History in the News

RHS President joins historians in speaking out against department closures

Royal Historical Society President, Emma Griffin, has joined fellow historians in expressing serious concern over plans to close History departments at several UK universities. The proposals risk History becoming an elite subject unavailable to selected students, at a time when History and historical awareness is needed more than ever.

Emma Griffin’s comments (reproduced below) appear alongside those of Professor Kate Williams and Sir Richard Evans among others in an article for the Guardian (1 May 2021): ‘Studying history should not be only for the elite, say academics’.


‘Emma Griffin, the president of the Royal Historical Society and professor of modern British history at the University of East Anglia, was anxious that her degree, which she said was very accessible and produced “rounded” graduates, must not become the preserve of the middle classes. “For reasons of cost, many students need to study at their local university. Understanding our own past shouldn’t be a luxury pursuit for the privileged few, and we think that everyone should have a history option.”

Griffin warned that more history closures are already on the horizon. “There are more in discussion, and there are academics at other universities who feel their positions are threatened.”

She said the removal of the cap on student numbers, allowing elite universities to expand, made the demise of smaller history departments in less prominent universities “inevitable”. “These aren’t blips or unfortunate mishaps, it is the government’s policy working as it was designed to,” she said.

Unlike subjects with expensive kit or laboratories, expanding a subject like history is a relatively cheap way for a successful university to increase its income from £9,250 a year fees. But Griffin said that cramming more students in has negative effects on the degree. “A history department cannot suddenly absorb lots more students without an impact on quality. Universities won’t employ new permanent teaching staff for a trend that might prove temporary, so inevitably you just get a casualised workforce managing the extra teaching workload, as well as a lot of stress and overwork amongst the existing staff.”’




RHS asks Government to clarify its position on historical research

The Royal Historical Society, together with the heads of other leading UK historical organisations, has written asking the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden MP, to clarify the government’s position on the funding of historical research.

An excerpt of the letter has today been published in The Sunday Times (Letters, p.26). The letter comes with the news that Dame Helen Ghosh, master of Balliol College, Oxford, has apologised for the historical acceptance of donations linked to the Atlantic slave trade.

The full text of the letter, together with its signatories:


“Dear Sir,

We write to express our concern as historians about ministers’ illegitimate interference in the research and interpretation done by our arm’s length heritage bodies such as museums, galleries, the Arts Council and the lottery heritage fund.

In particular we deplore the position, attributed to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Department in the press recently, that Professor Corinne Fowler’s ‘Colonial Countryside’ project, which explores the links between National Trust properties, empire and slavery, will be barred from funding in future.  As historians, we find this deeply concerning and we ask the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to confirm or deny whether this is his department’s position.

Academics are protected from such interference by the ‘Haldane Principle’, which accepts that government should set the general strategic direction of public funding for academic research but that ministers must not seek to make directions on individual funding decisions, which are best left to peer review to ensure both quality and independence.  Arm’s length bodies such as the Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage fund are not so explicitly protected.  Perhaps they should be; Parliament ought to consider this carefully.  But the Lottery Act at least specifies what are ministers’ powers and these do not include determination on individual projects.  The granting bodies, not the minister, have the expertise to determine what projects best fulfil their statutory mission, and both heritage organisations and individual researchers have the legitimate expectation based on long practice that the minister not interfere in those determinations.

The culture secretary has also been quoted as seeking to deny funding to any projects deemed ‘political’.  Not only do we dispute his authority to interfere in funding decisions, we also query his use of the word ‘political’.  It is worth pointing out that the Charity Commission has recently found that the National Trust’s recent investigations into the links between its properties, empire and slavery is compatible with its charitable purposes, i.e. not ‘political’ in the relevant sense of the word. The minister should welcome this finding and make clear that research of this kind, into the connections between heritage, slavery and empire, does indeed fall within the funding bodies’ public purposes, if deemed otherwise fundable by those bodies.

Britain has a tradition of arm’s length funding of education, culture and heritage which has always sought to insulate these spheres, crucial to free debate in a diverse society, from excessive interference by government.  Such interference stifles the capacity of historians to do their work and exerts a wider chilling effect.  It may deter – it may be intended to deter – historians from embarking on difficult or sensitive research.  It certainly undermines and impoverishes our ability to explore difficult issues.  It also runs counter to recent statements by the government in defence of academic freedom.

If anyone is being too ‘political’ here, it is politicians who violate the principles of arm’s-length governance by seeking to dictate what research our heritage bodies can and cannot support.”

Emma Griffin, President, Royal Historical Society
Peter Mandler, President, Historical Association
Peter D’Sena, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Jonathan Morris, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Olivette Otele, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Jane Winters, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Catherine Schenk, President, Economic History Society
Yolana Pringle, History UK
Jamie Wood, History UK.
Matthew Hilton, Co-Editor, Past & Present
Joanna Innes, Chair, Past & Present
Alexandra Walsham, Co-Editor, Past & Present
Naomi Tadmor, Chair, Social History Society


Royal Historical Society Statement on UCU Industrial Action

This news item was originally published on 25 November 2019. It was updated on 19 February 2020 to provide updated information about the second wave of strike action scheduled for February and March 2020.

In autumn 2019, members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted in favour of industrial action, with branches at 60 Universities reaching the 50% support threshold.  Following a further ballot of members in early 2020, UCU announced on 3 February 2020 that seventy-four UK universities would undertake 14 days of strike action in February and March, after more institutions reached the 50% threshold.

The action centres on two disputes: 1) a dispute over changes to the USS pensions scheme (79% of UCU members who voted did so in favour of industrial action on this ballot) and 2) a dispute over pay, equality, casualisation and workloads (74% in favour of strike action). Collectively, these are being described as the “Four Fights”.

A second round of strike action is scheduled to take place on the following dates:

  • Week one – Thursday 20 & Friday 21 February
  • Week two – Monday 24, Tuesday 25 & Wednesday 26 February
  • Week three – Monday 2, Tuesday 3, Wednesday 4 & Thursday 5 March
  • Week four – Monday 9, Tuesday 10, Wednesday 11, Thursday 12 & Friday 13 March

Several universities have agreed local variations of these dates with UCU. At UCL, where RHS is physically based, Thursday 20 & Friday 21 are not strike days, however Thursday 19 & Friday 20 March are strike days at UCL, and thus will have a picket.

In addition, many UCU members are continuing to undertake ‘action short of a strike’.

The Royal Historical Society (RHS) has members on both sides of this dispute, members who work at universities that did not reach the required threshold for industrial action, members who are not unionised or who belong to unions not engaged in this dispute, international members, and members outside higher education.  In this context and as a registered UK charity that is not itself a party to this dispute, the Royal Historical Society does not take a declared position with respect to this industrial action. However, the RHS strongly supports members’ legal and moral right to undertake strike action, and accepts that aspects of our own work – the vast majority of which is undertaken by volunteers – may be delayed or interrupted during this time.

