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MONTHLY BLOG 126, Does classifying people in terms of their ‘Identity’ have parallels with racist thought? Answer: No; Yes; and ultimately, No.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Specimen HC1
© Michael Mapes (2013)

It’s impossible to think without employing some elements of generalisation. (Is it? Yes: pure mental pointillisme, cogitating in fragmentary details, would not work. Thoughts have to be organised). And summary statements about fellow human beings always entail some element of classification. (Do they? Yes, individuals are more than the sum of their bits of flesh and bones. Each one is a person, with a personality, a consciousness, a name, perhaps a national identity number – all different ways of summarising a living being). Generalisations are therefore invaluable, whilst always open to challenge.

Yet are all forms of classification the same? Is aggregative thought not only inevitable but similarly patterned, whatever the chosen criteria? Or, to take a more precise example from interpersonal relationships, does classifying a person by their own chosen ethnic identity entail the same thought processes as classifying them in terms of oppressive racial hierarchies?

Immediately the answer to the core question (are all forms of classification the same?) is No. If individuals chose to embrace an ethnic identity, that process can be strong and empowering. Instead of being labelled by others, perhaps with pejorative connotations, then people can reject an old-style racial hierarchy that places (say) one skin-colour at the top of the social heap, and another at the foot. They can simply say: ‘Yes: that is who I am; and I exult in the fact. My life – and the life of all others like me – matters.’  It is a great antidote to years of racial hatred and oppressions.

At the same time, however, there are risks in that approach. One is the obvious one, which is often noted. White supremacists can use the same formula, claiming their group superiority. And they can then campaign aggressively against all who look ‘different’ and are deemed (by them) be in ‘inferior’. In other words, oppressors can use the same appeal to the validity of group affiliation as can their victims.

There are other difficulties too. So reverting to the core question (how similar are systems of classification?) it can be argued that: yes, assessing people by ethnic identity often turns out, in practice, to be based upon superficial judgments, founded not upon people’s actual ethnic history (often very complex) but upon their looks and, especially, their skin colours. External looks are taken as shorthand for much more. As a result, assumptions about identities can be as over-simplified as those that allocate people into separate ‘races’. Moreover, reliance upon looks can lead to hurtful situations. Sometimes individuals who believe themselves to have one particular ethnic affinity can be disconcerted by finding that others decline to accept them into one particular ‘tribe’, purely because their looks don’t approximate to required visual stereotype. For example, some who self-identify as ‘black’ are rejected as ‘not black enough’.

Finally, however, again reverting to the core question: No. Identity politics are not as socially pernicious and scientifically wrong-headed as are racial politics.1 ‘Identities’ are fluid and can be multiple. They are organised around many varied criteria: religion, politics, culture, gender, sexuality, nationality, sporting loyalties, and so forth. People have a choice as to whether they associate with any particular affinity group – and, having chosen, they can also regulate the strength of their loyalties. These things are not set in stone. Again, taking an example from biological inheritance, people with dark skins do not have to self-identify as ‘black’. They may have some other, overriding loyalty, such as to a given religion or nationality, which takes precedence in their consciousness.

But there is a more fundamental point, as well. Identities are not ideologically organised into the equivalent of racial hierarchies, whereby one group is taken as perennially ‘superior’ to another. Some individuals may believe that they and their fellows are the ‘top dogs’. And group identities can encourage tribal rivalries. But such tensions are not the same as an inflexible racial hierarchy. Instead, diverse and self-chosen ‘identities’ are a step towards rejecting old-style racism. They move society away from in-built hierarchies towards a plurality of equal roles.

It is important to be clear, however, that there is a risk that classifications of people in terms of identity might become as schematic, superficial and, at times, hurtful as are classifications in terms of so-called ‘race’. Individuals may like to choose; but society makes assumptions too.

