‘Creating Awe and Fear in other Men’: King Henry V and the Gendered Legacies of Late Medieval Monarchs

King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt on 25th October 1415 in the Hundred Years War: picture by Harry Payne
‘King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt on 25th October 1415 in the Hundred Years War’ Painting by Harry Paine (P.C. World History Encyclopaedia)

This article examines Henry V’s reputation of exceptional masculinity, and how this has influenced his historical evaluation as a ruler. He is often portrayed as the archetypical medieval king, embodying the ideals of both the warrior and saintly monarch. These narratives often portray him as a successful king, through highlighting his military achievements and popularity. Henry V, therefore, is a figure who demonstrates the critical importance of gender to the perception of a monarch’s success. 

The authority of medieval English kings was inherently masculine. The power and respect such rulers could command depended upon how well they performed their masculinities, and how such masculinites were more widely represented. As the person of the late medieval king was an inherently political entity, the quality of the political regime was itself determined by masculine ideals. In terms of these ideals themselves, men were expected to demonstrate twelve masculine virtues, with particular emphasis placed on the Aristotelian cardinal virtues of fortitude, prudence, justice, and temperance. Contemporaries regarded Kings who displayed these virtues as more successful, tying their legacy to the performance of gender. 

Integral to Henry V’s masculine reputation, and consequently to the legacy of his reign, is the notion of Henry V as a warrior king. Medieval kings are often conceptualised as soldiers and commanders, and military success was central to the performance of royal masculinity. Henry’s active participation in the Hundred Years War was no exception. He fashioned himself as a king willing to defend and fight for his kingdom, highlighting his virtuous character and prowess as a warrior. He proved his devotion to his kingdom and subjects, which consolidated his authority. This strategy was effective and led to Henry’s status as a warrior king being mythologised in literature, particularly through Shakespeare’s eponymous play. Though some portrayals of him in this work are dramatised, its narratives are grounded in the reality of Henry’s military successes, and the reputation that this gained him have endured through to the Elizabethan age, and far beyond. The Bbattle of Agincourt, for instance, is often highlighted in these interpretations. Henry’s masculine reputation was therefore informed both by the militaristic expectations of late medieval monarchies, and by Henry’s ultimate success on the battlefield. 

Henry V’s masculine reputation is also tied to his representation as a highly religious figure. Narratives that highlight his piety also imply another form of virtuous masculinity, and therefore present him as a good, Christian king. One common portrayal of with Henry V is of a wild, rebellious young prince reformed into a pious and loyal king, a highly Christian concept. This transformative process has often been over-exaggerated; Prince Henry’s arguably reluctant submission to his father’s will was self-interested, and enabled him to create a reputation of filial devotion. Rumours of his rebellious nature were likely intended to discredit him as a potential ruler, and by subverting these, Henry affirmed the quality of his masculinity. While kings such as Richard III have been criticised for their personal excesses and ambitions, Henry has been cast as a selflessly devoted king and prince. His self-control and restraint have been highlighted in both contemporary sources and in later accounts. His personal reputation was crafted by deft political decisions during his reign, decisions which successfuly culminated in a strong and enduring legacy. 

As King, Henry’s personality embodied the state of the country. His example of masculinity implied to contemporaries that England under his rule was similarly virtuous. As such, his authority was reinforced. His character also provided an example for his subjects and notables to follow, which was beneficial in maintaining order in the kingdom. His virtuous masculinity, although less discussed than his military prowess, promoted his reputation as the right kind of man to be King.

The long-standing view of Henry’s exemplary masculinity meant that there were attempts to recreate his success. The most famous example of this was Henry VIII’s attempt to emulate Henry V by invading France, aiming to and conquerterritory and present himself as a warrior king. Like Henry V, he also made a claim to the French throne through Edward III, cementing his legitimacy as Edward’s successor after the turmoil of Wars Of The Roses. Although this attempt by Henry VIII was unsuccessful and ill advised, culminating in the loss of Calais it demonstrated the potency of masculine reputations as a political force. Henry VIII sought to liken himself to Henry V by emulating his successes. Henry V’s successful masculinity formed a significant part of his political legacy as it continued to have influence years after his death. 

Henry V therefore demonstrates the critical importance of masculine performances for English kings of the 15th and 16th centuries. Being perceived as masculine was essential, because it allowed for greater authority, and helped to ensure the perception of a successful reign. Henry V is an example of a king able to perform masculinity incredibly effectively, and as such he provides an example of what his successors were attempting to achieve by performing both militaristic and pious forms of masculinity. 

Amy Raven, Summer Writer

Henry VI and the decline of Royal Authority

Portrait of Henry VI, King of England 1422-1461 and 1470-1471 (P.C. World History Encyclopaedia)

Henry V was an immensely successful king. He was instrumental in English victories on the continent, as exemplified by his campaigns through northern France between 1415 and 1422. The success of Henry V’s French wars had consolidated his rule, and his depiction as a semi-legendary king by later Tudor historiography, whilst likely exaggerated, will have had its foundation during his and his son’s lifetime. His son, Henry VI, grew up in the shadow of his father’s achievements. Henry was only eight months old when his father Henry V died on the 31st of August 1422, and for the next 16 years there was a Regency Council led nominally by John, Duke of Bedford and in practice by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester that oversaw state affairs. Once Henry began ruling in his own right, it became crushingly clear that firstly he would not be able to live up to the reign of his father, and secondly that his very ability to rule was considerably lacking. 

