now called the ‘Military Covenant’ constitute one example. This traditional, if entirely unwritten, pact between the armed forces and the state may potentially be traced back to sixteenth-century levies to assist disabled solders. The term, however, is novel. It arrived in 2000, courtesy of a Ministry of Defence booklet, entitled Soldiering: The Military Covenant. And it has already become a hot political issue, with contested proposals (the Coalition currently against; Labour currently in favour) to codify the vague unwritten pact into positive law, which is likely to be costly.

By analogy, is there anything like an Educational Covenant? Or, if that’s too grand, then a general Educational Concord between the state and lifelong learners? What would it comprise? But no, education is a fragmented cause. And in the UK the Universities fall within the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Skills! Yes, they are necessary. But what an insult to Knowledge and Learning, without which skills don’t work.

Why was there no outcry from the Universities? One answer must certainly be that the elite institutions within the tertiary sector view themselves, and are reciprocally viewed, as part of a nebulous but nonetheless discreetly powerful ‘Establishment’. That perception works against any forms of public lobbying or confrontation. Sound ‘chaps’ (both male and female) apply pressure discreetly behind the scenes.

The perception applies particularly to Oxford and Cambridge. And it holds whether individual Oxbridge dons are languid establishment-types; or scatty bohemian-intellectuals; or (comparatively rare these days) earnest workerist men and women of the people; or (even rarer) zingy Morris Zapps jetting around the world from conference to conference; or (very common) harassed professionals with a preoccupied look as they continually chase behind a hundred tasks that are never done.

Behind-the scenes lobbying, however, doesn’t work nowadays – even for the elite. And it does nothing to combat out-of-date assumptions about Universities. The power of traditional assumptions is sufficiently great that Tom Sharpe’s satire of Porterhouse as a bastion of upper-class privilege, anti-intellectualism, anti-feminism, organisational incompetence, and elaborate feasting is too readily believed to be the institutional apogee to which all other tertiary institutions secretly aspire.

april001In fact, the reality is different in many ways. The tertiary sector is very variegated. It has faults, but they are often too neo-brutally managerialist rather than slumberingly Porterhousian.

Thus a second reason for the strangled public voice of the Universities stems from the divisions within the University sector. The tactics of the old-Establishment no longer work but there is no new-Establishment consensus to make a new case. The non-Oxbridge campus novels by academics Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, witty and penetrating as they are, provided further satire of a sector in quest for a viable role in a doubting world.
april002april003Divisions between Universities are now institutionalised into rival lobby organisations. The Russell Group (founded 1994) represents 20 Universities, self-defined as the research elite, constituting a limited company (no: 6086902), operating from a base in Cambridge. Feeling excluded, another 19 smaller research institutions created the 1994 Group to defend their research credentials. It operates with an Executive Board, chaired by an academic, with at least five permanent staff members. A similar corporate structure services the University Alliance, which represents 23 ‘major business-focused’ Universities. And from 1997 onwards the Campaign for Mainstream Universities (CMU) has organised 27 former Polytechnics and University colleges – then known as ‘new’ Universities although many already had long histories. This group now operates as a London-based Think-tank, known as the Million+ Group. These divisions mark a classic case of self-divide and be ruled.

Off-setting this plurality of voices and competing interests is the pan-University alliance, known as Universities UK (UUK). It began with informal meetings in the nineteenth century of a handful of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Now it serves 133 Universities and University Colleges, together with two national sub-groups comprising Higher Education Wales and Universities Scotland. Together they seek to provide a ‘definitive’ voice for all these institutions. And they do good deeds. Recently, for example, UUK helped to pressurise the Coalition government into a partial climb-down over the conditions attached to visas for overseas students – restoring some possibilities for post-study work within the UK. Nonetheless, this umbrella organisation has a difficult task in view of the organised separatism of its constituents. UUK can campaign at the level of general policies that affect all but has to tread cautiously or not at all on issues that divide its membership.

Furthermore, there is no one governmental Department that speaks to and for the educational sector. No equivalent of the Ministry of Defence, battling for the armed forces. And without such protection, education politicians often seem to be battling against the very sector which they are supposed to be leading.

Thirdly and lastly, therefore, the Universities have an urgent job of education to do. They need to explain their intrinsic value. Higher education is not only a massive economic multiplier but it’s also an essential component of the human educational endeavour – developing and transmitting to the next generation the corpus of stored and codified human knowledge to date. The more we have of it, the better for all.

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