The general moral is that classifications are unavoidable. But they always need to be checked and rechecked for plausibility. Too many exceptions at the margins suggest that the core categories are too porous to be convincing. Moreover, classification systems are not made by individuals in isolation. Communication is a social art. Society therefore joins in human classification. Which means that the process of identifying others always requires vigilance, to ensure that, while old inequalities are removed, new ones aren’t accidentally generated instead. Building human siblinghood among Planet Earth’s 7.9 billion people (the estimated 2021 head-count) is a mighty challenge but a good – and essential – one.

ENDNOTES:

1 For the huge literature on the intrinsic instability of racial classifications, see K.F. Dyer, The Biology of Racial Integration (Bristol, 1974); and A. Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York, 2001 edn). It is worth noting, however, that beliefs in separate races within the one human race are highly tenacious: see also A. Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019). For further PJC meditations on these themes, see also within PJC website: Global Themes/ 4,4,1 ‘It’s Time to Update the Language of “Race”’, BLOG/36 (Dec. 2013); and 4.4.4 ‘Why is the Language of “Race” holding on for so long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science?’ BLOG/ 38 (Feb. 2014).

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MONTHLY BLOG 121, BEING ASSESSED AS A WHOLE PERSON – A CRITIQUE OF IDENTITY POLITICS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)
[PJC Pdf/58]

One of series of Dissected Photographs by New York artist
© Michael Mapes

Friends: I want to be taken seriously as a whole person, assessed in the round. It’s positively good to feel part of a universalist personhood.1 Something that is experienced in common with all fellow humans. But how is that attitude to be encouraged, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the benefits that separatist identity politics can bring?

Social groups who have been marginalised – victims of an oppressive history – obviously gain a great deal by asserting their claims to general appreciation. Black Lives Matter. Of course they do: unequivocally and absolutely. It’s a proposition that draws strength from its utter truth.

One among the many challenges of identity politics, however, is the question of definition. Who decides who is or is not aligned with which particular identity? What happens when others persistently allocate you (for example, because of your looks) with a group with whom you personally feel little or no affinity? People of mixed ethnic heritage sometimes feel doubly excluded: their skins perhaps not dark enough for a ‘real’ Black identity, but not pale enough for a ‘real’ White one. Or perhaps children of mixed marriages may physically resemble one parent, whilst emotionally identifying with the other. What chance do such individuals have of asserting their inner sense of identity, when society instantly classifies them with the parent they physically resemble?

That point highlights another related problem of definition. An individual may have – indeed most do have – multiple identities. In my case, I could be described (variously) as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, childless woman, living in a stable partnership; as well as a Yorkshire-born Londoner, with English, British and/or European affiliations; as well as: an older person; as tolerably well-off; as a home-owner with a pension; as a coeliac (with a chronic gluten-allergy); as someone with short sight; as a professor; as an academic historian; as a bibliophile; as a left-winger; as an agnostic, reared in a cultural tradition of secularised Protestant Dissent; as a keen swimmer; as a music fan; as an amateur gardener; as a cat-lover; as someone with a sense of humour; … as an optimist …  Any of those characteristics might be used to ascribe to me a cultural identity. Some of them I would warmly endorse. Others would leave me cold, as being true (childlessness) but not being at all central to my self-definition. And yet another of those terminologies would fill me with horror. I am (or so the calendar tells me) an old woman; but I emphatically don’t self-identify as such.

There are clearly differences between what one might term ‘objective’ personal identifiers and ‘subjective’ ones. There are also different experiences in a person’s lifetime when some affiliations might assume more importance than others. For example, a sense of patriotic resistance is likely to be strongly aroused if one’s own country suddenly comes under unprovoked attack from a hostile overseas tyranny. And a sense of internationalism is conversely likely to be strengthened if one’s own country is engaged in aggressive and bloody militarism against a harmless and defenceless overseas people, whose sole act of provocation lies in their happening to inhabit strategically important or resource-rich territory.

