Earlier this month I attended two conferences in a week. Not great planning on my part but it was really interesting to move across geographical locations and organisational structures to ask in essence very similar questions but with very different answers. The first symposium I attended as a discussant was Rethinking Contemporary British Political History at Queen Mary’s Mile End campus organised by Dr Helen McCarthy. (The second was the Workshop on Voluntary Action and Philanthropy at Frankfurt University which I will write about later)
I was at QM as a commentator on a panel with three historians whose work I know well and use myself ; Diamaid Kelliher, Jodi Burkett, and Chris Moores. Chris Moores‘ presentation worked through some of the implications of the History of Emotions for our understanding of solidarity using the example of the campaigns around Chile. Diarmaid, whose article on Lesbian and Gay Support the Miners I now use as the basis of a workshop seminar on Thatcher’s Britain, presented on ‘cultures of solidarity’ during the 1984 Miners Strike. Jodi presented on the follow on project from her excellent book Constructing Post-Imperial Britain. Her new project looks at far left politics on English campuses 1970-1990. All three papers were at different points on the ‘work in progress’ continuum so I won’t quote or summarise them here. But I will talk about the impact they had on me. All three scholars are at different stages of the ‘early career’ status, but together they exemplified the vibrancy of contemporary British History. They showed how, by moving across our silos of mini discipline (political, social, cultural, emotional history), we can finally get to a type of history that can map the variety of different forms and experiences of political and social engagement. The divisions between the political, the economic and the emotional, for example, are our hang ups, not the hang ups of our subjects, objects and sources.
The recent MBS conference at Birmingham has cast a long, and somewhat cultish shadow. It has triggered a flurry of blogposts and undoubtedly fed into a recent twitter fluster around a recent article on early career advice published in History Today. Unlike Birmingham, QM’s event was a smaller, focused symposium and free from the self awareness of social networking as a form of commentary/performance. (although that didn’t stop the occasional irresistible feminist subtweet from leaking out).
Discussions at QM were often presented as being ‘post-Birmingham’. I suppose its because we like easy lines of historical periodization. Birmingham was also present in a different way too. The new developments in Contemporary British Political History were as much post-Hilton’ and Crowson’s work on NGOs in the UK as they were post- Steven Fielding’ and Jon Lawrence‘s work on New Political History. There is a generational aspect at play here as postgrads and postdocs from different strands have moved across grant projects, and across institutions, creating hybrid interventions. The papers I saw at QM dispelled any anxiety that there might be about the state of the discipline and instead perhaps help us contextualise our own sense of anxiety within the discipline. What I saw was a wave of historians deeply rooted in a sense of the conditions of their own labour. What I saw was a group of historians, explicitly engaged in the implication of their work, as labour and as analysis, in the current material context.
The papers made clear interventions; around the privileging of ‘68 as a global moment, about the importance of the local, the role of academics (rather than their ideas) in social movements, the careful methods that can be used to capture complex understandings of solidarity, the role that history of emotions might have at working through the intersections with concepts of solidarity, shared interests, and individual experience.
Together these papers helped work through the question that is going to face us all in some very harsh ways – What is Solidarity? What is the relationship between collaboration and collectivity? Behind our shared interests and our collective memory? We are faced with two specific challenges, PREVENT which ties our teaching and research into a responsibility to prevent terrorism, and the new trade union legislation which undermines our right to collective organise and take strike action. We are going to need to get our heads around these questions and these historians are a good place to start.
I was particularly struck with the usefulness of the relationship that the papers set up between solidarity and relational identity, or affective networks. That we are all in it together, even if we don’t know it. The experience of ‘being oneself’ is, after all, a collaborative process – we don’t do it on our own. By thinking across space, place, the local and the global, ideas and practice, top down and bottom up, these papers have suggested the ways in which we move beyond simple ideas of agency and historical change. These historians have suggested that we can move beyond a tick box of assigning political significance based on straight lines of quantifiable success or failure. They suggest that the process, and memories of the process are the point. If the discussions of whether Jeremy Corbyn is the living ghost from Labour’s 1983 Manifesto (‘the longest suicide note in History’) tell us anything – it is not whether he is the true inheritor of true Labour, it is how active the use of memories of the past are in the present.
These historians helped me clarify the ways in which the differences in our work don’t rest at the level of a varying interpretations according to different lineages of historical schools of thought. Our differences are the product of shared interests, and I mean that in terms of both public and private meanings of material context and of personal affective resonances.
Our job has got to be more than assessing whether our self selected series of facts are in an inevitable line to the present, when we are the ones who put them in that constellation in the first place. We are not uncovering truths as historians, we are wielding tactics. Most of us are pretty good at contextualising the work of the earlier historians that we use in our work. The challenge therefore is to turn the same lens on ourselves. As the papers at QM suggested, we are going to need to do more than pour judgement onto the past, from an uncritical position in the present. We are going to need to work out which side we are on.