The Painful Struggle for Transparency in British Politics

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Dominic Cummings’ breath-taking appearance at the joint session of the Health and Social Care Committee and the Technology Committee in the last week of May was one of the most revealing insights into the inner workings of Westminster on record. The combination of blunt personal remarks and detailed descriptions of the Government’s strategy posed a stark contrast to the historical veil of secrecy that has guarded British governance for over a half a century. 

The culture of secrecy was heavily embedded in Britain for the duration of the second half of the 20th century, stemming from the infamous Official Secrets Acts, and favoured a system of non-disclosure. There was no right to information from public bodies, and without action from Parliament the disclosure of information was left to the will of the executive – clearly an unhappy system. 

The notion that open government is better government is well regarded and is a mantra that should be followed by governments worldwide. Not only to avoid serious abuses of power or violations of human rights, but also to ensure that proper daily governance is in operation with a key contemporary example being the scandal over the procurement of PPE for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dominic Cummings (Credit: Reuters, via BBC)

Cummings himself has acknowledged the importance of transparency in government numerous times, often stating it in his committee appearance, aligning himself with the general trend since the turn of the century. Following the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act under the Blair administration, the public now have a right to information and can make requests for disclosures. 

This drastic change in the British attitude towards transparency was crucial in kickstarting a trend favouring openness, with the aim that more would be done to advance transparency in the future. However, what has followed can be seen as a pushback against the change started under New Labour, most recently the proposed plans to reform judicial review, which is a key tool for government accountability in the UK.

Whilst Cummings’ appearance can be seen as a signifier that the attitude in Westminster is still tilting towards openness and not secrecy, it is important not to overstate its significance. Cummings’ testimony could still appropriately be dismissed as the fulfilment of personal vendettas. However, it may lead to the development of an expectation by Parliament to have these types of hearings, upon which significant media attention is granted and provides the political incentive for their occurence.

Any further development of transparency will require significant support and demand from the electorate, which due to other current crises seems unlikely to arise any time soon, notably due to the upheavals of Brexit and coronavirus. However, scandals which showcase the importance of transparency are always in good supply and will help to maintain at least the current status quo in terms of openness. All that is needed is a good opportunity and some excess political power to encourage further serious reform of transparency.

Cummings’ appearance, the biggest since Rupert Murdoch’s during the phone hacking scandal, has reminded the public and press of the power of Select Committees. This has emboldened the theme of transparency in British politics whilst this level of access would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. The Select Committee appearance serves as a strong reminder of what the British public now expects in regard to governmental transparency, even if a similar appearance is unlikely to occur in the near future.

Aidan Taylor, History in Politics Contributor

The Politics of the Past: How Divergent Interpretations of History Shape East Asian Diplomatic Relations in the Present

David Cameron’s refusal to remove his poppy for his 2010 visit to China was revealing of a stark contrast in the significance granted to history in politics between himself (and the British political establishment as a whole) and his hosts. Whilst history has often played the role of a footnote to contemporary politics in the UK – as reflected by the severe lack of meaningful authority being granted to historians in any government department barring the Foreign Office, and even then only recently – it is central to the national self-portrayal of the Chinese nation. The ‘Century of Humiliation’ narrative that plays such a pivotal role in the story of the nation, as painted by the Chinese Communist Party, is one that the West would do well to take more notice of. Meanwhile, in Japan and Korea, the legacy of the Japanese colonial project looms large in contemporary relations. Perhaps as the ‘victors’ of modern history it is easy to relegate the past to that which went before. In Asia, where the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were ones of humiliation and soul-searching, it is impossible to simply sequester the past – it is intricately bound to the politics of the present.

China’s relations with the West underwent a radical shift in the Great Divergence of the nineteenth century, as European powers and the United States came to dominate the globalising world order. The reversal in fortunes suffered by the Qing Empire and, later, the modern Chinese state, has served to inform Chinese foreign policy and education ever since. Chairman Mao linked the Japanese imperialism of the early twentieth century to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth, and the same wars were used to justify Communist China’s ‘reaction’ against their Western oppressors. The Chinese national imagining has therefore come to be defined in opposition to, and in competition with, a West that remains stained by its past, a point of nuance that David Cameron failed so visibly to grasp in 2010, and one that continues to underlie the diplomatic fallacy that we are able to negotiate any sort of equal standing with the Chinese government. A competitive national consciousness has been fostered that means that ‘the West’ will always be cast as the natural point of comparison for China’s past failures and current successes, leaving them and the likes of the UK at polar ends of a dichotomy that western governments, until very recently, have failed to fully grasp.

