Gorillas, Galleries and Cage Fighting: How Visual Culture and Media Are Still Significant in Modern Politics

If a history student were to be asked about how visual culture and media can influence politics, they would surely think of examples such as British propaganda in the world wars, or the striking posters used in Nazi Germany. There is widespread agreement on the significant impact of this visual culture and media on people’s beliefs, and therefore the politics of the time.

What is less clear is how much of an impact art can make in the contemporary world. There are countless artists who make political comments with their work. The question is, can this work still genuinely influence politics? With the wide range of ways in which we are fed visual media, particularly through online sources, it is arguably much harder to influence and control opinions and politics in the modern world.

However, with a little research, we can find examples of contemporary artists who have made a genuine impact with their artwork.

Think of Paula Rego, the Portuguese artist who, with her powerful ‘Abortion Series’ (1998-9), has been credited with influencing the decision to hold a second referendum on legalising abortion in Portugal in 2007, after the first one failed in 1998. The series captures the reality of abortion, humanising the experience in a graphic yet beautiful way. Lesley Hoggart, whose research focuses on reproductive health, abortion policy and sexual health, credits Rego’s complex work with having a role to play in the important advance in reproductive rights in Catholic Portugal (The Lancet, 2019).

A painting from Paula Rego’s ‘Abortion Series’. (Credit: Paula Rego.)

Another interesting example to look at is the work of Grayson Perry. With 174,000 followers on Twitter, exhibitions in numerous galleries, a 2008 ranking of 32 in the “100 most powerful people in British Culture,” and appearances on This Morning, Loose Women, The Graham Norton Show, and Celebrity Gogglebox, there is no denying that Grayson Perry has the opportunity to reach a large audience with his art.

One of Grayson Perry’s banners on display in Durham Cathedral in 2016. (Credit: The Northern Echo.)

In his Channel 4 mini-series, All Man, Perry examines the concept of masculinity. He puts himself in typically masculine environments, from cage fighting to the Durham Miners Gala, council estates to the Square Mile, then makes art to capture what he experienced. Tackling subjects such as the gender roles in childhood, family values, the stigma around mental health and the high suicide rate among men in the North East, this mini-series has the potential to challenge views on significant issues, much like Perry’s work has done for many years. He explains in the documentary that the aim of the artwork he is creating ‘is to provoke a conversation,’ which he is definitely successful in achieving. The series won multiple awards.  

A final example of note is the Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist activist artists. Their form of visual culture and media challenges inequalities in the art world itself. Their website explains that they ‘use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture.’ Active for over thirty years in many cities across the world, the Guerrilla Girls wear gorilla masks and name themselves after famous dead women to maintain anonymity. Whilst there is still a long way to go in the group’s aims, the Guerrilla Girls co-founder, who goes by the name Frida Kahlo, recognises that over time, public opinion has changed, and people in and outside of the art industry are realising the importance of diverse voices in the history of art.

DO WOMEN HAVE TO BE NAKED TO GET INTO THE MET. MUSEUM? (Credit: Guerrilla Girls, via guerrillagirls.com.)

Whilst the impact of Rego, Perry, and the Guerrilla Girls’ work might be quite different, with Rego having a role in clear legislative change, and Perry and the Guerrilla Girls having an influence through a slower process of challenging views and ideas, the significance of all three cannot be denied. The political impact of contemporary art may not be as obvious as the propaganda posters examined in history classrooms across the country, but it would be wrong to ignore the power that visual culture and media such as art still holds in influencing and impacting political opinions and change in the modern world.

Georgina Crowther

Debate: Monarchy, a Relic or Required?

