Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A walk in the park, or over hot coals? Surviving postgraduate study, Friday October 3rd

New term is almost upon us! Our first event will be an introduction to postgraduate study from the student's point of view. We'll be sharing our various experiences to help prepare new students for what lies ahead. Come along to meet your fellow postgrads from across the School of History and elsewhere. We look forward to meeting as many of you as possible!

[I can also now announce our new home in Attenborough 002 in the heart of campus]

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Nations and self-determination

As a historian you should avoid divination.  To quote Hegel "The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering."  That said, as a historian, one is also aware that today's news will be tomorrow's history.  With that in mind I wanted to write about a couple of instances of nationalism that will be very familiar to anyone who has followed current affairs over the last six months.  My aim isn't to comment on either in terms of the rights or wrongs of the causes in question.  I simply aim to highlight and challenge ideas that, to our western democratic minds, probably underpin our understanding of each; namely that the idea of a nation is self evident and that self-determination is a good thing.

The two cases I wanted to look at are the imminent vote on Scottish independence and the simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.  On initial consideration one might think of these as being at opposite ends of a scale; one is a clear and open democratic process and the other cynical opportunism in reaction to an unfavourable change in ruling ideals.  My first question then is which description fits which situation?

As an ethnic Russian living in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea should I not have the right to self-determination as enshrined in the UN Charter?  Was the secession of Crimea not a valid expression of the will of the people?  There was a referendum at which every citizen had the right to vote; the fact that some chose not to vote shouldn't and indeed doesn't invalidate the fact that the majority voted for secession.  As for Scotland the SNP are cynically manipulating the dislike of an elected government in Westminster to drive a call for independence.  Thirty years ago they were a fringe party of irrelevant extremists but, through the alienation of Scotland by the policies of Thatcher's Conservatives in the 1980s, they were able to push through an otherwise unpalatable agenda.  The nature of democracy however is that the government that is elected is the government that the majority of the population voted for; if you accept the principles of democracy shouldn't you accept the results it gives you?  Now the Scottish population are being herded towards independence using the goad of dislike of Westminster rather than a positive vision of the future of Scotland.

Mea culpa; I’ve caricatured the issues here for effect but, in both cases, the issues I raise are recognisable.  The concepts of nation and self-determination are at the heart of both situations, at least for a large proportion of the people involved. Equally it could be argued that these ideas are also the levers by which politicians of all stripes and in all cases try to shift the population in one direction or another.  This is only possible because many would see those concepts as absolutes.  Everyone knows what a nation is; everyone accepts self-determination is a right.  Hold those thoughts for a while because I’d like to examine those two concepts in a bit more detail.
The word nation derives from the Latin noun “natio” meaning a group larger than family but smaller than a clan.  It certainly did not mean nation in the sense we might understand it today.  In antiquity the Roman nation was referred to as “Populus Romanus” not “natio romanorum” (apologies for my Latin grammar).  Natio was normally used to refer to communities of foreigners.  By the medieval period the term still did not refer to anything equivalent to the modern understanding of nation.  Medieval universities, for example, were composed of “nations”; the University of Paris divided itself into four “nations” reflecting the language groupings of the attendees.  English speakers were part of “la constante nation de Germanie” along with German speakers for example.  It isn’t until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that the idea of nation starts to take on a form recognisable to our modern understanding and, critically, it comes about not from the articulation of an ancient and objective reality but from a reality constructed for particular political purposes.  This is the view of many writers on the subject of nationalism such as Elie Kedourie, although the debate between ancient roots view of nations against modern invention is ongoing.  In particular see “The Warwick Debate” between Anthony Smith and Ernest Gellner for a thorough discussion of these issues.
The key for me personally is that whilst the acquisition of myths, legends and history to frame the idea of a nation is very powerful and very emotive it doesn’t necessarily reflect a measuarable reality.  Think about a couple of cultural heroes for example; who does CĂș Chulainn belong too?  His statue resides in the Post Office in Dublin and yet he is a hero from Ulster who in legend held off an invasion from the South single handedly.  Similarly Richard I stands proudly outside the House of Parliament as a bastion of Englishness however, in life, he only spoke French, spent most of his rule outside of the British Isles and famously said he would have sold London if he could have found a buyer.  Nations pick and choose the stories they tell about themselves to reflect the contemporary ideals they want to emphasise.  What then is Scotland?  What is Russia and Ukraine?  Are they not just the political/ideological constructs of those who would want them to be one way or another to suit their own agendas?