A Nationalist officer guarding women prisoners likely to be comfort women used by the Communists, 1948.
(Credit: Jack Birns, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images)

Elsewhere in East Asia, the memory of the Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’, who were drawn from across the Empire through the course of the Second World War and forced into what can only be described as sexual slavery, retains a pervasive political potency. The majority of these women were Korean and though estimates vary, they seem to have numbered in at least the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands. Indeed, such a range in estimates comes as a result of the topic’s controversial nature in the context of the countries’ poor diplomatic relations in recent years. The plight of the comfort women and the allocation of responsibility for the crimes against them has come to represent a clearly drawn battle line between the two countries – Japanese nationalists, the recently departed Shinzo Abe amongst them, seeking to play down the extent of official sanction for such atrocities, whilst Koreans pursue justice not only for the victims, but for the Korean nation as a whole. In order for the nations’ relations to reach some level of normality, the governments of both must look to find a compromise between what are currently polarised memories of the Japanese Empire. Forgetting those years is a luxury that only the oppressors may take, yet it is clear that in Korea too a way must be found for the nation to move on from the scars of their past.

Both of these cases demonstrate the historical dimension of diplomacy in the East Asian political sphere. A history of ruptures, clean breaks and colonial exploitation has bred national imaginings in which the traumas of the past play a central role. This significance is one that can be easily underestimated by those of us in the West for whom history has taken on an almost trivial status, as a backdrop to the present. Cameron underestimated it and it appears that our current leaders are also misunderstanding the inescapable threat posed by a Chinese leadership that places itself firmly in the context of historical competition with Western ‘imperialists’. Such cultural ignorance not only offends those whose culture is being ignored, but also hamstrings those guilty of that ignorance. Without a clear understanding of the other side’s thinking, diplomatic blunders like the poppy controversy are not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

Book Review: The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards

Steve Richards’s writing is detailed, concise and accessible: perfect qualities mixed into his book on leadership from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson. Defined as the “television age” of Prime Ministers, Richards looks at the qualities needed to lead a country in a job that is notorious for failure. It is ideal for anyone looking to understand how we have ended up where we are today, as well as the real, though often flawed, people who have led Britain.

Looking through the ten Prime Ministers, Richards identifies common themes and criteria on which to judge these individuals. These broad ideas are then expertly woven into specific examples that highlight the author’s years of experience in the world of politics. One of the most engaging criteria he notes is the concept of being a “political teacher” with the ability to carry the public on the path the government is pursuing. Richards points to Thatcher as a prime example of this, with a specialist ability to simplify complex themes into accessible lessons, even where they may not be logically sound. An interesting example of this is Thatcher referencing her father’s grocery shop in Grantham; she argued that he could not spend more than he earned, and so neither should the country. Of course, Richards argues, the state is an entirely different unit in comparison to a shop, but Thatcher’s ability to create a simple story captivated the public.

The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson paperback cover. (Credit: via Waterstones)

Naturally, there are those figures who do not possess these key skills. Continuing the idea of the political teacher, Richards notes that Theresa May was reluctant to give a running commentary on Brexit, preferring instead to give a number of high profile speeches but in doing so, allowing others to take control of the narrative in the interim. This, he posits, is the result of applying the same tactics as were deployed in her successful period in the Home Office: relying on familiar tactics in a job that was not designed to accommodate them.

Richards expands more widely and engagingly on this theme, tracing Prime Ministers’ actions and instincts – both positive and negative – back to their personal and political upbringings. For the 1970s leaders who grew up with the Great Depression, fear of unemployment was almost crippling and coloured their dealings with trade unions. Enter Margaret Thatcher – free of such inhibitions – and tactics changed markedly. Of course, these were not the only factors, but they have helped Richards develop a nuanced picture of our Prime Ministers.

