Thatcher’s lasting impact on twenty-first century feminism is widely debated. Whilst her actions have inspired future generations of ambitious young women in all professions, Thatcher was undoubtedly not a feminist. In fact, she actively disliked and directly discouraged feminist movements. Thus, Margaret Thatcher works as an apt example that a successful woman does not always mean a direct step forward for the women’s equality movement. Instead, whilst Thatcher was our first British female Prime Minister, it never occurred to her that she was a woman prime minister; she was, quite simply, a woman that was skilled and successful enough to work her way to the top.
Throughout Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership, she only promoted one woman to her cabinet; she felt men were best for the role. When questioned about this, Thatcher remarked that no other women were experienced or capable enough to rise through the ranks in the same way that she had. Similarly, whilst Thatcher demonstrated that women were now able to get to the top of the UK Government, she certainly did not attempt to make things easier for women to follow; she pulled the ladder straight up after herself. Thatcher claimed that she ‘did not owe anything to women’s liberation.’ Reflected in her policy provisions, she ignored almost all fundamental women’s issues. Despite hopeful attempts to raise female concerns to her, childcare provision, positive action and equal pay were not addressed during her years as Prime Minister. One can therefore diagnose that Thatcher’s loyalty was almost exclusively to the Conservative Party and her vision focused on saving the country, not women.
Thatcher resented being defined by her gender, but she worked naturally as a role model and continues to do so (despite her policies) on the basis that she was simply, a female. She was made unique by feminists (and women generally) in the media simply for being a woman. In this way, examples matter; this is in the same way that Obama’s presidency matters for young generations of the BAME community. Perhaps Thatcher’s disacknowledgement of the glass ceiling is precisely what allowed her to smash it so fearlessly. If she couldn’t see it, no one could point it out to her! Amber Rudd has claimed that she is a direct beneficiary of Thatcher’s valiance, as her work debunked the idea that only men could survive, let alone prosper, in political life. Men were undoubtedly perturbed by Thatcher’s female presence and conviction; John Snow has gone as far as describing interviewing her as ‘unnerving.’ These predispositions, held by both men and women, were fundamentally and forcefully shifted by Thatcher.
Yet, is symbolism alone enough to praise Thatcher as a feminism icon? It is of course clear, that being a role model symbolically is incomparable to those who have actively and tirelessly campaigned to seek change for women. The influence she had on the feminist movement was not a result of her own actions or policies. Rather, her influence is a result of her being the first woman who made the exceptional progress, as a total outsider, to not only become our Prime Minister, but go on to win two successive elections convincingly.
When we think of feminism, we think of women holding strongly coloured flags of green, white and gold or green, white and purple in historical photos. We think of women and girls who spoke on the news demanding equal opportunities, more provision of pregnancy and abortion advice and the liberation of females in third world countries. We think of Malala speaking at international conferences, Jessica Chastain acting in Zero Dark Thirty and FaceBook executive Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of Time Magazine. They are all strong women in their declaration as being a feminist and are frequently and publicly involved in feminist organizations and activities.
Yet, we often forget to include some women as feminists, either due to the fact they do not carry those clear ‘feminist features’ as mentioned or simply that they do not consider, or even refuse to consider themselves as feminists. They are the Celia Foote character (interestingly also played by Jessica Chastain) in The Help, who were not feminists in a conventional way like the Skeeter character (played by Emma Stone), and even often doubted themselves, but went against the mainstream in terms of thoughts and actions, and are undoubtedly feminists who proved to be great thinkers and writers of all times.
Hildegard of Bingen
Unknown to many, feminism was rooted in religious contexts in which women found themselves with the opportunity to express their thoughts as freely as male. Since ancient history, especially in Europe, families sent their ‘unmarriable’ daughters away to convents. Some women found the time and quietness a great opportunity to think, read and write. One of them is our first ‘non-feminist’ feminists, Hildegard of Bingen.
Hildegard was born in the 11th century and became a nun when she was a teenager (the exact age of her enclosure is subject to debate). She later became the abbess of a small Rhineland convent. People normally do not consider her as a feminist as she lacked most essential elements contemporarily associated with feminism, yet she was certainly a pioneer of proving that women can do exactly what male can do with her actions. Hildegard was considered by many in Europe to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. She is also one of the few known chant composers to have written both the music and the words. Hildegard also produced two volumes of material on natural medicine and cures and three great volumes of visionary theology, which were all well celebrated and led to her recognition as a Doctor of the Church, one of the highest titles given by the Catholic Church to saints recognized as having made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing.
Not only was she deeply involved in what conventionally thought as works of male – music, academics, medicine and religious theories – she also frequently wrote letters to popes, emperors, abbots and abbesses expressing her critical views and thoughts on a wide range of topics. These significant political, social, economic people often approached her for advice. She even invented a language called the Lingua ignota (“unknown language”).