In other words, people have multiple identities. Some of these are more important at some points in a lifetime than are others. And, indeed, some identities might seem to clash with others. For example, it is sometimes assumed that all people with capital assets should always strive to gain the maximum from their investments and to pay as little tax as possible. (Tax advisers often assert that explicitly).

Yet it can equally be argued that property-owners with a civic conscience – and also acting out of enlightened self-interest – should want to pay more taxes in order to reduce inequalities, relieve poverty, reduce environmental degradation, and promote a more harmonious and just society. These are matters of judgment, clearly. Not simply a reflex response to owning property. (One complaint about so-called ‘identity politics’ is that the concept may encourage electors to vote purely for their own immediate personal benefit rather than for wider civic considerations.2 But, in practice, voters have a multitude of concerns in play at any given point).

Identities are actually so intricate and simultaneously so personal that any cultural politics based upon stereotypical assumptions is offensive to the individuals involved. It’s annoying to be told what one is likely to think ‘as a woman’. It’s infuriating to be told that one is intrinsically and automatically a racist oppressor because of one’s light skin colour. That assertion leaves no scope for moral growth and change. White people in many societies may, for example, be initially unaware of their ethnic privileges and may share inherited prejudices about their fellow humans. Yet such views can be overturned, sometimes dramatically, sometimes gradually. As the former slave-trader John Newton wrote movingly from personal experience, in Amazing Grace: ‘My eyes were blind, yet now I see…’3

Furthermore, before getting back to the universalist concept of personhood, let’s also acknowledge that identity politics are not just invoked these days for the purpose of warm, affirmative rectifications of historic injustice. Separating people by group classification may well provoke a serious backlash. Black Lives Matter is currently opposed by a number of far-right white supremacist groups. Interestingly (on the theme of complex identities), the all-male Proud Boys in the USA include members of mixed heritage, including the current leader who identifies as Afro-Cuban, while their collective ethos is one of aggressive pro-Western, anti-feminist and anti-socialist masculinity.4

Underlying these divisions, however, there remains the universalist concept of common personhood. There are communal human characteristics and communal interests. It is thus not always relevant to enquire about the detailed personal circumstances of each individual. Being a person is enough.

Such a view was expressed with clarion force in 1849 by the young author Charlotte Brontë. She first published as Currer Bell, deliberately choosing a name which concealed her gender identity. Writing to her male publisher, she urged him to forget the conventional courtesies between the sexes.5 Those niceties too often implied condescension from the ‘superior’ male to an ‘inferior’ female. She wanted to be judged on fair terms. So Brontë urged upon him that:

to you, I am neither Man nor Woman – I come before you as an Author only – it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me – the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.

It was a spirited invention from a budding novelist to an established figure in the world of publishing. Charlotte Brontë’s claim thus falls within the history of personhood, and within the history of meritocracy too. And these are themes of great relevance and topicality today. Interest in individual personhood (or self) is coming up on the ropes, alongside the huge publishing boom in studies of ‘identity’. Evidence can be found in debates within philosophy,6 ethics,7 animal rights,8 theology,9 politics,10 psychology,11 law,12 anthropology,13 social welfare,14 economics,15 electoral history,16 literary studies,17 even contemporary poetry18

Becoming vividly aware of past and present injustices – and the need for systematic redress – is certainly a necessary stage in today’s identity politics. It’s understandable that people who have been stigmatised for their gender; sexuality; religion; nationality; ethnic identity; class position; personal disability; or any other quality need to express solidarity with others in like circumstances – and to get respect and contrition from the wider society, It’s also true that sometimes a counter-vailing mantle of universalism can be used as a smoke screen to hide sectional interests. Yet it is to be hoped that, in the long run, a celebration of truly shared and egalitarian human personhood will prevail. In the meantime, dear friends, please judge this communication as coming not from someone representing any one of the separate descriptive categories listed in paragraph four (above); but from a whole person.