This is why the stories are so compelling: they give a rich picture that goes beneath the popular myths: Wilson’s exiting office on his own terms, Thatcher’s luck in facing a fractured Labour Party in 1983, Brown’s fear of being a “tail-end Charlie” realised in 2010. Being Prime Minister is exposed as being contingent on a huge number of factors, many out of the individual’s control, for example the media, which Richard paints as having almost imprisoned Blair and Brown in their desperation to keep the newspapers of traditionally Conservative Middle England on their side. Prime Ministers are too often seen as all powerful, whereas Richards expertly outlines the complicated maze each must navigate to achieve their aims.

Overall, these detailed accounts of leaders’ personalities and careers show that they are never adequately classified by the binary good or bad metric, as so many seem to picture them. These are characters with huge expertise, experience and a human side that is often lost in popular memory. Having known or interviewed the figures he writes about, Richards is uniquely placed to track the paths to power of the ‘modern’ Prime Ministers, and it shows.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

Merkel’s Immigration Policy: A Failure?

Many highlight Angela Merkel’s policy in relation to the 2015 migrant crisis as the beginning of her downfall. In that year, Germany’s net migration figure was 1.1 million, just under double the previous year’s total. As Europe struggled to cope with refugees, Merkel made her country the continent’s biggest destination, despite the Dublin Agreement mandating that refugees should seek asylum in the first country they entered. Even today, the refugee crisis is pointed to as a key moment in Merkel’s premiership, and the moment she began to lose her grip on power. But was her immigration policy actually a failure?

When thinking of Germany and immigration, a notable example is the Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, programme which began in the 1950s. These guest workers were invited to help rebuild West Germany after the Second World War, with the main source of guests through this period being Turkey. Many workers never returned home, remaining in Germany with their families. Such people are no longer known as guests, but as Germans.

As Chancellor, Angela Merkel has spoken at length about her view of immigration. She has a markedly positive attitude on the subject, at odds with many in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, talking of those who come to Germany as “enriching” society. She has always been clear on her approach to refugees: that there is a “moral obligation” to help those fleeing war, persecution or terror. It was this positive approach to immigration that culminated Germany’s policy during the 2015 refugee crisis.

 German Chancellor Angela Merkel receiving flowers from a Lebanese refugee; Migration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz looks on from the right, June 2018. (Credit: Reuters)

Since then, Germany has homed over 1.5 million refugees, in comparison to the 450,000 by France and 300,000 by Italy. This huge influx of people into Germany proved a huge task for both local and national government, with issues such as providing German classes and wider education, as well as integrating the new arrivals into German society. As a logistical challenge, it is clear that Merkel and her government, in combination with state bodies, handled the refugee crisis robustly and commendably. Language classes were provided by the government and an effective programme of enrolling young children into nurseries to begin their education was introduced. 

There is, however, a darker side to the consequences of this policy in Germany. On a national level, the most obvious of these has been the rise of the far right and explicitly anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which surged in the 2017 Bundestag elections and in state elections since the crisis. This has led to the erosion of CDU support and, arguably, to the circumstances amongst which Merkel stood down as her party’s leader in 2018. The future of that party is now in doubt, with right wing candidate Friedrich Merz, a fierce critic of Merkel and her immigration policy in particular, finishing second in both the 2018 and 2021 leadership elections, narrowly losing each time.

Merkel’s successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was forced to resign after CDU state parliament members in Thuringia defied her authority to vote with the AfD. Armin Laschet, the new leader, is seen as a moderate in comparison to Merz, but ran with health minister Jens Spahn, labelled the “anti-Merkel” for his fierce criticism of her handling of the 2015 crisis. Her moderate legacy in the CDU may be safe for now, but the future remains uncertain as there are fresh elections to contend in September, in the aftermath of disappointing results in March’s state elections.

Merkel’s immigration policy was a divisive path which sowed the seeds of her downfall, while providing refuge for millions fleeing war. In the short term, it has arguably been pivotal in her resignation both as CDU leader and Chancellor, while fracturing her party as it struggles with internal battles and the imposing presence of the AfD. In the long term, however, history will surely look kindly on Merkel: the Chancellor who brought millions in from the cold despite the political consequences and remained steadfast in her commitment to her instincts. A political failure but a moral success, and one which may be remembered as positively as the Gastarbeiter are today.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

Judging the Past: Can We Really Afford Not To?