Henry was the first English king to not fight in battle. Although he was an avid hunter, Hugh Bicheno argues that his minority and protection from dangers by the Regency Council made Henry ‘regard warfare with distaste’. Whilst this negatively impacted his military prowess, as shall be seen, it also resulted in magnates trying to exert increasing influence on the monarch’s actions. The medieval period was one where a magnate could not possibly risk proclaiming his right to the throne, as that would be going against the will of God, for monarchs were anointed by God. As such, Richard of York, who through the matrilineal line had a claim to the throne, sought to discredit those around the King for his own gain. One such individual who received York’s displeasure was William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, a close confidante and advisor to the King. Henry VI had gone into secret negotiations with Charles VII of France on the 22nd of December 1445, when he wrote to Charles seeking peace in the form of the surrender of Maine and Anjou. This would have almost certainly been unknown to Suffolk, but nevertheless he had to take the blame when news of the negotiations reached the ears of the Body Politic. This, coupled with the mysterious death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in Bury St Edmunds five days after being arrested by Suffolk’s retainers in February 1447, meant that from that point onwards Suffolk was viewed with ever-increasing suspicion. 

After two years of impatiently waiting for Henry to hand over Maine and Anjou, Charles VII of France gained the upper hand. On a personal request by Henry, one of his Knights of the Garter, François de Surienne took the Breton border fortress of Fougères with the aim of forcing the Duke of Brittany to release a childhood friend of Henry’s, Gilles of Brittany. This escapade into Brittany who, whilst not allied with France, were certainly less appreciative of Henry’s rule, gave Charles the justification to acquire an anti-English alliance with Brittany and declare war on the English. The capitulation that followed was not simply an embarrassment to an England that only thirty years had routed the French so convincingly at Agincourt but was also a reflection of the vastly insufficient political and military expertise of Henry. Within a year and a day of the declaration of war on the 31st of July 1449, the entirety of Normandy, Maine and Anjou had fallen to the French. In 1445 Henry had spontaneously and unexplainedly removed the astute and experienced Richard Duke of York from the post of Captain General of France. For the following two years York was not replaced in the role, and thus it would be understandable that when Charles VII invaded in 1449-50, he was welcomed with open arms by many who viewed the English as having neglected them in that period. When Henry did eventually choose an appointment for the role in 1447, it was salt in the wound for York, who had in the meantime been sent to govern Ireland, for his replacement was Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.

Compared to later events of Henry’s reign, such as his catatonic state in 1453 or the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, the events of the 1440s may seem insignificant. Yet, in reality, they represent the beginnings of the decline of royal authority. Henry’s undermining of his own authority by secretly giving Charles VII English lands in France whilst simultaneously failing to inform the body politic that he had done so eventually resulted in the demise of his key advisor, the Duke of Suffolk, when it was discovered. Simultaneously, appointing Edmund Beaufort as Captain General of France only served to alienate the influential Duke of York. In summation, Henry’s deficient political acumen resulted, at least in the short term, in the collapse of English governance in France.

Henry Carless, Summer Writer

The national governments of the 1930s: short term success but long term failure 

Stanley Baldwin, leader of the Third National Government, by John Boyd jnr (P.C. flickr)

The first National Government of the 1930s was formed on the 24th of August 1931 by Ramsay Macdonald, under the backdrop of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, which led to the contraction of the global economy. As a result, Macdonald’s government immediately had to deal with severe economic difficulties such as rising unemployment, slowing international trade, and rapidly declining domestic production. What the National Governments achieved in the short term was remarkable, as they helped mitigate the effects of the Great Depression while holding off the tide of extremism that swept across Europe during the 1930s. The National Governments failed, however, in dealing with the regional disparities that came with the depression. This lack of policy to combat regional disparity led to unequal growth, and the beginning of generational depression in some areas of the UK. 

The immediate problems that faced the National Governments of the 1930s were vast, yet were largely dealt with in the short term. For example, the National Governments faced a large decrease in shipbuilding due to the decline in international trade. State intervention helped mitigate this through funding ships such as the HMS Queen Mary, which reduced the impact of the depression on the Clydeside shipbuilding industry. The National Governments also pushed to amalgamate unsuccessful mines in order to increase the coal industry’s efficiency. This was successful, as there was a 34 million tonne increase in coal production between 1933 and 1937. Even unemployment dropped in the mid-1930s from 22% to 10%; although this may not have been because of the direct actions of the National Governments, but instead the consequence of the rearmament process that was being pushed as a result of tensions in Europe. Thus, the National Governments were at least partially successful. They held extremism at bay and remained moderately popular through a period when extremist politics became the norm in many European countries. 