ENDNOTES:

1 A slightly shorter version of this text appears online in Academia Letters (Jan. 2021): ; and it also constitutes PJC Pdf/58 within personal website as item 4.3.9. [Items 4.3.6 and 4.3.7 have earlier meditations on the same theme].

2 M. Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, London, Hurst & Co., 2018; A. Stoker, Taking Back Control: Restoring Universalism in the Age of Identity Politics, Sydney, NSW, Centre for Independent Studies, 2019; T.B. Dyrberg, Radical Identity Politics: Beyond Right and Left, Newcastle upon Tyue, Cambridge Scholars, 2020.

3 Words from the hymn Amazing Grace (written 1772; published 1779) by John Newton (1725-1807), reflecting the personal experience of this former slave-trader turned evangelical Christian clergyman and abolitionist.

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proud_Boys.

5 C. Brontë, Letter dated 16 August 1849, in M. Smith (ed.), The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, Vol. 2: 1848-51, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 235.

6 D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, Clarendon, 1984; E. Sprague, Persons and their Minds: A Philosophical Investigation, London, Routledge, 2018.

7 G. Stanghellini and R. Rosfort, Emotions and Personhood: Exploring Fragility – Making Sense of Vulnerability, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

8 C. Hutton, Integrationism and the Self: Reflections on the Legal Personhood of Animals, Hong Kong, Routledge, 2019.

9 E.L Graham, Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood and Theology, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

10 F. Brugère, La politique de l’individu, Paris, La République des Idées, Seuil, 2013; A. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge, Polity, 1991.

11 R. Jones, Personhood and Social Robotics: A Psychological Consideration, London, Routledge, 2015.

12 J. Richardson, Freedom, Autonomy and Privacy: Legal Personhood, London, Routledge, 2015; W.A.J. Kurki, A Theory of Legal Personhood, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019; L.M. Kingston, Fully Human: Personhood, Citizenship and Rights, New York, Oxford University Press, 2019.

13 L.P. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept, Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 2014.

14 P. Higgs and C. Gilleard, Personhood, Identity and Care in Advanced Old Age, Cambridge, Polity, 2016.

15 N. Makovicky, Neoliberalism, Personhood and Postsocialism: Enterprising Selves in Changing Economies, Farnham, Ashgate, 2014; reissued London, Routledge, 2016.

16 M. Lodge and C.B. Taber, The Rationalising Voter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013; L. Mechtenberg and J-R. Tyran, Voter Motivation and the Quality of Democratic Choice, London, Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2015.

17 J.L. Gittinger, Personhood in Science Fiction: Religious and Philosophical Considerations, Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

18 Z. Olszewska, The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood among Young Afghans in Iran, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2015.

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MONTHLY BLOG 104, Is it Time to Look beyond Separate Identities to Find Personhood?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Collectively, the 15th International Congress on the Enlightenment (ICE), focusing upon Enlightenment Identities, was a huge triumph. For five days in Edinburgh in July 2019 some 2000 international participants rushed from event to event. There were not only 477 learned panel presentations and five great plenaries but also sundry conducted walks, coach tours to special venues, a grand reception, a superb concert, a pub quiz, and an evening of energetic Highland dancing. So much was happening that heads spun, and not just from the jovial Edinburgh hospitality.

By way of introduction, I began the first plenary session, with its global array of speakers, by offering some basic definitions. The grand themes of the Congress were Enlightenment and Identities: Lumières et Identités. Powerful concepts, which are both much contested. Needless to say, the Congress organisers did not insist on single definitions of these grand themes, which were chosen precisely to promote debate.

In that spirit, the Congress logo displayed two iconic figures from the eighteenth century. Both are shown as questioning, as they flank the silhouette of the classic monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill to the philosopher Dugald Stewart. These two iconic figures may be considered as the Adam and Eve of the Congress, venturing out into the world to lead the collective intellectual journey.