As previously, many members of the RHS Council will be participating in strike action. Our final committee and Council meetings for 2019 as well as the Society’s AGM were initially scheduled for 29 November, during the strike period.  By a strong majority, Council voted to move these meetings to 6 December 2019, after the strike ended.  This decision ensured that the Society meets its legal obligations to the Charity Commission whilst avoiding any necessity for Council members or seconded committee members to cross a picket line.

RHS staff, as employees of a registered charity that is not a university or college, are not eligible for membership in UCU.  The RHS office is however physically located at UCL, one of the 60 universities participating in the UCU strike.  All RHS staff have been offered the option for the duration of the strike to work from home without any prejudice should they wish to do so.  Likewise, RHS staff who choose to attend work at UCL during the dispute can do so without any prejudice. RHS Members wishing to access the RHS office during the dispute are advised that there will be pickets at the UCL entrances, and as is ordinarily the case, they are advised to call or email in advance to check that the office will be open at the time of their intended visit.

Questions from the RHS membership on this matter should be directed to rescommsofficer@royalhistsoc.org.

More information:

More information about the two disputes can be found on the UCU website.

The employers’ (UUK) perspective on the pensions dispute can be found on the UUK website.

The employers’ (UCEA) perspective on the dispute on pay and conditions can be found on the UCEA website.


History in the News: Susan Cohen ‘Eleanor Rathbone and the Refugees’

2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the death of the independent MP, Eleanor Rathbone. Known as ‘the MP for refugees’, her campaigns on behalf of refugees in the Interwar and 2WW period have a strong resonance with the current crisis, carrying a powerful message as pertinent today as it was then. 

eleanor-rathbone-and-the-refugees GRDr Susan Cohen’s monograph Rescue the Perishing: Eleanor Rathbone and the Refugees was published in 2010. She is currently researching the role of women within refugee organisations in Britain before and during the Second World War. Susan is co-founder of the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone Group.

holocaust-memorial-day-2016-themeThe theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year was ‘Don’t stand by’, a salutary reminder of the duty we all have, as responsible citizens, to speak out on behalf of people who are being oppressed or persecuted. Following the family motto ’what ought to be done, can be done’, Eleanor Rathbone, Independent MP for the Combined English Universities from 1929, embraced this obligation, devoting her working life to the needs of the under-represented in society, regardless of race, religion or gender. She never had a plan in her mind, but instead took up causes that came to her attention and which called for a strong advocate, moving seamlessly from national, social and welfare concerns, equality for women, eliminating child poverty, improving housing and a host of other injustices. As a parliamentarian, only one of fourteen women returned in the 1929 election, she put her skills to good use, becoming the most powerful backbencher of her time.

She extended the scope of her activism to Britain’s colonies, and to Palestine, then ruled under a British mandate, with feminist issues at the heart of her work. But it was the refugee cause, precipitated by Hitler’s accession to power in Germany in January 1933 that set her on a path that was to literally exhaust her, hastening her untimely death in January 1946. An anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi and anti-appeaser, she was the only female politician to denounce the new Nazi regime when the House of Commons met on 13 April 1933, warning of the dangers the regime posed to world peace. Presciently, she spoke of how the Nazis were “inflicting cruelties and crushing disabilities on large numbers of law-abiding peaceful German citizens, whose only offence is that they belong to a particular race or religion or profess certain political beliefs.” These were the very people whom she came to support, and for whom she became the most outspoken critic of government policy.

by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1938

Duchess of Atholl, 1938, NPG

In 1937 she and her fellow MP, Katharine Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl, organised the rescue of some 4,000 children from the Basque combat zone during the Spanish Civil War and when Eleanor and her allies found out, in early 1939, that more Republicans were at risk of summary executions and reprisals, and that the British government was unwilling to help rescue them or offer protection for rescue vessels, they simply circumvented officialdom. Ships were organised to run the blockade and the National Joint Committee succeeded in getting several boatloads of refugees out, and to safety. But it was the fateful events of 1938 – the annexation of Austria in March; the orchestrated anti-Jewish pogroms across Germany and Austria, ‘Kristallnacht’, of 9/10 November; and the intervening signing of the Munich agreement in September, which gave the Nazis carte blanche to occupy the Sudetenland in West Czechoslovakia; that completely altered the landscape. The occupation of the Sudetenland, in particular, created an unprecedented refugee crisis as thousands of people, including but not exclusively Jews, sought safety in, and then escape from Prague.

Eleanor Rathbone felt a personal responsibility for Britain’s part in this human disaster, and in response set up, and led a purely voluntary Parliamentary Committee on Refugees in November 1938, quickly gathering more than 200 supporting MPs. The remit of the PCR was:

to influence the Government and public opinion in favour of a generous yet carefully safeguarded refugee policy, including large-scale schemes of permanent settlement inside or outside of Empire; also, since thousands of refugees would perish while awaiting such schemes – temporary reception homes in this country where refugees can be maintained, sorted out and eventually migrated, except in cases where their abilities can be profitably utilised here without injustice to our own workers.” 

Jewishrefugees pan

Jewish refugees cross from Czechoslovakia to Bratislava. Photo: Getty Images

The remit has an uncanny resonance with the current refugee crises; with some minor alterations, it could have been written in 2016. The Czech refugees were now at the heart of Eleanor’s campaigning activities as she urged the government to issue more visas, relax entry restrictions and make good their promise of a loan to Czechoslovakia. The outbreak of war meant the cancellation of any outstanding visas, and dashed hopes of escape, so she turned her attention to refugees at home, championing their fair and humane treatment. Now considered enemy aliens, and classified by a tribunal system, there were some 55,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria amongst the approximatly 80,000 refugees living here at the time. Some 6,782 in Category B, had mobility restrictions imposed upon them, affecting their ability to work and to be financially independent. Employers were desperate to take on suitable refugee workers, but permits were taking forever to be issued. Rathbone argued that this treatment was counter-productive. It struck at the heart of her sense of justice and she did everything in her power to ameliorate the situation. But she was always patriotic, and never lost sight of the priority, which was the safety of the country and its citizens.

