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The Politics of Churchill’s Statue

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During Britain’s strange summer of 2020, the statues of long-dead figures became live political issues. Black Lives Matter protestors threw slave-trader Edward Colston’s effigy into Bristol harbour, an act that shocked many, but that was as nothing to the reaction provoked by the treatment meted out to Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. During another Black Lives Matter protest this was daubed with the claim that the wartime Prime Minister – voted the Greatest Briton in 2002 – was a racist. The Daily Express believed the statue had as a consequence been ‘desecrated’. A week later far-right demonstrators, many of them associated with racist views, gathered near the statue, ostensibly to defend it from further attack, some of them chanting ‘Sir Winston Churchill, he’s one of our own’. By then however the statue had been boarded up and hidden from view.

Some saw the defacement of Churchill’s statue and the response to it as another episode in Britain’s ‘culture wars’, an unwelcome development in the country’s increasingly fractious politics. But the statues of great figures have always been political, their sponsors invariably hoping to impose their view of the notables’ significance onto the future, to keep them in some way permanently alive. Yet, as Churchill’s Parliament Square effigy itself illustrates, such statues even at the moment of their creation can be subject to contestation: its 2020 defacement is not as novel an act as it might at first appear.

After Churchill retired from front line politics in 1955, his supporters unleashed a wave of statues and other memorials intended to make permanent their preferred remembrance of his wartime role as the nation’s saviour, one which led The Times in 1954 to describe him without qualification, as the ‘greatest man of all time’. Most notably soon after Churchill’s 1965 state funeral the House of Commons commissioned a statue to be placed in the Members’ Lobby. When unveiled in 1969 according to the Guardian correspondent, ‘there was an audible intake of breath’ from those present. ‘It was’, he went on, ‘for all the world as though Churchill had himself thrown off his coverings by taking a sudden step forward. There he stood once more … avid for new burdens.’ Indeed, such were the statue’s presumed magical qualities it quickly became the practice of Conservative MPs to stroke its left foot for luck, something responsible for the foot being almost worn away.

Even before that effigy was completed, in 1968 Conservative MP John Tilney in a question to Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson started the process which would end with Churchill’s Parliament Square statue. Tilney called for the creation of another likeness ‘of perhaps the greatest leader of this nation and the greatest Parliamentarian for centuries.’ The reaction to Tilney’s suggestion revealed the partisan nature of his request. Wilson was reluctant to endorse the sentiment and so dissembled. But, reflecting the enmity in which Churchill the class warrior – as opposed to national saviour – was held amongst South Wales miners, Labour MP Emrys Hughes sarcastically questioned whether another statue was ‘absolutely unnecessary because nobody can forget him?’

Undeterred, Tilney raised the matter a few months later. Wilson remained unwilling to back the project and refused it state funds but promised to facilitate the statue’s construction should broad support be made evident, which he doubted. When the matter was raised in the second chamber the Labour Leader of the Lords, Lord Shackleton, claimed to be not unsympathetic to the initiative, but then proceeded to list all the memorials then dedicated to Churchill, clearly implying another one was unnecessary. But another Labour peer, Lord Blyton, a former miner, was more direct in his criticism of the scheme, pointedly stating that, ‘I think we should remember that he [Churchill] did not win the last war by himself. He had men like Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin.’

After Tilney received the support of 150 MPs and various other worthies, Wilson was however obliged to endorse the formation of a committee to oversee the creation of a statue, which was unveiled in November 1973, the ceremony being watched by a crowd of over 1,000 including the Queen.

Since then and especially after the turn of the century Churchill’s statue has regularly been defaced or subject to lèse-majeste as perspectives about his contribution to British history have changed. During London’s May Day protests of 2000 a strip of grass was placed on its head to give the impression Churchill sported a Mohican haircut. Those responsible evaded the police but James Matthews, the 25 years-old former soldier who sprayed its mouth with red paint so it looked as if blood was dripping from it, did not. To him, ‘Churchill was an exponent of capitalism and of imperialism and anti-Semitism. A Tory reactionary vehemently opposed to the emancipation of women and to independence in India’.

Ten years later in what the Daily Mail described as an attack on ‘respect and common decency’ young protestors at a demonstration against an increase in university tuition fees showed what they thought about Churchill by urinating on the statue’s plinth. In 2012, in a more sober and focused way, in order to highlight the need to tackle problems associated with mental illness, campaigners placed a straightjacket on the statue, in recognition of Churchill’s increasingly well-known bouts of depression.