University of Edinburgh historian Donald Bloxham has provided much food for thought in his recent article for the March edition of BBC History Magazine, entitled ‘Why History Must Take a Stance’. In it, he challenges the dogmatic insistence on neutrality that pervades the historical profession. Instead of feigning an unattainable neutrality, he argues, historians should take ownership of the judgements they make and the moral ‘prompts’ that they provide to their readers. Proclaiming neutrality is misleading, and possibly dangerous. I am inclined to agree.

Whilst neutrality is an honourable and necessary ambition for any historian, it is an ideal, and it is folly to suppose otherwise. No morally conscious human being can honestly claim to provide a totally neutral account of British imperialism, for instance. We tell a story in the way that we want to tell it, and there are plethora ways of telling that story, all of which have moral implications in the present. Language, as Bloxham observes, is a key factor. Can a historian who writes about the ‘exploitation’ and ‘subjugation’ of millions of human beings as a result of the Atlantic slave trade truly claim that they are providing a ‘neutral’ impression to their reader? These words carry weight, and rightly so. To talk about the past in totally neutral terms is not only impossible, but also heartless. The stories of the people whose lives were torn apart by past injustices deserve to be told, not only out of respect or disengaged interest but because they bear lessons that exert a tangible and morally didactic hold over us in the present.

The Lady of Justice statute outside the Old Baily. (Credit: Into the Blue)

That is not to say that historical writing should take the form of a moral invective, lambasting the behaviour of dead people whom we can no longer hold to account. Nor is it to argue that historical relativism is not a vitally important and foundational principle of the profession. What I am proposing, however, is that when Richard J. Evans claims, in his otherwise brilliant ‘In Defence of History’, that we should refute E.H. Carr’s argument – that the human cost of collectivisation in the USSR was a necessary evil – in the ‘historian’s way’, by undermining its ‘historical validity’, he seems to be suggesting that we are not doing so with a moral purpose in mind. Indeed, suggesting that the costs outweighed the benefits is itself a moral judgement, for is it not judging the value of people’s lives? Whilst Evans claims that it is the reader who must infer this conclusion, not the historian, his economic argument (that collectivisation was no more successful than the policies that preceded it) is surely intended to ‘prompt’ it.

Evans, like most people, clearly opposes the morality of Carr’s argument, and his way of communicating this is in the (highly effective) ‘historian’s way’. But his purpose nonetheless is to influence the opinion of his readers, not simply to fulfil the role of historical automaton, providing those readers with every fact under the sun. The process of omission and admission is one that, try as we may to temper it, will always involve some degree of value judgement about which facts matter for the purpose of our argument and which do not. Such a value judgement will inevitably, at times, operate on a moral criterion.

This debate may, as is often the case with those that take historiography as their subject, appear somewhat academic. In a world in which our history does so much to define the identities of (and relations between) ethnic, social, cultural and political groups, however, it is anything but. What we can call the ‘neutrality complex’ runs the risk of imbuing the historical profession and its practitioners with a sense of intellectual superiority, forgetting the political consequences of its output. One can find little fault in Bloxham’s assertion that certain histories carry less moral weight, and are therefore more conducive to neutral assessment, but subjects with as much emotional resonance as the history of slavery, the Holocaust or Mao’s Great Famine cannot but be judgemental in nature. 

‘Neutrality’ can be a mask for the covert projection of nefarious ideologies and interpretations. Presenting something simply as ‘fact’ is irresponsible and shows great ignorance of the moral dispositions that influence what we write and how we write it. There is space and need for some degree, however tentative, of self-acknowledged judgement in historical writing. We owe it to our audience to declare our judgement and to justify it. The crimes of imperialism, genocide and slavery are universally evil. The historian has a concern and a duty to show their audience why those that claim otherwise, who hyperinflate relativism and claim neutrality, are guilty both of intellectual hubris and moral cowardice.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

The Environment Has No Ideology: Debating Which System Works Best is Inherently Flawed

It is often assumed that we in the ‘West’ are the arbiters of environmental policy, that we simply ‘care more’ than the rest of the world. ‘China’, for many, evokes images of flat-pack cities and rapid industrialisation synonymous with the stain left by humanity on the natural world. It is lazily viewed as an outlying hindrance to the global goal of sustainable development, whilst we remain wilfully ignorant of our own shortcomings, both past and present. Instead of viewing Chinese environmental negligence as unique, I argue, within the lingering paradigm of the ‘capitalist good/communist bad’ dichotomy, that a more bipartisan assessment of the root cause of environmental degradation may be in order. Our planet, after all, cares little for politics.

