Is investing in local histories a more richer seam for political parties than staged flag-placement?

Government telly-interview style guides seem to mandate the presence of a flag behind the politician being interviewed. In the meantime, someone in Labour wants to get in on the act.

About an hour and a half ago, this dropped in.

You can read the article here – including the official Labour response at the end. In the meantime, Boris was spotted playing toy sailors at Cabinet.

“Why have one flag in the background when you can have two? And a model aircraft carrier?”

Given the rich and detailed local histories that all of the political parties have, why then are their political advisers selling their parties short, thinking a little bit of flag-waving and WW2 imagery will cut the mustard with the voters?

“What are we if we’re not the sum of our famous military victories?”

The problem is that too much of our popular and military history is based on very partial information. Advances in computing and communications technology means that historians (and even the general public) can undertake huge searches in a matter of seconds – searches that would have taken months of painstaking work even a few decades ago. The British Newspaper Archive is one example. In a matter of seconds I can find out whether an event had contemporary newspaper reports to match.

“Such as?”

Prof David Olusoga was on telly earlier this morning presenting research about the multinational crews at The Battle of Trafalgar, and the Black soldiers that fought for the British in the American Wars of Independence. You can watch that episode here. Prof Olusoga mentioned how many Black soldiers were forced to leave the Americas and made their way back to Britain. Destitute, concern from some of the public was how the state had abandoned these men who had served in the armed forces. He then mentioned the fundraising campaign to pay for them to go and settle abroad in a new colony – something seen as a noble and charitable deed by the scheme’s promoters under the label of “The Black Poor”.

A quick search of the British Newspaper Archive corroborated what Prof Olusoga stated – I’ve picked out two examples, one from 1786, and one from 1787 below.

The archive has at the time of blogging, digitised 40million pages. Just 700million to go! Imagine what people will have access to once the entire historical archive has been digitised.

Whether it’s:

The nature of Britain’s military, economic, and diplomatic history means that any victories of significance are very rarely won by people from Britain, and Britain alone. Even in the most recent conflicts, local interpreters and their families paid very heavy prices for their co-operation, ones that all too often the political parties were too slow to appreciate in terms of government policies towards them.

“How does all of this compare with what’s coming from The Government?”

One of the most depressing things ministers are currently running with is ‘vaccine nationalism’. But then it matches their narrative of Brexit along with a number of other policies – ones that are inevitably outraging their opponents. Yet time and again, secretaries of state have been pulled up by High Court judges over their unlawful actions – the latest one being today.

In trying to maintain their controversial ‘hostile environment’ policy, a judge ruled that the conditions that asylum seekers (people who had claimed asylum and were in the process of having their claims assessed by the state) were being housed in were so poor as to be unlawful. (If their claim is found to be valid, then the state grants said individuals the status of ‘refugee’.)

***Learn your local political history – after all, your predecessors made it and wrote it***

In my view, national political parties would be far better investing some of their resources in their local branches, enabling them to research and publish local party histories. Cambridge Labour produced one for their centenary. Because it is from those local roots that individual politicians and civic figures went onto greater things. It’s easy to forget that many candidates standing for election in 1945 were still in uniform. One of them – Major Leslie Symonds was one of them – the first Labour Party candidate elected by the people of Cambridge to be their Member of Parliament in the borough’s history. The constituency was created in… the year 1295.

The tragedy for Major Symonds, elected in his mid-30s, was that he never lived to see his 50th birthday. I’d like to think that he could have lived long enough to see the first woman MP elected to serve Cambridge, Labour’s Anne Campbell, elected in 1992.

“Where do I start with local history?”

Several places, including but not limited to:

  1. Your local library and archives services – mindful that austerity has cut them to the bone. (Cambridgeshire Conservatives confirmed in a response to a public question from me a few years ago that they are running the county archive service at its statutory minimum – you can watch the video here. The county council is up for election this year – as are many other councils. You can find out who is standing in your area here.)
  2. The British Association for Local History
  3. Your local history group – the BALH has links here.
  4. Your local bookshop – and failing that, the second hand book portal. Type in the name of your local council in the publisher field and see what comes up.
The histories of campaign themes and organisations

Take political parties in ABE Books:

It’s not just political parties. it’s institutions as well. Take the mighty Transport and General Workers Union – now part of Unite The Union. Under its old acronym it returns 40 items alone. In full, it returns 85. The Trades Union Congress returns nearly 900 books and items.

“You’re not seriously expecting every political activist in every party to know their local history inside out, are you?”

Not at all – how many trade union members are aware of the local history of their own trade union branch? Or their own trade union’s national history? During my civil service days I hadn’t a clue – it never occurred to me to do so. But then had anyone written a recent history of how the trade union got to where it was at the time? I had no idea. And I was the branch organiser!

Having a solid grounding in local history – even if it’s only a handful of activists that do so, means that collectively you’re in a better position to stand up to biased, partial narratives that come from the likes of say… the Leader of the House of Commons. And he’s already ahead because he’s already got the wealth and connections to get his book published and in the bookshops.

“Kathryn Hughes described the book as “an origin myth for Rees-Mogg’s particular rightwing vision of Britain””

The Guardian, 19 May 2019.

“How do you even begin to contest the above narrative and myth-making that Kathryn Hughes calls out, when counter-arguments don’t get anywhere near the publicity?”

One route is through local history, because as I found in my own research on the history of Cambridge the town, and as many found through the Votes for Women Centenary in 2018, the actual histories contrasted with a number of popular myths and views that had developed and were sustained throughout the 20th Century. And one historical figure – perhaps the biggest of them all, is one that is becoming one of the most contested: Winston Churchill. All the more useful that the Churchill archives are in Cambridge, at Churchill College, founded in 1960. His views on Empire aside, what proportion of the British Public are aware that:

That was all before he resigned from the Cabinet to take up a commission in the army to fight on the Western Front. You could ask why the Liberal Democrats do not embrace Churchill as one of their own given that he was one of their most prominent Cabinet ministers in the last Liberal-majority government. (The decline and implosion of the old Liberal party is something I’m still trying to get my head around as the early 1920s were a very unstable time in party politics).

For most people, Churchill’s record in the pre-WWI Liberal Government would represent a lifetime’s achievement for most other politicians when you look at the ministerial posts he held. The same goes for his ministerial record in the 1920s in terms of posts held. And that is before we even look at his WW2 years that put him head and shoulders above Prime Ministers before and after. Only Clement Attlee gets near him – though interestingly because Churchill needed him and Ernest Bevin (General Secretary of that might TGWU who commanded the confidence of the trade union movement) in the wartime coalition, and because of the long lasting legacy of the Welfare State that he laid solid foundations for. (Peacetime laurels rather than wartime ones – even though like Churchill, Major Clement Attlee as he was known before WW2, served as an officer in the First War.)

“Why are you telling us all this?”

Because that explains why it’s far easier for politicians of all colours to simply pick up a flag and say “Put on a suit! Do up your tie! And Sing the National Anthem!”

Grown up politics eh?

(Conceptually I still think the Green’s advert from 2016 is one of the best in modern times, irrespective of the merit or otherwise of their policies).

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