Even before it was unveiled, Churchill’s Parliament Square statue was the subject of dispute. Those well-placed figures who regarded him as the man who single-handedly saved Britain from defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany prevailed; but their view of Churchill’s place in history – and of the character of Britain itself – was always contested. Similarly, culture has been a constant political battleground: the events of the summer of 2020 are not so unique after all.

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham and the author with Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye of The Churchill Myths (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Cover image: Big Ben and Churchill Statue, courtesy of johnnyhypno https://www.needpix.com/photo/1805316/big-ben-churchill-statue-westminster-clock-england-london-politics-government [Accessed 08/10/2020].

This blog originally appeared in a slightly different form at: https://blog.oup.com/2020/09/the-defacing-of-churchills-statue/

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“Freewheelin’ to Ban-happy”?: Students and No-Platform in Britain

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Since around the end of 2013 there has been a moral panic around freedom of speech on British university campuses. This emerged after a number of public figures scheduled to speak at various universities and student unions were disinvited due to student pressure and organising – what is known as ‘no-platforming’.

This took place within a broader argument in the British media about ‘censorious students’, consisting not just of debates around ‘no-platform’ but also ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’.

For example, in December 2015 the Editor of the right-libertarian publication Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, used the term ‘Stepford Students’ in an article for the Spectator. He described how, in his view, students had been rebranded as fragile, overgrown children who needed to be shielded from ‘harmful’ ideas and who demanded the right to feel comfortable even at university which should be a space of challenging ideas and intellectual discomfort.

O’Neill characterised this development as a sudden and radical reversal. He argued that it is ‘hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have’ and claimed that in the ‘space of a generation students have gone from freewheelin’ to ban-happy’, from ‘askers of awkward questions’ to ‘suppressors of offensive speech’.

This idea of mollycoddled ‘snowflake’ students caught on and achieved a relatively dominant position in media coverage of free speech in Britain and British universities.[1]

Most of the discussion, though, has been devastatingly ahistorical. As the historian Evan Smith points out in his recent monograph, ‘no-platform’ has a much longer and more complex history than contemporary media discussions acknowledge.[2]

Smith argues that ‘no-platform’ emerged out of a longer antifascist tradition in Britain of denying a platform to fascists in the inter- and early post-war periods through tactics such as heckling and the physical denial of space. Whilst true, we might put these longer traditions aside for the moment to look at the issue of free speech at universities, which became a matter of media interest in the 1960s.

In May 1968, for example, an article in the Spectator compared what it termed ‘liberal’ and ‘revolutionary’ students, and noted there was tension between the two because the ‘liberals’ were struggling with their studies due to their ‘free speech being howled down’ by the demonstrations of the ‘revolutionary minority’.[3]

The next year the Vice-Chancellor of Essex University, Dr. Albert Sloman, expressed his concern at how militant students were killing free speech and complained that important questions were no longer being debated in universities as frankly or as often because visiting speakers were regularly being ‘drowned out’.[4]

During the 1960s and 1970s, rather than Milo Yinnopolous or Tommy Robinson, it was often Conservative MPs like Enoch Powell or Keith Joseph who were being denied platforms. For instance, when Powell was invited to speak at the annual dinner of the Conservative Association at St. Andrews in 1973, he had attracted so much previous opprobrium on other campuses that the Association deliberately printed the wrong date on posters advertising the dinner, only informing students buying tickets what the real date was in order to avoid disruption.[5]

Referring to Powell being prevented from speaking at Dundee University the year before, one commentator, again in the Spectator, complained that students were ‘encouraged to regard themselves as infants whose tantrums will not be held against them’ and that they were ‘pampered…in the most regressive and childlike attitudes and granted exemption from the adult world’.[6]

Here – in 1972 – were almost identical criticisms to those being made today and even the same language being used – of infantilisation, childlike attitudes and the characterisation of students as regressive children who urgently need to grow up.