21st May 1940: A British soldier guarding an internment camp for 'enemy aliens', at Huyton housing estate in Liverpool. (Photo by Marshall/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Internment camp for ‘enemy aliens’, Liverpool, May 1940. Photo by Marshall/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Deputations, questions, letters, phone calls, liaising with every refugee committee and activist, and enlisting the support of other MPs were all part of her armoury. The mass internment of around 27,600 enemy aliens in May 1940 served only to exacerbate an already challenging situation and to plunge Eleanor Rathbone and her committee into a maelstrom of activity as they sought the release of thousands of refugees. She put over 80 parliamentary questions on internment alone; the issues pursued including the importance of separating Nazi internees from non-Nazis; the shocking living conditions in many of the camps; the food shortages and lack of medical care. Once again the parallels with refugee camps and detention centres for asylum seekers cannot be ignored. The response to Rathbone’s urgent requests for a more generous immigration policy followed a pattern, including claims that it would fuel domestic anti-Semitism. In a desperate effort at countering this assertion, in late 1942 she established the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror. The remit was to disseminate information at home about the mass extermination of Jews in Europe (information that the BBC in particular was unwilling to broadcast) and to promote small scale rescue missions. Despite the lack of success, the fact that Eleanor doggedly pursued these goals in the face of government intransigence and kept the subject in the public eye, is testimony to her humanity and determination.

Poignant words, written in 1943, highlight the struggle she envisaged people would have to expiate their shame:

If peace came tomorrow, we could not forget the millions for whom it would come too late, nor wash our hands of the stain of blood.’”

Nor was she able to hide her shame at Britain’s myopia, for she was convinced that with:

…greater foresight, courage (sic) there would have been no war, and if our policy towards refugees had been less miserably cautious, selfish and unimaginative, thousands of those already dead or in danger of death, might now be free and happy, contributing from their rich store of talent and industry to the welfare of mankind.” [i]

Today’s political situation is not the same as that which prevailed during the Second World War, but Eleanor Rathbone’s assessment of the official response to the humanitarian disaster then resonates with the current crisis now. Calls for an imaginative and generous response reflect her belief that Britain’s tradition of liberty, generosity and asylum were of profound importance, even in wartime.

[i] EFR `Speech notes on the Refugee Question’, 16 December 1942. RP XIV. 3.85.

Eleanor Rathbone died 70 years ago in January 1946, and she is being commemorated at various events throughout the year. Her refugee work will be remembered at a one-day conference being held in central London on Monday 20 June 2016, World Refugee DayWelcome to Britain? Refugees Then and Now. A conference in memory of Eleanor Rathbone 1872-1946, the ‘MP for refugees’.


History in the News: Eirini Karamouzi, Greece’s European identity in crisis

karamouzi LS

Eirini Karamouzi

Eirini Karamouzi is a Lecturer of Contemporary History at the University of Sheffield and A.G.Leventis Fellow at SEESOX, St Antony’s College, Oxford. She is the author of Greece, the EEC and the Cold War, 1974-1979. The Second Enlargement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

In the aftermath of the January 2015 elections that saw him become Greece’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras penned an article in the Financial Times encouraging his European partners to ‘end austerity so as not to let fear kill democracy… Austerity is not part of the European treaties; democracy and the principle of popular sovereignty are’. Unsurprisingly, this struck a chord with people at home and those beyond Greece’s borders that have been scrutinizing the EU’s democratic credentials and its legitimacy. It is not just the recent debt crisis that has ignited such soul searching within European circles: the historical changes of the last 20 years that have rocked the boat and purpose of European integration. The benefits of earlier decades of economic integration have been overtaken by austerity with record levels of unemployment among the youth. The achievements of a century of social democracy have been dismantled. The memories of the Second World War and the post-war ideological threat of West vs East have long faded out of people’s minds. In this climate, the inter-relationship of Europe and democracy is changing.

Democracy was not always a dominant feature of European political discourse. The preamble of the Treaties of Rome that created the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor of the EU, made general references to ‘liberty’ and article 237 states that any European nation ‘may apply to become a member of the Community’, but nowhere in the original Treaties did the six founding member states make democracy a prerequisite for membership or even quote it as one of the fundamental values underpinning the movement towards ‘closer union’. Paradoxically, the debate on the role of democracy within the political identity of the European Community was ignited over Greece first in 1967 and then again in 1975.

A military coup in Greece in 1967, the first associate member of the EEC and the perceived cradle of democracy, rekindled the debate on the Community’s stance on democratic matters. The EEC, in contrast to the perceived indifference of NATO and the USA, used its diplomatic and economic weight to undermine the legitimacy of the military dictatorship and insist on democratic credentials. In 1975, the then Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, who oversaw Greece’s transition to democracy, applied for EEC membership as a long-lasting measure to ensure the country’s nascent democratic institutions, guaranteeing its geopolitical security and domestic prosperity. The members of the EEC, notwithstanding their misgivings over the economic and structural difficulties of enlarging the Community, gave the green light to Greece for geopolitical reasons and granted entry in 1981. Admitting Greece as an EEC member infused a new sense of utility to enlargement while adding to Europe’s collective weight on the world stage. Forty years later, it is perhaps hard to recapture how genuine and dangerous instability in Greece seemed, how close Greece came to war with Turkey, and deep was the fear of spreading instability to neighbouring Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Greek enlargement positioned European integration as a crucial element in southern Europe’s transition to democracy and became a reference point for subsequent enlargements in Eastern Europe. The strategy of linking European integration with democracy and national security proved successful, among other things, as it capitalized on the emerging identification of Europe with liberal democratic values and prosperity in the eyes of the Greek people. Following a similar line of thinking to that pursued by Karamanlis in the 1970s, reformist politician Kostas Simitis, Greece’s prime minister in 1996, strongly advocated and pursued Greece’s accession to the Economic Monetary Union and the adoption of the Euro by 2001 as a means of positioning the country at the very core of the EU. Without having a blueprint of how this would be achieved and lacking genuine public debate, the anchoring of Greece to these European institutions was pursued under the premise that it would bring modernization, liberalization of the economy, and a reformist agenda at home.

This was not the first or the last time since the inception of the Greek state that the political and intellectual elites turned to Europe. Greece had a tradition of participation in numerous alliances throughout its modern history because of its small size, economic underdevelopment, internal political divisions, and unstable geopolitical position. Such alliances enabled Greece to strengthen its national security and advance its economic development. Often, however, such reliance on external allies subjected Greece’s national domestic politics and policies to foreign influence and allowed several political elites to view these alliances, including EEC/EU/Euro membership, either as a panacea that would cure all the country’s problems, from economic modernization to external security, or as a plague to be blamed for the country’s ills.  Greece’s European choice has always embodied such contradictions between, on the one hand, what Nikiforos Diamantouros has called the ‘the culture of the underdog’, beset with feelings of exploitation at the hand of the West, and, on the other, the relentless quest for modernity and reform. Both positions, however, have always been accompanied by a nationalistic and polarizing discourse on both the left and right of the political spectrum. Since the institutionalization of Greece’s European relationship in 1981, this contradiction has been disguised by a broadly positive balance sheet with the functioning of a genuine democratic system featuring as one of the major assets.