Self-determination is most famously outlined in Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points as raised as part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War.  Wilson framed self-determination as a political and legal principle although in reality it was used as a tool to break up the Central Powers.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and the Ottoman Empire were all carved up through the principle of self-determination and yet other nascent nations such as Kurdistan were ignored.  Self-determination wasn’t, as it turned out, a universal unalienable right at all; it was a geopolitical tool to be used when it suited.  Self-determination certainly didn’t suit the surviving colonial powers that had no interest in surrendering their colonial territories.  Most critically of all self-determination was used by Hitler and Nazi Germany to justify their early expansion stating that their military action was in support of the right to self-determination of German minorities in neighbouring nations.
Following World War II self-determination was enshrined in the UN Charter.  In that charter it specifically refers to “self-determination of the peoples”.  It doesn’t specify, however, who the people are or indeed who decides what constitutes a people.  In reality the UN Charter is about securing state sovereignty not self-determination.  This casts self determination in a rather different light to how we might otherwise conceive of it.  Elie Kedourie goes as far as to say that self-determination is a resolutely corrosive force in politics in that it drives a wedge between peoples focussing them on their differences rather than on their shared experiences as human beings.

So where does that leave our understanding of the situations in Scotland and Ukraine?  I've probably not caused you to question your fundamental belief in the rights or wrongs or even what you would prefer to be the outcome in either case.  As I said at the start though, that was never my intention.   I hope I have provided something to think about though, especially in regard to your thoughts on the nature of nations and democratic traditions.  Regardless of the outcome of either situation the UK and Ukraine will never be the same.  The push for Scottish independence has started to bring other reductionist arguments to the surface such as those from the English Democrats.  In Ukraine the amount of blood that has been spilt already will not be easily forgotten on either side.  And to think I started out by saying historians should avoid divination.

Sorry about that.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Our World War

Our World War

As the commemorations for the First World War get underway it is easy to become quite disillusioned with the plethora of documentaries and events that dominate our screens and social media platforms. However, BBC3 has developed a new way of bringing an old story into the modern age in a way that will engage younger, more apathetic, audiences who cannot fully realise the atrocities of that war.

Our World War is innovative in using archival sources including first-hand accounts of life in the trenches and a new style of capturing the action which encourages the viewer to feel as if they, too, are a part of the battle. It is as if the soldiers are part of a video game and we are watching the recorded result of a gaming battle. This type of interface is more familiar and relevant to younger generations who participate in online and video gaming regularly, something which is used to great effect in each of the three episodes of this mini-series.

As a person who is not all that interested in the military aspects of WWI, I did find myself drawn into the battle sequences and intriguing mix of personal stories and relationships with the computerized display of troop movements and positions. It is a recommended watch for anyone looking for a refreshing retelling of the Great War.

The link for both the episodes and other interactive sources is here:

Monday, 14 July 2014

The final event of our summer season approaches :(
But it's going to be a cracker!
Please note that, due to unforeseen circumstances, we will be in no.1 Salisbury Road not no.5. Just come in and head to the first floor

Thursday, 26 June 2014


Monday, 9 June 2014

We are pleased to announce three summer labs to break up those long weeks of research :)

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Historically Pimp One's Ride

Today, Elizabeth II will ride (or has already ridden) to the State Opening of Parliament in her brand new set of wheels: the Jubilee State Coach, made by Australian hardcore fancoachbuilder Jim Frecklington as a labour of love. Usually, this is not the kind of history that interests me, and I suspect, not the kind that interests very many of us at NHL, either. But there is something more, and something strange, about this new carriage. It looks like most of the others: drawn by 6 horses, painted wood and lots and lots of gold leaf. But it's also absolutely studded with fragments of historical artefacts, ranging from the wood of HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, buttons from Gallipoli and the Western Front, to metal from a Spitfire and part of Newton's apple tree, to name but a few from a very long list.
The Diamond Jubilee State Coach, or State Coach Britannia: from the outside, like any other of Elizabeth II's carriages.

When I was sewing my baldrics (a pair of crossed sashes held together at the back and front by pieces of fabric often containing a crest or heraldic device of some sort) for my last Morris team, I enclosed bits of fabric and ribbon from my previous teams' kits into some of the joins. I see my kit as ceremonial and like to feel that I am carrying my previous history and experience as a dancer with me when I am dancing. I understand, sort of, that the same intention is present in this new coach: a rolling museum or monument to the history of Britain and the Commonwealth. My pieces of past kit are hidden in my new kit, and until now, I've never admitted to doing something so sentimental: nobody but myself even knew they were there. But the interior of Her Majesty's new carriage actually looks like a museum: the doors are inlaid with wood from all kinds of historical treasures, including famous ships, Hillary's Everest ladders, Scott's Antarctic sled, and the beams of British Cathedrals, and smaller artefacts like the buttons, a musketball from Waterloo, and a rivet from the Flying Scotsman, each item labelled. 