Yet, despite their short-term successes, the National Governments had significant failures which condemn them in my eyes. There was, for instance, a complete and utter failure to recognise the regional disparity in unemployment during the Great Depression, causing systematic depression in regions of Britain. Although it is statistically correct that overall unemployment dropped throughout the mid-1930s, that isn’t the entire picture. Unemployment remained high in areas that relied almost completely on the traditional industries, such as coal and textiles. This unemployment was especially high in the North East and areas of Wales. The National Governments did not mitigate this, even when people were starving on the streets. The conditions became so dire that the MP for Jarrow, Ellen Wilkinson, led a ‘hunger march’ to London with 200 shipyard workers behind her. This blatant ignorance of the regional disparity in employment, wealth and opportunities, marks one of the first times that the North East was pushed to the side in policy making, and it was certainly not the last. Its painful miasma haunted the region long into the post-war era, exemplified by Thatcher’s cruel policies. Fundamentally, the generational depression seen in the North East and other deprived areas began because of the National Governments and their negligence.

It is important to be thankful that the National Governments allowed the government in the country to continue – preventing the country from being taken over by extremists like Oswald Mosley – while helping the UK prepare for the Second World War. However, we must not forget the conditions that persisted in the most deprived areas of the UK due to the lack of effective policy designed to mitigate the regional disparity in unemployment. 

Matthew Cook, Summer Writer

Does Tudor historical fiction handle the theme of politics well?

Enter any historical fiction section of a bookshop, and the Tudors are bound to pop out at you. They are a persistent part of the fabric of England’s past and are one of the public’s entry points to the past. As such, Tudor England is a traditional source of inspiration for historical fiction.

However, once that book jumped out at you, is it likely to consider the theme of politics? Well, probably not. This article will explore the landscape of historical fiction, to ultimately find that Tudor historical fiction does not handle the theme of politics well.

Firstly, Tudor historical fiction does not handle the theme of politics well because it is dominated by tropes. Your classic Tudor historical fiction novel is either a corset-ripper – picture Philippa Gregory – or a murder mystery. The mainstays of this genre are dominated by these themes rather than necessarily using the vessel of historical fiction to examine, for example, the machinations of the court around the time of Henry VIII’s death. Or to explore the perspectives of the rebels during Kett’s rebellion. It seems that this lens has been underutilised.

However, is this argument derogatory towards the fact that the majority of Tudor historical fiction novels are centred around women? Does it ignore that women could be involved in politics? Well, potentially. For example, the Six Wives Series by Alison Weir has tried to encourage readers to understand the political manoeuvres the queens of Henry VIII made themselves. The first novel in the series focused on Katherine of Aragon, goes into detail about the mechanics of the divorce of Katherine and Henry, whilst simultaneously exploring the personal impact which it had on her. So, it is important to weigh up that whilst historical fiction is full of tropes within the bestseller section, this is also because our understanding of ‘politics’ may be narrowed by how traditionally politics is discussed in the historical context.

Secondly, it is an all or nothing with Tudor historical fiction themed around politics. Either it is a Man Booker Prize winner or a self-published piece on Amazon. There does not seem to be much of a rich middle ground for eager readers to sink their teeth into. Particularly, as the pinnacle of the Tudor political historical fiction is the Wolf Hall trilogy. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy is the yardstick from which not only Tudor historical fiction is judged but also historical fiction more generally. Mantel’s writing not only opens up the world of the Tudor court, but the tool of historical fiction enables the reader to get into the mindset of this crucial Tudor politician and to ponder on how he may have made such decisions.

Yet, whilst there is no denying the strength of Mantel’s series, once a reader has made their way through it, there is little to feed that hunger for good Tudor historical fiction which focuses on politics. Instead, they would be forced back into the world of non-fiction, which for a reader beginning their journey in Tudor history, can be a minefield of inaccessibility. As such, this all or nothing landscape within Tudor historical fiction themed on politics demonstrates that the genre does not handle the theme well because ultimately more quality work is needed within this area.

Thirdly, if works in this genre do make that novel break into politics, they are often criticised for being dry. This may partially be because politics attracts heavy-handed penmanship. But this could also be because traditionally the people in politics were often forgotten about. The centrality of people within politics has only really become something that has developed over the last few decades. But equally, it is also because the source material of politics within the Tudor period does not always have the literal ‘sex’ appeal which the subjects of love and marriage within the period have. As such, this dryness, which has multiple sources, demonstrates further why Tudor historical fiction does not handle the theme of politics particularly well.

What this piece has uncovered is that Tudor historical fiction does not currently handle the theme of politics well, from the genre’s hyper-focus on corset ripping or murder-mysteries, to its all or nothing quality and the dryness sometimes of what is available. Clearly more is needed to truly say that Tudor historical fiction has got a grip on the theme of politics.

Zoe Adlam

Religion and Decline of the Absolutism – The Stuarts

1625 doesn’t sound like a significant year in history, but in fact it is the start of a century of rebellions and revolutions that shaped the political system we have in Britain today.

This is because in1625 Charles I married a Catholic, kicking off a fight against absolutism in Britain.

Religion wasn’t of course the only reason but a key and perhaps the most important reason the country transitioned from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

The Stuart dynasty had always been Catholic – but it was something somewhat set aside when Elisabeth I, a devout Protestant, made James I and IV her heir. Scotland adopted Protestantism as its main religion in 1560 so there didn’t seem to be a problem.

But then his son married a Catholic, Henrietta Maria, remained friendly with the Catholic nations such as Spain and became increasingly autocratic in his religious policies, using the Star Chamber to harshly punish religious dissidents.

Moreover, he strongly believed in the Catholic doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. For Charles, he was only answerable to God, as God appoints the monarch.

