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Posts tagged ‘British history’

A familiar tune: the Proms affair highlights Britain’s reluctance for critical self-reflection

By Daniel Adamson (@DanielEAdamson)

Controversy was caused by the recent announcement that orchestral versions of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory would feature at the Last Night of the Proms, in a break with the traditional singing of the anthems. Eventually, this decision was reversed by the BBC.  According to the broadcaster, the original change was made in response to COVID-19 restrictions. However, concern had previously been raised that the lyrics of both patriotic songs contained troubling references to Britain’s history of imperialism and slavery.

Boris Johnson dismissed the decision of the BBC, demanding instead that ‘we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’. Johnson’s rebuke was symptomatic of a trend which is endemic within British public historical memory: a concerted reluctance to engage in critical self-reflection.

It could be argued that Johnson’s reaction represents an avoidance technique which, in turn, betrays an acknowledgement of the difficult conversations to be had. Consistently, national historical narratives within the United Kingdom have avoided meaningful engagement with problematic aspects of the past. The Coronavirus pandemic has allowed society the time for existential debate. It is troubling, therefore, that the inability to grapple with uncomfortable facets of British history is still afflicting those in the highest offices of power.

A case in point: British Holocaust memory

A dearth of national reflexivity is perhaps no more pronounced than in the sphere of British Holocaust consciousness. The British response to the Holocaust in the 1930s and the Second World War was, at best, ambiguous. Certainly, there were redemptive episodes during this period of history. The Kindertransport scheme in 1938-39, for example, facilitated the passage of thousands of child refugees from Europe to the United Kingdom. However, British efforts were also marked by apathy and inaction, both in the social and military responses to the persecutions in mainland Europe. This was illustrated by the prolonged obstinance evident in governmental responses to the refugee crisis of the 1930s.

Despite this, public memory of the Holocaust has only recently begun to engage with the incommodious strands of British involvement. In the immediate post-war years, mainstream discussion of the Holocaust as a whole was limited. In turn, the subsidiary issue of the British response was largely occluded from public view.

Even as the general sphere of Holocaust remembrance grew in the United Kingdom throughout the 1990s, critical appraisal of the British response to the genocide did not feature heavily in public memory. Although the inaugural Holocaust Memorial Day occurred in the United Kingdom in 2001, the historian Donald Bloxham has noted how the narrative presented failed to ‘turn the mirror around’1. Little mention was made either of how Britain responded to the Holocaust, or whether more could have been done at the time. In other words, a sense of historical and geographical detachment between Britain and the Holocaust facilitated the pervading tendency of British society to ask difficult questions of its past.

Naturally, there are several factors which are likely to have contributed to the limited critical engagement with the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust. The issue is placed within the wider framework of public memory of the Second World War. Triumphalist narratives of British victory in 1945 have overshadowed most other contemporary issues. The entrenched impression of British involvement in a ‘good war’ is not easily compatible with more discerning evaluations of national actions during the conflict. The typically ‘black-and-white’ nature of public memory offers little space for gradation within theorisations of Britain’s complicated history.

In 2016, a school-based survey conducted by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education found that some ‘34.4 per cent incorrectly believed that the Holocaust triggered Britain’s entry into war and a further 17.6 per cent of students thought the British drew up rescue plans to save the Jews’2. In the same survey, nearly ‘23.8 per cent’ also incorrectly thought the British government did not know about the Holocaust until the end of the war in 1945’

More promisingly, recent historical research has started to erode the stubborn lack of self-reflection within British Holocaust consciousness. Through the collection of Kindertransport testimonies, Jennifer Craig-Norton has shed light on the unpleasant experiences of some refugee children once they had arrived on British shores3. Elsewhere, Gilly Carr is spearheading a reassessment of native complicity during the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands4. Some 22 islanders from Jersey alone are believed to have died following deportation to Nazi concentration camps and detention centres. In the weeks since the BBC Proms controversy, the National Trust has published an equally provocative report on links between its historic properties, colonialism, and slavery.

In conclusion, the BBC Proms affair brought into focus an entrenched reluctance within British society to confront troubling elements of our national history. Whether concerning slavery, colonialism, or the Holocaust, for the most part British historical consciousness has displayed a distinct unwillingness to acknowledge less triumphant moments in the ‘Island Story’. This is not a phenomenon limited to the United Kingdom. In East-Central Europe, Holocaust complicity remains a continual bone of political contention. Likewise, France has long struggled to reconcile narratives of victory in the Second World War with those of Vichy collaboration.

Recent events – namely Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus pandemic – have provided a crucial opportunity to redress an imbalance in British historical consciousness. As a society, the United Kingdom is at a juncture where it is possible to complicate the past. There is a chance to acknowledge where mistakes have been made. However, if those in political power continue to rebuff attempts at historical re-evaluation, there is only limited hope for the development of more nuanced interpretations of the rich history of Britain.  


  1. Quoted in Pearce, in Sharples, Caroline, and Olaf Jensen. Britain and the Holocaust : Remembering and Representing War and Genocide, (2013), p.203.
  2. Foster, in Pearce, A., Remembering the Holocaust in educational settings (Routledge, 2018), p.241.
  3. Craig-Norton, Jennifer. The Kindertransport : Contesting Memory. (2019).
  4. For example, see Carr, G. (2016). “Have you been offended?” Holocaust memory in the Channel Islands at HMD 70. Holocaust Studies, 22(1), 44-64.