Despite her apparent feminist approach of doing things, another thing that often dissociates her with feminism is her frequent self-doubt. Often doubtful towards her ‘unfeminine’ activities, she was always insecure of being an uneducated woman and was not confident of her ability to write. She once wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the leading churchmen of the time, asking whether she should continue with her wiring and composing, even though at that time she was already widely known and honoured for being an incredible writer and musician.
But still, Hildegard was one of the few women in medieval history that wrote so freely and critically on everything and was viewed as an impressive writer, musician and religious leader, based on her achievements instead of based on her gender. That made her a feminist.
Margaret Cavendish was born in the 17th century into a family of well-established, Royalist landowners, and later married the Duke of Newcastle. She was one of the few fortunate women of her time who had her husband encouraging her to pursue her literacy ambition.
At first, she started writing on topics mostly associated with women’s internal struggle, ranging from their worries regarding their family to their common fear and sorrow about their children’s sickness and death, though she did not experience what she wrote. Well-reserved by women, her writings were found to be very moving and unexpectedly understanding of the harsh realities faced by many women at that time.
At later times Cavendish started writing philosophical verse. Though her work was widely recognised, same as Hildegard, Cavendish often had self-doubt about her capacity and duty as a woman when she was writing. A modern biographer once remarked that Cavendish felt torn between ‘the (feminine and Christian) virtue of modesty’ and her ambitions. On the one hand, she was very serious and confident about her work; on the other hand, she often depreciated her work and justified them with defensive and apologetic justifications.
From Cavendish’s degradation of her work, it seems that she lacked the confidence and guts of feminists to denounce the conventional status of women and to loudly declare that her work should be equally recognised. But she wrote like a feminist in a sense that she brought womanly issues, which was thought to be a topic not worthy of writing and of no political, social or any importance, to public attention. She brought the dark side, the internal perspective of women’s struggles in the household into the open light. She also spoke out against the hostility towards any women regarded as outspoken or ambitious, which at her time was deemed as madness and dangerous. Her writings also encouraged later women to write and urged them to unite together instead of always being jealousy critical of other women’s achievements. That made her a feminist.
Same as Cavendish, Dorothy Osborne was born in the 17th century into a family of Royalists. She is comparatively less well-known than our other four ‘non-feminist’ feminists as she did not produce writings or theories as significant as those produced by Cavendish or Hildegard. She could even be seen as an anti-feminist by some people as she was one of those critics who heavily denounced the work of Cavendish, a more obvious feminist, as ‘extravagant’ and ‘ridiculous’.
Funnily enough, what made her on the list is her criticism of other people’s work (including Cavendish’s) in letters exchanged between her husband and her. She read widely, often had heavy criticisms of other people’s work and exchanged her thoughts with her fiance, then husband, Sir William Temple in letters. These ‘witty, progressive and socially illuminating’ letters were later published and became large volumes of evidence that Dorothy was a ‘lively, observant, articulate woman’. Even Virginia Woolf later remarked that Dorothy, with her great literacy fashion, would have been a novelist in another time.
An additional point that made her a true feminist was her actions against an arranged marriage and conventional family mindsets. During the 17th century, marriages were usually business arrangements, especially for a rich family like Dorothy’s. Being in love with Sir William Temple, who was refused by her family due to financial reasons, she protested by remaining single and refused multiple proposers put forth by her family. At last, her struggle was rewarded with her finally marrying Temple. But her feminist acts did not stop there. Later references showed that she was actively involved in her husband’s diplomatic career and matters of the state, quite contrary to what an ordinary wife would behave in the 17th century.
Dorothy had not ever said that she was a feminist, or intended to act like a feminist. But her thoughts, words and actions clearly showed that she lived a feminist life by becoming a free-willed, critical woman. That made her a feminist.
Mary Shelley, who famously wrote Frankenstein, is the woman who wrote several of the greatest Gothic novels of all times and was considered to be the pioneer of writing science fiction.
Mary Shelley was born in 1797. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin and her mother was none other than one of the first public feminist activist in British history, Mary Wollstonecraft. Under the influence of two great parents, Mary Shelley was encouraged to read, learn and write, and her father gave her an informal, nonetheless rich, education.
She later fell in love with one of his father’s followers, a romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married. After the death of Percy’s first wife, Mary and Percy got married. They were certainly two talented, happy people married. But Mary’s luck then seemed to run out. Three of her four children died prematurely and Percy later drowned when sailing. In the last decade of her life, she was constantly sick.