Monarchy and its Political Pomp and Circumstance

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 implemented the constitutional monarchy of the UK that we know today, effectively limiting the political role of the Crown to mere pomp and circumstance. Yet, to this day, certain superfluous political liberties have remained. In practice, the sovereign still gives weekly counsel to the Prime Minister. In practice, the sovereign opens Parliament with their speech, albeit drafted by the Commons. In practice, the sovereign must approve all legislation before it can become an act of parliament, although the last bill to be refused in such a manner was vetoed in 1708. While the British political constitution has moved on considerably from its absolute-monarchical days, the monarch’s political role still retains an archaic air, where substance falls short of ceremony. The lack of majority dissent over this archaism can only be explained by the increasing celebrity of the monarchy, caused by the tabloid-frenzied consumption of their every move, from wedding dress to baby name. This infatuation with these winners of a ‘genetic lottery’ completely overlooks the fact that these political liberties are available to be used and abused. Even if they choose not to do so, that is irrelevant to the fact they still exist.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, as, ceremonial politics aside, the monarchy can also be utilised by the party in power when wanting to inspire confidence in their abilities. This was evident in the Queen’s recent coronavirus address where she spoke of the need for solidarity, harking back to the Second World War idea of ‘everyone doing their bit’ and quoting Vera Lynn’s song, ‘We’ll Meet Again’. For a more worrying influence we must look back only to August of last year where Boris Johnson used the Queen’s ability to prorogue parliament to prevent lawmakers from thwarting his Brexit plans. Though the Crown officially adopts an air of impartiality towards partisan politics, it seems the monarchy is still a political tool to be manipulated on a whim. Surely the best way to ensure sovereign impartiality is to remain aloof from the political world. But surely while this demands reform, the monarchy need not be abolished to take its fingers out from the political pie.

When also considering the royal finances, it seems there is certainly no harm in taking this next step either. With £82.2 million paid by taxpayers in 2019 to form the Sovereign Grant – not including security or ceremonial costs – is it really necessary to keep funding this archaic institution? Popular responses say yes, pointing to tourism revenues of £550 million, and ambassador-generated trade of £150 million. Yet the latter number barely makes a dent in the sum of UK exports (£543 billion), and as for tourism revenue, the abolition of the monarchy would not stop tourists from frequenting destinations such as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. The question we the public should be asking is are the monarchy still relevant? The royal family can still exist in celebrity status and tabloid sensationalism without pulling on the drawstrings of the public purse and without being used as a political tool. The political role of the monarchy should be a thing of the past, celebrated and remembered perhaps, but fit for the vault of history.

Melanie Perrin

The current British royal family on Buckingham Palace’s Balcony. (Credit: Chris Jackson, via Getty Images.)

A Defence of the Monarchy

A word that recalls the riches and privileges of fairy-tale princes and princesses, but one that also connotes the existential crisis faced by many kingdoms. The twentieth century saw a deadly trend for the end of monarchies: most famously, the tragic demise of the Romanovs. However, new monarchies were forged that have remained to this day, such as Bhutan’s Wangchucks, whose popularity in Thailand has even led to a sharp increase in Thai tourism to Bhutan.

Monarchies carry more influence than is recognised in modern society. In Britain, the House of Windsor encourages support for charitable causes. Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, has been outspoken about the importance of mental health services, describing his participation in counselling and advocating open discussion concerning mental health. Alongside the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry founded ‘Heads Together’; a campaign created to increase the visibility of mental health conditions. Using their royal status greatly, the Cambridges and Sussexes promoted ‘Heads Together’ through royal visits, social media presence and tailored events. It was highly successful, with the foundation announcing it had assisted “millions” in talking more about mental health. The British monarchy is still deeply entrenched within our society and culture, engaging with topical issues, and promoting causes that they believe in. The Windsors have become more personal than rulers of the past, and still engage with politics, albeit in different ways. Commentary on social issues is another valid way of engaging with the political constitution. 

Neutrality is the most important characteristic of today’s monarchy, with the royal veto having been abandoned for over 300 years. The monarch is now idealised to be a leader that the public can stand behind, regardless of the political climate. Prime Ministers cannot command the support nor the majority, which the monarchy can. According to YouGov in 2018, 69% of people support the monarchy, with 21% opposing and 11% stating no preference. No Prime Minister has ever achieved such a high public majority. Theresa May was the second most popular Conservative leader ever, and still only commanded a positive opinion of 30%. In a turbulent modern society, the British monarchy has been a source of constancy.  

In a politically chaotic decade, Britain has seen three Prime Ministers in three years under Conservative Party leadership, which has been deeply divisive. However, the popularity of the monarchy has been proven time and time again. For the wedding of the Cambridges, there were 60 million viewers (averaging at 22 million for whole coverage), and sales of the royal issue of the Hello! magazine rose by 25%. Globally, there were 29 million viewers of the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. Furthermore, the British monarchy unites 2.4 billion under the Commonwealth, from across five continents. 

The grasp upon the monarchy has not been relinquished by the world, but especially not by British society. It has been steadfast for centuries and whether it is universally accepted, monarchy occupies a key part of politics, culture and society in modern Britain. It does not seem as if the world is ready for the monarchy to be a historic concept.

Lorna Cosgrave

Will Britain’s History Ever Transcend Empire?