Image: ‘Proms in the Park’ by Neil Rickards in the Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

Levelling, enclosure, and coronavirus

By Max Ashby Holme

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the common from the goose.

– Excerpt from “The Goose and the Commons” (c. 17th cent.) [1]

As lockdown measures in the UK are eased, we must consider the kind of world COVID-19 will leave behind. The coronavirus has been called a ‘great leveller’. As Paul Bristow, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, put it: ‘It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, or what circumstances you come from – we are all at risk.’ [2] This statement is misleading, however, since coronavirus amplifies existing social inequalities. Not only do life savings help to mitigate the financial impact of the virus on the wealthy, they are also more likely to be able to work from home, and less likely to find themselves in overcrowded accommodation, without access to gardens. [3] Those most exposed to the virus, including care home workers, bus drivers, and shop keepers – as well as hospital staff – are overwhelmingly the lowest paid members of the workforce. [4] Furthermore, coronavirus disproportionately affects people from BAME backgrounds. [5] It is a myth that the virus affects everyone equally, and the political origins of the term ‘leveller’ illustrate even more clearly how poor a label it is for coronavirus.

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Playing the Blame Game: Divorce Then and Now

By Georgia Oman (@Georgia_Oman)

When Parliament was suspended this September, several bills making their way through the Commons and Lords were dropped. Although three pieces of legislation were carried over to the next session, the remainder fell into a legal limbo, with their only hope of resurrection being that the government would choose to re-introduce them upon the return of Parliament.[1] One such bill lost in the Brexit shuffle is a reform of the divorce laws of England and Wales, which at the moment demand that couples provide evidence of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or years of separation before a divorce can be granted, even if both parties have amicably agreed to end their marriage.[2] Put simply, the proposed legislation aims to establish ‘no-fault divorce’, in which neither partner need be apportioned blame for the failure of the marriage.[3] Under the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973 currently in force, those seeking a divorce must prove their partner was at fault through adultery, desertion, or unreasonable behaviour. If there is no evidence of fault, consenting couples still must live apart for two years before they can file for divorce, while cases in which both sides cannot reach agreement must endure five years of separation.[4]

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Collecting for Good Causes in Seventeenth-Century England

By Jacob F. Field (@jakeishistory)

Charitable giving is an intrinsic part of contemporary British society. In 2017 the total amount given to charity in the United Kingdom was £10.3 billion, with the most popular causes being medical research, animal welfare, children or young people, hospitals and hospices, and overseas aid and disaster relief.[i] Early modern England was no different – donating to charity was widespread, although the causes deemed most worthy, and the methods of publicizing and administering collections, were slightly different. Read more

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo: Inequality and resistance in nineteenth-century British society

Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn) and Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland) review Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo which came out earlier this month.

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo recounts the weeks leading up to the infamous massacre of peaceful working-class protestors by the yeomanry at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16 August 1819. It is hard to identify a single protagonist, Leigh presents the viewer with a naturalistic bird’s-eye view, sweeping from mass meetings chaired by self-proclaimed ‘radicals’, young and old, male and female, to the intimacy of a husband and wife discussing the upcoming march in bed before going to sleep. Read more

Gowns for ‘Sweet Girl Graduates’: The Evolution of Academic Dress

By Georgia Oman

While academic dress has been around for a long time, it is only more recently that the wearing of it in Britain has been permissible for more than a small but powerful elite. Until the 1830s, there were only two universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, and academic dress was a part of their students’ daily lives. Indeed, until 1965, undergraduates at Cambridge had to wear gowns when going to lectures, supervisions, or into town after dusk.[1] As Paul Deslandes notes, academic dress was about more than just wearing a fancy gown – it was a visible symbol of student identity, as well as university privilege, insider status, and masculinity.[2]

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‘Go with your gut’? Reason and passion from the eighteenth century to the present day

By Madeleine Armstrong

If you’ve ever had to make a difficult choice, you’ll be familiar with the nauseating conflict between the head and the heart. You may have drawn a dozen pros-and-cons lists, only to go with the option that simply felt right. We are accustomed to seeing reason and passion in conflict, and always feel we need to choose one over the other. This is one of the reasons I, as a historian, am drawn to the eighteenth century: it is an era which appears caught in the crossfire between a ‘rational’ Enlightenment, and a cult of ‘sensibility’. But reason and passion were not always enemies. In the mid- to late-eighteenth century in Britain, many philosophers tried to bring the two together in harmony. The movement for ‘rational sentiment’ is an important and overlooked feature of the eighteenth century, and offers wisdom for our own time. Read more

Reorienting the Home Front: Spatial History and Collective Memory

By Clemency Hinton (@clemencyhinton)

Does the past sometimes feel ‘far away’? Can we ever ‘go back’? And ‘where’ did we come from?  These questions demonstrate that we often conceptualise and speak about history in spatial terms. That is, we describe the past as a place. History has famously been called a ‘foreign country’. Perhaps the more ancient the history, the more time we need to spend in transit – interpreting, translating, contextualising – to get there.

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Gossip, men, and Victorian politics

By Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton)

Gossip in politics today brings to mind the political rumour-mill from the fallout of Brexit, political infighting, or frequent leaks from the White House criticising the Trump administration. But gossip, the ability ‘to talk idly, mostly about other people’s affairs’, isn’t unique to twenty-first-century politics.[1] In the Victorian period, it could even serve a more positive political purpose. Gossip facilitated intimacy not only between women but also men. The sharing and receiving of gossip allowed men to identify and participate in different political communities, such as in the gentleman’s club.[2]

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