Unfortunately for Charles, everyone in the Kingdom, particularly parliament and many nobles, expected to hold the King to account, as they had done with his predecessors.

The idea of a monarch who not only had questionable loyalties but refused to be held accountable politically and religiously is a worrisome one.

The English Civil war was sparked due to Charles’s heavy-handed religious policies. First the Scottish in 1639 rebelled after Archbishop Laud attempted to impose the Anglican book of prayer, followed by the Irish two years later. The English lastly took up arms against their King, led by the Puritans.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the Stuarts hadn’t learned from their father’s mistakes. Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Catholic which served to stir up theories amongst disgruntled protestants such as the ‘Popish plot’ – that she had been employed by the Pope to poison Charles so that his Catholic brother James could take the throne.

Moreover, his popularity quickly faded due to his extravagant lifestyle. Many of Charles’ favourites at court were Catholics, who were all expelled after a Test Act passed in 1673 banning Catholics from taking public office. He didn’t produce any legitimate heirs, meaning the throne would fall to his brother.

John Morrill, a historian who has extensively studied religious absolutism as cause for decline of the monarchy, views Charles as a ‘Secret Catholic’, a theory stemming from his close diplomacy with France, a very Catholic nation, and the fact when he died, he was received back into the Catholic Church.

Image credit: Coventry City Council via Creative Commons. 

James II’s reign was the final nail in the coffin for religious absolutism. A militant Roman Catholic, according to Morrill, advocating to repeal penal laws asserting Anglicanism was superior to Catholicism, appointed Catholics to public office and allowed the Papal Legate to visit for the first time since Henry VIII’s reign.

All of this culminated in the Bill of Rights of 1689, effectively banned Catholics from taking the throne, as it served to criticise the former King’s religious policies, stating he, “ … did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom”, whilst “By assuming and exercising a power of dispensing with and suspending of laws and the execution of laws without the consent of Parliament”. It is this Bill of Rights that began our transition to a constitutional monarchy.

The focus on Stuart Dynasty isn’t their Catholicism, more their wilful ignorance of and their desire for absolute power. Catholicism at the time was very much associated with absolute power and the unwillingness to govern fairly and properly.

Their marriages to non-Anglicans as shown with Charles I and both of his sons further increased distrust by MPs who assumed these Catholic spouses would endeavour to continue a Catholic dynasty in which the country was ruled by the Divine Right of the monarch.

Every generation seemed to look back and assume they could achieve what the one before could not – absolute control over the Kingdom using a Catholic doctrine in a Protestant nation.

Their inability to evolve strategically or religiously meant the ultimate decline of absolutism. 

Michaela Makusha


Sources

Morrill, John, The Nature of the English Revolution: Studies in Religion and Politics, 1603-42 (1992)

John Morrill, The Sensible Revolution (1991) https://www.historytoday.com/archive/civil-wars The Civil Wars by Sarah Mortimer

Could the North of England Become an Independent Country?

Much attention surrounding devolution and independence within the United Kingdom is focused on Scotland – the 2014 referendum combined with the growing support for the Scottish National Party in the country has established a resentment towards England due to its disregard for other countries within the Union. Northern Ireland and Wales have growing independence movements, with Cornwall adding to this, and surprisingly for some– the north of England.

For many, the physical divide between north and south is hard to discern. Some say it is just above Watford, others exclude counties such as Lancashire and Lincolnshire in favour of Tyne and Wear and Yorkshire, whilst others believe the Midlands are in the region. 

The recently formed Northern Independence Party defines the north as the ancient region of Northumbria. A leading voice for northern independence, this seems to be the clear definition of the ‘north’; they gained 50,000 members in less than a year and even ran for office in the Hartlepool by-election. But, what is it that unites these counties under this umbrella term?

Historians argue that two key periods have helped shape the northern identity: the Industrial Revolution and the economic struggle of the 1980s, creating an identity remarkably separate from the rest of England. 

The north of England has been historically oppressed since 1069 under William the Conqueror, with the ‘harrying of the north’ in which he brutally suppressed northern rebellions against his rule, and systematically destroyed northern towns. The region experienced famine with much of the areas deserted. 

More rebellions followed throughout the next 1000 years, and to this day socio-economic disparities are still evident. Mortality rates are higher in the north than in the south– 15% higher. Education and transport standards are majorly different to the south.

The Coronavirus pandemic is one of the many pressures adding to the calls for independence. Manchester seemed to be the centre of this, with Andy Burnham’s anger towards the government for their lack of funding given to the city. This lack of COVID-19 relief– in comparison to southern cities– added to the growing concerns over the survival of the northern industries, after it was placed under Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions against the advice of scientific advisors.

Gordon Brown, Former Prime Minister, remarked that in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the psychological glue holding the country together has come unstuck. ‘Not only do you have the Scottish minister but you’ve got regional ministers saying they are not consulted or listened to… you’ve got no mechanism or forum for co-ordinating the regions and nations’. Not only is the Scottish-English divide strong, but the north-south divide is growing stronger– and it’s not just due to decades of Tory rule but perhaps, the political system. Could independence or devolution be the answer?

Under Tony Blair, arguments and motions for devolution were brought forward. Devolved assemblies were created in Scotland and Wales. However, the 2004 referendum on northern devolution failed– with 78% voting against it. 