In recent months, racism in Britain has been widely discussed in the light of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other people worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained poignancy, with many supporters risking their lives to protest against systemic racism during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When discussing this issue with peers, one comment often made was, ‘I don’t understand why they’re protesting here, that’s all happening in America?’. On the surface this might seem true, however comments like these fail to address Britain’s horrifically racist past, and the continual microaggressions and discrimination people of colour face today as a result of this. And this begs the question – if we’re ‘better’ than America in this respect, can any country ever completely transcend its corrupt past? 

A propaganda poster for the British Empire, centred around George VI. (CreditL Snowgoose, via Pinterest.)

The verb ‘transcend’ is broadly defined as the action of going beyond the limits of something, so in order to make a sound judgement on history’s ability to transcend a period of mass exploitation, we must first discover what ‘limits’ empire placed on Britain’s History. Back in school, you might remember History lessons telling you of a time when Britain ‘owned’ almost half the world – the British Empire, reaping massive economic benefits for Britain. The crimes of the British Empire need to be discussed in greater depth.

The British Empire imposed Western ideas of civilisation onto foreign cultures, and colonists committed heinous crimes. An ideological ‘them and us’ binary was instigated by the Empire; British colonists used this dehumanisation to justify horrific acts of violence and oppression against native people, alongside the stealing of land and imposition of culture. All this is delivered to British people today under the guise of either neutrality or a jubilant narrative which ignores and diminishes the atrocities of the Empire, and the lasting effects this ‘them and us’ mentality has had on the lives of BAME people in Britain. 

So, while it’s understandable to hope for a History detached from Empire in today’s more progressive society, it’s integral to understand that the global devastation caused by Imperialism cannot simply be forgotten. Remember that it was only in 2015 that the British taxpayer had paid off compensation paid to families of slave owners for their loss of ‘business assets’ after it was abolished in 1833. Imperialism arguably catalysed racism, and years of Black Lives Matter protests have shown that there is no quick fix. To hope for a transcendent utopia away from this is naïve. In many ways, ‘moving on’ from Empire minimises the experiences and culture of those adversely affected by it; derailing discussion and progression in a way which mirrors using the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’. 

One method which gained huge amounts of public backing was a change to Britain’s school curriculum, in which education about the realities of Empire and colonisation are made mandatory. Many of us will remember, and have signed, the government petition for this which gained over 250,000 signatures. However, after first responding to this in July, saying that colonial education is already part of the key stage 3 curriculum (ages 11 to 14), they have now agreed to host a debate on the subject; the date for which will take over 80 days to decide. 

One organisation who advocate for education on Black History in schools is The Black Curriculum. In their open letter to the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, they stated their aim to embed, ‘Black History in England’s National Curriculum more explicitly’, to counteract the whitewashed version of History children are taught. This would be an important step to take in tackling racism and inclusivity in schools; the founder Lavinya Stennet and her team have developed an extensive multimedia curriculum to teach Black History in an accessible way. If you’d like to support this cause, you can download their email templates to send to your MP, or donate through the link on their website. 

So sadly, there’s no way for Britain’s History to transcend Empire, as this would ignore the experiences of those continuing to be affected by racism, stereotypes and the microaggressions brought about by it. Being able to see past the effects of Empire is a privilege, and one which unfortunately isn’t a reality for many British citizens, despite more information becoming available via social media to help inform everyone of changes that can be made.

Sarah Matthews

Do the US Presidential Candidates Meet the ‘American Dream’?

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

Declaration of Independence, 1776

The American Dream. It is a belief professed in America’s culture, literature, advertising and schools; the idea that one can truly do anything or be anything in America as an American citizen. Developed by Thomas Jefferson as part of the ‘Declaration of Independence’ in 1776, it is flaunted as part of America’s proud past. While in theory it is hopeful and fair, politics has fallen short of what it means to provide equal rights for everyone. It is now used to gain public support, rather than to deliver on its promises. Anyone can profess the American Dream, even if they are racist, homophobic, or believe injecting bleach will cure the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

On the 3rd of November 2020, all eyes will be on the USA as Americans cast their votes in the 59th Presidential election. The effects will have a profound impact, not only on domestic issues but politics across the globe. The two main candidates, the Republican Donald Trump and the Democrat Joe Biden, have conflicting views on immigration, healthcare, racism, the climate crisis and COVID-19, just to name a few. Wildly differing perspectives add fuel to the political fire, and over the next couple of months each candidate will do everything they possibly can to take up residence in the White House. Perhaps the only two things they have in common are their fight for votes and their use of the American Dream narrative to do just that. 