Over the last five years, however, the Greek society has been fed a very heavy diet of austerity policies, spiralling towards disaster with no clear prospect of a happy ending. Instead of an honest explanation for their endured hardships, Greeks have witnessed a seemingly endless stream of accusations, as the contemporary press and European political elites engaged in an often myopic blame game over the origins of the crisis and how to get out of it. Even within Greece, pundits and policy-makers are deeply divided over the origins of the crisis with some focusing on the macro causes of the Greek predicament and thus heavily criticizing the practices of the old PASOK-ND political establishment with its overstuffed public sector and institutionalization of clientelism. Others point to the European leadership’s short-sightedness, lack of vision, political incompetence and obsession with one size fits all- remedies that lead to the pauperization of Greek society and are ultimately politically toxic for Greece, as evidenced by the successive elections that have taken place since 2009, with the apogee being the controversial and – what turned out to be- counterproductive referendum of 5 July.

Since February, SYRIZA has explicably taken the brunt of the blame for the ongoing game of chicken of its government, failure to deliver its electoral promises, and loss of any trustworthiness with its European partners in endless months of stalled talks where bluster and threats took centre stage. SYRIZA won the elections with the promise of reversing austerity but maintaining the county’s place at the heart of European integration, and thus within the Euro. It was only in the last dramatic week of closed banks and capital controls and after a record 17 hours long Euro summit meeting that Tsipras, staring into the abyss of the catastrophic scenario of a return to the drachma, acknowledged the futility of the electoral promises and decided half-heartedly to sign up to a much harsher deal than the one rejected by the Greek people in the referendum, but one that keeps Greece within the Euro. With the third rescue package in the offing, widespread scepticism surrounding its capacity to restore the country to good health and the Europeans failing to comprehend the political limits to the austerity a government can impose on its people, no-one can guarantee what the future holds for Greece and its relationship to Europe, a country caught again in a battle between defiance and yearning for modernity, with both a claim to a democratic mandate at its heart.

Further Reading

Eirini Karamouzi, Greece, the EEC and the Cold War, 1974-1979. The Second Enlargement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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Anthony Musson, ‘Magna Carta – the Foundation of Freedom’

Anthony MussonAnthony Musson is Professor of Legal History and Director of the Bracton Centre for Legal History Research at the University of Exeter. He is a contributor to the Magna Carta Trust’s official commemorative volume Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, 1215-2015, ed. Nicholas Vincent (London, 2015) and has published extensively on legal history and legal culture including Medieval Law in Context: The Growth of Legal Consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants’ Revolt (Manchester, 2001) and (with C. Stebbings) Making Legal History (Cambridge, 2012).

In January 2015 the Exeter-based Express and Echo ran a story (also frontline news in the Daily Mail): Defiant hoarder vows to fight council’s clear-up order… using the Magna Carta! Threatened with a notice from the council to declutter his house, a Plymouth pensioner, Arthur Watson, claimed protection of the Great Charter on the basis that his rights had been breached since (in his words): ‘The Magna Carta states that no free man may have his possessions taken without due process and the judgement of his peers.’

Magna_charta_cum_statutis_angliae_p1This year we are celebrating the 800th Anniversary of King John’s accord with the English barons, the treaty sealed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215 that became the ‘Charter of Liberties’. Mr Watson’s perception of the modern relevance and value of Magna Carta, however misguided in precise legal terms, not only bears witness to its continuing influence, but also its place in the ‘popular’ imagination. This is in spite of the fact that the Charter’s binding provisions lasted a mere 10 weeks before it was annulled by the Pope upon John’s application. After John’s death in October 1216 it could have remained a dead letter, but for its resurgence as a tool of royal propaganda, revised and reissued first in November 1216 and then definitively in 1225, promoting the future good governance of the young Henry III. The rolls of parliament and various statutes, ordinances and treaties of the period demonstrate how from the thirteenth century onwards Magna Carta was enshrined in the lexicon of political/constitutional debate between the king and his subjects.

While it is often perceived only as a grand constitutional document, the Great Charter was more than a brake on the king’s unreasonable financial exactions and arbitrary exercise of justice. Although it contains a curious mixture of clauses, some of which appear very obscure today, its relevance not just to the upper layer of society, the barons and knights, but to ordinary people in medieval England, can be observed in the way they strategically appealed to Magna Carta in petitions and litigation as an authoritative reason for the king to intervene and remedy their complaints. Not surprisingly, from an early stage Magna Carta played an important part in legal education. Moot questions on areas of law espoused by the Great Charter were favoured by lawyers from at least the 1340s, while readings (lectures) on individual chapters of the ‘laudable statute of Magna Carta’ by senior members (‘benchers’) of the four Inns of Court also became common fare from around the mid fifteenth century.

MC - English_Bill_of_Rights_of_1689

Declaration of Rights, 1689

Magna Carta had a strangely low profile during the controversies of the sixteenth century. Following Henry VIII’s break with Rome, it was only vaguely raised in connection with the treatment of religious houses and religious persecution during the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth. It took a central role, however, in the seventeenth-century conflict between king and Parliament, as common lawyers (notably Sir Edward Coke) and parliamentarians turned to a mythical ‘ancient constitution’, a body of laws and customs supposedly surviving from pre-Roman Britain, as a defence against both James I’s and Charles I’s assertion of the royal prerogative. Although the Great Charter itself does not specify the means of retribution against recalcitrant kings, the history books are peppered with royal depositions for which Magna Carta is cited as justification. Events in the mid seventeenth century in particular proved to have more extreme consequences than the 1215-16 rebellion with the trial and public execution of Charles I. The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, culminating in the deposition of James II, while essentially peaceful, again seemed a reprise of the rebellion against John to the extent that the settlement following William and Mary’s accession included a Declaration of Rights that was endorsed by Parliament as a new Magna Carta.

Incorporation of consent to taxation, trial by jury, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment and due process under the law in the constitutional blueprints of the emergent United States of America secured for Magna Carta a lasting influence in Anglo-American law. Arguments employing these notions have been cited pragmatically across the globe in times of political crisis and paradoxically are employed both against and in support of the authority of the state (as witnessed by the American and French Revolutions). Magna Carta was also cited throughout the nineteenth century by the representatives of ‘native’ peoples determined to share in freedoms claimed by their colonial oppressors. Elements (including ‘the right to a fair trial’) are now enshrined in documents preserving personal liberties, notably the European Convention of Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

magna_carta_corbis_mugThe plethora of merchandise that has accompanied the 800th Anniversary: from Magna Carta rulers, tea towels and cushions, to i-phone cases, fudge, and even mead, may cynically be capitalising on the internationally recognised values inherent in this iconic national symbol. But spreading the gospel of Magna Carta by appreciating a good commercial opportunity has deep historical roots.