Despite her miserable life, she was able to produce great novels such as Valperga, The Last Man, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, etc. Perhaps due to her own sad stories, her novels were strikingly dark, in a sense that it created no hope for the characters. Mary’s novels, especially her most famous one, Frankenstein, did not have any strong female characters; ironically most female characters died. In a conventional perspective, her work is not feminist at all. But what she explored was the struggles of women in an age which society was driven by reason, science and patriarchy. One commentator once said that ‘[t]he death of female characters in the novel is alone to raise enough feminist eyebrows to question how science and development is essentially a masculine enterprise and subjugates women.’ She was radical in thought and critical of society’s norm. Alongside writing, she devoted herself to raising and educating her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, who later famously supported amateur performers and charity performances.
What made Mary Shelley a legendary woman, in addition to her great writings, was her strength in turning misery into energy and striving as an author and a mother despite her miserable life. That made her a feminist.
Anne Boleyn is an enigma. Contemporaries and historians alike have painted this infamous ‘beheaded’ second wife of Henry VIII as a ‘noble lady,’ ‘a whore,’ ‘an innocent victim,’ ‘a scandal of Christendom,’ and whilst the list of juxtaposing descriptions about the woman with ‘a long neck,’ ‘middling stature’ and ‘black and beautiful’ eyes could go on, flipping back and forth between praise and criticism of the lady that ‘bewitched’ Henry VIII, I would like to add another interpretation of Anne Boleyn to the list, in light of the historical evidence and our own current political climate.
Thanks in part to President Trump, the term ‘fake news’ has entered our political vocabulary. Over the past few days for example, we have been bombarded with media headlines that the New York Times claimed the President of the United States paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016-2017. This has of course been labelled as ‘fake news’ by Donald Trump. You are probably reading this article and wondering what on earth Donald Trump could possibly have to do with Anne Boleyn? This article proposes that ‘fake news’ culture should not be perceived merely as a Donald Trump tagline, but a much more dangerous reality for the court of Henry VIII back in 1536.
It is widely known that Anne Boleyn was beheaded on the 19th May 1536. However, it is has been commonly understood by the twenty first century masses that Anne Boleyn had been murdered by her ‘tyrannical’ husband merely because she failed to deliver in her promise to provide the King with a male heir, something which also caused the downfall of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Anne Boleyn was Catherine of Aragon’s former Lady-in-waiting who had by all accounts ‘bewitched’ the King and had him follow her to ‘Mass’ and ‘everywhere,’ according to the Venetian ambassador in 1532. Boleyn failed to live up to the expectations of a Tudor Queen after she was crowned, because of the birth of a daughter, Elizabeth on the 7th September 1533 (future Elizabeth I), a miscarriage in 1534, followed by another miscarriage that was reported by the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys of a deformed son of three and a half months on the 26th January 1536. The birth of Elizabeth, who was named after Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York and the miscarriage of what would have been Anne Boleyn’s ‘saviour of a son’ is not the entire story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall. This article suggests that Anne Boleyn’s execution was the result of ‘fake news’ and not merely her fertility, as many believe.
The majority of Tudor historians are in agreement that Henry VIII confided in Thomas Cromwell in the year 1536. He sought an end to his marriage to Anne Boleyn because he had fallen in love/lust with Anne Boleyn’s own Lady-in-waiting the ‘naturally sweet natured’ Jane Seymour, after Anne Boleyn’s two miscarriages. This article proposes that this is where the need for a campaign of Tudor ‘fake news’ came into play at the court of Henry VIII. We cannot ever be completely sure that Henry VIII did not directly behest his chief minister Thomas Crowmwell to find an excuse to execute Anne Boleyn, however it seems unlikely that Henry VIII requested Anne Boleyn’s execution as a way to ensure that his marriage was dissolved. In light of historical evidence housed at The British Library, where an original letter written by Thomas Cromwell himself is preserved, it seems more likely that it was Thomas Cromwell and not Henry VIII who was the architect and political mastermind behind the murder of Anne Boleyn. This letter is the piece of ‘evidence’ that was presented to Henry VIII by Thomas Cromwell himself, accusing Anne Boleyn of lying with five men, including her own older brother. Fake news in the 21st century is typically defined as false stories that are spread across media platforms either because it is intended as a joke or because it seeks to influence political views. If we understand letters to be the Tudor equivalent of our BBC News, CNN and Fox News, Thomas Cromwell’s own letter laced with accusations of Anne Boleyn’s marital affairs could be read as fitting with our own definition of ‘fake news’ as Henry VIII’s infamous secretary potentially concocted these ‘abominable’ crimes in order to fulfil his King’s desire to detach himself from his ‘Most Happy Queen,’ whom he had a ‘sunshine and showers’ relationship with, according to Antonia Fraser. Indeed, it seems likely that Thomas Cromwell invented these affairs in order to influence political views of Anne Boleyn because the likes of Hilary Mantel claim that Thomas Cromwell supposedly sought to avenge the key role that Anne Boleyn played in the execution of Thomas Cromwell’s own mentor, Thomas Wolsey. It appears that Thomas Cromwell potentially wanted to remove Anne Boleyn permanently, which could not have been achieved through a mere annulment of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s marriage. Perhaps, Thomas Cromwell needed some ‘fake news’ in order to remove Anne Boleyn from a pedestal of power, an experience that Donald Trump would no doubt claim to identify with.