The young woman was named Dido Belle Lindsay. She was aged 18 at the date in 1778-9, when her portrait was painted alongside her fair-skinned cousin. By heritage, Dido Belle was an illegitimate African-Caribbean-Scot. Yet she was given a resonant first name which evoked the celebrated Queen of Carthage. And by life experiences, Dido Belle Lindsay had a protected and affluent upbringing in the household of her great-uncle, an eminent London lawyer. She later married a Frenchman and lived quietly in England with her family.

Meanwhile, the man, who drew his own brooding self-portrait at the age of 40, was a German Swiss named Heinrich Füssli.3 He had travelled to Italy, where he Italianised his surname to Fuseli and then made a successful career as an artist in London. There he married an Englishwoman. Both these individuals embodied the flexibility and fluidity of eighteenth-century identities. Neither their social milieux nor their individual life-histories were static.

As educated people, the Congress’s Adam and Eve might well have encountered, in their reading and conversations, various catch-phrases like ‘It’s an Age of Light’ or ‘This Age of Reason and Science’. Specifically, too, Fuseli as a German-speaking Swiss could have read in the original Immanuel Kant’s celebrated enquiry, published in 1784, Was Ist Aufklarung? What is Enlightenment?

Moreover, Dido Belle Lindsay, the free daughter of a formerly enslaved African woman, would no doubt have appreciated the public appeal made by the leading African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. He urged that slavery had no place in an age of ‘Light, Liberty, and Science’. He was thereby invoking the sense of a new Zeitgeist and new forms of knowledge. By contrast, the slave traders had custom and practice in their support, as well as financial vested interests. But, tellingly, the slave traders did NOT justify their business by saying ‘It’s an Age of Slave-Trading’, even though that was factually true. On this issue, the abolitionists were ‘seizing the narrative’, to put the point into twenty-first-century terminology.5

Nonetheless, the Congress’s Adam and Eve would not have thought about their era as one of fixity. They both lived long enough to see the emergence of conscious anti-Enlightenment thought, from the later eighteenth century onwards. Fuseli specifically contributed to Romanticism in his art, and expressed scepticism about the claims of cold rationality. So neither figure would have been surprised to learn that the concept of Enlightenment remains contested among historians, political theorists and social philosophers.

Responses today range from appreciation and appropriation through to rejection and outright denial. Scholars analyse national and regional variations; and they debate differences between mainstream and radical Enlightenments. Meanwhile, in the later twentieth century, hostile postmodernist critics attacked appeals to rationalist reforms, which they identified as a single and oppressive ‘Enlightenment Project’.8   Yet rival sceptics denied the existence of any cohesive movement at all. Plenty to debate.

To those complexities, moreover, may be added the further complications of ‘Identities’. The terminology is warm and positive. But its impact is not simple. Viewed schematically, the rise of identity studies in the last thirty years has matched the decline of research interest into historical class, and the rise of ‘identity politics’ in the wider world.10  This fashionable approach is personal, individualistic. It rejects economic determinism. Instead, the factors that influence identity are seen as endlessly fluid and flexible. They may include gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and yes, social class; but they extend to religion, nationality, region, language, politics, culture, brainpower – and the power of physical appearances.

Certainly the Congress’s Adam and Eve would have known about identity issues, although they would not have described them in such terms. Dido Belle Lindsay lived with her great-uncle, the liberal judge William Mansfield. It was he in 1772 who heard the famous test case, when the captive African James Somersett sued for his freedom from the hold of an English ship in an English port. The case was an individual one. But the judge, when granting Somersett’s plea for liberty, pronounced publicly that the state of slavery was ‘odious’.11  Dido Belle Lindsay would surely have approved. As a result, Somersett gained the legal identity of a free man and judicial disapproval was directed at the entire system of personal enslavement. The case became a landmark in the long (and still continuing) struggle to abolish unfree personal servitude in its many different guises.