Magna Carta - BeardmoreRadical lawyer Arthur Beardmore, for example, editor of The Monitor, who was arrested for seditious libel in 1762 (a period when freedom of the press came increasingly under attack) demonstrated a shrewd eye for publicity by arranging to be arrested while teaching Magna Carta to his young son. He became a popular hero and a print picturing the event circulated widely. A copy from 1765, now in the British Museum, pictures Beardmore dutifully pointing out to his son the Latin words of chapter 29 (in the 1225 version) ‘no free man shall be imprisoned…’. A caption beneath the image, appropriately taken from the Bible (Deuteronomy VI, 6-7), reads: ‘These words which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart. And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.’

Magna Carta Wilkes teapotA friend of Beardmore’s, John Wilkes, editor of The North Briton and an outspoken MP, was imprisoned in the Tower of London a year later also for seditious libel, though later released under parliamentary privilege. Wilkes transformed his prosecution into a campaign against oppression, invoking the ‘genuine spirit of Magna Carta’, which he termed ‘that glorious inheritance, that distinguishing characteristic of the Englishmen’. Significantly, Wilkes realised not only were newspapers a powerful propaganda tool in his campaign, but so too was merchandising. Cunningly he produced an extensive range of prints, engravings, buttons, medals and even porcelain figurines, teapots and mugs containing slogans such as ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ and ‘No General Warrants’. A medal or token produced in 1763 to commemorate the infamous forty-fifth edition of the North Briton (attacking the power of the Crown) has a portrait of Wilkes on the obverse and Old Father Time with the words ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘No 45’ on the reverse thereby connecting his personal defence of liberty with the historical tradition of Magna Carta. The consumerism associated with ‘Magna Carta and liberty’ in the eighteenth century captured minds and purses in the nineteenth century, too, as demonstrated by a bottle modeling the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, the person responsible for passing the Great Reform Act of 1832, which in turn is labeled (on the bottle) ‘Second Magna Carta’.

MC Lord DenningTwentieth-century British judge, Lord Denning’s pronouncement that Magna Carta is ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times’ signals the extent to which it is totemized even in the modern era. Yet Magna Carta’s history, just like its text, is a legacy of paradoxes. As Mr Arthur Watson and many others before him have demonstrated, it has become an integral part of ‘popular’ (mis)understanding of the law: a symbol of the rule of law to which everyone is entitled, even though for much of its history there have been significant parts of the community (such as women and slaves) formally excluded from its benefits. Moreover, in the pubic imagination, through a coincidence of chronology and the imperceptible hand of legal and constitutional tradition, Magna Carta and jury trial are conjoined twins. Parliamentary debate about changes to the justice system or media scares about abolition of trial by jury (as occurred when the first trial without a jury of a serious fraud case took place in 2010) always provokes an outcry with Magna Carta brandished as a symbol of legal tradition and constitutional restraint.

To what real effect though? Where is the rational arm of Magna Carta when the bombs start falling or terrorists strike or in the vicinity of Guantanamo Bay? – a question increasingly being asked by ordinary people engaging with the concept of executive power in the modern world. Amid calls for a ‘Global Magna Carta’ and even a written constitution for the United Kingdom, Magna Carta’s 800th Anniversary has significantly heightened public awareness, especially amongst young people, not just of the principles and values enshrined in the Great Charter, but also of the importance of history, especially its interpretation and contextualisation. Like the character of Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, should we be worried or reassured? ‘So long as the vast population doesn’t wander about quoting the Magna Carta and the Constitution, it’s all right’. I think it has already started.

Further Reading

Nicholas Vincent, (ed.) Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, 1215-2015, (London, 2015)

Anthony Musson, Medieval Law in Context: The Growth of Legal Consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants’ Revolt (Manchester, 2001)

A. Musson & C. Stebbings, Making Legal History (Cambridge, 2012).

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Laura Beers, ‘GE2015 – Pollsters, Pundits & Punters: a view from the morning after’



Few were surprised as David Dimbleby began his election-night coverage with the pronouncement that, according to the exit poll, the Conservatives would come out of the election as the largest party in the House. This was, after all, what the polls had predicted. That calm assurance disappeared when the actual forecasts were released seconds later. In the end, it emerged that the exit poll too had underestimated the Conservative performance and overestimated Labour, although by less than any other index. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of its release, the predictions seemed almost incredible. Politicians, pundits and pollsters were stunned, and many, indeed, refused to believe the results.

GE2015 EdM defeatTheir disbelief stemmed from the wide gap between the exit poll predictions and all previous indices of likely voter behaviour. The various polls of voter intentions had remained neck and neck until the eve of the election, with Labour actually seeing a slight bump in the run up to 7 May. Of the various statisticians who had hazarded an attempt to translate poll numbers into seat predictions, none had given the Conservatives more than 285 seats, nor foreseen Labour falling below 262. Predictions for the SNP take ranged from 56 (May2015.com) to 52 (The Guardian).  Throughout the election, the betting markets had had the Conservatives outperforming poll predictions, and, as Mike Smithson reported on politicalbetting.com, SportingIndex was trading Conservatives at a middle price of 290 on the eve of poll.  At Ladbrokes, however, the market in Conservative majorities had fallen to 285.5 on the morning on 7 May. Both betting shops were trading Labour at around 266 and the Lib Dems at 25-27, while Ladbrokes had the SNP at 50.5, and SportingIndex’s middle price for the Scottish Nationalists was 46.5.

Even before the final results came in, political commentators were pointing fingers at the pollsters, and searching for explanations for their failure to foresee the result.  Opinion polling firms certainly need to do some serious soul searching and re-evaluation of their methodology, particularly in assigning intent to self-declared undecided voters.  As of yet, however, there has been little consideration of the political betting market, and what the betting lines can tell us about the utility of the modern British betting markets as indices of voter behaviour.BBC Election resultsAs I discussed in my original post, advocates of political betting markets as accurate indices of likely voter behavior argue that such markets act to aggregate the knowledge of a representatively diverse crowd. In political spread betting, unlike in traditional sports betting, the “price” for a party is determined by the market. For the markets to arrive at the correct “prices” for each party, the men and women who bet on politics must bring sufficient unbiased information to the market to drive it in the right direction.  Yet, research into interwar historical betting markets has revealed their participants to be remarkably undiverse and biased, and their bias and lack of diversity is arguably a key explanation of their failure accurately to predict interwar election outcomes.