Was Anne Boleyn guilty of having sexual intercourse with the five men presented in Thomas Cromwell’s letter? Or was Thomas Cromwell creating some ‘fake news’ to dispose of Anne Boleyn? Perhaps the truth is malleable, and as we see in the age of Trump, it is not what is done or said, but how it is presented that matters. Either way, the accusations made by Cromwell cost Anne Boleyn her life. She was beheaded on the 19th May 1536 by an executioner sent from France, who killed her ‘swiftly’ with a sword for crimes that were either ‘true’ or ‘false.’
Durham’s coal mines closed throughout the 1980s, despite dissent from local communities and mining unions. This was not an anomaly – under Conservative rule, mines were shut throughout the nation, yet these were largely concentrated in the North. As a result, a significant regional divide in unemployment, poverty, and general desolation was created. And yet, although the mines are most certainly shut, the culture and the identity of the miners, and of a mining region lives on. In Durham, mining is deeply tied up in local identity, and a celebration of this shared history occurs every year through the Miners’ Gala. This consists of a loud and proud parade through the city, in which each mining village sends a colliery band, and banners. Upon finishing the city parade, all the mining lodges meet on the cricket field for a large party for all ages. Despite the closure of the mines, the economic hardship and proud history continues to be entwined with present day understandings and contemporary identity; a common phrase heard at the gala is ‘You can get rid of the mines, but you can’t get rid of the miners’.
The first Durham Miners’ Gala was organised by the Durham Miners’ Association in 1871 and was held on the outskirts of the city in Wharton Park. Despite the demise of the mining industry, the gala has survived, and continues to be integral to local identity. The gala is no longer an example of political mass assembly, but as Jack Lawson, a Durham miner, later Labour MP and minister in the Atlee government, said of the gala, it was less political demonstration, and more “the spontaneous expression of their [the miners’] communal life”. The gala is an example of intangible cultural heritage, and an identity which occurs in a specific place. Some have dubbed occasions like the gala as simply reminiscence – journalist James Bloodworth, who visited in 2016, saw the Durham Miners’ Gala as a “carnival of nostalgia”, and “something like a historical re-enactment society”. However, it is much, much more. It is a living history, a continued solidarity with the working class and the loss of jobs caused by a deep deindustrialisation which continues today in the loss, if not disappearance, of heavy manufacturing industries such as ship building.
Labour’s Green New Deal appears to draw upon this history and empathise with the loss of industry and employment in the North. The deal sets out to rebuild industry, jobs, and pride in the towns, with more “rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills”, and “whole new industries to revive parts of our country that have been neglected for too long”. As the Industrial Revolution brought jobs and pride to the North, the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, hopes to provide funding to restore this. Furthermore, the Labour Party recognises that for some ‘industrial transition’ has become a “byword for devastation”, and blames successive Conservative governments for this continued ignorance of whole industries and communities. The Green Industrial Revolution manifesto states that, “Tories wasted a decade serving the interests of big polluters”, echoing the sentiment of many speakers at the Durham Miners’ Gala. For example, in 2017, one speaker exclaimed that they should draw upon the lesson of the 1984-5 strikes today: that if “on the verge of achieving real change to working class people, the establishment will try to crush you”. Labour’s plans for a Green New Deal show not only the impact of economics on identity, but also, highlights the scars of neglect at the hands of a Tory government.
James Bloodworth also exclaimed in his somewhat scathing review of the Durham Miners’ Gala, that “when the past becomes an obsession, it can act as a dead weight on meaningful action in the present”. Is Labour’s Green New Deal an example of being too preoccupied with the past? Or should we be looking to it? Is an eye to the past not necessarily a bad thing, as Bloodworth states, but instead a chance to rectify past mistakes?
The government’s slogan of “Build, Build, Build”, coupled with radical reforms to the planning system, promises a utopia it will struggle to deliver.
The reforms centre around deregulation, with the aim being to make it easier to build homes where people want to live. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick wrote in the Telegraph of the reforms building houses “with green spaces”, “new parks at close hand”, “tree-lined streets” and neighbours who are not strangers.
The reality of these reforms will most likely be very different, and jeopardises the livelihoods of some of society’s most vulnerable.