Many of China’s environmental failures have historically been attributed to the communist policies of the ruling party, particularly under Mao, whose ‘ren ding shen jian’, or ‘man must conquer nature’ slogan has been presented by the historian Judith Shapiro as evidence of the Communist Party’s desire to dominate the natural world, even at the expense of its own people and environment. Of course, there is merit to this argument – the collectivisation of land and the Great Leap Forward’s unattainable targets  wreaked havoc on the land and contributed in no small part to what Frank Dikötter has termed ‘Mao’s Great Famine’, which is estimated to have killed up to 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It can be easy, therefore, for us to assume that this environmental exploitation is one peculiar to China’s communist system of government.

A factory in China by the Yangtze River, 2008. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Without excusing the undoubtedly detrimental and inhumane policies of Mao’s government, we should  view the environmental impact of the Chinese state’s rapid development in a more contextual manner. After all, did not the rampant capitalism of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom lead to the explosion of soot-filled cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham? All of which were centres of heightened industrial activity that harmed both their human population and the surrounding environment. London’s death rate rose 40% during a period of smog in December 1873, and similarly, we can look to the Great Smog of 1952, which the Met Office claims killed at least 4000 people, possibly many more.

Industrial potteries in North Staffordshire during the nineteenth century. (Credit: StokeonTrent Live)

Geographically closer to China, the Japanese state has also shown in recent years that pointing to ideology might be mistaken. The post-war Japanese growth-first and laissez-faire mentality left the likes of Chisso Corporation in Minamata to their own devices, and the results were devastating. From 1956 through to the 1970s, first cats, then human residents of  Minamata began coming down with a mysterious illness, one that caused ataxia and paralysis in its victims. It would transpire that what came to be known as ‘Minamata disease’ was the result of Chisso’s chemical plant releasing methylmercury into the town’s bay. This was absorbed by algae and passed up the food chain through the fish that local residents (both human and feline) were regularly consuming. Government inaction was deafening, despite the cause being known since 1959, and change only came after it was forced by  non-capitalist union pressure in the 1970s. If this seems like a problem confined to the past, one need only cast their mind back to the Fukushima disaster in 2011, ultimately the result of the irresponsible decision to pursue a nuclear energy policy on the disaster-prone Pacific Ring of Fire.

This article does not wish to make the case for either the capitalist or communist system’s superiority in environmental affairs. Rather, it should be clear that the common thread running through all of these disasters – from the Great Smog to the Great Famine and Fukushima – is a policy emphasising economic growth as the paramount standard of success is a dangerous one that will inevitably lead to environmental destruction. The style and severity of that destruction may be influenced by ideology, but if we are to live in harmony with our environment, we must be willing to abandon the ideals of gain (collective or individual) and competition, that have placed us in our current quandary, whatever the tint of our political stripes.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

Is It Time For An Elected Head of State?

Democracy and equality under the law have increasingly come to be seen as the gold-standard for structuring societies ever since the enlightenment. it may therefore appear odd to some that the United Kingdom, the ‘mother of parliamentary democracy’, is still reigned over by a monarchy. Stranger still is that despite the drastic decline in the number of monarchies worldwide since the start of the 20th century, the British monarchy continues to sit in the heart of a proudly democratic nation and continues to enjoy significant popular support amongst the general public. Perhaps this will change with the passing of our current and longest serving monarch Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps the royal family will lose its purpose, or perhaps it will continue to hold steadfast as it has done in the face of major social transformations. But while there may be calls for the monarchy to be replaced by an elected head of state, we should ask ourselves what the monarchy both means to us and offers us, domestically and internationally, before we rush to any conclusions. 