As Smith documents, 1973 saw protests against Professor Hans Eysenck at LSE (for his research on racial elements in the inheritance of intelligence) and the occupation of a lecture hall at Sussex to prevent the American academic Samuel P. Huntington from speaking. In May 1974, the former Monday Club Chairman Jonathan Guinness was prevente from speaking at Portsmouth Polytechnic with students even barricading a hall and drowning him out until he left.[7] Smith shows how ‘these events were portrayed as an end to free speech on campus and an example of a violent turn within the movement’, with this period an important ‘incubator’ for the idea of ‘no-platform’.[8]

1974 was indeed a particularly important moment as it was the year ‘no-platform’ became an official National Union of Students (NUS) policy rather than a disparate patchwork of policies at various student unions. The NUS conference in Liverpool voted to ‘smash’ the meetings of, amongst other groups, the Monday Club, the National Front (NF) and the National Democratic Party.[9]

There was, however, considerable opposition to the Liverpool motion. Surrey, for instance, disowned the policy of disruption by defending ‘the right of freedom of speech for all’.[10] One NUS-delegate from Manchester argued that right-wing views could be rejected through common sense and believing students did not have the capacity to do so was ‘patronising paternalism’.[11]

At the University of Sheffield, a debate took place on whether to let Brian Faulkner, the Unionist last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, speak. The talk eventually went ahead with the Chairman of the Debates Committee arguing: ‘if he was evil let the man come and show himself to be evil during questioning…students are capable of judging for themselves’, whilst others argued that freedom of speech had to be weighed against ‘other important freedoms’.[12]

In fact, mirroring recent moves, disillusionment with the NUS and policies like ‘no-platform’ even caused some unions to disaffiliate, such as Aston and Manchester in 1976.[13]

The important point here is that there has been, for over half a century now, anxieties and debates about freedom of speech on campuses and so to suggest that, in the space of a generation, students have gone from ‘freewheelin’ to ‘ban-happy’ isn’t really true.  

It is also not quite accurate to say, as Sarah Ditum did in the New Statesman in 2014, that only recently has the tactic burst beyond the remit it was originally intended for. During the 1980s sexists and homophobes were targeted for denial of platforms and Smith argues that in this period the tactic was recalibrated in the face of these other threats following the decline of the NF, ‘indicating that debate around the repurposing of the tactic by students has endured for nearly 40 years’.[14]

There was another pronounced ‘spike’ of media interest from 1985, and by 1986 it was felt that freedom of speech in universities was under such an acute threat that parliamentary legislation was required to make it the duty of institutions to enforce the right of free speech. In the Commons, the Secretary of State for Education and Science spoke of the ‘considerable public unease’ about the way in which certain people had been denied the right of freedom of speech at universities, resulting in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 which forced institutions to take ‘reasonable steps’ to guarantee freedom of speech within the law.[15]

So, a closer look at the history of ‘no-platform’ in Britain reveals that much of the discussion has remained essentially unchanged for decades. There have certainly been more intense moments where these themes gained greater visibility and traction in the media, but students have not gone from free speech warriors to censors in a generation and a ‘radical transformation’ simply does not accurately characterise changing attitudes to campus free speech.

Hallam Roffey is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the idea of ‘acceptability’ in English culture between 1970 and 1990, examining changing attitudes around sexually explicit imagery, violent media, offensive speech and blasphemy. You can find Hallam on Twitter @HallamRoffey


Cover image: University of Michigan Student Walkout at the Ross School of Business, November 16, 2016. Courtesy of Corey Seeman, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cseeman/30895469312/in/photostream/ [Accessed 5 October 2020].

[1] I myself repeated a number of its tropes in what I now view as a somewhat embarrassing series of articles for Spiked and the Telegraph).

[2] E. Smith, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech (Oxon, 2020).

[3] Spectator, 23 May 1968, p. 2.

[4] Daily Mail, 14 October 1969, p. 9.

[5] Darts, 23 February 1973, p. 3.

[6] Spectator, 18 November 1972, p. 11.

[7] Daily Mail, 18 May 1974, p. 14.

[8] Smith, No Platform, p, 82.

[9] Daily Mail, 5 April 1974, p. 13.

[10] Guardian, 29 May 1974, p. 5.

[11] Guardian, 5 April 1974, p. 7.

[12] Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 7; Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 1.

[13] Darts, 19 February 1976, p. 1, 12.; Daily Mail, 5 February 1976, p. 9.

[14] Smith, No Platform, p. 113.

[15] B.P.P, HC, 11 February 1986, Freedom of Speech (Universities and Institutions of Higher Education).