The latest proposals include dividing England’s land into three different categories: growth, renewal, or protection. Pre-approved “design codes” would automatically be allowed in “growth” areas, and granted “permission in principle” in renewal areas.
Additionally, the recent extension of permitted development rights allows buildings such as offices and shops to be converted into housing without the need for planning permission.
A combination of these policies present a threat of the production of low-quality slum housing. Only 22% of permitted development homes meet the space standards nationally accepted, and less than 5% have access to an outdoor area. Automatic planning permission without proper checks, as indicated through permitted development, compromises quality of home and livelihood. With deregulation to the planning system, agreed “design codes” could be produced to a low standard for the sake of developers producing quickly and on a large scale.
As the government aims to fulfil its pledge of 300,000 new houses a year with these proposals and policies, there is a danger that the safety and wellbeing of future inhabitants of the dwellings will be put at risk. Whilst reform to the system is necessary to build sustainable and environmental homes of the future, simply cutting checks of quality and safety whilst hindering local voices is not the solution.
Further, charities such as Shelter, aimed at ending homelessness, have voiced concerns over such schemes. To encourage small developers to build, the proposal is to end “section 106” payments for small sites – the mechanism for developers to be required to produce affordable, social housing. Such payments are also bypassed under permitted development without the need for planning permission. Without such a requirement, social housing will continue to suffer, already underfunded and underproduced.
The government needs to reconsider such proposals and schemes that are in developer’s best interests, but without adequate checks threaten inhabitants with low quality housing, whilst neglecting the desperate need for social housing.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 implemented the constitutional monarchy of the UK that we know today, effectively limiting the political role of the Crown to mere pomp and circumstance. Yet, to this day, certain superfluous political liberties have remained. In practice, the sovereign still gives weekly counsel to the Prime Minister. In practice, the sovereign opens Parliament with their speech, albeit drafted by the Commons. In practice, the sovereign must approve all legislation before it can become an act of parliament, although the last bill to be refused in such a manner was vetoed in 1708. While the British political constitution has moved on considerably from its absolute-monarchical days, the monarch’s political role still retains an archaic air, where substance falls short of ceremony. The lack of majority dissent over this archaism can only be explained by the increasing celebrity of the monarchy, caused by the tabloid-frenzied consumption of their every move, from wedding dress to baby name. This infatuation with these winners of a ‘genetic lottery’ completely overlooks the fact that these political liberties are available to be used and abused. Even if they choose not to do so, that is irrelevant to the fact they still exist.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, as, ceremonial politics aside, the monarchy can also be utilised by the party in power when wanting to inspire confidence in their abilities. This was evident in the Queen’s recent coronavirus address where she spoke of the need for solidarity, harking back to the Second World War idea of ‘everyone doing their bit’ and quoting Vera Lynn’s song, ‘We’ll Meet Again’. For a more worrying influence we must look back only to August of last year where Boris Johnson used the Queen’s ability to prorogue parliament to prevent lawmakers from thwarting his Brexit plans. Though the Crown officially adopts an air of impartiality towards partisan politics, it seems the monarchy is still a political tool to be manipulated on a whim. Surely the best way to ensure sovereign impartiality is to remain aloof from the political world. But surely while this demands reform, the monarchy need not be abolished to take its fingers out from the political pie.
When also considering the royal finances, it seems there is certainly no harm in taking this next step either. With £82.2 million paid by taxpayers in 2019 to form the Sovereign Grant – not including security or ceremonial costs – is it really necessary to keep funding this archaic institution? Popular responses say yes, pointing to tourism revenues of £550 million, and ambassador-generated trade of £150 million. Yet the latter number barely makes a dent in the sum of UK exports (£543 billion), and as for tourism revenue, the abolition of the monarchy would not stop tourists from frequenting destinations such as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. The question we the public should be asking is are the monarchy still relevant? The royal family can still exist in celebrity status and tabloid sensationalism without pulling on the drawstrings of the public purse and without being used as a political tool. The political role of the monarchy should be a thing of the past, celebrated and remembered perhaps, but fit for the vault of history.
A Defence of the Monarchy
A word that recalls the riches and privileges of fairy-tale princes and princesses, but one that also connotes the existential crisis faced by many kingdoms. The twentieth century saw a deadly trend for the end of monarchies: most famously, the tragic demise of the Romanovs. However, new monarchies were forged that have remained to this day, such as Bhutan’s Wangchucks, whose popularity in Thailand has even led to a sharp increase in Thai tourism to Bhutan.