Before I go any further, here is a selection of some of the most notable artefacts, gleaned from news reports and Mr Frecklington's website:

Wood from Newton's apple tree
A bullet from Waterloo
Metal from a Dambuster
Wood from HMS Victory
Wood from Scott's Antarctic sled
Wood from Hut 6 at Bletchley Park
Wood from the beams of every British Cathedral and palace
Wood from Edmund Hillary's Everest ladders
A piece of the Stone of Scone
A bolt from a Spitfire
A button from Gallipoli
A rivet from the Flying Scotsman
Metal from Victoria Cross cannon
Wood from the Mary Rose
Wood from the Mayflower
Wood from the Tower of London
Wood from the Ferriby boats
Wood from HMS Endeavour
A counterweight from Big Ben
Wood from the door of 10 Downing Street
Robert Baden-Powell's buttons
Wood from Shakespeare's mulberry tree
Roman  and Viking timber from Bath and York
Metal fragment from Rolls Royce Silver Ghost
Material from Lords and Wimbledon
Button from the Western Front
Wood from Stephenson's Rocket
Wood from the Royal Box at Ascot
Wood from the Cutty Sark
Wood from Oxford, Cambridge, Eton and Rugby
Wood from the Glastonbury Thorn
Weapon fragment from the Battle of Hastings
Fragments relating to Darwin, Jenner and Joseph Banks
Discs containing digital copies of the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book
A compartment containing Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

The last item warrants its own entirely separate blog post.  So, a few musings about these artefacts, and a few questions, which I hope will be discussed in the comments section. Firstly, what are the implications of removing pieces of some historical objects which are very fragile, and have been so very carefully protected and restored over a period of many years, at a great cost of time and money, for use as mere decorative objects? I am thinking in particular of the Bronze Age Ferriby Boats, and the Mary Rose, which since 1982 has been subject to an intensive conservation programme. It is nothing less than pilfering pieces of national, public historical objects for use in a private collection: the coach will be upon display at the Royal Mews after today's Parliament session, but the only people who will actually be able to sit inside the coach and view this collection will be the Queen, Prince Philip or other senior Royals, and the staff who maintain the coach. 

Secondly, these objects are divorced from their own narratives to be placed in this grand narrative of British and Commonwealth history. But more than that, they are reduced to decorative objects, the wood samples polished out of all recognition and forming a smooth inlaid mosaic of different coloured wood more at home on a parquet floor. Without the labels, one would not know that one varnished, polished, perfectly square piece of oak had been at the Battle of Trafalgar, another had assisted the ascent of Everest, and one more had been dragged to the Antarctic. 

Close up of nice inlaid wood effect achieved by polishing the history out of historical objects.
Thirdly, the idea behind the collection itself, as well as being an odd concept for a mode of transport and containing some frankly bizarre inclusions (digital copy of the Magna Carta? A piece of a Rolls Royce? Baden-Powell's buttons?), is somewhat reductive. It is fetishism: it holds up these tiny objects as sacred relics, conferring yet more prestige on the Monarch as she sits encased in the rarefied field of these objects. It is cheaply emotive: buttons from Gallipoli and the Western Front, a bolt from a Spitfire, metal from the wreckage of a crashed Dambuster: the things that make Britain great. 

I think that I have saved the best bit for last. Under the seats (gold silk brocade from Sudbury, with armrests made from the rails of the Royal Yacht Britannia - they even flip up to access heating and electric window controls), there are two wooden cases, containing 60 gold-plated canisters. Canisters for her Majesty to add to her collection of historical artefacts. Should ERII actually wish to continue collecting these historical offcuts, what should she consider filling her golden specimen jars with? Alongside bits of palaces and Oxford, Cambridge, Eton and Rugby, maybe she should include some social history: after all, the concept of the carriage is to tell the history of Britain through objects. 
Golden film pots for Her Majesty's further collections. Perhaps Prince Phillip will buy her some World Cup Stickers?

