By Daniel Adamson (@DEAdamson9)
The Pyrrhic Wars; the crossing of the Rubicon; the witch hunts; the sinking of the Titanic. Modern parlance is littered with examples of historical events that have accrued a metaphorical value superior to the weight of their historical realities. In public spheres, there is more interest in deploying historical events for what they symbolise, rather than what they actually were. The Dreyfus Affair is one such case in point. In 1894, the French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason, having been accused of passing classified documents to the German military. Protracted division and debate subsequently embroiled French society, as competing parties contested the validity of Dreyfus’ conviction. Eventually, in 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated upon retrial and the identification of the true culprit (Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy).
by Christopher Day (@ChrisDay96)
Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, the country’s future relationship with the Republic of Ireland has been a key issue. The question of what to do about the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has been crucial in negotiations between the UK and the EU, but (at the time of writing) no answer has been found agreeable by all parties. Given the legacy of British involvement in Ireland, and the continuing desire of Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, this issue is especially pertinent and potentially fractious. But that has not stopped several commentators from positing the troubling suggestion that the Republic could simply leave the EU too, thus avoiding the need to create a hard border on the island of Ireland. This idea is a non-starter; a poll in March 2019 showed that just eight percent of Irish people favoured leaving the EU. Rightly, those who have suggested this ‘solution’ to the issue have been widely castigated. Read more
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
We are halfway through the week-long Global Climate Strike. Last Friday, millions of school students and workers around the world took to the streets demanding that governments act now to address the climate and ecological crisis. Back in March 2018, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, I blogged about the history of children’s strikes for Doing History in Public. Since then, youth strikes have exploded onto the global political arena. In less than a year, Greta Thunberg has gone from protesting alone outside the Swedish parliament to being the figurehead of a global ‘School Strike for Climate’ movement.
By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27) and Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)
We were both lucky enough to attend two events with the revered black communist scholar and activist Professor Angela Davis in March and April. The first was held at the Southbank Centre in London for International Women’s Day as part of the Women of the World festival with the centre’s former Artistic Director Jude Kelly CBE and the second in Cambridge in conversation with Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay organised by Decolonise Sociology. Both conversations reflected on Davis’s life and work, her iconic status as a black activist, and the legacies and futures of social activism.
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
Over recent months I’ve watched more parliamentary debates than ever before. I imagine I’m not alone. This is perhaps a bold confession for a historian of political culture – admittedly, I’m more familiar with nineteenth-century Hansard than BBC Parliament. Numerous historical parallels have been drawn over Brexit, some more accurate than others. I won’t dwell here on what the EU referendum result says about the legacy of empire, whether Brexit will split the Tory party like the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, or politicians’ astonishing displays of historical illiteracy over Ireland. But with media attention fixed firmly on Westminster as the drama continues to unfold, I’ve been reflecting on the place of constitutional history in the public imagination.
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. 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.
By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)
Vladimir Putin was unsurprisingly victorious in this month’s presidential elections on the 18th of March. As with all political campaigns, candidates routinely utilise powerful self-branding images. In Putin’s case, historic forms of Russian exceptionalism were re-imagined to run on a distinct platform based on anti-Americanism, similar to his previous campaigns. Michael Bohm, in a 2013 article, suggested that Putin was determined to turn Russia into the only leading world power that can hold its own against the U.S. This anti-American branding of Russian exceptionalism alongside long held notions of Russian Orthodoxy and Holy Russia were harnessed to amass public support throughout the election. His conservative stance on gay rights and support of the Russian Orthodox church are indicative of this. Read more
By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith
The disturbing events which have recently unfolded in the small English town of Salisbury appear to belong more to the set of a Hollywood spy thriller or the pages of an Ian Fleming novel than to reality. From a historical perspective, the role of spies and informants on all sides during both the Second World War and the Cold War is well known. However, over the last twenty years, historians have increasingly come to recognise that it was during the early modern period that ‘modern’ methods and strategies of international espionage first began to develop. Stephen Alford, for example, has shone new light on Francis Walsingham’s role as Elizabeth I’s ‘Spymaster’ – research which informed a three-part BBC series last year. Similarly, a recent article by Sebastian Sobecki has uncovered the importance of an English spy, John Peyton, in providing intelligence on Spanish diplomatic activity in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth around the turn of the seventeenth century. Read more
By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)
This year’s International Women’s Day, on March 8th, was marked across the world with various marches, proclamations and campaigns highlighting inequalities and celebrating women. In the last two years, we have seen feminist campaigns in various institutions to challenge ongoing inequalities that disproportionately affect women, including sexual abuse, the gender pay gap and governmental policies. The earliest observance of a day for women was held by the Socialist Party of America on 28th February 1909 in New York at the suggestion of Theresa Malkiel. German Marxist Clara Zetkin initially proposed an International Women’s Day in 1910 with no fixed date. It had been predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted by the United Nations in 1975. Many historical demonstration actions have occurred on International Women’s Day, including in 1981 a demonstration when French women marched under the banner of the Movement for the Liberation of Women (MLF).
By Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys)
Boris Johnson’s declaration last week that Brexit ‘can be good for carrots too’ caused a mixture of despair, mild amusement, and utter confusion. For those trying to get their heads around Britain’s Brexit-based future, this was hardly the ‘clarity’ they demanded. What few registered, however, was that Johnson had unwittingly tapped into a long history of the manipulation of this versatile vegetable for political ends. Read more
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
6 February will mark one hundred years since the first women in Britain gained the right to vote in national elections. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised 40% of women in the UK and was the result of decades of campaigning by various organisations across the country. It was a key step towards women getting the vote on equal terms to men ten years later. To celebrate this milestone in women’s history, Cambridge University Library is displaying some of its collections on women’s suffrage for the first time. Read more
By David Runciman
The testimony of Former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee was a highly anticipated moment of political drama. There were many stand-out moments. But as a medievalist, it was particularly interesting to hear Comey and one of his interlocutors compare President Trump to King Henry II of England. So why was a medieval English king invoked in a modern American congressional hearing? And does the comparison provide any insight into what might happen next? Read more
A week ago UK Prime Minister Theresa May caught almost everyone by surprise by calling an election for the beginning of June. As the dust settles and the party machines grind into action, Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys) takes a brief look at the key facts. Read more
by Eleanor Russell
On the 26th of January 1788 eleven ships under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Port Jackson, now known as Sydney Harbour, carrying the first of more than 150,000 convicts sent to the new penal colony in Australia. The experiences of these convicts, and of the naval and military personnel, administrators, and free settlers, would be transformed from history into an origin story of the Australian national character that remains the focus of Australia Day celebrations. Read more
By Dom Birch
The writing of history, we are told, is a political occupation—all historians have a political lens through which they work, or view the past. This viewpoint has led to historians convincing themselves that their work can almost always be justified in political terms. Justifying history as politics is doomed from the start: academic historians have very little influence on the political action and consciousness of the general population, and unavoidably political and intellectual purposes for writing history come into conflict. Historians inevitably need, at some point, to either change their politics or change their evidence. Read more
Carys Brown @HistoryCarys
Two years ago ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ caused widespread alarm in the media and panic on the part of the British government. Yet the concern about religious and political influences in schools is hardly new. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, writers concerned about the enemy within targeted Protestant Dissenters. Their suggestions about who should control the education of the nation’s children, perhaps worryingly, have surprising resonance today. Read more
By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys
For the first ten minutes of Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, I have to confess I was sceptical. The complex political intrigue of the reign of this little-known monarch (1702-1714) is fascinating, but impossible, I thought, to convey on stage in a mere two hours and thirty-five minutes. I was wrong. In a play hooked around the relationship between Queen Anne and her favourite, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the audience were immersed in the world of eighteenth-century high politics.
By Jeremy Wikeley
Over the summer I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim for the first time. I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting to. Kim tells the story of an Irish orphan who, growing up in India, has a series of adventures, first as the protégé of an elderly Buddhist monk and later as an agent in ‘the Great Game’. Kim enjoys the excitement of espionage but he misses the freedom of life on the road. Kim is a ‘boys own’ tale, but the verve and colour of Kipling’s descriptions of India and its diversity of peoples and cultures give the novel a wider appeal, as does the theme: everyone’s torn between what’s expected of us and what we really want to do.