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. (Credit: AY COLLINS – WPA POOL/GETTY IMAGES)

While certainly debatable, I would contend that in its history, structures, and character, Britain is fundamentally a conservative nation. Not conservative in the sense that it strictly aligns with today’s Conservative party, but more in the sense of Burke or Oakeshott; we sacrifice democratic purity on the altar of an electoral system that is more inclined to produce stable and commanding governments; we still retain a strong support for the principle of national sovereignty in a world of increasing interdependence and cooperation; we take pride in our institutions, such as parliamentary democracy and our common law; and as evidenced by our addiction to tea, we value tradition. So is it really surprising that monarchy, the oldest form of government in the United Kingdom, still not only exists but enjoys significant public support? 

The monarchy is intended as a symbol of national identity, unity, pride, duty, and serves to provide a sense of stability and continuity across the lifespan of the nation (according to its website). Its whole existence is rooted in the conservative disposition towards traditions, historical continuity, and the notion of collective wisdom across the ages that should not be readily discarded by those in the present. The monarchy is also politically impartial, and so able to provide that described sense of unity as it is a symbol that should cut across factional lines. Finally, the royal family is not necessarily an obstacle to democracy anymore; we have a constitutional monarchy, whereby the politicians make the decisions without arbitrary sovereign rule. The Sovereign’s role is not to undemocratically dictate legislation, it is to embody the spirit of the nation and exemplify a life of service and duty to country.

Conversely, many may say with good reason that the monarchy is outdated, elitist, and a spanner in the works for democracy. Indeed monarchies are increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and in today’s world it may seem out of place to see a family of people living a life of unbounded riches and privileges simply by birth right. This is a view that is becoming increasingly popular among younger Britons. Additionally, one might contend that the monarchy has lost its magic; it no longer inspires the same awe and reverence it once did, and is unable to invoke the sense of service and duty to country that it once could. 

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. (Credit: Marie Claire)

While support for the British monarchy appears to be holding steady, even in the wake of the latest saga with Harry and Meghan, I believe that the monarchy is on thin ice. The age of deference has long since passed, and in an era of materialism and rationality, the ethereal touch of monarchy has arguably lost its draw. Perhaps this is a good thing, or perhaps now more than ever we need a symbol of unity and duty to do our best by our neighbour and country. What is worth pointing out though is that Queen Elizabeth II, our longest serving monarch, has led the country dutifully throughout her life, and it is worth considering deeply whether the alternative (President Boris Johnson?) is really a better option.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

The Future Unlocked? 

What a strange year. April might seem like an even stranger time to reflect, one month after the anniversary of the first Coronavirus lockdown, but it also seems astute as the easing of lockdown starts to open up our futures. With pubs starting to open, vaccines being delivered, and being officially allowed back to university, there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Yet, while we’ve been locked up in our houses, a few things have happened. For one, History in Politics has done two terms as a university society – but you probably don’t care much about that. More significant are the huge events seen through the prism of a new post pandemic world. Britain has finally properly left the EU, Boris Johnson lost his most infamous advisor, thousands marched for BLM, and thousands have protested policing in the wake of Sarah Everard: ‘why are you protecting statues of racists over actual women?’, one sign read. 

During the pandemic, Britain has been reflecting. We might look back upon our relationship with Europe. We might look at the history of race-relations in the UK, or our colonial legacy. In fact, with books such as Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain being released in January by Sathnam Sanghera, it is clear that many have been reflecting on such themes. In doing so, it is hoped that, by having a clear idea of where we’ve come from, we might have a better idea of what we’re meant to do in the future.

Luckily for me, although perhaps less so for my career prospects, I’ve had the privilege of studying such history. I’ve spent a lifetime learning about the British Empire, race-relations, civil rights, and Britain’s relationship with Europe (although, aged 21, a lifetime is quite a melodramatic way of putting it). I have even had time to study the Tudors, which many complain took the place of ‘more relevant’ history. Despite all this history I am still to get the magic key to predicting our future – perhaps that will come tomorrow, or once I’m back in a Durham pub. 

Ironically, such historical reflections can be found throughout history. When Edward Colston’s statue was raised in Bristol in 1895, for instance, it was already over a century and a half after his death. Those who toppled his statue over a hundred years later, certainly wouldn’t think that the Victorian reflections or remembrance of Colston was a positive one. Although some might suggest it was representative of the future for Victorians, a future of racial inequality. 