Monarchies carry more influence than is recognised in modern society. In Britain, the House of Windsor encourages support for charitable causes. Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, has been outspoken about the importance of mental health services, describing his participation in counselling and advocating open discussion concerning mental health. Alongside the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry founded ‘Heads Together’; a campaign created to increase the visibility of mental health conditions. Using their royal status greatly, the Cambridges and Sussexes promoted ‘Heads Together’ through royal visits, social media presence and tailored events. It was highly successful, with the foundation announcing it had assisted “millions” in talking more about mental health. The British monarchy is still deeply entrenched within our society and culture, engaging with topical issues, and promoting causes that they believe in. The Windsors have become more personal than rulers of the past, and still engage with politics, albeit in different ways. Commentary on social issues is another valid way of engaging with the political constitution.
Neutrality is the most important characteristic of today’s monarchy, with the royal veto having been abandoned for over 300 years. The monarch is now idealised to be a leader that the public can stand behind, regardless of the political climate. Prime Ministers cannot command the support nor the majority, which the monarchy can. According to YouGov in 2018, 69% of people support the monarchy, with 21% opposing and 11% stating no preference. No Prime Minister has ever achieved such a high public majority. Theresa May was the second most popular Conservative leader ever, and still only commanded a positive opinion of 30%. In a turbulent modern society, the British monarchy has been a source of constancy.
In a politically chaotic decade, Britain has seen three Prime Ministers in three years under Conservative Party leadership, which has been deeply divisive. However, the popularity of the monarchy has been proven time and time again. For the wedding of the Cambridges, there were 60 million viewers (averaging at 22 million for whole coverage), and sales of the royal issue of the Hello! magazine rose by 25%. Globally, there were 29 million viewers of the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. Furthermore, the British monarchy unites 2.4 billion under the Commonwealth, from across five continents.
The grasp upon the monarchy has not been relinquished by the world, but especially not by British society. It has been steadfast for centuries and whether it is universally accepted, monarchy occupies a key part of politics, culture and society in modern Britain. It does not seem as if the world is ready for the monarchy to be a historic concept.
In recent months, racism in Britain has been widely discussed in the light of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other people worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained poignancy, with many supporters risking their lives to protest against systemic racism during the Covid-19 pandemic.
When discussing this issue with peers, one comment often made was, ‘I don’t understand why they’re protesting here, that’s all happening in America?’. On the surface this might seem true, however comments like these fail to address Britain’s horrifically racist past, and the continual microaggressions and discrimination people of colour face today as a result of this. And this begs the question – if we’re ‘better’ than America in this respect, can any country ever completely transcend its corrupt past?
The verb ‘transcend’ is broadly defined as the action of going beyond the limits of something, so in order to make a sound judgement on history’s ability to transcend a period of mass exploitation, we must first discover what ‘limits’ empire placed on Britain’s History. Back in school, you might remember History lessons telling you of a time when Britain ‘owned’ almost half the world – the British Empire, reaping massive economic benefits for Britain. The crimes of the British Empire need to be discussed in greater depth.
The British Empire imposed Western ideas of civilisation onto foreign cultures, and colonists committed heinous crimes. An ideological ‘them and us’ binary was instigated by the Empire; British colonists used this dehumanisation to justify horrific acts of violence and oppression against native people, alongside the stealing of land and imposition of culture. All this is delivered to British people today under the guise of either neutrality or a jubilant narrative which ignores and diminishes the atrocities of the Empire, and the lasting effects this ‘them and us’ mentality has had on the lives of BAME people in Britain.
So, while it’s understandable to hope for a History detached from Empire in today’s more progressive society, it’s integral to understand that the global devastation caused by Imperialism cannot simply be forgotten. Remember that it was only in 2015 that the British taxpayer had paid off compensation paid to families of slave owners for their loss of ‘business assets’ after it was abolished in 1833. Imperialism arguably catalysed racism, and years of Black Lives Matter protests have shown that there is no quick fix. To hope for a transcendent utopia away from this is naïve. In many ways, ‘moving on’ from Empire minimises the experiences and culture of those adversely affected by it; derailing discussion and progression in a way which mirrors using the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’.
One method which gained huge amounts of public backing was a change to Britain’s school curriculum, in which education about the realities of Empire and colonisation are made mandatory. Many of us will remember, and have signed, the government petition for this which gained over 250,000 signatures. However, after first responding to this in July, saying that colonial education is already part of the key stage 3 curriculum (ages 11 to 14), they have now agreed to host a debate on the subject; the date for which will take over 80 days to decide.
One organisation who advocate for education on Black History in schools is The Black Curriculum. In their open letter to the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, they stated their aim to embed, ‘Black History in England’s National Curriculum more explicitly’, to counteract the whitewashed version of History children are taught. This would be an important step to take in tackling racism and inclusivity in schools; the founder Lavinya Stennet and her team have developed an extensive multimedia curriculum to teach Black History in an accessible way. If you’d like to support this cause, you can download their email templates to send to your MP, or donate through the link on their website.