However, there are criticisms to be made of identity histories, as there are of identity politics. There is a danger that personal classifications may be interpreted too rigidly. In reality, people then and now may have multiple and overlapping identities. They may move between them as they prefer: an eighteenth-century gentleman livening in Northumbria might define himself as an Englishman when teasing a Scot from north of the border; but both might define themselves as Britons when opposing the French.

It’s also vital to recognise that identities are not always soft, liberal and inclusive. Group identities especially can become aggressive, bellicose, and coercive, formed in contra-distinction to ‘other’ groups. So identity politics may lead not to shared pluralism but to harsh conflict and polarisation. In sum, these big organising concepts may contain light – but also darkness.

Today it is surely time to look beyond the sub-divisions, not in blind denial but in awareness that there are also universals alongside diversities. In gender history, there is also a concept of personhood, beyond the rivalries of men and women.12  In terms of polymorphous human sexualities, there’s a potential for agreed boundaries of non-exploitative behaviour, beyond the rhetoric of individual sexual gratification. In the context of historical ‘racism’, there’s also significant movement towards a non-racialised understanding that all people are members of one human race.13  And, legally and politically, there is scope for a renewed endorsement of universalist human rights, as triumphantly if controversially expounded in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, applying not to one section of the globe but to all – and applying in practice as well as in theory.14

These communal issues are becoming especially highlighted in the light of the global climate emergency.15  They make a huge agenda but a very human one, to be pursued with a spirit of unity which underlies diversity: avec l’esprit de l’unité, qui sous-tend la diversité …

ENDNOTES:

1 Edited text of presentation given to Edinburgh Congress Enlightenment Identities, on Monday 15 July 2019, introducing first Global Plenary. My esteemed colleagues on the panel were, in order of speaking, Deirdre Coleman (University of Melbourne); Sébastien Charles (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Canada); Tatiana Artemyeva (Herzen State University of Russia); Sutapa Dutta (Gargi College, University of Delhi, India); and Toshio Kusamitsu (University of Tokyo, Japan).

2 For Dido Belle Lindsay (1761-1804), see P. Byrne, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle (2014); and an intriguing outreach film Belle (dir. A. Asante, 2018).

3 For Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), see M. Myrone (ed.), Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli Blake and the Romantic Imagination (2016).

4 O. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative: And Other Writings, ed. V. Carretta (1995), p. 233.

5 For a huge literature, follow leads in B. Carey and others (eds), Discourses of Slavery and Abolition: Britain and its Colonies, 1760-1838 (Basingstoke, 2004); and R.S. Newman, Abolitionism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2018).

6 See e.g. R. Porter and M. Teich (eds), The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge, 1981).

7 See e.g. J.I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001) and ensuing debates.

8 S-E. Liedman, The Postmodernist Critique of the Project of Enlightenment (Amsterdam, 1997); G. Sauer-Thompson and J. Wayne Smith, The Unreasonable Silence of the World: Universal Reason and the Wreck of the Enlightenment Project (2019).

9 G. Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (2004).

10 See e.g. critiques like W. Egginton, The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality and Community on Today’s College Campuses (New York, 2018).

11 For the complexities of the case, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somerset_v_Stewart.

12 See e.g. commentary in P.J. Corfield, ‘Enlightenment Womanhood, Manhood, Sexualities and Personhood: Thematic Overview’, in L. Andries and M-A. Bernier (eds), L’Avenir des Lumières: The Future of Enlightenment (Pars, 2019), pp. 89-105; L. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept (Lewiston, 2014).

13 For the shared genetic history of humankind, see L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diaspora: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Reading, MA, 1995).

14 Consult A. Brysk, The Future of Human Rights (Cambridge, 2018).

15 See calls for more urgent responses as in D. Spratt and P. Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (Victoria, Australia, 2008); and many other publications.