Now that the carriage contains a chip of the Stone of Scone, let's hope it has central locking and an immobiliser fitted.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Labbers may be interested in the Centre for Urban History's Annual lecture on 30th May

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Medical Appliances and the Decline of the Welfare State: Lessons from the Past

It was with a weary sense of familiarity that I read the recent news from South Warwickshire concerning proposals to introduce charges for medical appliances such as crutches, walking sticks and neck braces. Sue Lear, presenting to twenty elected patient representatives on behalf of the GP-led Clincal Commissioning Group, asked 
Would it be reasonable to ask people to contribute to the cost of orthotics, aids and appliances? If so, which items and how could we agree this? If so, what criteria should be applied, eg low-cost items below a specified threshold?
While the “tentative” cost-saving suggestion brought widespread criticism from sources as diverse as the general secretary of the TUC, the chief executive of Disability Rights UK, and the British Medical Association, I cannot help but see it as merely another stage in the undermining of the ideals of the welfare state and its consequent accelerating dismantling. It of course raises practical as well as ethical questions. How will the new system decide who ‘deserves’ free appliances, and how will those not deemed worthy raise the necessary cash? Are we not already seeing these issues with the hated ATOS healthcare scheme, or the depressingly rapid rise of charitable Food Banks? Medical appliances, of course, have not always been provided by the state; looking at how these problems were 'solved' in the past may provide a hint of what could, unfortunately, happen in the future.

The Manchester Surgical Aid Society (MSAS) provides a neat case study. Formed in 1897 to provide the poor and working classes with medical appliances, its funds were raised through a combination of middle-class philanthropic subscription and recipient contribution. The MSAS epitomised what Gareth Stedman Jones has termed ‘the deformation of the gift’, a process of charitable giving symbolising individual sacrifice and superiority on the behalf of the donator, and a consequent moral obligation on the behalf of the receiver. As an expression of the liberal individualist politics that permeated definitions of citizenship in the nineteenth century, helping the worker to overcome a physically dehabilitating illness encouraged a return to work, an avoidance of debt, and accordingly a cementing of ‘good citizenship.’ Concurrently, it was a manifestation of the benefactors own moral responsibility and claim to being a good citizen. In the welfare politics of the nineteenth century, in other words, there was rarely such a thing as a free crutch.

As the purpose and power of both local and national governments increased, beginning especially with the Liberal social reforms in the Edwardian years, welfare organisations were increasingly supported with money from the public purse. For the MSAS this support was vital since, in the 1920s, its committee had begun to complain of a budget deficiency caused by high prices, increased unemployment, and a supposedly receding ‘spirit of giving’. Despite financial difficulties its services remained vital to local people, with no public provision of medical appliances in the city. Claimants to the Society grew; in its infancy in 1899 it helped 117 cases, by 1914 this figure had grown to 499, and in 1934 it hit a peak of 702. While the MSAS helped the majority of applicants to its funds, some claims were rejected, middle-class philanthropy implying not only moral obligation, but also a separation of the deserving and non-deserving.

In the 1940s the tides of change began to swell, and the public provision of healthcare increased. Though the recent work of historians like James McKay and Matthew Hilton is certainly correct in highlighting the longevity and vitality of voluntary associations in the ‘mixed economy of welfare’, some organisations undeniably found their services redundant. By 1945 the number of applications to the MSAS had dwindled to 315, due mostly to the supply of appliances for schoolchildren by the Manchester Education Committee under the provisions of the 1944 Education Act. In 1947 the Society celebrated its half-century, but recognised that, with the National Health Service Act of 1946, its future was ‘rather an unknown quantity’. After the act became operational in July 1948, the Society received only five applications, making it ‘quite plain that practically all needs are now met from public funds.’ This being so, the Society disbanded, declaring ‘another instance of private enterprise in the voluntary field blazing a trail, and handing over to the State when the work has proved its worth.’ 

The rise and fall of the MSAS tells a common story of the shifts in the political culture of citizenship and welfare in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In terms of the welfare state and the new social democracy, the provision of (at least some) free medical appliances was a universal social and legal right bestowed due to the individual’s membership in the nation-state. As Stedman Jones argued, the moral and social results of ‘the gift’ had depended on a personal relationship between the giver and receiver; de-personalised, it lost its elements of voluntary sacrifice, prestige, subordination, and obligation. While the MSAS helped many, though not all, of applicants, it did so, a cynic may argue, with an ulterior motive of social control. With the potential decline of the NHS, is this really a position to which we want to return? 

Tom Hulme

* Thanks to the New History Lab, a wonderful organisation that I was privileged enough to be a part of while undertaking a doctorate at the University of Leicester, for letting me use their blog. I more frequently blog at and tweet at *