The plinth of the now removed statue of Edward Colston, Bristol, England. (Credit: James Beck for The New York Times)

One thing which we cannot change, regardless of how we might reflect upon it, is what has passed. This might sound obvious, but it is important to hold in mind such ‘objective truths’. They’re the reason people look back, hoping the past truths will unlock future truths. It is in search of the ‘truth’ that we talk, read, and reflect on our past – from empire to race. Last summer, as statues were ripped up and the media exploded into debate, I asked how we might have that conversation in a civil manner. Yet, the ‘culture war’ has continued – regardless of these ‘truths’. 

Perhaps it is less talking and more listening which needs to happen. Over lockdown I had the pleasure of listening to Natalie Mears (associate professor in early modern British history) discuss some of these topics. Finally, I could put Tudor history to some use, and the comparisons with our present ‘culture war’ were stark. From powerful political advisors (it is the 500th anniversary of William Cecil’s birth; and a year since ‘that’ trip to Barnard Castle) to our relationship with Europe, some things seemingly haven’t changed. As we reflect upon the past year (and a bit) of COVID-19, one lesson from Elizabethan England sticks out the strongest: that reflections and memories of the past have always been political. At least that is one door to the future which is unlocked. The future is undoubtedly political.

Join Durham University’s History in Politics Society for their term’s theme of ‘Reflections’ and find series two of Dead Current, the History in Politics Podcast, on Spotify. The first episode of series two is President Emily Glynn and Event’s Manager Ed Selwyn Sharpe’s interview with Natalie Mears. 

Ed Selwyn Sharpe

General Secretary Putin— the Use of History by Russia’s Regime

Putin’s propaganda machine was laid bare for all to see last month with the return of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny, after recovering from nerve agent poisoning. The Kremlin initially refrained from commenting on the activist, however as his video detailing Putin’s Black Sea palace was released and protests in support of him erupted across Russia, he was quickly depicted as a Western puppet, playing on old fears of Russia’s Cold War rivals. He was later charged with slandering a veteran of the Second World War, more commonly known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia. The defence against Nazi invasion occupies a venerated place in the minds of Russians, dating back to Stalinist propaganda. To slander a veteran would be to slander Russia’s sacrifices in the war as a whole. It is therefore, unsurprising Putin deployed this particular tactic against his adversary.

Vladimir Putin addressing Russian citizens on the State Television channels, Moscow, Russia, March 2020. (Credit: Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Throughout Putin’s time in power, he has often deployed a nostalgic form of Russian history to construct a narrative which strengthens his grip on power and maintains his popularity among the Russian public. He attempts to mirror the conditions of Russia in times when it was a global power— mostly through imitating the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. Through this, he stokes a Russian nationalism embarrassed at its nation losing its former ‘glory’ and desperate to regain it. A poll in 2018 showed 66% of Russians regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union and a poll in 2020 showed that 75% of Russians believed the USSR was the greatest time in their country’s history. Rather than facing the bleak reality of decline, Putin’s rule seemingly offers a restoration of former glory and a return to better days. By masquerading Russia as a global power, Putin attempts to distract the public from ongoing economic decline. 

This public nostalgia therefore brings the USSR to the forefront of Putin’s propaganda campaign. Russian history textbooks were remade to display the USSR in a positive and idealised light, the Soviet national anthem was reinstated. The Patriotic War was especially capitalised on, the 2020 constitutional changes went so far as to ban ‘belittling’ of Russia’s feats in the Second World War and to ‘protect the historical truth’ of the war, essentially outlawing any narratives of the war contrary to the state-sanctioned line. 

Russia’s foreign policy also reflects a desire to return to the days of the USSR. Involvement in Syria harks back to Soviet interference in Afghanistan. Annexation of parts of Crimea and Georgia portray Russia as reclaiming former lands lost since the dissolution of the USSR. The poisoning of dissidents in the UK and apparent interference in US elections are reminiscent of the days of espionage against the West.

Perhaps the most important utilisation of the USSR’s legacy is in rhetoric surrounding the West— the Other, the ever-looming threat during the Cold War. Putin plays on old Cold War mentalities by constantly depicting his adversaries as either Western or in league with the West. A dichotomy is therefore created where Putin is the defender of Russian values and stability against his opponents, who are dangerous Western puppets. Navalny, rather than being an anti-corruption activist, is a Western pawn bent on destabilising Russia. Any criticism of Putin’s regime is quickly deemed Western propaganda, calling into the question the good will of the critics.

