In 2015 the Modern British Studies (MBS) research centre at the University of Birmingham hosted an ambitious and febrile 3-day conference that brought together historians and other scholars to present work and discuss the state of the field.1 MBS 2015 was a productive and exhaustive event, described as the Glastonbury of British history, with five plenary sessions and a tempestuous roundtable finale. The conference was an attempt to weave together the different fragments of the field and work towards building a coherent methodological and political agenda. It came on the back of a 2014 working paper produced by the centre which expressed concern about ‘such a degree of fragmentation that the different sub-disciplines of political, economic, social and cultural history are not sufficiently in conversation with one another’.2 The task of the conference, as highlighted by its call for papers, was to work towards developing a unified set of questions and concerns orientated towards public and political engagement.3 This bold mission became a source of fierce debate throughout the conference. The event opened with a plenary lecture by James Vernon who stressed the urgent need to ask big questions about the politics and stakes of our work, saying that ‘now more than ever we need a narrative of British history that allows us to unthink our neoliberal present, rethink the left and challenge the narrowing of national pasts’.4 In the questions that followed one scholar asked whether it was possible for conservative scholars to participate in this project; another tore up his paper that night and used the time on his panel to imagine what a conservative history of post-war Britain would look like. It was the scale of the questions and investments posed by the working paper, the call for papers and Vernon’s lecture rather than any political content which proved most contentious, however. Various scholars argued that too much attention on constructing big, joined up and outwardly facing historical narratives were obscuring histories of emotion, subcultures, the everyday and hampering the diversity and productive messiness of the field. These critiques were eloquently summarized by Lucy Robinson in a post-conference blog post titled ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’, in which she described the event as a ‘land-grab, a brand … self-identified as significant’ and sensed that some scholars were being asked ‘to get out of the way and let the big boys in to sort out the big stuff’.5 The delegates at MBS 2015 left Birmingham and returned to their departments across the world to watch the steady collapse of a political order that in the summer of 2015 had felt invincible. The catalogue of events does not need to be rehearsed. In November, shortly after Donald Trump’s election victory, the call for papers for MBS 2017 was published. This was to be MBS’s difficult second album. Dramatically subtitled ‘British Studies in a Broken World’ MBS 2017 was billed as a space for historians to respond to the new challenges posed by our altered political landscape. To quote at length: At a moment when many of the core strands of modern society, culture, politics, and economics have been called into question, it is time to explore how we make sense of Britain’s past and the value of thinking historically in public life. The intersecting challenges prompted by the European Union referendum make these issues more pressing than ever. Taken together, the fallout of Brexit, the criticism of ‘expertise’, and ongoing discussions about our ‘postcolonial present’ challenge our thinking about British history and the historian’s public status.6 The call for papers came with an image of an ornate spire poking through the twisted ruins of a semi-demolished modern building. It is unclear whether the building is being deliberately torn down by zealous planners or whether it was collateral damage from a passing war. In 2015, there was, in the words of Vernon’s plenary, ‘a nagging sense of crisis’ that leant new significance to our work. Two years later the crisis has arrived. Questions about Britain’s place in the world, its economy, the security of its universities, and, of course, its history are becoming existential. Writing about the collapse of liberalism in fin de siècle Vienna, Robert Musil wrote that ‘time was moving faster than a cavalry camel … but in those days no one knew what it was moving towards. Nor could anyone quite distinguish between what was above and what was below, between what was moving forward and what backwards’.7 Historians are in a unique position to understand these questions, and in this context, MBS 2017 opened amidst anxious anticipation of forthcoming debates. With its impressive slate of panels, Birmingham’s MBS centre upheld its claim to be at the forefront of historical debate in Britain. The conference was a vibrant, rigorous and creative affair, testament to the exhaustive work of its organizers to whom all the delegates owe gratitude. Five major themes stood out: race, gender, empire, expertise and healthcare, and ideology and political economy. This is a generalized summary, however, and each of these five themes was riven with different methodologies, aims, and stakes. To the surprise of many, a panel on the Conservative Party drew deeply from the emerging historiography on emotions. A set of powerful yet extremely different panels on gender looked at the entry of women into professions at the turn of the century, the restructuring of masculinity in the late twentieth century, and the experience of working as a feminist historian in the contemporary academy. There were four panels, meanwhile, that dealt explicitly with race in post-war Britain (compared to just one in 2015). The wildly differing set of methodologies, political agendas, periodizations, and academic cultures meant that each participant had a very different experience of the conference—a fact that makes it difficult to produce a definitive summary. Like at a music festival, you picked your list for the day and set out, meeting friends later to compare impressionistic notes on the very different conversations that were held. My own highlights from the panels I attended included Kennetta Hammond Perry’s lyrical and vital exposition of an instance of police anti-black violence in 1960 s Leeds, Zoe Thomas’ thoughtful paper about women involved in artistic production at the turn of the century, as well as a stunning innovative and inter-disciplinary panel on rethinking financial neoliberalism. As in 2015, the conference proper was preceded by a workshop for postgraduates and early career researchers which led to discussions about the precarity of the working conditions of historians, a theme that was otherwise sadly muted at the conference. As in MBS 2015, there was an unfortunate reluctance to expand explanatory accounts beyond the twentieth century despite the conference nominally soliciting papers from the eighteenth century to the present. In 2015, the variety of different panels was complimented by five plenary lectures throughout the 3 days (six if you include Geoff Eley’s Vice Chancellor’s Lecture midway through the conference). These plenaries presented cutting-edge research or polemical statements about the state of the field and its relationship to politics: James Vernon, Catherine Hall, and Geoff Eley told big synthetic stories with immediate political pay-offs, while Deborah Cohen, Stephen Brooke, and Seth Koven in different ways appeared to push back against these projects, presenting histories of emotion, experience, and calling for complexity and messiness. Although very different, they were each provocative, memorable, and excellent interventions. MBS 2017 eschewed this approach, opting instead for three panel discussions: on the practice of history in our present political moment; on public history; and on interdisciplinary work as well as a final roundtable to summarize the conference. These plenaries showed an impressive commitment on behalf of the organizers to promote the voices of women academics and researchers—of the fourteen speakers at the four plenaries and the roundtable ten were women. Interestingly, the only solo lecture of the conference was delivered by a non-historian, Leela Gandhi, a Professor of English Literature at Brown University and a celebrated postcolonial theorist. In keeping with the theme of the conference her brilliant, poetic, and sophisticated lecture identified celebrated a lost strand of utopian that prioritized the collectively produced meanings of everyday life at the expense of major historical ruptures. To the extent that the conference had an agenda or an overarching set of themes, they were set in the first plenary session, ‘Fluid Presents Turbulent Pasts’, hosted by Matthew Hilton, Susan Pedersen, and Caroline Elkins. Speaking first, Hilton immediately sought to distance the conference from the 2014 working paper and thus from any attempt to set an agenda for the field. Pedersen was one of the only plenary speakers during the conference to directly address the political realignment underway in Britain—specifically its imminent departure from the European Union. She called on scholars to defend the cosmopolitanism of the field and be aware of the ways that Britain was produced by the world rather than claiming that it was leading or shaping it. Pedersen, however, downplayed the extent to which our work should be animated by political or presentist concerns, calling for us to preserve the distinction between political and intellectual subjectivities and to ‘write whatever you damn well please’. This more centrifugal approach to studying modern British history sat at times awkwardly with MBS 2017’s other major preoccupation: public engagement. The second day saw a plenary panel on different forms of public engagement: Peter Mandler talked about secondary education reforms, and Lucy Delap gave an excellent talk about her work with History and Policy. Pamela Cox called for forms of engagement organized around ‘social justice’ as a term broad enough to encompass many of the different diverse political and methodological investments each of us might share. The problem with ‘social justice’, as Cox rightly admitted, was its essential capaciousness. It is a term, she conceded, that has been used by Jeremy Corbyn, Emmanuel Macron, and the alt right. There seems to be an unsolvable problem here. Given the emphasis on fragmentation and deliberate collective depoliticization, it is unclear what work public engagement can do. Engagement for engagement’s sake alone is a difficult cause to rally behind. More productive models for public engagement were showcased outside the plenary sessions. Notable was a panel organized by Black Lives Matter activists in conjunction with the activism network History Acts. The session featured a conversation between Tippa Naphtali, an activist whose cousin was killed in custody and who leads a campaign which gathers statistics about