To gain power in the north, Northumberland-born Alex Niven, author of ‘New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England’ argues that it will take a radical left-wing government to bring about devolution for the north. But rather than a completely autonomous and independent north, Niven argues for constitutional changes to challenge the ‘imperialistic’ Britain. Devolution is the answer, not total independence. A centralised approach to policy and politics in Westminster only ruins the local communities and creates a greater distrust in the government.

However, the Northern Independence Party’s manifesto states that it is London that ‘gobbles up’ the industry. They declare that London-based journalists ‘pick out the worst of us’ by perpetuating stereotypes of the north that adds to its general oppression. With independence, they claim they will join with an independent Scotland in alliances. 

It poses many questions. Is Derby included? What will be the capital? The historic capital of England was York and, as Yorkshire is the biggest county in Northumbria, could it be York– or will the economic powerhouses of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool become the capital due to their resources? If so, will a feeling of resentment grow in certain regions, with perhaps a divide in opinion much like the north-south divide already prevalent? Also, structural inequality– if the capital does become one of these powerhouses, will employment be focused here rather than across the region?

Big questions include economic stability and the presence of an army. Decades of structural inequalities have led to the wish for an independent north due to the neglect of Westminster. But, this structural inequality creates a complex issue: with no real employment available already, how will jobs be created in a new country? 

I believe that for now, devolution is the answer to the crises in the north. Whilst the 2004 referendum did not show much support for this, in recent years and especially with the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of the northern independence party– the time is ripe. Could independence happen? Possibly, with the aid of Scotland. But for a truly Free North to fruition, for now, devolution will aid the cause to true independence. It’s been a long time coming and whilst under Tory, Westminster rule, the north will continue to perish.

Aoifke Madeleine, History in Politics Summer Writer

How the UK Shaped Hong Kong’s Unique Democratic Sensitivity

Many look at Hong Kong’s politics now and wonder how Hong Kong got into such a mess. As some may know, in addition to it being a shopping and cuisine paradise, Hong Kong is a has a special political and legal status . Alongside Macau, Hong Kong is run under the principles of ‘one country, two systems’. In other words, though Hong Kong is a part of socialist China, it operates under a capitalist system. This is a compromise agreed between the British Colonial Government and China in 1997 when the British control of Hong Kong ended. Whether the Chinese government is maintaining the principle well is not the question to be discussed here). Instead, this article will  explore the British Colonial government’s impact on shaping Hong Kong people’s unique democratic sensitivity, which has certainly contributed to the recent clash between the Hong Kong government and its people. 

The impact of shaping Hong Kong people’s democratic sensitivity can first be explored by the British Colonial government’s localisation policies. In 1967, there was a very serious riot throughout Hong Kong. This was a wake-up call to the British Colonial government that they had to change their way of administration by catering to the local people’s needs better. The British Colonial government thus started to implement a series of socio-economic policies, such as providing affordable housing and free and compulsory education. With a better living environment, Hong Kong people were able to spend more on learning instead of merely focusing on escaping poverty. Generations of improvement in education led to a Hong Kong population with a very high level of education. As a result, more locals were capable and eligible to work in the government. There was rapid localisation of governmental personnel including an increase of over 50% of Hong Kong civil servants from 1980 to 1990. There was an increased number of Hong Kong Administrative Officers. Similarly, more Hong Kong people were promoted to senior and even top governmental positions. For example, Anson Chan Fang On Sang became the first Chinese Chief Secretary and Donald Tsang Yam Kuen became the first Chinese Financial Secretary in the 1980s and 90s. Over the years towards the transfer of Hong Kong, more Chinese ‘secretaries’ emerged. More Hong Kong people learned the British democratic way of governance and were trained in this way. 

The Pro-Beijing government forces facing protestors, 1967. (Credit: Hong Kong Free Press)

As the transfer approached , the British Colonial government implemented an even more significant attempt at ‘localisation’: increasing  Hong Kong people’s democratic sensitivity. Towards the second half of the twentieth century, China had emerged as a stronger nation running under a socialist system. The British Colonial government feared that Hong Kong would become a socialist city under the CCP. As a result, in the 1990s, it greatly localised the government by promoting more locals into the administration. The British colonial government hoped that by doing so, these Hong Kong people would already be trained to manage their government in a democratic way when the transfer happens. Also, the fact that these capable Hong Kong people are already occupying government positions means that there would not be many vacancies when the British Colonial government was ‘out’ in 1997. The Chinese government would not, the thought went, send their own personnel (who are trained and worked under a socialist system) to manage the government. 

The impacts of the localisation measures had been effective in realising the British Colonial government’s democratic intentions. For example, in the early years of the twenty-first century, many Hong Kong people trained under the British democratic system still occupied most government positions. They pushed for further democratic reform after the transfer to ensure  democratic education to the new generations. The creation of the secondary school subject ‘Liberal Studies’, which educated youngsters on the ‘one country, two systems’ and one’s political rights, is a clear illustration of these efforts. These in turn trained a new generation of millennials who had lived and known democracy their whole life. These generations of youngsters clearly know what their political rights are and are willing to participate in defending their rights or pushing for democratic reforms. Under the education of liberal ideas, they are also capable of critically challenging government actions. Thus, it is not hard to understand why these democratically sensitive generations of youngsters felt threatened and protested when more pro-China politicians are taking up government positions and more pro-China policies are implemented in recent years. 

