History in the News

UK Survey: teaching and learning history before, during and after the Covid-19 pandemic

The Royal Historical Society, History UK and the East Midlands Centre for History Learning and Teaching are sponsoring a national survey which seeks to understand how Covid has affected learning history at university and how staff and students envisage history programmes could and should adapt once Covid has abated.

Over 500 people from three dozen universities have already taken part in the anonymous survey, the findings from which will help universities to devise a post-pandemic framework for teaching, learning and assessment.

Those who teach in UK universities are encouraged to participate before the survey closes on 2 July. The survey is at https://lboro.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/ppps2.

For more information, please contact Marcus Collins (marcus.collins@lboro.ac.uk).


HEADER IMAGE: Photo by Bima Rahmanda on Unsplash


RHS statement on the recent closure of UK History departments

The Royal Historical Society (RHS) is deeply concerned to have heard of plans to end History teaching at four universities in the past year (the University of Sunderland, Aston University, London South Bank University and Kingston University). And whilst we are heartened to hear that History at Aston has now been reprieved, we are nonetheless concerned about the vulnerability of History degrees and departments in universities that serve predominantly first-generation students from low-participation backgrounds, and, in some cases, a high proportion of BAME students. Post-92 institutions have relatively large numbers of local and commuting students. It is well understood that many of those who commute to their local university do so precisely because they lack the means to study at a more distant institution.

The closure of History degrees in post-92 institutions, therefore, is not a simple matter of the consolidation of History provision. It also involves the removal of the opportunity to study History as a degree subject from students of a particular demographic. This is bad enough. However, when proposals go further – with historical teaching and training removed from related degree options, or when History staff are not offered meaningful redeployment – then the losses to student choice, and of specialist skills and livelihoods, are all the more serious and damaging.

Recent moves to close History courses and departments occur against a backdrop in which degrees are increasingly ranked and valued according to graduate earnings. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has recently hit out against ’dead-end courses’ that leave young people ‘with nothing but debt’. According to this logic, History, along with some other humanities subjects, stands accused of being bad value for money – not only for individual students, but also for the taxpayer who will end up footing the bill.

Yet the suggestion that a History degree is poor value or of limited use is simply not supported by the evidence. A History degree teaches all the skills that employers want, including independent, critical thinking and advanced writing, and this is reflected in the graduate employment market.

The British Academy’s recent report ‘Qualified for the Future’ (2020) shows that employment levels are identical for STEM and AHSS degrees. Studies by the Institute for Fiscal Studies conclude that, once controls have been made for socio-economic background, the differences between returns to specific subjects are not large. The 2020 Lifetime Earnings Study likewise reveals relatively few differences in earnings across subjects for either men or women (with History in the middle for both), and – once again – that an individual’s social background matters more than subject. Given the existence of robust evidence for the value of History degrees – both for their owners and for employers – it is far from clear why History is being included in arguments around value for money and graduate prospects.

More importantly, however, the RHS rejects the current terms of this debate, in which graduate salaries have been elevated as the most significant – or even the sole – measure of the value of a university education. It is our position that History serves a social good that goes beyond the monetary benefit to the individual. History provides the intellectual means for understanding the contemporary world. It is vital for the health and breadth of our civic culture, and our evolving sense of national self-understanding in all its nuance and complexity. Equally, the historians who teach these skills, across all kinds of university, are fully aware of the importance of relevance, innovation and public engagement in their work, and of the opportunity these present to better integrate universities within local communities.

High-quality research and teaching in History is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy and an informed, tolerant citizenry. We need this – just as we need the specialists to teach and promote historical awareness. The Royal Historical Society works for History and historians. We will therefore continue to advocate for History: at all kinds of institutions all across the country.

The President, Vice-Presidents, and Council of the Royal Historical Society


RHS Gladstone Prize logo

RHS Gladstone Book Prize, 2021 shortlist announced

The eight shortlisted titles for this year’s RHS Gladstone Prize have been announced. The Prize offers £1,000 to the author of a first work not primarily related to British or Irish history.

The 2021 shortlist recognises the scholarly contribution and quality of eight excellent history monographs published in 2020.


  • Princely Power in Late Medieval France: Jeanne de Penthièvre and the War for Brittany  by Erika Graham-Goering (Cambridge University Press)
  • A Commerce of Knowledge: Trade, Religion, and Scholarship between England and the Ottoman Empire, 1600-1760  by Simon Mills (Oxford University Press)
  • Revolutionary Pasts: Communist Internationalism in Colonial India  by Ali Raza (Cambridge University Press)
  • The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris, c.1790–1890  by Tom Stammers (Cambridge University Press)
  • Local Lives, Parallel Histories: Villagers and Everyday Life in the Divided Germany  by Marcel Thomas (Oxford University Press)
  • The Origins of the British Empire in Asia, 1600–1750  by David Veevers (Oxford University Press)
  • On Hospitals: Welfare, Law, and Christianity in Western Europe, 400-1320  by Sethina Watson (Oxford University Press)
  • Ishikawa Sanshirō’s Geographical Imagination  by Nadine Willems (Leiden University Press)


This year, as in past competitions, the Gladstone Prize has attracted an outstanding range of submissions on the Atlantic World, British imperial, and trans-national contexts. The field was so strong that the committee shortlisted eight first monographs, in recognition of their originality, rigorous research, and vigorous contribution to past and current debates

 – Professor Barbara Bombi, Gladstone Prize Committee Chair


The winner of the 2021 RHS Gladstone Prize will be announced in July, together with the winner of the RHS Whitfield Prize 2021, for a first book in the field of British and Irish history.

About the RHS Gladstone Prize and its previous winners, 1997-2000.



RHS Whitfield Book Prize, 2021 shortlist announced

The six shortlisted titles for this year’s RHS Whitfield Prize have been announced. The Prize offers £1,000 to the author of a work of British or Irish history.

The 2021 shortlist recognises the scholarly contribution and quality of six excellent history monographs published in 2020.


  • England’s Northern Frontier: Conflict and Local Society in the Fifteenth-Century Scottish Marches  by Jackson W. Armstrong (Cambridge University Press)
  • History and the Written Word: Documents, Literacy, and Language in the Age of the Angevins  by Henry Bainton (University of Pennsylvania Press)
  • Masculinity and Danger on the Eighteenth-Century Grand Tour by Sarah Goldsmith (University of London Press)
  • The Intelligence War against the IRA  by Thomas Leahy (Cambridge University Press)
  • Irish Women and the Great War  by Fionnuala Walsh  (Cambridge University Press)
  • The Making of an Imperial Polity: Civility and America in the Jacobean Metropolis  by Lauren Working (Cambridge University Press)


Once again, the Whitfield Prize competition attracted a large number of excellent entries, presenting the judges with something of an embarrassment of riches. Engagingly written, compellingly argued and deeply researched, the six shortlisted books demonstrate the vibrancy and intellectual ambition of today’s work on British and Irish history.

 – Professor Paul Readman, Whitfield Prize Committee Chair


The winner of the 2021 RHS Whitfield Prize will be announced in July, together with the winner of the RHS Gladstone Prize 2021, for a first book not primarily related to the history of Britain and Ireland.

About the RHS Whitfield Prize and its previous winners, 1977-2020.


RHS President joins historians in commenting on department closures

Royal Historical Society President, Emma Griffin, has joined fellow historians in raising concerns 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 Professors 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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