Trump is appealing to the white working-class American, promising his supporters that he’ll ‘make America great again, again.’ He pulls on the heartstrings of the individual, professing that each of his voters can achieve personal excellence and financial gain. Though Trump professes this in his speeches, he denies marginalised groups the opportunity to achieve this great dream. Just one of the many examples is his attitude towards the Black Lives Matter movement. He has repeatedly denied the existence of institutionalised racism, suggesting that violent protests are far more of an issue than the devastating reasons people are protesting. He plays with fears and drives division to maintain each individual with the idea that they can achieve, despite most never actually having the opportunity to do so. In other words, he uses the nationalist American Dream to win votes and fails to deliver. 

Biden is appealing to those who believe in equality for all. In his speech at the Democratic convention he said that unlike the Republican party, ‘united we can, and will overcome this season of darkness in America.’ His specifics are much clearer. He wants to tackle climate change, racial injustice, the current global pandemic and the economic depression, in a way that Trump has been unable to do. His unifying speech brought together many well-respected leaders to explain why everyone should have the same opportunities in education, healthcare, careers and more. Biden has called this election ‘the battle for the soul of this nation,’ – a suggestion that this election will highlight what Americans hope their future will look like. 


Joe Biden speaking at the 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention in Altoona, Iowa. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Whichever party wins, these two campaigns make it clear that the ‘American Dream’ is fundamentally flawed. It promises two paradoxical ideas, absolute equality for all and individual excellence. It is near impossible to successfully have both. The question stands, as one of the biggest global powers, which would you rather American politics reflect: fundamental equal rights for all or power for the select individual? All will be revealed come November.

Issie Stewart

Historical Narratives: The Glorified and the Silenced Narratives of Spanish History

The bare, granite landscape of the Sierra de Guadarrama in Spain gives way to a 3,000-acre woodland that is home to the country’s most controversial monument. Soaring an impressive 150-metres high is a granite cross, raised dramatically above the basilica and valley. Beneath the Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, are the graves of 40,000 people, both Republicans and Nationalists, killed during the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War.

From 1975 to 2019, Francisco Franco was also buried in the valley. Franco, dictator of Spain since leading the Nationalists to victory in the Civil War, was one of only two people to have a named grave there, which was placed behind the altar. 

The monument was constructed between 1940 and 1959 with the intention of honouring those killed on both sides during the Civil War and was approved by Franco as a masterpiece defying time. It claims a degree of neutrality through honouring all victims. However, the grandeur of the unique Spanish architecture, constructed under a fascist dictator, glorifies a narrative that tells of the power and splendour of the victors – the side that erected such an impressive monument. 

Valley of the Fallen (El Valle de los Caídos). (Credit: Domingo Lorente, via Flickr.)

Spain battles with such narratives. Last year, Spain’s socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez vowed to exhume Franco’s remains. He claimed that their presence glorified Franco, drawing attention to the dictator through the monument and allowing his followers to continually pay tribute. Millions watched ahead of the election as his remains were airlifted to a cemetery just North of Madrid. Whilst Sánchez remained Prime Minister post-election, Vox, a far-right party, made huge gains becoming the third largest party in parliament. 

The attempt to alter the narrative away from Franco’s power and grandeur was met with strong opposition calling for the former leader to continue to be glorified. The political battle was fought over such a visual representation in the Valle de los Caídos of Franco’s power, despite the years of oppression many suffered under his leadership. Some of those who built the monument were serving in forced labour under the regime. The political significance of the monument held power to sway the elections, marginalising both right and left of the spectrum. 

The imposing visibility of the monument differs greatly from the hidden past of the Civil War and Franco-era. The atrocities committed by both Republicans and Nationalists during the civil war era and beyond were intentionally left to rest in a politically organised Pacto del olvido, or Pact of Forgetting, intended to make the transition to democracy after Franco’s death as smooth as possible. Such a pact left behind trials, judgement and retribution, and served to hide a whole narrative of suffering and brutality. 

Significance lies in Spain’s hidden narratives as well as the glorified ones. As attempts to silence glorified narratives through the likes of removing Franco’s remains in the Valle de los Caídos occurs, so too does increased political conversation around the Pacto del olvido as narratives suppressed for decades are brought into conversation. Spain grapples with both, one pulling against the other in a country in conflict about all narratives of its history.

Maddy Burt

Does History Link to Geography?

Although separate disciplines, history and geography are tightly intertwined. While history attempts to examine human society, culture and experience through a temporal lense, geography does so through a spatial one.