In all of these instances, Putin is essentially creating an image of himself which capitalises on nationalistic feelings surrounding Russian history and uses this to target his opponents and perpetuate his rule. Putin cannot be criticised, for doing so would be to criticise the Great Patriotic War, the USSR, and stability itself. 

Recently, Putin’s rule has appeared more shaky, especially after his dismal coronavirus response. Moreover, this year will mark 30 years since the USSR fell. A new generation, with no memory of Russia as a global superpower, is less susceptible to Putin’s use of history: the Soviet national anthem brings up no memories, nor does linking Navalny with the West diminish their support of him. A simple look at the make-up of the Navalny campaign shows all that you need to know. Navalny himself is positioned as an opposite to Putin’s authoritarianism, he engages with his audience primarily on social media, where protests and campaigning are also organised. News reports show the protestors as young and eager for change. History is an effective tool for such authoritarians, but insofar as there is any real connection to that history in the present. As the old Soviet generation will soon start to dwindle in number, that connection is lost, and the propaganda of those authoritarians loses appeal.

Jonas Balkus, History in Politics Contributor

Book Review: J. S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’

John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a classic statement of liberal values and an iconic text in the arena of moral and political thought. Published in 1859, it was originally conceived as a short essay upon which Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor, fleshed out the liberal values and morality that still provide much of the basis for political structures today. In essence, it seeks to address the question of how far the state or society as a whole should go in controlling individual beliefs and actions, and its answer is a resounding defence of individuality.

Title page of the first edition of On Liberty (1859). (Credit: Public Domain)

Mill opens his account with a historical assessment of the ancient struggle between liberty and authority, suggesting an evolving relationship between ruler and ruled whereby people came to believe that rulers no longer needed to be independent powers opposed to their interests, thus giving rise to notions of democracy. But, whilst government tyranny is a concern for Mill, ‘On Liberty’ focuses more on the dangers of democratic and social coercion and its hindrance upon the individual; perhaps an unsurprising view in the context of Victorian social conservatism. On Liberty sees Mill warn against a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and it is with this in mind that Mill sets out the individual freedoms and protections that ground liberal values to this day. 

‘On Liberty’ focuses on four key freedoms: freedom of thought, speech, action, and association, all of which would challenge the Victorian orthodoxy of custom and restraint in the social and political sphere. 

Freedom of thought, by which Mill means ‘absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects’, is a staple in the genre of classical liberalism; a rejection of group-think and the elevation of individual thought over social customs. Mill’s conception of freedom of speech is arguably more profound and more contentious. His defence of free speech extends up until such speech becomes incitement to violence. He sees value in speech no matter how potentially hateful or self-evidently incorrect, for such speech is necessary to reinforce the strength of our convictions and stop our beliefs and values from becoming mere platitudes. One might perceive this opinion as at the crux of today’s disagreements over the limits of free speech.

Mill’s conceptualisation of freedom of act divides action into two categories: self-regarding action and other-regarding action, and sees only limitations on the latter as permissible. In essence, one should be free to act in any way they please, unless in doing so they directly harm somebody else; a classical liberal statement if there ever was one. Finally, freedom of association; the freedom to unite with any person so long as the purpose does not involve harm. 

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”.

J. S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’

‘On Liberty’ is evidently a defence of individualism and individual freedoms, but it represents a major departure from previous liberal thinkers. Mill’s support for liberty is rooted in his utilitarianism. Whereas liberal thinkers such as John Locke see liberty as a valuable end in itself, and man as endowed with natural rights by way of existing, Mill’s individual liberties merely serve a purpose, that purpose being utility. In short, ‘in proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others’. He has come under severe criticism for this, with many doubting his liberal credentials, but as he states in ‘On Liberty’, without firm grounding, ‘there is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical’.

Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is not liberty merely for liberty’s sake, but rather it is liberty with a purpose, and his robust defence of individual freedoms still providing the framework for liberal thought today makes ‘On Liberty’ one of politics’ greatest hits.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer