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 Yorkshire Ripper Investigation: a Total Disaster, from A Feminist Perspective

In memory of Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne McDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls, Jacqueline Hill.

Even if you did not live in the 1980s, you have certainly heard of the Yorkshire Ripper. He was a serial killer in the UK active between 1975 to 1980 who murdered 13 women and attempted to murder 7 more. It was a real shock for people at that time that the police could not catch the perpetrator for over five years. It was also a shock that the police caught him on a regular patrol because of a traffic offence, entirely based on luck. It was an even bigger shock that it was later revealed that the police actually interviewed him 9 times and did not follow up on him. Some people blamed this total disaster on the insufficient experience of the police at that time, after all the concept of a ‘serial killer’ was still new in British crime. Some blamed the inefficient corporation between the police branches as by 1974, many small boroughs amalgamated with the county and this led to the loss of lots of knowledge regarding the local communities.

40 years later, Netflix re-examined the police investigation closely and a documentary series was made. It is revealed that the biggest reason behind this total disaster was not because of those mentioned above. In fact, one of the biggest reasons was the police force’s bias and stereotypes against women that misdirected their investigation. In this article, based on the materials in the Netflix series, it is analysed that the inequality in mindset and planning of the police force had led to the investigation being a total failure. 

Officers search for the body of Jacqueline Hill, one of Sutcliffe's victims. (Credit: Getty Images)

Inequality in the mindset 

One obvious inequality in mindset against women was the heavy bias and stereotypes based on by the police force throughout the whole investigation. Starting from the first victim, Wilma Mccan, the police force was trapped by the stereotype that the murder were chasing sex workers. They became convinced that the Ripper was targeting sex workers and the national attention became focused on the spate of murders with the first killing of a woman who was not a sex worker, deemed by the police and the media to be an ‘innocent’ victim due to her ‘higher moral standing’. In police reports, it is revealed that the police force was indeed heavily fixed with these prejudices. For example, the police force had generalised victims as ‘prostitutes’ or women with ‘loose morale’, even though subsequently it is discovered that there was no basis for these assumptions and that some of the early victims were in fact not prostitutes. 

The police force are criticised for basing their whole investigation’s focus and direction on the assumption that the victims the murderer targeted were prostitutes. The categorisation of the murderer as a prostitute killer drove the investigation into the wrong path as they led to the police failing to realise that the Ripper did not only target prostitutes, even though most of his victims were such, largely because of the circumstances in which the Ripper killed his victims. They failed to realise that he chose to kill prostitutes because they were more vulnerable. This had further led to the later inefficient in narrowing down suspects and evidence. The police force also dismissed and missed out on important survivors and witnesses that may help identify the Ripper as they did not fit the ‘prostitute type’. One of the survivors, Olive Smelt, was not a sex worker, and was dismissed by the police when she suspected that the person who attacked her was the Ripper. She could have helped significantly as she remembered features of the Ripper. 

There was another inequality in mindset shown throughout the investigation. The unequal, conservative mindset that danger prevention’s primary responsibility is on women was shown in developing prevention policies by the police force. This conservative mindset refers to the unequal, way heavier focus on women’s responsibility to protect themselves. Under a conservative education system, a strong weight was placed on teaching women to protect themselves, to not go out alone at night, to not wear revealing clothes, to watch their drinks, etc. As to the education of the other gender, there was not much to teach them to respect others. When something bad happens, the basic instinct is that the victim did not do enough, or that she ‘invited’ the assaults. In the later stage of the investigation, when the police finally started to realise that all women are targets of the Ripper, instead of just those they termed ‘prostitutes’, these conservative mindsets and methods were employed into safety policies development. For example, the police tried to place a curfew on women which included instructing them not to go out late at night alone. What the police did not realise is that these stereotypes and biases had in fact normalised attacks on women. 

Past and present feminists asked: Why are women told to protect themselves? Why shouldn’t they go out at night? Why are we told to do more when we are not the ones doing the killings or raping? Why no one told man not to rape or kill? I believe that had the police force questioned themselves with these questions, they would very likely have been on the right track since the very beginning. And there would have been less victims. Such regulatory behaviours are still placed upon women, the onus of their personal safety being on them. 

Inequality in human resources allocation 

The last unequal treatment against women can be seen in human resources allocation within the police force. The majority involved in the investigation were male. All personale in key positions overseeing the investigation and operation were male. Women’s perspectives were not respected or even introduced into the investigation. The situation was not fully understood and has led to the investigation being inefficient. 