A map of the world, surrounded by classical imagery. (Credit: Marzolino, via iStock.)

Physical geography and natural phenomena have undoubtedly influenced the course of history: the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, which caused massive global cooling, attests to this. It is human geography, however, which is more closely linked to history. History is, for example, an incredibly important factor in the development (or decline) of cities. The relative economic power of London, owing to it’s strategic location and history as the Roman capital of Britannia, encouraged the Hanseatic League to set up it’s main English trading post there. At this time the government was located in Westminster, but the relative autonomy afforded to the Corporation of London made it the main commercial centre on the island. Having its own government and liberal economic laws, and a notable lack of interference from the national government, made it attractive to traders. The wealth this generated caused an explosion in the urban population and forced the city to abandon the grid-iron street patterns favoured by the Romans to accommodate the growth. This led to an incredibly dense settlement with narrow winding streets, which in turn necessitated the development of public mass transit come industrialisation, now an essential component of every major city in the world.

In stark contrast to the wealth historical factors have helped to produce, an inability to develop regions of Southern Africa can, to a large extent, be traced to apartheid era debt afflicting the region. Not only must South Africans repay debts of a regime that oppressed them, but people in countries such as Lesotho, Malawi, and Mozambique have been saddled with enormous debts fighting South Africa’s apartheid wars. These debts have made Southern Africa the poorest region in the world. As poverty is closely linked to high birth and mortality rates, the region’s history has resulted in modern demographics unseen in other parts of the world, with incredibly young populations and rapid growth. This has resulted in dense urban developments and rapid land degradation as a result of overgrazing and the necessity of intensive agriculture. 

Migration, another incredibly topical theme in modern geography, has also been affected by historical European colonialism. Push and pull factors are a foundation of modern studies of migration, and yet colonial ties have only been appreciated as a significant pull factor in recent history. While much credence was traditionally given to economic and social factors, historical factors have recently been afforded more attention. The Caribbean is a region characterised by a diverse group of people – forced migrants (slaves) from Africa as well as indentured and voluntary migrants from Europe and Asia. In the twentieth century the migration flow reversed and citizens emigrated in large numbers – overwhelmingly to the colonial motherland. While Britain was notable in its extensive attempts to restrict the volume of migrants, France and the Netherlands welcomed and indeed encouraged migration from the French Antilles and Suriname respectively. This is responsible for rapid demographic and social changes in those nations in the late 1900s which have shaped their population pyramids and urbanisation to this day.

History is also an oft-cited reason for territorial claims, such as those in the South China Sea. While geographical factors are the predominant reason why these islands are desirable, – with an abundance of oil and militarily strategic locations – a lack of clarity as to historical ownership has been used to justify claims. The 1951 Treaty of San Francisco failed to specify the status of the islands which left them open to competing territorial claims. China, following a border dispute with the Soviet Union, laid claim to all of the islands, not wanting Soviet ally North Vietnam to exert control over its coastline. After a minor naval skirmish with North Vietnam, China occupied Johnson reef and used this as a base to further its influence in the region. Today no less than seven nations compete for control over this trade passage worth $3.37 trillion.

Although it is obvious from these examples and countless more that history and geography are almost inseparable, historical geography remains a relatively new field with innumerable unexplored areas of research. Ultimately, it is only through an interdisciplinary approach that we can truly appreciate and understand that which we study. Hopefully, geographers and historians can move beyond their differences and appreciate this in future.

Michael Hendöe

Why Events in the Gulf Still Matter: Implications of Peace Between Israel and the UAE

There’s a joke that goes as follows: ‘…and on the eighth day, God created the Middle East, and said “let there be breaking news”’. In this constant stream of events it can be hard to distinguish between the important and irrelevant – but make no mistake, mutual recognition between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is as important as it gets.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a joint statement with Senior US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner about the Israeli-United Arab Emirates peace accords, Jerusalem, 30 August 2020. (Credit: Reuters)

With the exception of Israel, every Middle Eastern country is Muslim. More importantly, with the exceptions of Iran and Turkey, every country is Arab. In the early years of the 20th century, this relationship wasn’t contentious – indeed, the first Iraqi Minister of Finance was Jewish. However, Zionism and the Arab reaction to it, in concert with the destabilising effects of latter-stage colonialism, fuelled a rise in animosity and Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 was met by a declaration of war by its Arab neighbours.