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Did the Feminist Challenge Actually Shake Up the Print Press in 1969? Press Representations of Women in the Run-up to Women’s Lib

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The late 1960s were a turbulent time of rapid change; the mini skirt was the height of fashion, affluence was on the up yet women fighting for their liberation were criticised and mothers who worked were regarded with contempt.[1] Similar themes persist today and, despite progress, over half a century later full equality has not been achieved. Women still do not have equal pay in many professions and the press and media continue to treat men and women differently.

The Way, July 1969. Courtesy of the TUC Library Collections ©. http://www.unionhistory.info/equalpay/display.php?irn=811&QueryPage=advsearch.php (Accessed 15 March 2020).

1969 was a decisive year for second-wave feminism; protests were beginning and women were claiming political and social agency in Britain. These years laid the key groundwork for the historically influential feminism of the 1970s. The print press, although now competing with TV, continued to have high levels of readership, and thus heavily influenced and manipulated public opinion. This made the press vital in shaping responses to early feminism.

On the 18 May 1969, one thousand men and women assembled and marched for equal pay in Trafalgar Square. The newspaper reports on this were hugely varied. The Daily Mirror covered it in detail, describing placards labelled ‘Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value’, but it certainly did not express outward support for the marchers.[2] The elite press typically published short, disengaged reports, ignoring the issues behind the protests.

The Observer neglected to even comment on the 18 May demonstration. Meanwhile the Daily Mail criticised the women for not carrying their own banners, commenting that ‘it takes MEN to carry those banners’. It went on to mock the women who retreated inside ‘to sort matters out in a more traditionally feminine way – over a cup of tea.’[3] Feminist activism like this seldom made the front pages and was rarely taken seriously. There was undoubtedly variety between publications and even within them, but these publications had substantial impact on popular perceptions of feminism.

The British press not only tended to reject this early second-wave feminism but also outlined conflicting notions of femininity. On one hand women were expected to exemplify the perfect sexless housewife and thus were relegated to the domestic sphere. Meanwhile Page Three sexualised and objectified the female body, often disguising itself behind female sexual liberation, not dissimilar to the “sexual liberation” found in the underground press. All the while the newsrooms and the hard news reports remained male dominated.

The maternal, domestic, sexless woman was isolated to the ‘Woman’s Page’ of the elite press and popular press; bombarded by adverts for domestic appliances, makeup and all things intrinsically ‘feminine’. The national press presumed women to have no interest in the hard news stories and excluded them from the “serious” business of the public and political realms. Many of the elite papers virtually disregarded women’s issues and neglected to report on women’s news stories.

Female protests were often demeaned or not reported on at all. For example, when reporting on a strike in January 1969, the Guardian published a very small article titled ‘Another strike by women’.[4] In this vein, female activism was perceived as an inconvenience, a nuisance, a phase that would pass. This sort of reporting trivialised the women’s movement in Britain and diminished the prominence of their activism.

Articles that did question women’s position in society were limited to one-off opinion pieces written by women rather than a sustained effort to support feminist policies. In broadsheets such as The Times, where almost half of the paper was dedicated to ‘Times Business News’ and a singular page was aimed at women, it is hard to see any truly positive responses to women’s liberation. Even in a Times article, endorsing women’s work, it was assumed this work could only be part-time so as to allow women to maintain their ‘domestic commitments’.[5]

The popular press encouraged the domestic woman but also flaunted young women or ‘girls’ for the male gaze. The Daily Mail encouraged sexual rivalry amongst women, describing the ‘jungle warfare of sexual cut and thrust’ they competed in.[6] Their reporting supported the idea that women existed to please men; a notion that was replicated across student papers and the underground press. Once the 1970s and the sexual revolution hit the sexualisation of women continued to rise, now under the guise of sexual freedom. Page Three emerged and the Sun even published a long statement addressing their portrayal of women: ‘The Sun, like most of its readers, likes pretty girls. And if they’re as pretty as today’s Birthday Suit girl, 20-year-old Stephanie Rahn of Munich, who cares whether they’re dressed or not?’.

Degrading, though not explicit language, plastered the pages of the tabloids, and women remained subordinate in the newsrooms too. Women were typically limited to writing soft news articles, women’s pages and advice columns, perhaps the odd opinion piece if they were lucky! The underground press defined themselves as liberal spaces but their newsrooms were certainly not. Marsha Rowe worked for Oz and recalled women being limited in the newsrooms; ‘however alternative our life style might be, we still did the domestic duties for men and children at home.’[7] Almost all news publications, bar the feminist press, were male dominated and thus many sexist attitudes remained. In fact this did not change for many years; the Sun did not get its first female editor until 2003 and even then she did very little to change reporting on women and did not touch Page Three.