GE2015 Clegg defeatThe prevalence and anonymity of internet betting means that it is practically impossible to sketch a social picture of the modern betting market. However, is it possible to extrapolate anything backwards from the market results? The betting markets did not accurately foresee the election outcome, but, throughout the campaign, they correctly perceived that the opinion polls were underestimating the strength of Conservative support in the country. This suggests that market participants had some insight into opinion on the ground outside of London. On the other hand, the market participants proved no better than the polls at predicting the collapse of Lib Dem support.

GE2015 Nicola SturgeonNor did they appear to have much foreknowledge of the strength of pro-SNP sentiment in Scotland, and served as a worse indicator of voter behaviour north of Hadrian’s wall than the opinion polls. If we accept the theory that betting markets function as accurate indices when a diverse and unbiased crowd participates, today’s political betting markets do not appear to be much more representative of British society as a whole than were interwar markets. As in the interwar period, the market participants appear to have been well informed about opinion in middle England, but to have had less purchase on opinion further from the home counties. In the interwar period, the markets consistently misjudged opinion in the north of England. This time, they appeared unable to gauge shifts in Scotland and the southwest. The swing from Labour to the SNP and from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives was not anticipated by the betting markets any more than it had been by the opinion polls.

Laura Beers, ‘GE2015 – Pollsters, Pundits & Punters’ 

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Laura Beers, ‘GE2015 – Pollsters, Pundits & Punters’

Laura BeersDr Laura Beers looks at 2015 general election predictions and how they align with past efforts of pollsters, pundits and punters to predict general election results. Laura Beers is a Birmingham Fellow at the University of Birmingham.  She is the author of Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party (Harvard University Press, 2010), and has published extensively on politics and public opinion in twentieth-century Britain. 

GE2015 HUGWhich party should Britons expect to come out of the 7 May election with the largest number of seats, and, therefore, arguably, a mandate for first stab at forming a government?  Conventional wisdom suggests that, the national polls being a dead heat, the Labour party should fare better in terms of seats on 7 May than the Conservatives.  Since Labour’s emergence as a national political player in 1918, the party has secured its seats with comparative efficiency – it has held seats in smaller constituencies, won on lower turnout and beaten its rivals by smaller margins in tight contests.  So, if both Labour and the Tories win 35% of the vote, Labour should be expected to spread their vote share more economically and translate an equal number of votes into a larger number of seats.  However, the conventional wisdom may not hold to the same extent (if at all) this election, as the SNP wipe out Labour’s hold over small traditionally low-turnout seats in Scotland, and UKIP cuts down on some of the Tories’ “wasteful” mega-majorities without actually costing them seats.

Pollsters, pundits and punters now all suggest it is unlikely any party will achieve an outright majority on 7 May.  But who will walk away with a plurality of seats?  It depends on whom you ask.  The various models based on current poll data and analyses of past performance are divided over which party will come out ahead.  On 17 April Polling Observatory predicted Labour to win 278, with the Tories only garnering 269, and, on 21 April, May2015.com predicted a tiny Labour plurality of 273 with the Tories winning 271.  In contrast, this week the Guardian gave the Tories a one-seat advantage, predicting 271-270, while Election Forecast plumped for a Tory plurality of 283 to 270 for Labour, and Elections Etc gave the Tories a whopping 25 seats over Labour, predicting 288 to 263.  Ask the academics and pundits, and it appears opinion is divided.

GE2015 Farage, Salmond, CleggAsk the pollsters for their predictions, and you get a similarly mixed picture. Three weeks ahead of the election, the Independent asked the heads of several polling agencies to predict the outcome.  Most demurred, but of those who would hazard a wager, Damian Lyons Lowe of Survation gave Labour a plurality, while Rick Nye of Populus and Nick Moon of GfK plumped for the Tories to win the most votes.

HiN Coalition of ChaosIf, however, we turn to the betting markets, the picture becomes much more uniform.  The website OddsChecker reports the current odds for 23 separate betting markets, and the predicted majorities prices in 21 markets.  While the odds vary slightly by betting shop, with Corals currently selling Labour seats at 267.5, while William Hill is selling them at 272.5, every single one of these markets is predicting a Conservative plurality with the Tories outperforming Labour by more than 10 seats.  This is not a sudden swing.  The betting markets have had odds on a Conservative plurality for weeks. So, should we believe the gamblers over the pollsters?  Considering the historical evidence, the answer is, maybe.

GE2015 NHSCertain economists and political scientists have recently expressed considerable enthusiasm for political betting markets as accurate bellwethers.  According to Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the Political Forecasting Unit at Nottingham Business School, “The hypothesis here is that the collective wisdom of many people is greater than the conclusions of a few. Those myriad people feed in the best information and analysis they can because their own financial rewards depend directly upon this. And it really is a case of “follow the money” because those who know the most, and are best able to process the available information, tend to bet the most.”

GE2015 2010 bettingWhen betting markets have proved more accurate than pollsters, as during the Scottish referendum campaign or at the 2005 general election, supporters have been quick to attribute their predictive success to the so-called “wisdom of the crowds.”  When, in contrast, markets have been much wider of the mark, there has been little effort to analyze the reasons for their collective failure.  On the morning of the 2010 general election, for example, the betting markets were selling Labour seats at between 216.5 and 220.5.  The actual Labour take was 257.  (While few analyses based on polling results were on target, most came closer to the actual result than the betting markets.)  This morning (23 April), Mike Smithson, the editor of the influential PoliticalBetting.com, reprinted the 2010 betting spreads over the tag line: “Betting prices are NOT a good indicator of political outcomes.”

Stock Exchange 1930sProponents of the predictive power of election markets rely on the assumption that the ‘crowd’ of men and women who bet on politics is sufficiently diverse, independent and decentralized that the aggregate information which it brings to the market offers a representative picture of the national mood.  In point of fact, we have little accurate information about who bets on modern elections.  We can, however, sketch a fairly clear picture of the group that bet on general elections in the decades between the two world wars.  The interwar political betting markets were based, not out of high street betting shops, but out of the London Stock Exchange, the Baltic and Liverpool exchanges.  There is evidence that brokers bought and sold Majorities contracts on behalf of investors around the country, and that some City clerks wagered on the market on a small scale, but the bulk of participants were almost certainly either brokers themselves, or businessmen in the south of England with some connection to the City. These men were thus an exceptionally non-diverse group. They were also not particularly independent or decentralized. The majority of traders worked in the City, and lived within commuting distance of London. While a few brokers may have been Liberals, particularly before 1931, the vast majority were Conservatives. Hardly a man in the City supported the Labour party. Nearly all got their information from the pages of The Times, the Telegraph, or other Conservative papers. Most belonged to the same set of clubs.  The vast majority were also, unsurprisingly, not very good at predicting general election outcomes.