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MONTHLY BLOG 102, ARE YOU AN OPTIMIST? HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW YOUR OWN TEMPERAMENT?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

The Cheshire Cat, famed for its indestructible grin …
from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,
as depicted by John Tenniel for the book’s classic 1865 edition.
© image in public domain

 Are you an optimist? This question is one of my favourite opening gambits when launching into longish conversations with strangers. It’s a pleasant enquiry. It’s open-ended. It implies personal interest but it’s not overly intrusive. In response, people can talk about whatever they wish. They don’t have to reveal any secrets. Often, they talk about their health or work or families. In rare cases, frank individuals confide details of their hopes or fears for their love-life. And, increasingly these days, people take the question as an invitation to hold forth about politics, Brexit, and the state of the nation/world.

I’m also fond of asking questions that can go ‘round the table’, as it were. Those need to be open questions which don’t require a great deal of specialist information to answer. Getting a response from everyone, going round the group, is a great way of fostering a collective dynamic. (I enjoy this process not only in an educational context; but socially too). However, I have learned from experience that asking ‘Are you an optimist?’ really works best in one-to-one conversations. In groups, the cultural pressure to be up-beat in public militates against frank answers.1 Most people will claim, even if evasively, to be cheery – whilst allowing one or two individuals to seize the chance to play the dissident roles of ‘grumpy old men/women’. Their responses quickly lead everyone into debating ‘country going to the dogs’, Brexit, and the state of the nation/world.

However, such arguments have an increasingly stereotypical quality these days, which the question Are you an optimist? is designed to avoid. So it works best in one-to-one encounters, when there’s time to steer away from the perennial Brexit and to explore new terrain. By the way, when asking others to make whatever limited confidences they wish, it’s important to reciprocate. I have no desire to recount my life-story; but I do have some self-reflective comments about my own attitudes, which I am willing to share. Often, the question prompts an absorbing discussion, even with a newly–met stranger. It certainly is more probing than the standard gambit reportedly used by the Queen: ‘Have you come far? Or the academic’s predictable: ‘What’s your research field?’

Talking about optimism also encourages a quest for further definitions. What exactly is meant by the term? It covers a range of permutations from the mildly hopeful: ‘Well, something will turn up’ to an unshakable Panglossian faith that ‘all is for the best in the best of possible worlds’.2 And then people seek further clarification: optimistic over what sort of timespan: one year? five years? a lifetime? And with reference to what: oneself? one’s profession? one’s country? It’s very common these days for almost all educationalists across the spectrum to be deeply pessimistic about the state of the education system. By contrast, true  believers who have just discovered a great good cause tend to be highly optimistic in the early days of their faith, although over time their hopes of rapid success may become muted as they encounter obstacles and opposition (for example to feminism or to environmentalism).

Generally, however, optimists tend to skate over the complexities. Their glasses are rose-tinted. Their glasses are half full, not half empty. They see the potential in everything. And they believe, if not quite in universal ‘Progress’, at least in the positive chances of progressive betterment.3 And, as they wait in hope for things to develop favourably (even if events don’t always oblige), optimists claim to get more enjoyment out of life than do neutral observers. Milton long ago praised such feelings in L’Allegro, his hymn to mirth, jollity, dancing, nut-brown ale, good fellowship and everything that unchains ‘the hidden soul of harmony’.4

Meanwhile, lurking within every discussion about optimism is the countervailing stance of pessimism. Milton was there too. ‘Hence, vain, deluding joyes …’, he urges in Il Penseroso, his rival hymn to meditative gloom: ‘Hail divinest Melancholy …’ Pessimism in turn embraces many possibilities. Options may range through mild scepticism to world-weary disillusionment to acidic negativism to despairing self-harm.

Many pessimists, however, don’t actually accept that self-description. They prefer to call themselves ‘realists’. Whilst optimists can often be disappointed when their high hopes don’t come true, pessimists can always claim not to be surprised at any outcome, short of ecstatic and universal bliss (which is undeniably rare). It’s true that waiting for disaster to strike can seem depressing. Yet serious pessimists positively enjoy their misery. And they certainly believe that they see life more clearly than do the blinkered optimists.