Conclusion

The biases and stereotypes against women and particularly sex workers were heavily relied upon during the investigation. The male domination of the investigation and operation reveals that a balanced viewpoint, which would have greatly assisted the investigation, was not present. This has led to wrong investigation directions and the lack of inefficiency in understanding the situation. All in all, the unequal mindset and planning of the police force was one of the main reasons that the investigation was a total disaster. 

Afterwords 

In face of the unequal treatment and the police force’s incompetence, women at that time started realising that the incompetence of the police force will not lead to the capture of the Ripper. They knew that if they keep on relying on the police force in protecting them, they will never be safe and their lives will never be back to normal. They could not take it anymore. 

Thus, women started to unite together and there was feminist protests, debates and women’s self defence classes and teams all around the city and campuses. For example, there was the ‘Reclaim the Night’ protest on the 12th of November 1977, organised by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, to protest against the curfew on women and generally, male violence against women. Finally, women took the matter of protecting themselves into their hands and stopped replying on those who basically “allowed” the Ripper to commit more murders. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

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

Hong Kong’s National Security Law: Power Not To The People

You might have heard of the unrest in Hong Kong last year, stemming from the Government’s attempt to introduce an extradition agreement with Mainland China and culminating in a full-blown humanitarian crisis with the enactment of the National Security Law (NSL). Why was the extradition agreement met with such vigour? The proposed Bill would have led to both foreign nationals residing in Hong Kong and local criminal suspects becoming extraditable to mainland China, which has a substantially different criminal justice system and a history of breaching fundamental human rights. This has included arbitrary detention, unfair trials and torture, with the only requirement that “prima facie” evidence, which carries a significantly low standard of proof, be provided to the Chief Executive and the courts. Following escalating public clashes between the Government, police and citizens, and protests seeing over a million people in attendance and over 10,000 people arrested, the Bill was shelved. But by that time, the damage was done. The Bill exacerbated the deep fears of local citizens and expats in Hong Kong, who saw it as an early sign of China’s descent upon the nation and the dark future to come.

Several demands arose from the locals: the formal withdrawal of the Bill, release and exoneration of those arrested from the protests, the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police behaviour, universal suffrage for the Legislative Council, Chief Executive elections in addition to the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and lastly the retraction of the characterisation of protests as “riots”. Somewhat unsurprisingly, only the first demand was met, which was seen by the Hong Kong people as highly unsatisfactory, and protests continued with increasing intensity. All this culminated in the Chinese Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress enacting the NSL, which opened a bigger can of worms.

Protesters marching at the “Stop Police Violence, Defend Press Freedom” silent march called after media professionals were insulted by police officers when covering protests against the extradition law to China. (Credit: Ivan Abreu, SOPA Images, Sipa via AP Images.)

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997, resulting from the First and Second Opium War, Britain handed back control of Hong Kong to China on the condition that the “One Country, Two System” and freedoms of free speech, assembly, religious belief, amongst others, would continue to be enjoyed by the former until 2047. The NSL contained intentionally vague provisions, which would allow for ‘secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces’ to become punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. Having already been exercised to charge 50+ individuals, this has naturally given rise to a sense of deep unease in both the domestic and international sphere. As the legislation would have also allowed cases to be tried in Mainland China under their legal system, there was a real risk of criminal suspects being deprived of fundamental human rights, like being held incommunicado in undisclosed locations for up to 6 months before being formally arrested or released. Whilst the UK has similar national security laws in that suspected terrorists can be detained without charge for up to 28 days, these individuals are nevertheless allowed legal representation after a maximum period of 48 hours upon arriving at the police station. Compared to Mainland China, the UK is subject to more intense public and legal scrutiny whenever human rights are undermined. The legislations effect is essentially a complete curtailing of free speech, press and political dissent in Hong Kong. Critics worldwide have speculated that this directly contravenes the Joint Declaration’s condition of “One Country, Two Systems”, with the addition of the NSL being also applicable to crimes committed abroad, to non-permanent residents and people outside of Hong Kong. This means that the reach of the law is far and extensive, essentially subjecting foreign nationals to r to the authority of the NSL. 

Whilst the realistic probability of extraditing foreign citizens in the West for crimes committed against the communist party are relatively slim, the law has already caused a growing reluctance amongst foreign investors to conduct business in Hong Kong for fear of being subject to the extensive powers of the NSL. After the emergence of Covid-19 and consequent increasing criticism towards the Communist Party, it will be a matter of great importance for there to be checks and controls to prevent Mainland China’s ever-increasing influence. If they are left unchecked, one can only hope to stay out of the line of sight of the Chinese Government, and that is something I concern myself with, as this article has the potential to be considered “subversion” under the draconian National Security Law.

May Lam, History in Politics Contributor

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

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