1923-election-posterBefore the December 1923 election, for example, the betting markets were trading Conservative majorities at around 30 seats.  The actual result was a hung parliament with an effective Conservative minority of 99.  During the October 1924 campaign, Labour seats traded at around 185, even after the publication of the “Zinoviev letter”.  Labour ultimately returned 151 MPs.  And in 1929, the election which most closely resembles today’s uncertain contest, Labour seats closed at 245 on the eve of the election, with Conservatives trading around 270.  However, it was the Labour party that came away with a plurality of seats, and the mandate to form the next parliament. Most spectacularly, in 1931, the punters failed to foresee the anti-Labour landslide, and government majorities traded below 200 for most of the campaign.  In the end, the various pro-government parties returned a majority of nearly 500 seats.  The Financial Times was unsurprised by the failure of the betting markets to predict the outcome.  As the paper wrote on 10 October 1931: “The Stock Exchange, naturally, hopes that a big National Government majority will be obtained. It realizes, however, that it is too far away from some of the big centres of population in the north, and northeast, etc, to be a very good observation post of public opinion.”

PollingStationThere is little reason to suspect that the anonymous participants in the current political betting markets are as out of touch with public opinion as the representatives of the metropolitan elite who dominated the interwar markets.  However, their failure accurately to predict the 2010 election result throws doubt on the assertions of those who claim that markets are a better indicator of political trends than analyses of opinion polling.  If history has shown us anything, it is that the composition of political betting markets matters.  Given the dearth of information about today’s political punters, we’ll have to wait until 7 May to find out whether or not the confident crowd betting on a Conservative plurality truly possesses more wisdom than the equivocating pollsters and academics.

Further Reading/Listening

Laura Beers “Punting on the Thames: Electoral Betting in Interwar Britain,” Journal of Contemporary History 45, no. 2 (2010)

Listen to Polling Matters (Keiran Pedley) interview with Mike Smithson
 of PoliticalBetting.com

See Laura Beers ‘GE2015 Pollsters, Pundits & Punters: a view from the morning after’.

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History in the News: Christos Lynteris – Photographic Plagues

Christos LynterisAmidst mass media coverage of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Christos Lynteris (Cambridge) takes a look at the historical representation of plague pandemics. Christos is an anthropologist working on infectious disease epidemics in East Asia. He is the Principal Investigator of the European Research Council funded project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic, held at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

Photographic Plagues

Over the past year a steady stream of images from Ebola-stricken regions in West Africa has been pouring in through our screens and print media outlets. Photographs of the sick, the dead, and the bereaved. Photographs of anti-epidemic measures like quarantine, isolation, disinfection, and of compliance and resistance to them. The most common type of these images juxtaposes a white-overall, glove and mask clad health worker with a barefaced patient, corpse or crowd. A criss-cross between medical, disaster, forensic and ethnographic visual genres, this is but the latest example of what we may call epidemic photography.

The global dissemination of Ebola photographs makes this an opportune moment to raise questions about the representational politics of this photographic genre. It is also an opportunity to ask what this allows us to know about infectious disease. Visual and anthropological studies of epidemic photography as practiced today are a vital part of this task. Yet in order to unravel the power and knowledge of epidemic photography we also need to examine its history. This is all the more pertinent as Ebola photographs seem to be uncannily replicating images of a pandemic with an altogether different transmission pathway, which unfolded under the auspices of high colonialism: the third plague pandemic.

HIN Manchuria plague suspect

Manchuria plague suspect arrested

The third plague pandemic lasted roughly from 1855 to 1959 and marked the first time that bubonic plague reached all inhabited continents, leaving more than 12 million dead. Plague made its first major appearance in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong in 1894, where the disease’s pathogen (today known as Yersinia pestis) was identified for the first time. It then spread first to India (1896) and then, rapidly, on a global scale. Between 1898 and 1900 alone it struck Hawaii, California, Manchuria, Australia, Madagascar, Paraguay, Portugal, Scotland, Egypt, and Japan. During its course the third plague pandemic functioned as a catalyst for major public health and urban planning reforms, colonial policies, geopolitical struggles, and medical theories and techniques. This was not simply on account of the mortality and morbidity crisis induced in different parts of the world induced by plague. Nor was it only because of its association (both mythic and real) to the great mortality of the Middle Ages, commonly known today as the Black Death. It was also because incidents of this pandemic were systematically photographed, with images from local outbreaks making newspaper headlines across the globe.

Although individual patients had been photographed before, this was the first infectious disease pandemic to be captured by the photographic lens. Between the outbreak of the disease in Hong Kong and the final phases of the third pandemic in the 1940s in Senegal, thousands of plague photographs were produced. Many of these became visual staple for the medical as well as lay press at the time, with new half-tone printing technology allowing the cheap reproduction of photographs. This was the first time the general public was exposed to photographic representations of an epidemic and its social consequences. Starting as a trickle in Hong Kong, with a dozen iconic photographs of the epidemic, this quickly developed into a visual cascade; the 1899-1900 Honolulu outbreak, during which circa 40 individuals died, left a visual trace of over 500 photographs. Becoming part of colonial, local-state and geopolitical strife in a variety of contexts, plague photography drove public understandings of epidemic crisis.

HIN Liverpool rat catchers against plague

Liverpool rat catchers against plague

What defined the development of plague photography in the course of the pandemic was a move away from standard medical photography at the time, and its focus on clinical symptoms. Instead of showing buboes, the majority of photographs focused on aspects of the disease’s epidemiology. In its effort to depict the latter, plague photography gave the opportunity to different medical and administrative agents to reason and argue about the causes of the spread of disease, and its supposed links to trade, pilgrimage, housing, and sanitation. It hence ushered issues at the heart of medical debates into a visual arena of demonstration and proof.

In a similar way that the microscope at the time was at the centre of debates about what plague was, the camera played a pivotal role in determining what plague did: how it spread, where it created reservoirs, why did it wane and how it re-emerged after longer or shorter periods of absence. By 1918 this visual regime had established a paradigm of epidemic photography that would be clearly reflected in the photographic representation of the global influenza pandemic of 1918. Whether it was about the depiction of the “breeding grounds” of disease, the representation of “unsanitary habits” of the subaltern, or imaging hygienic victory over the disease, epidemic photography moved from the individual to the social body as the site of infection and death.

HIN Sonapore plague victim cremation

Sonapore plague victim cremation

Plague photography developed in the context of emerging biopolitical visual regimes, best known to historians today in the photography of famine in British India. Unlike famine photography, however, the birth of epidemic photography marked a turn towards the representation of infection (and, in the case of pneumonic plague, contagion). It signaled a shift of focus from catastrophic events to processes leading to the events in question. And it did this by visually configuring the population not simply as a victim but also as a host or demographic infrastructure of infectious disease.