police brutality, and two historians, Kennetta Hammond Perry and Rob Waters. Also productive was an informal meeting hosted by Julia Laite for historians of housing, policing, race, and a variety of other subjects to organize a response to the Grenfell Fire that will put the disaster in a long-term context than the Government’s public enquiry is willing to consider. In 2015 the plenary lecturers came together for a heated roundtable discussion to end the conference, a conversation that memorably unfolded in front of a projection of the conference’s twitter feed, which became a forum for a parallel discussion. In contrast, 2017’s final roundtable was an exercise in agreement and affirmation. Lucy Robinson called for historians to resist the idea that MBS 2017 was about discovering ‘the next big thing’ and instead to look beyond the academic content of our work and focus instead on how it is presented. The most interesting intervention from a panellist was by Shahmima Akhtar, who spoke insightfully about critique and the need for us to historicize rather than reproduce the concepts used in contemporary political debate. While a great variety of different points were made at the roundtable, the major tone was one of celebratory fragmentation—a sense that historical, methodological, and political debates were up to individuals to solve for themselves. Perhaps for this reason, the event was poorly attended compared with the other plenaries, and felt brief and somewhat muted, like the urgency of 2015’s debates had slipped away. Perhaps the major political shocks of the past 2 years had left everyone too tired to argue. At one point during the roundtable, Mo Moulton, who had coined the title ‘British Studies in a Broken World’, alluded to the fact that there were few attempts to fully theorize our contemporary political conjuncture during the conference. It was indeed the case that the call for papers implied a set of questions that were never discussed: if something in the world is broken then what is that thing, when did it emerge, and what is Britain’s relationship to it? Does the kind of history we do have a political role beyond that of local engagement or case-by-case empirical correctives? If it is our impetus to engage with the public, then what do we want to achieve with that engagement? In terms of relating the past to the present is our job to identify sets of events that repeat for reasons of structure or psychology? Or is it to highlight the inherent fragility and constructedness of our present moment? These are questions that transcend the discipline of MBS, but historians are well placed to answer them. Attempts by more technocratic forms of social science (particularly political science) to predict the future or interpret the present have been found wanting as the guiding assumptions behind these disciplines increasingly no longer obtain. In other words, this should be our moment. Asking these kinds of questions is not, of course, mandatory for those working on modern British history. These discussions should and will take place somewhere. In planning for the next MBS organizers and attendees need to decide whether the conference is a forum for building an outward-looking agenda: a space to try to answer or at least debate the above questions, or a constellation of different agendas and methodologies agreeing to disagree, perhaps a less formal counterpart to the annual North American Conference for British Studies conference. My preference is naturally for the former, but whatever is decided I look forward to attending in 2019. Footnotes 1 Charlotte Lydia Riley, ‘Rethinking Modern British Studies. July 2015: A Reflection’, Twentieth Century British History, 27 (2016), 305–9. I am indebted to Lauren Piko for storifying tweets from the 2015 Rethinking Modern British Studies conference. The storified tweets from this conference are available here: <https://storify.com/book_learning>. I am also extremely grateful to all of those who live tweeted panels and events at the 2017 conference whose tweets were invaluable for writing this reflection. I particularly want to thank Charlotte Lydia Riley and Matthew Francis in this regard. 2 ‘Modern British Studies Working Paper No. 1’, February 2014, 1 <https://mbsbham.wordpress.com/working-papers/working-paper-no-1/>. A second working paper was released in January 2015 which dwelled more on the precarious working conditions of historians and sounded a retreat from the unifying aims of the first Working Paper. 3 ‘Call for Papers: Rethinking Modern British Studies’, October 2014, <https://mbsbham.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/cfp-rethinking-modern-british-studies.pdf>. 4 James Vernon, ‘What Where and When is the History of Modern Britain?’, July 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uF9f2xoKwnY>. 5 Lucy Robinson, ‘Things are Messy: Be Careful What You Wish For’ (2015) <https://drlucyrobinson.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/things-are-messy-be-careful-what-you-wishfor/>. 6 ‘Call for Papers: British Studies in a Broken World’, November 2016, <https://mbsbham.wordpress.com/2016/11/30/british-studies-in-a-broken-world-call-for-papers-mbs-2017/>. 7 Quoted in Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (London, 1981), 116. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. 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Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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