So sadly, there’s no way for Britain’s History to transcend Empire, as this would ignore the experiences of those continuing to be affected by racism, stereotypes and the microaggressions brought about by it. Being able to see past the effects of Empire is a privilege, and one which unfortunately isn’t a reality for many British citizens, despite more information becoming available via social media to help inform everyone of changes that can be made.
The politicisation of food by Boris Johnson’s government has proved to be a highly controversial issue. Whilst the necessity of what has been described as an “obesity crackdown” has been supported by Public Health England, there has been backlash surrounding the government’s strategy. In particular, the lack of meaningful support for the most financially-disadvantaged have led to accusations that the government is tone-deaf in its approach. The abandonment of this group of people by food policy is far from a new phenomenon, and the parallels with early modern sumptuary law is compelling.
Sumptuary law is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as, “Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures for apparel, food, furniture, etc.” These laws impacted everyone in society and were considered vital for maintaining the social hierarchy in the face of increased social mobility. They had a strong moral element: it was believed this hierarchy was mandated by God; refusing to adhere to this was therefore defying Him. Therefore, these laws were seen as essential for the good of society, just as the current government policy regarding obesity aims to lessen the impact of Covid-19 and the strain on the NHS.
Whilst sumptuary laws set limits upon all, just as we are all to be affected by this new health drive, it was – and is – the financially disadvantaged who experience the greatest restrictions. Legislation and poverty meant the poor of Tudor England were allowed no more than pottage, vegetables, and bread. With the rigours of life at that time, the number of calories that needed to be consumed was much higher than the recommended 2000-2500 today, though even this would be out of reach for many.
Today, the converse seems to be true, and it is far easier to over-consume on a lower budget. According to the statistics, half of the 10 worst areas for childhood obesity in the UK are also the 10 poorest. Yet the government seems to think the solution is as simple as signposting the healthy options and restricting those high in calories, going so far as removing multi-buy offers. The government does not seem to recognise that choice and control over diet is often a privilege. As Kieran Morris writes in The Guardian, the ability to eat healthily and exercise needs “time, money and space”, all of which have been have become increasingly inaccessible.
Annunziata Rees-Mogg typified this privilege in her tweet on July 27, in which she stated “Tesco 1kg potatoes = 83p, 950g own brand chips = £1.35”. What the daughter of Baron William Rees-Mogg fails to recognise is that it is not ignorance or laziness that is the problem. According to the Trussell Trust, between April 2019 and March 2020, 1.6 million people were estimated to have used a foodbank, which are only able to provide non-perishable, carbohydrate-heavy foods. The average full-time employee in Britain works an average of 42 hours a week, which the TUC claims is “robbing workers of a decent home life and time with their loved ones”. To claim that personal choice is the sole reason behind the obesity epidemic ignores this.
So, just like sumptuary law, we are all being asked to do our bit for the good of the nation. But this policy, just like the legislation 500 years ago, will disproportionately affect the poorest in society. Whilst we do need to tackle obesity, the government needs to provide support for these people, rather than remove and criticise their already limited choices.
Having recently returned from the Orkney Isles, one thing that struck me was the strength and uniqueness of Orcadian identity. The people on the island do not identify as Scottish, but rather relate their belonging to ‘the Mainland’. This is not the Scottish mainland, which is a mere fourteen miles away, but the most populated group of islands in the archipelago which are now connected by a series of barriers. The power of this identity is such that upon noting how the prehistoric village of Skara Brae was free to enter due to coronavirus to a B&B owner, she replied that she may visit having previously never done so. Her reasoning for this was that Orcadians should not have to pay Scottish Heritage to visit ‘their’ monuments.
The rich history of Orkney is very tangible. As well as Neolithic archaeology, the islands had a strong Norse influence during the Middle Ages. The Orkneyinga Saga, similar to other Viking age sagas like Heimskringla which were produced at the same time, provided a comprehensive history and sense of nationalism to Orcadians. The story of the Earls of Orkney continues to have a cultural legacy on Orcadian identity today. The unprecedented conservation of sites relating to it, as well as other archaeology, as Basu (2001) correctly notes, results in a strong sense of belonging that is rooted almost exclusively in history. In Orkney, it is undeniable that ‘ancestral places… are part of the living fabric of the community’ as modern crofts sit on top of the brochs of previous settlers. The people of Orkney are therefore trapped in their history through a tangible connection to ancestors which is rare elsewhere.