Hong Kong people’s unique democratic sensitivity can also be explored by another policy of the British Colonial government: the creation of representative governance. The China government’s autocratic rule during the Cultural Revolution really ‘freaked out’ the British Colonial government. It was determined to build Hong Kong a steadfast democratic foundation through increasing the electoral elements in Hong Kong’s political structure. In the Legislative Council, the first indirect election in 1985 marked the start of a gradual change, and was soon followed by the first direct election for 18 seats by the method of ‘one person, one vote’ in 1991 and the abolition of all official seats in 1995 by Governor Chris Patten. At last, the president of the Legislative council was no longer the Governor but elected among the Legislative council’s elected counsellors. In the District Council, the first direct election was held in 1982 and all official seats were abolished in 1985. All appointed seats were abolished in 1994 and the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years old. More people were eligible to participate in voicing their opinions by being able to vote for politicians that represent their views. In the Urban and Regional Councils, there were gradual elections and the abolishment of appointed seats. More people could vote and more were eligible to stand in elections. 

As Hong Kong moved into the twenty-first century, these elections were already present. The current  generations are used to having their say and participating in politics by voting and choosing their representatives. On the other side, more young people choose to participate in community affairs by standing in District Councilors’ elections, which are open to voting to everyone aged above 18. Some other young people choose to become a Legislative Councilor to have their opinions regarding the future development of Hong Kong valued. Thus, it is not hard to understand why youngsters are willing to protest, even resolve to radical actions, in face of the narrowing of electoral choices and rights in recent years. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

Home Ownership: is it the key in Britain’s inequality crisis?

Housing reform is necessary. That, as a statement, is perhaps one of the few things undisputed between the major parties in Westminster. Not enough affordable homes are accessible, leaving many within a rent trap, never quite managing to make it onto the housing ladder. Yet under the surface issue of getting the next generation onto the housing ladder lies an issue of greater concern. If left unchecked, the imbalance within the housing market, coupled with long-time economic woe for lenders, could be Britain’s next ticking time bomb and have disastrous socio-political consequences.

The catalyst of this socio-political crisis that is beginning to brew is economic. Following the 2008 Financial Crash, economic growth in the UK has struggled to get back onto its feet. Productivity remains stagnant and lags behind other G7 nations. Attempting to stimulate economic growth, the central bank has, throughout the decade, maintained low interest rates to persuade people to spend rather than save. The rationale is straightforward enough. More gets produced if money is being spent, and not sitting in current accounts accruing interest. Yet, so far, such a strategy is yet to bear fruit.

A house left derelict in Brixton, London. Mercury Press & Media (Credit: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/crumbling-home-abandoned-30-years-22352062)

There is, however, a further, longer-term issue with the central bank’s policy on interest rates which is of greater concern. Ever since the UK government brought in inflation targeting in 1992, an economic policy where the central bank targets a certain inflation rate, interest rates have trended consistently downwards. Whilst great for home-owners with mortgages, for young people looking to save it is increasingly difficult to build up the finances required for the deposit to a house.

What does this have to do with an impending socio-political catastrophe? Simply put, right now there is no way for young people to reach the housing ladder, being perpetually stuck within the renting market. This, by itself, is not damaging to the socio-political situation within the UK. Other developed European countries across the continent have renting cultures and, if anything, dismantling the constructed expectation to house-own would likely be an improvement to British culture.

However, it is not certain that the impending economic change will achieve such a culture shift, and the consequences of retaining a house owning culture within a renting society are worrying.

Even ignoring, momentarily, the short-term recorrection of the market that would occur when demand for houses is outstripped by supply as a largely property-owning baby boomer generation passes away, unattainably expensive houses for the generations following will still remain. Instead, the most worrying concern is the impact it could have on an already expanding inequality within the UK.

This is because the gap between those who have and those who have not will become unbridgeable. With an inability to save for that deposit, those with parents who already own houses may find that inheritance is the only way onto the property ladder. Owning a house will become a sign of significant family wealth and concentrate privilege to an ever-decreasing minority, whilst those stuck with the financial pressures of paying rent will fall further and further behind.

And, as history points out repeatedly, such unsustainable inequality leads to increased political extremism and conflict. It would be naïve of us to assume that we would not be subjected to the same increase in political extremism that defined the French Revolution, the formation of the Soviet Union, and 1930s Germany. Indeed, in the 19th century there was a fear that Britain would follow a similar path to the examples listed above, as events such as the Peterloo Massacre and the Hyde Park Riots threatened to be the UK’s own Storming of the Bastille, as protestors demonstrated against the inequality within Victorian Britain.

Disraeli and Gladstone can be largely applauded for quelling such extremist politics with their reformative platforms. So what ,then, do we do about our modern conundrum? Well, were we to copy from the economist’s textbook, there would be one of two options: change the government’s fiscal policy or change its monetary policy. Either the government could go down a monetary route, scrapping inflation targeting and artificially raising interest rates. Or it could go down the fiscal route of greater spending, through the building of more affordable homes.

Yet, whilst the causes of this crisis may be down to our economic history, we must take a more socio-political approach in attempting to prevent such a crisis.