Oz Magazine, no. 31, November 1970, p. 2. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oz-31-p2.jpg (Accessed 15 March 2020).

Undoubtedly second-wave feminism and all of its work was successful; it saw huge political progress and encouraged women to observe their own oppression. However we cannot disregard the importance of the national press. It is typical for historians to seek transformations, particularly within gender studies, but perhaps identifying the continuities is just as important. Our battle has certainly not been won and there is still much continuity in press representations of women. The growth of social media has seen a continued obsession with female appearance and women’s sexuality remains a fairly taboo subject. Equal Pay remains a prominent issue, even fifty years after it was brought to the forefront of the political agenda and feminism is regularly considered a dirty word. The powers of the press can never be underestimated and the new social media giants are not all that dissimilar from the 1960s press. It may be a different decade but many of the issues women faced then persist today.

Izzy Larsen is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationship between women and the press. She focused on 1969 as a decisive year for the feminist movement in Britain and explored how the national press responded to this emerging movement. Her research also considers how many of these issues persist for contemporary women in Britain and across the globe.

Cover Image: Women’s March, London, 21 January 2017. Courtesy of Nessie Spencer – Freaks&Gigs Photographie. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Women’s_March_London_(32993174595).jpg (Accessed 18 March 2020).

[1] Birmingham Daily Post, 23 April 1969, p. 25.

[2]Daily Mirror, 19 May 1969, p. 32.

[3] Daily Mail, 19 May 1969, p. 11.

[4] The Guardian, 10 January 1969, p. 18.

[5] The Times, 1 January 1969, p. 5.

[6] Daily Mail, 2 January 1969, p. 6.

[7] M. Rowe, ‘Spare Rib and the Underground Press’, The British Library. https://www.bl.uk/spare-rib/articles/spare-rib-and-the-underground-press (Accessed 15 March 2020).

 

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In the Name of ‘the Family’, Past and Present

Jack_Hanick Julia

‘Yes to life, no to abortion’, shouted some of the tens of thousands of marchers in support of the thirteenth international conference of the World Congress of Families (WCF) in Verona on Sunday. To drive home the point, miniature rubber fetuses were carried in the procession. The march came on the heels of a protest the day before, led by 20,000 people from more than seventy rights groups across Italy who came out to condemn the WCF’s conservative views on the family. The uproar in Verona last weekend was unusual. Internationally, the city is known for its opera and association with the ill-fated lovers Romeo and Juliet, rather than family politics.

What protestors found so upsetting was the WCF’s insistence on protecting a single image of what it called the ‘natural’ family: a man and a woman and their children. By implication, men should be seen as husbands, fathers and household heads, while women should be wives, mothers and carers. Children should be cherished, their numbers increased, and abortion banned. According to conference delegates, this version of the family had to be protected especially from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, as well as from family breakdown and single parenthood.

The meeting was co-sponsored by US organizations backed by the Christian right, alongside Italian groups and various Italian government bodies, including the Italian Ministry for the Family and Disability. Its current head, the social conservative Lorenzo Fontana, is a member of the far right Lega Nord political party. Across Europe, the far right has taken on the protection of the family as one of its core policy issues, with the WCF as a key forum to voice its views on the topic. In 2017, the event was co-hosted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The worldwide coverage and scale of protest surrounding last weekend’s event was noteworthy. But it is part of a longer history of fierce debates about what holds society together, and the role of the family as the foundation stone on which society is supposed to rest. What is interesting is that the New Right activists who convened in Verona radicalized views that were discussed among European lawyers since the late nineteenth century and that shaped civic laws in many European countries until quite recently. These views seem to sit oddly with widespread assumptions about the family today. However, they point to the often ethnocentric, patriarchal and racial beliefs that used to frame our laws on the family in the past, and that linger in many policies to the present.

In 1873, for example, lawyers from across Europe created the Institute for International Law in order to sort out problems that arose due to different countries having different laws on a variety of issues, from trade and war to the family. Twenty years later, the group began debating whether and how family law could be unified for all countries. Would it be possible to have the same laws on marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance for the whole world? What kind of family should those laws protect?