At its simplest, the optimist/pessimist dichotomy can be interpreted as a function of individual psychology and basic personality traits.5 However, it’s as well to recall that changing circumstances are also liable to affect people’s template attitudes. It’s hard to remain cheerful at all times when suffering from acute pain over a long period of time. And it’s difficult to remain perennially optimistic when suffering from a relentless torrent of externally-inflicted major disasters which are entirely beyond one’s own control. So the optimist/pessimist dichotomy is by no means a rigid one. People may be pessimistic about the state of their profession (for example), whilst remaining personally optimistic about (say) their life and loves.

Crucially, too, mental states are not dictated purely by emotions and personal psychology. Considered reason plays a significant role too. The greatest expression of that truth came from Antonio Gramsci (1893-1937), the Italian Marxist who died in a Fascist prison in Rome under Mussolini. While incarcerated, he continued with stoic fortitude to analyse the state of politics and the prospects for radical change.6 What was needed, he concluded, was: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. It summarised powerfully the conscious yoking of reason and emotion. Gramsci’s formula can be applied to many causes, not just his own. Equally, it can be inverted by those who have optimistic intellects but suffer from pessimistic sapping of the will. Moreover, Gramsci’s formula can be reshuffled to allow room also for super-pessimists of both intellect/will as well as for super-optimists whose smile may outlast reality.

The Cheshire Cat faded
until nothing was left but the smile …

The significant factor, in all these permutations, is that reason is reinstated into human responses to their lives and times. Intellectual attitudes draw upon many sources, rational and emotional alike. For all analysts of the human condition, it’s as well to be aware of one’s own evolving template. A reflex optimism, for example, may lead one astray, unless tempered by rational cogitation and debate with others. I write as a perennial optimist who tries to make analytical adjustments to offset my biases. This process is based upon what I’ve learned from experience – and from many ad hoc conversations with others. So readers, should we be sitting together with a good chance of open-ended discussion, I’m liable to ask my favourite question: are you an optimist?

ENDNOTES:

1 For a polemic against mindless good cheer, see B. Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (New York, 2009), publ. in the UK as Smile of Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009). See also S. Burnett, The Happiness Agenda: A Modern Obsession (New York, 2012).

2 Referencing Dr Pangloss in Voltaire’s satirical Candide: ou l’optimisme (Paris, 1759), immediately transl. into Eng. as Candide: Or, the Optimist.

3 See e.g. discussions in K.H.M. Creal, The Idea of Progress: The Origins of Modern Optimism (Toronto, 1970); W. Laqueur, Optimism in Politics: Reflections on Contemporary History (2017).

4 Compare J. Milton, L’Allegro with Il Penseroso (both written 1631; 1st publ. 1645), in J. Milton, The Poetical Works (Oxford, 1900), pp. 20-8.

5 There is a massive literature on these themes. See e.g. E. Fox, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism (2012); P.B. Warr, The Psychology of Happiness (2019); W.C. Compton, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing (Los Angeles, 2019); plus countless manuals of self-help.

6 From A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971). See also context in P.D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Leiden/Boston, 2009); A. Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography (1977; 2016); L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Vol. 3: The Breakdown (1971); N. Greaves, Gramsci’s Marxism: Reclaiming a Philosophy of History and Politics (Leicester, 2009).

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MONTHLY BLOG 79, 2017 – ANOTHER SUMMER OF LOVE?

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

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

Aurora Goddess of Dawn
© Heidi Wastweet (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017-07 No2 Despard in Trafalgar Square 1933

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016-12-no1-conrad-and-elizabeth-russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016-12-no2-st-johns-lodge-regents-pk

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

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

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

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

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

2016-12-no3-conrad-in-lords

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MONTHLY BLOG 68, REFERENDA VIEWED LONG

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

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

2017-08 No1 Adams Telegraph_cartoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

august005

 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 = .

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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 = .

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