In contrast to the Victorian reformists Disraeli and Gladstone, who both passed Reform Acts focused on expanding suffrage within the UK, political reform should be prioritised in an act of preparation for, rather than reaction to, this crisis. Focus should, instead, be placed in two directions. Firstly, upon making central government contracts more transparent and meritocratic, the result of this being greater political pressure for a larger percentage of housing developments to be affordable. Secondly, the remit of local governments should be altered, increasing control over the rewarding of contracts, whilst simultaneously completing the shift towards housing associations owning social housing. Such a move would give councils and metropolitan areas greater control of how much housing is built, whilst protecting them from the unaffordable and uneconomical costs which come from development.

The housing crisis, although economically caused, must rely on contemporary political solutions to prevent socio-political catastrophe. We cannot be lulled into either thinking the UK is immune from the multiple historical examples of political extremism that accompany greater inequality, or that implementing the same economic policies repeatedly will provide a different result. Without expansive political reforms to housing, transferring power towards local governments, and increasing transparency in government, the UK will only step closer towards socio-political disaster.

Matthew Lambert, Summer Writer

When Bad History Leads to Bad Politics: ‘The Graveyard of Empires’

When a major political event happens, politicians and scholars usually cram desperately to fit the event into a simple framework: ideological, historical, or another type. Sometimes this is done to explain the events in a general pattern. Alternatively, it is done to fit the event into a set worldview (something often done by politicians). ‘The Graveyard of Empires’ is one such example of a thesis used to explain political events. This theory has been an essential part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan since its conception in 2001 by Milton Bearden. Bearden, reflecting mainly on the experiences of the British and Soviet Empires, asserted that the unruly geography and peoples of the country made any imperial project in Afghanistan doomed to fail. Contextually, he wrote this thesis around the start of the US invasion as a warning for the dangers of US intervention in the country, a warning that has formed a crucial part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan. President Biden, for instance, directly used the thesis to explain why his withdrawal of US troops was necessary. In his speech recently he echoed Bearden and attributed the clear failure of US statecraft in Afghanistan to the ungovernable nature of the land itself.

There are multiple issues here, all stemming from one major problem that is often overlooked: the thesis is not true. Afghanistan, over its history, has not been a ‘Graveyard of Empires’, indeed it has been far from it. Professor Alexander Hainy-Khaleeli has shown how the country was the heartland of many great empires across history, including even empires often used as supporting evidence for proponents of Bearden’s thesis. Alexander the Great’s empire, used by Bearden as an example in favour of his argument, successfully ruled Afghanistan for over one hundred years, and the often-cited British experience ignores the broad success of British policy after the Third Afghan War. When imperial missions did fail, it was not due to the overriding lawlessness of the Afghan terrain or peoples but instead a variety of case-specific factors.

Thus, Bearden’s thesis is a case of bad history, with Afghanistan’s past stuffed into an overly simplistic historical framework. Its usage by politicians is therefore problematic, as it means public policy and discourse is based on incorrect perceptions and knowledge. For example, by describing Afghanistan as ‘the Graveyard of Empires’, Biden oversimplifies the complex failure of the American project in Afghanistan. It assumes that the failure of American statecraft is not a failure of Washington but a result of Afghanistan’s unique nature. By imposing Bearden’s framework, it assumes no imperial policy in Afghanistan could ever be successful regardless of what the imperial power does. Biden’s speech was overwhelmingly centred around this idea – an inevitability of failure that no policy of his could ever rectify. 

US and UK troops leaving Afghanistan. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defence)

This has three significant implications, demonstrating the danger of basing politics on flawed historical theory. Firstly, it stifles the development of effective policy. When addressing an issue that you deem impossible to benefit from, policy becomes solely about mitigation. Biden’s long-held belief that the US was doomed to fail in Afghanistan in line with Bearden’s thesis means that he has approached Afghanistan from a position that the US needed to leave the ‘graveyard’ irrespective of the consequences, explaining, for instance, the unnecessary withdrawal of American contractors that led to the complete collapse of the Afghan army. It also explains the frantic nature of the evacuation effort because the clear urge to withdraw as soon as possible meant that there was little planning for, say, the evacuation of the Afghans who had helped US personnel. 

Further, through basing politics on a largely flawed historical framework, there is a real possibility that we will not learn the correct lessons from the Afghan war. By attributing blame for the operation’s failures on the nature of Afghanistan and not bad policy, the US risks failing to understand the reasons for the failures in the country over the last twenty years, and thus fail to make the necessary changes. In an era where the American Empire is under threat from another would-be hegemony China, failing to learn the correct lessons could be costly. As such, it is more important than ever that the US takes a nuanced look at its role and activity in the global system, which will be significantly hindered by viewing its largest single project over the last two decades through an overly simplified and ignorant framework.

Finally, the oversimplification of Afghanistan and the blaming of it for the West’s failures is deeply immoral. The graveyard thesis crams Afghan history into how it relates to predominantly European Empires, denying it credit outside the framework of imperial history. In reality, Afghanistan has had a fascinating and proud history outside of its relations with the European powers, and thus the promulgation of this thesis risks making discourse around Afghanistan incredibly demeaning. Moreover, calling it the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ suggests that the primary victims of imperial projects in the country are the Empires – British, Soviet, and now American – and not the people of Afghanistan. The country’s people have faced endless war and persecution due to Imperial ends and are the actual victims of the country’s recent past. By framing Afghan history as a one of imperial failure, political discourse is prejudiced in favour of the West at the expense of the true victims of imperial policy. 