The next 25 years saw two more wars and – in the midst of the Cold War – the US formed a strategy to protect what it viewed as an outpost of Western liberalism. American foreign policy united around providing Israel with a qualitative military edge over other Middle Eastern states. Accordingly, Israel won every major Cold War conflict, and territorial gains they made in these wars forced Arab neighbours to coalesce around a new strategy of ‘land for peace’. This saw Israel return the Sinai to Egypt in 1977 in exchange for recognition, and grant limited Palestinian autonomy in exchange for peace with Jordan in 1994. Eight years later, the Arab League declared that its members would collectively recognise the State of Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

At the same time, two key events took place. The 1979 revolution in Iran turned a staunch American and Israeli ally into an anti-Western, anti-Arab power and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a regional power vacuum. The last two decades have seen an Iran-Arab cold war across the region. Saudi Arabia, along with its Arab allies, is currently waging a war of influence against Iran across the Middle East. Yemen, Syria and Lebanon in particular bear the fingerprints of this struggle.

Now, for the coup de grace. In 2015, the US signed a deal with Iran, trading sanctions relief in exchange for Iran scaling back its nuclear programme. Israel and the Arab World were united in their fear of Iran and animosity towards the deal, which allowed Iran to funnel more money to proxy groups in the region. President Trump upended America’s approach, seeking to unite Israel and the Arab states by opposing Iranian regional influence. This bipolar strategy enabled the US to bring Israel and the UAE closer together and on August 13th, the two nations signed a deal mutually recognising each other’s existence.

So why the UAE, of all Arab states? In one respect, the Emirates are keen to bolster their military position. The US may be more willing to sell technologically-advanced weapons, including the coveted F-35, to seemingly less belligerent Arab powers. Israel is also a regional leader in technology, which the UAE may stand to benefit from.

Yet the UAE also benefits from its demographics. Nearly 60% of its population are South Asian foreign workers, employed in massive construction projects in Dubai; only 11% are Arab Emirati citizens. This corporate state structure makes the Emirati monarchy highly stable in comparison to its Arab neighbours, who are populated by citizenries that are generally hostile towards Israel.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, will likely wait and see if other Gulf States follow the UAE’s lead before making its own peace deal with Israel. The primary objective of all Arab autocracies is domestic stability, and Saudi Arabia’s conservative Muslim population might view public overtures towards Israel as a sell-out by the state’s monarchy. The Arab populations in Africa are generally less conservative but they make up for it with anti-imperialist sentiment, and would be unlikely to recognise Israel whilst the occupation continues.

This brings us to the one Arab entity that will not be making peace in the near future – Palestine. Arab states have largely given up on the Palestinian cause and instead come to fear Palestinian freedom, lest it bring to power a people’s government that undermines their fragile authoritarian legitimacy. Until recently, Palestinians still had one bargaining chip. Previously, the Arab League had almost unanimously withheld recognition of Israel. When it did come, as in the case of Egypt and Jordan, it was in exchange for significant concessions. Now that the UAE has agreed to recognise Israel with no significant conditions, Palestinian leaders will feel as if the rug has been swept out from under their feet. The UAE has given an official seal of approval to the occupation; expect to see it remain for a long time.

Seth Weisz 

The Politics of Food: Modern Sumptuary Law?

The politicisation of food by Boris Johnson’s government has proved to be a highly controversial issue. Whilst the necessity of what has been described as an “obesity crackdown” has been supported by Public Health England, there has been backlash surrounding the government’s strategy. In particular, the lack of meaningful support for the most financially-disadvantaged have led to accusations that the government is tone-deaf in its approach. The abandonment of this group of people by food policy is far from a new phenomenon, and the parallels with early modern sumptuary law is compelling.

A family watching British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coronavirus address. (Credit: AFP.)

Sumptuary law is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as, “Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures for apparel, food, furniture, etc.” These laws impacted everyone in society and were considered vital for maintaining the social hierarchy in the face of increased social mobility. They had a strong moral element: it was believed this hierarchy was mandated by God; refusing to adhere to this was therefore defying Him. Therefore, these laws were seen as essential for the good of society, just as the current government policy regarding obesity aims to lessen the impact of Covid-19 and the strain on the NHS. 

Whilst sumptuary laws set limits upon all, just as we are all to be affected by this new health drive, it was – and is – the financially disadvantaged who experience the greatest restrictions. Legislation and poverty meant the poor of Tudor England were allowed no more than pottage, vegetables, and bread. With the rigours of life at that time, the number of calories that needed to be consumed was much higher than the recommended 2000-2500 today, though even this would be out of reach for many. 