In many ways this is the same visual regime that faces us still in the twenty-first century in the form of photographs of SARS, avian flu or Ebola. A regime based on colonial paradigms of pollution and otherness, this continues to constitute forms of habitation, burial rites, modes of social conduct, and human to non-human animal relations as cultural vectors of disease. If it is pertinent to begin deconstructing the way we depict and view epidemics, this is not simply so that we may begin to see them with post-colonial eyes, but also so that we critically reconsider what can be known about infectious diseases by way of epidemic photography. The study of the history of this photographic genre raises political, ethical, aesthetic and epistemological challenges of great importance to our world of global health, emerging infectious diseases, and pandemic preparedness.


Carol A. Benedict, Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-Century China (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1996)

Marilyn Chase, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San
Francisco (London: Random House, 2004)

Myron J. Echenberg, Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic
Plague, 1894-1901 (New York: New York University Press, 2007)

Myron J. Echenberg, Black Death, White Medicine: Bubonic Plague and the
Politics of Public Health in Colonial Senegal, 1914-1945 (Oxford: James
Curry, 2001)

James C. Mohr, Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning
of Honolulu’s Chinatown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Carl F. Nathan, Plague Prevention and Politics in Manchuria 1910-1931
(Cambridge: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1967)

Guenter B. Risse, Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012)

W. C. Summers, The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911: The Geopolitics of
an Epidemic Disease (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

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Grace Huxford, Hidden Histories – The Korean War

Grace Huxford portraitFollowing the opening of London’s first major memorial to the Korean War in December 2014, Dr Grace Huxford (Warwick) reflects on why this conflict is sometimes described as a ‘forgotten war’. Grace is a historian of Cold War Britain and has recently completed her PhD on the life-writing of British servicemen in the Korean War. She is currently Research Fellow in Oral History at the University of Warwick.

At the end of 2014, the North Korean response to the film The Interview received a great deal of coverage in the US and British press. Accusations that the Communist state had externally hacked the electronic systems of Sony (the production company behind the film) caused many commentators to analyse the leadership cult and bellicose outlook of North Korea once again.

HiN - Korea1As policymakers discussed appropriate responses and the increase of sanctions against the  North Korean state, a tangible reminder of the impact of conflict on the peninsula was revealed in London. On 3rd December, a £1m memorial to 1,106 British servicemen who died during the Korean War (1950-1953) was unveiled on Victoria Embankment, outside the Ministry of Defence. Britain, who offered the second largest contribution of troops to the UN force in June 1950, was one of the last of the twenty-seven nations involved to open a national memorial to its Korean War dead. The war has become largely ‘forgotten’ in Britain today, despite the ongoing attention paid to the Communist state of North Korea.

The Korean War was an important moment in the post-1945 world: it was the first ‘hot’ war of the Cold War and the first police action of the new United Nations (UN). The war was also significant for Britain: increased armament spending challenged the welfare agenda of the post-war Labour government, threatening party unity; the war exhibited the weaknesses of Britain’s international position in the early Cold War; and  it saw the involvement of almost 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops in the early 1950s, many of them national service conscripts. So why has the history of the Korean War remained largely hidden?

As veterans of the Korean War have noted, few people in Britain in 1950 could find Korea on a map. Although this is perhaps an exaggeration, that summer the BBC hastily put together programmes on the Korean peninsula, explaining its location, its culture and the significance of the invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on 25 June 1950. Many British servicemen sent to support the US-led UN force were similarly confused by the aims of fighting in this distant country, writing home that they were uncertain of the ‘object’ of the war. Although Korea captivated the press during the early months of the war, attention dwindled as the war rumbled on, with no decisive outcome: historian David Kynaston has even shown how some contemporaries felt that the birth of Princess Anne in August 1950 received more popular interest than the war.

The unclear ending of the war in 1953 did little to clarify matters. As US historian Charles Young has argued, the ambiguous ending of the Korean War, following a year of indeterminable negotiations, meant that the US and its allies could not claim outright victory in the war or herald their achievements back at home. The animosity between North and South Korea today continues to make the ending of the war seem only provisional, as North Korea has threatened to cease to abide by armistice six times since the early 1990s.

However, undoubtedly one of the most significant reasons for the obscurity of the Korean War within the British national imagination is its proximity to the Second World War. Coming only five years after this global, far-reaching conflict, the Korean War was by comparison far less significant to the lives of everyday British people. Furthermore, unlike the Second World War, it served no purpose to subsequent governments. The ‘People’s War’ of 1939-1945 has been repeatedly used by politicians to stand for a whole host of ‘national values’, from stoicism to a sense of duty. In the early 1980s for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s government, with its revived sense of patriotism, used Churchillian language to inspire a sense of national identity (prompting History Workshop Journal‘s landmark study of patriotism in 1984). Even in the 1950s, the Second World War was starting to dominate national culture and identity, meaning that the Korean War was ‘forgotten’ almost as soon as it began. Neither praised as a worthy conflict (like the Second World War) or vilified as a waste of life (like the First World War or, in the US, Vietnam), the Korean War has not served a wider narrative about war and peace in the twentieth century. Because of this it remains largely hidden in national memory.

HiN - Korea 2There are a few exceptions to this. Although servicemen lament the lack of novels and films  about the Korean War, famous television series such as M*A*S*H* remain popular with British audiences. The only film made specifically about British experiences in the Korean War is ‘A Hill in Korea‘ (1956) (renamed ‘Hell in Korea’ for its US release), starring a young Michael Caine, fresh out of national service and returned from Korea himself. Both the film and the novel on which it is based reflect on the harshness of the climate and the apparent futility of conflict. References to the Korean War within British television are fleeting. Perhaps the most famous Korean War veteran on British television was the eccentric hotelier Basil Fawlty, star of the 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers. However, Basil’s experiences are conclusively dismissed: in one episode he whispers to his wife Sybil, ‘I fought in the Korean War you know, I killed four men’. Sybil simply says to two passing guests: ‘He was in the Catering Corps – he used to poison them.’

Is Korea’s ‘forgotten’ status likely to change in future? It is hard to say. On 11 November 2013, Korean War veterans took a high profile role in Armistice Day commemorations in Whitehall. Prompted by the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire, veterans were invited to join the march past at the Cenotaph, the commemorative centre of ‘Remembrance Day’ events. However, the main British veterans association – the British Korea Veterans Association (BKVA) – has recently discussed disbanding following the completion of the memorial in London, based on the wish to ‘ go out with our heads held high rather than just fade away’. Whatever the outcome will be, the opening of the new memorial goes some way in acknowledging the significance of this ‘hidden’ conflict within British political and social history.

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