These are, unfortunately, inevitable consequences of applying a single and incorrect historical framework to contemporary politics: it can be profoundly immoral but also practically ruinous. Further, it can cloud the judgement of policy makers looking to draw lessons from past failures. As such, while there are good reasons to base politics on history, when that history is incorrect, the results can be ruinous.

Julius Balchin, Summer Writer

Peace Lines, Borders, and Brexit: Northern Ireland’s Dilemma

The Shankill is one of the main roads leading through Belfast and home to the city’s predominantly Protestant and Loyalist supporters– citizens who are in favour of the country remaining under British control. On the other side is Falls Road– the Republican Catholic community who are in favour of a United Ireland out of British control. 

Whilst fundamentally different and opposed– what unites these communities is their segregation– in the 25 ft high physical peace walls dividing them, manned by police– some have gates where the passage between the areas at night-time is blocked in an attempt to lower inter-communal violence. 

This border is one of many on the island: between the Republic and the region of Ulster, but also, between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland due to the Brexit border crisis. 

The 1921 Partition of Ireland separated the island to create two devolved governments both under British control, in hope that this would then lead to reunification. Violence ensued as Southern Ireland refused to create a government, therefore, defying British rule– declaring an Irish Republic independent from the UK. This resistance led to the Irish War of Independence. The outcome of this guerilla war was the Anglo-Irish treaty that recognised the Republic of Ireland as independent from Britain. 

Supposed peace was futile. Borders created discrimination and differences in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, with the latter oppressed. In response to housing and employment prejudice, as well as issues with the Electoral Representation of Catholic towns, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association led a campaign in favour of equality. Met with opposition, violence ensued– most notably in the Battle of Bogside– leading to the thirty-year conflict known as The Troubles.

Whilst most of this violence ceased with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the borders and peace walls are representative of a conflict still unsettled.

The 2016 Brexit referendum has proved many complexities. Most British citizens did not know what the European Union was upon voting. For Northern Irish citizens, the vote complexified their relationships with both the Republic and Westminster. 

Self-imposed apartheid has characterised the communities in Belfast, Derry, Portadown and Lurgan. Decisions to not mingle with those different to them has contributed to the growing tensions– the Orange Order walk on July 12th celebrating the Protestant William of Orange’s invasion and subsequent oppression of Catholics in the 17th century, and in the 2021 Northern Ireland riots. These recent riots were incited by the border and goods crisis as a result of Brexit– where a fifth of businesses surveyed said that suppliers were ‘unwilling to engage with the new requirements of shipping– and in some cases, businesses from Great Britain are no longer supplying Northern Ireland. 

Loyal Orange Order March, Edinburgh. (Credit: Des Mooney, via Flickr)

Unionist or Nationalist self-identification was the most important determinant of referendum choice on Brexit. For many, voting Leave became part of a British identity– much like how in England, voting Leave became a point of taking back control. For Unionists in Northern Ireland, this was felt strongly. Even those who wished to stay in the EU– but were Unionists– voted leave, mainly out of principle. Due to the religious and political separation in the country, there’s a separation in politics manifesting itself in the nationalist party of Sinn Fein and the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party.

This is furthermore complicated by the fact that Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats in Westminster, as in doing so, it would give legitimacy to an institution they do not recognise . But this meant that the party could not argue against Britain’s withdrawal from the EU nor fight to remain there.

For a history marked by separation, the departure of the UK from the EU was just another chapter in a long story. The Lanark Peace Gates are not only divided by religion and ethno-nationalist beliefs but also the difference between Remain and Leave voters. These are some of the most deprived areas in the whole of Northern Ireland– their deprivation and poverty levels are what unites them, but their perceived solutions mark the difference and creates conflict. 

Northern Ireland has the lowest poverty rate of any UK region. Its unemployment rate is small also, but its educational attainment and health and disability are where the country draws short. More than two-thirds of students on the Shankhill– the Protestant area– and Falls Road– the Catholic area– perform below Belfast’s average. The poverty in these areas is most likely incited by the Unionist andRepublican division– balancing the demands of the integrated educational system has led to many falling behind in their exams. Brexit has only worsened this.

For a generation that was promised peace in 1998, 23 years later– the situation remains in conflict.

Under Sinn Fein and the opinion of Republicans was that Northern Ireland needed to stay in the EU as an important way of working towards a united Ireland, eventually, especially as it was EU integration that ceased the patrolling of British soldiers in Northern Ireland. 

In contrast, UK sovereignty is the most important thing for British Unionists, given that the Unionist working-class was the likely sector to vote for Brexit, with the Democratic Unionist Party encouraging those to vote to Leave. 

Due to Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic could be stronger due to EU laws– that an EU country must have a hard border with a non-EU country. At the same time, a new border has emerged between Northern Ireland and the UK– one that was separated by water is now in conflict due to Brexit– a complication many were not prepared for.

Northern Ireland has not known peace in its entire existence. Whilst most of its citizens still favour remaining a part of the UK, due to Brexit and heightening tensions– this could change. Ireland could become unified sooner than many realise.

Aoifke Madeleine, Summer Writer