Today, the converse seems to be true, and it is far easier to over-consume on a lower budget. According to the statistics, half of the 10 worst areas for childhood obesity in the UK are also the 10 poorest. Yet the government seems to think the solution is as simple as signposting the healthy options and restricting those high in calories, going so far as removing multi-buy offers. The government does not seem to recognise that choice and control over diet is often a privilege. As Kieran Morris writes in The Guardian, the ability to eat healthily and exercise needs “time, money and space”, all of which have been have become increasingly inaccessible. 

Elizabeth I wearing the “superfluities of silks, cloths of gold, [and] silver” many were not allowed to. (Credit: the ‘Darnley Portrait’, Public Domain.)

Annunziata Rees-Mogg typified this privilege in her tweet on July 27, in which she stated “Tesco 1kg potatoes = 83p, 950g own brand chips = £1.35”. What the daughter of Baron William Rees-Mogg fails to recognise is that it is not ignorance or laziness that is the problem. According to the Trussell Trust, between April 2019 and March 2020, 1.6 million people were estimated to have used a foodbank, which are only able to provide non-perishable, carbohydrate-heavy foods. The average full-time employee in Britain works an average of 42 hours a week, which the TUC claims is “robbing workers of a decent home life and time with their loved ones”. To claim that personal choice is the sole reason behind the obesity epidemic ignores this. 

So, just like sumptuary law, we are all being asked to do our bit for the good of the nation. But this policy, just like the legislation 500 years ago, will disproportionately affect the poorest in society. Whilst we do need to tackle obesity, the government needs to provide support for these people, rather than remove and criticise their already limited choices.

Georgia Greatrex

Do Belarus’ Protests Suggest a Chance for Change, like the 1989 Revolutions in Eastern Europe?

This article will use Russian spellings of Belarusian names for the sake of consistency.

When comparing the situation in Belarus today to the revolutions of 1989, we have to note that each country experienced a different revolution. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians in the Baltics were trying to reverse the fifty-year long annexation of their nations since the Nazi Soviet Pact of 1939. The Baltic protest movement also saw an emphasis on salvaging national cultures – particularly language. Poland’s revolution was the result of a more long-term protest movement that began in the shipyards of Gdansk in the early 1980s under the helm of Lech Walesa. Romania saw the violent overthrow of the maverick megalomaniac dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. 

What we are seeing in Belarus is a combination of all three. The protest movement is fundamentally against a long-serving authoritarian dictator whose foreign policy modus operandi is to play east off west, like Ceausescu. As in Poland, the Belarusian protest movement is spearheaded by striking workers. Finally, there is an element of the movement that campaigns for the revival of Belarusian national customs in favour of the more ‘Russified’ and ‘Sovietised’ ones pushed by the incumbent system. Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya seems to suggest a blend of these three aspects in her interview with the independent Russian news site Meduza.

It must be said that Tikhanovskaya is not Lech Walesa, Lukashenko is not Ceausescu and Belarus is not the Baltic States. Nonetheless, we still see aspects of 1989 permeate the Belarusian protest movement. 

Belarusian protestors holding old Belarusian flags in support of the opposition, Minsk, August 25, 2020. (CreditL Sergei Grits, via The Associated Press)

The one aspect that is very different to 1989 is Moscow’s willingness to intervene in Belarus. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev rescinded the Brezhnev Doctrine – the idea that if a country in the Warsaw Pact tried to break away the USSR, other Warsaw Pact nations would intervene to quell the political dissent. In an interview with Russian state television on the 27th August, Vladimir Putin essentially came up with his own version of the Brezhnev Doctrine. He said that Russian police forces would come into Belarus in the event that “extremist elements, using political slogans as cover, overstep a certain boundary.” The fact that Putin publicly admits that Russian forces could be used in Belarus is a reassertion of the Brezhnev Doctrine in a more subtle form – in contrast to Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine where the Russian government denies that its military is present. Putin’s initiative is very bold and risky but if that is what it takes, in the view of the Russian leadership, to keep NATO out of Belarus, then so be it. 

Russian support is the best chance Alexander Lukashenko has got if he is to survive. Beyond the security services and the highest echelons of the Belarusian leadership, Lukashenko has little or no support in wider Belarusian society. The price that Lukashenko will pay for keeping himself in power, thereby protecting his own security and finances, is by outsourcing more of his nation’s sovereignty to Russia. 

Belarus’ protest movement does have some similarities with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe if we look at some of its aims and the demographics of the opposition. However, Russia is more willing to intervene in the post-Soviet sphere than it was in 1989. Therefore, it is highly likely that instead of moving away from Moscow’s sphere of influence, Belarus may end up much nearer to it.