This connection to the past provides a potential explanation for why the B&B owner was reluctant to buy a ticket to visit Skara Brae. If history is such an inextricable part of culture and identity, and this history does not come from Scotland, then it makes sense for an uneasiness around modern geography dictating conservation and custody of sites. This is particularly true when it is considered that the significance of many sites has only been identified relatively recently. Skara Brae for example, a Neolithic settlement older than Stonehenge, was left completely unprotected from its accidental discovery in 1850 to 1927, and it only gained UNESCO status in 1999. Prior to modern conservation schemes, Orcadians were free to explore and children used sites as playgrounds, attaching to it an emotional significance as well as a historical one. As many sites have been accessible almost exclusively to Orcadians for so long, it links that there is a difficulty in distancing and letting them be conserved by external agencies.
Finally, it is worth considering the implication that the existence of such a uniquely tangible past has on the future, particularly the identity of young Orcadians. In 1999, a ‘homecoming’ of 150 Canadians of Orcadian descent took place. Looking at the accounts of participants, the sense of excitement to visit the crofts still situated in the same place their families lived previously, and therefore the durability of Orcadian identity, is clear. The isolated nature of the islands means that beyond the growing tourist industry, very little has changed for crofters. For this reason, it can be said that for Orcadians whose families have lived on the island for generations particularly, the strong identity provided by the archaeology that surrounds them means they are trapped in history. How long this will continue for however I am not sure.
On Thursday the 23rd American Congresswoman for New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came before congress to call for a point of personal privilege. Ms. Cortez sought to address her recent confrontation with Republican Congressman Ted Yoho who was overheard by a member of the press as calling her a ‘f***ing b***h.’ Mr. Yoho has denied using this particular phrase but has apologised for the ‘abrupt manner of the conversation [he] had with [his] colleague from New York,’ referring to his aggressive confrontation with Ms. Cortez on the steps of the Capitol during which he, according to Ms. Cortez, called her ‘disgusting,’ ‘crazy,’ and ‘out of [her] mind.’
Ms. Cortez remarked in her address that she expects no sincere apology from the representative from Florida, ‘a man who has no remorse over calling women and using abusive language towards women.’ Throughout her address, Ms. Cortez continually returned to this point of contention, using her encounter with Mr. Yoho as but one example of a wider cultural issue. Citing two more instances of verbal abuse issued by male colleagues, one being the President of the United States himself, Ms. Cortez incisively remarked such encounters expose ‘a cultural lack of impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports men.’ Ms. Cortez’s speech highlights that her highly-reported altercation outside the physical heart of US political discourse is but one of many identical interactions between congressmen and woman on both sides of the bench that occur far less publically but with concerning frequency.
This issue is not endemic to the United States alone but has been found to be globally pervasive. A recent study on ‘Violence Against Women in Politics’ in the UK conducted by Delyth Jewell, a women’s right’s campaigner at ActionAid UK, interviewed female members of parliament to ascertain the frequency with which female politicians experience some form of violence (verbal or physical). Jewell interviewed one member of parliament who told her ‘everyone knows it happens; it happens to all women [in politics].’ Jewell’s study also highlights the frequency of abusive encounters associated with female politicians is alarming given the comparatively short period of time that their admission to parliament has even been legal. Jewell notes, ‘since gaining the right to be elected as members of parliament in 1918, a total of 489 women have been elected. This represents only 9% of all members of parliament elected over this time period.’ During this short history, women have been far less visible in politics and have faced harsh censure for aspects of their person outside of their political presence, a reality that is seemingly absent from the male political narrative. One only has to look to the day of Margaret Thatcher’s death on which ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ re-entered the UK charts at number two, extending a lifetime of criticism beyond the grave.
What Ms. Jewell’s study reveals is that female politicians in the UK have historically faced a heightened threat of violence in the comparatively short period of time that they have been politically active. As Congresswoman Cortez exposes however, attacks on female political competency and simply female political participation come just as frequently from within the house as without. In 2011, former prime minister David Cameron was criticised for belittling a female colleague across the bench. During a lively debate discussing the NHS, Mr. Cameron told shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Angela Eagle to ‘calm down dear’ as she, among others, opposed his remarks surrounding former Labour MP Howard Stoate. Like Ms. Cortez, Ms. Eagle did not expect an apology from the Prime Minister (nor did she receive one) but instead remarked that ‘I don’t think a modern man would have expressed himself that way,’ adding ‘women in Britain in the twenty-first century do not expect to be told to “calm down dear” by their prime minister.’ Whether they expect to be addressed in such a manner or not, Mr. Cameron’s rebuttal rings of the systemic dismissal of female political voices; a dismissal that, as Ms. Cortez’s experience attests, can often cross the line into confrontation. This begs the question, when will it be time to tell politicians like representative Yoho and former prime minister Cameron to ‘calm down dear’ when they attack the female political voice.