James Meakin

Book Review: Han Kang’s ‘Human Acts’

Han Kang’s novel ‘Human Acts’ details just that: the experiences of a range of individuals suffering from the actions humans inflict on each other. The narrative flows through different times and places, centred around one boy, Dong-ho. 

The first UK edition cover of ‘Human Acts’. (Credit: Portobello Books Ltd, via Amazon.)

Dong-ho is revealed to be based on a real child who the author was distantly connected to and one of many massacred in 1980 in Gwangju, a city in South Korea. 

At the end of 1979, South Korea’s military strongman Park Chung-hee was assassinated. Having been in power since his coup in 1961, he had increased repressive measures to create a de facto dictatorship, declaring martial law in response to demonstrations throughout the country’s south. 

His assassination saw Park’s protégé Chun Doo-hwan gain power. Chun was nicknamed his adoptive son, and his measures reflected their surrogate familial connection. By May, Chun expanded martial law to the entire country, and had introduced a range of restrictive measures, banning political activities, limiting freedom of the press, and closing universities.

In response, student demonstrations sprung up in Gwangju on May 18. The government reacted to the students from Jeonnam University by shooting and beating them. Outrage saw the protests spread as citizens took to the street in solidarity, opposing the lack of democracy and protesting the harsh conditions workers endured during South Korea’s rapid industrialisation. Paratroopers were sent in against civilians, schoolchildren were shot as they tried to surrender, people were beaten, raped, and tortured by government troops, with the fighting in the city finishing on 27 May.

Official figures, which remain unchanged, suggest around 200 died, whereas some foreign press reports estimated 2,000. The death toll is hard to fully ascertain – many bodies were thrown in unmarked graves, Chun worked to suppress discussion of the Uprising, and the brutalities resulted in suicides which cannot be directly attributed. 

Only foreign press were allowed to cover the uprising and Chun Doo-hwan blamed the rebellion on Communists sent from North Korea. With authorities trying to suppress memories of the event, it was only in 1997 a day of commemoration was created. The Uprising has yet to be confined to history; as with Japan’s use of Korean “comfort women” in World War Two and Chun Doo-hwan’s Samchung re-education camp, the event remains raw. Regional hostilities against people from South Jeolla, Gwangju’s province, created by the dictatorship to minimise the protests continue and the Uprising is still contested by certain right-wing groups. 

A May 18th memorial in Gwangju, South Korea. (Credit: The May 18 Memorial Foundation)

Kang’s book is an attempt to grapple with this history, offering an attempt to reconcile the cruelty shown to people by their own nation. Kang was born in Gwangju, moving to Seoul aged 10, and the final chapter of the book presents her own experience with the Uprising – seeing her parents trying to hide it from the children, opening a book of photos showing a woman shot in the face – and the need to tell the story of the voices left. The focus on scenes outside the traditional dramatic scenes of tanks arriving allows the novel to act almost as a range of historical sources, guiding you through the effects of history.

The novel was published in South Korea in 2014, the year after Park Chung-hee’s daughter’s presidential inauguration. Park Geun-hye’s ascent to the highest office of Korea motivated Kang to write a book discussing part of Korea’s traumatic past which is rarely spotlighted. It is hard for a country to admit to shooting its civilians – think of Kent State, where in 1970 the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War. Kang’s questioning of why Gwangju residents sang the national anthem as corpses were wrapped in the Taegukgi (the national flag) demonstrates how such wounds can fester, changing a person’s identity. The narration of a corpse reminds how people’s suffering cannot stay in the grave, especially when not given a proper burial.

The book’s strength is in its ability to offer a range of perspectives from the event. Historical literature’s merit is often limited by a narrow focus, single scope, and distorting historical facts. Through Kang’s use of the Korean literary tradition of a linked narrative, the reader is connected to Dong-ho throughout the novel but can see the effect of the Uprising from a multiplicity of perspectives. Giving the narrative to the unionised women who drove the pro-democracy movement, the survivors, and even a corpse, creates a novel which can educate about the event and how people experienced it. The detached tone adopted in all Kang’s work allows for a lack of sensationalisation or didacticism as literal torture is presented to the reader. 

The novel reminds us that history remains in our present politics and all spheres of life. Novels and other works of literature offer an opportunity to act as a historical source, presenting people’s responses to events, and as a way to expose ourselves to areas of history unknown. Human Acts forms part of history and has continuing political significance.

Ellie Williams-Brown