Between 1902 and 1905, five conventions on these issues were signed at the Hague in the Netherlands. As some of the framers of these conventions argued, the family should follow a generally Christian – or at least a Judeo-Christian – outline, based on one woman and one man, who also held authority over the family, together with their children. Any countries with Islamic law on the family – including associated practices of polygamy and talaq (unilateral divorce by repudiation) – were seen as too different (and, in the language of the time, ‘uncivilized’) to include in this international legal system.[1]

This development came on the heels of centuries of missionary activity around the world, and especially within Europe’s overseas empires. In the process of converting local populations, missionaries encouraged them to follow a presumed Christian family model based on monogamy and procreation by a married man and woman.

Following the First World War, the new League of Nations alongside international feminist groups rang in renewed efforts to protect the family across the globe. In the wake of the Second World War, the family came to the forefront of the international policy agenda again, this time sparked by the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It decreed the right ‘to marry and to found a family’ alongside other rights like the equality of ‘all human beings’ and the ‘right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community’.

Despite the claim to universality in the document’s title, and the involvement of delegates from around the world in debating the UDHR, it continued to echo conservative nineteenth-century European views about gender roles and the purpose of the family.  Meanwhile, new postwar and postcolonial constitutions like the 1949 German Basic Law gave the family special protections that stemmed from similar thinking.

In subsequent years, related international conventions took off and gradually broadened views on the family. For example, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) called for the equal rights of women to contract and dissolve marriages as well as the equal rights of married women to citizenship and work. These post-1945 initiatives were genuinely global in scope, with CEDAW having been signed from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Beyond the sphere of law, social movements have rallied across the globe for different views of the family. For example, for generations, LGBT groups advocated same-sex partnerships to be recognized – and, initially, not to be criminalized. Their efforts resulted in the legalization of same-sex civil partnerships and, eventually, same-sex marriage, starting in the Netherlands in 2001 and gradually extending as far as South Africa (2006), Brazil (2013), Australia (2017) and elsewhere. Meanwhile, socially conservative groups like Family Watch International have argued in favor of a different version of the family, for example, by lobbying the UN at its 2016 event ‘Uniting Nations for a Family Friendly World’.

The UN event coincided with its annual ‘International Day of the Families’. It is based on the view that ‘although families all over the world have transformed greatly over the past decades…, the United Nations still recognizes the family as the basic unit of society’.

The question remains, today, as in the past, which version of the family is recognized as that ‘basic unit’. As the events last weekend show, the family remains the site of worldwide contestation, with ongoing disagreement about what the family is, what it does, how it works, and who is part of it.

International connections – whether through international organizations and social movements or through social media and the press – not only highlight the family as something to be ‘saved’. They also drive home how varied families around the world are.

Julia Moses is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and currently based at the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Sociology as a Marie Curie Fellow, where she leads the EU/Horizon 2020 research project ‘Marriage and Cultural Diversity in the German Empire’ (MARDIV / Grant #707072). She recently published Marriage, Law and Modernity: Global Histories (Bloomsbury, 2017) and is currently completing a book titled Civilizing Marriage: Family, Nation and State in the German Empire.

[1] Talaq is only one aspect of divorce under Islamic Law. Khul’ is another aspect in Islamic law where separation is by way of consent between the parties, and when the power of Talaq is transferred to the Wife it is called Tafweedh-e-Talaq.

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The Guinea Pigs of Oakholme Road: Pacifism and Medical Research in Wartime Sheffield

IWM NCL – COs

At 4.30am on Saturday 8 March 2008, South Yorkshire Police arrived at Oakholme Hall, a 30-bed student residence in Broomhill, Sheffield, and began dispersing the 300-strong crowd gathered outside. As the Sheffield Telegraph reported later that week, what had started as a low-key house party had, due to some unwisely chosen privacy settings on Facebook, been gate-crashed by “hundreds of drunken revellers”.

The ensuing fracas, which resulted in ten arrests, nine on-the-spot fines, and numerous complaints from local residents, led Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield Professor Paul White to denounce those students who would “bring the good name of the university… into disrepute” and threaten expulsion for those who continued to flout rules of conduct. In response to White’s comments, Students’ Union President Mark Willoughby stressed that the party was an outlying incident and instead pointed to those students who conscientiously contributed to the local community, including “over 1,000 [who] are involved in voluntary work across the city.”

Willoughby’s appeal to voluntary work in an attempt to rehabilitate the tarnished reputation of Sheffield’s student population in 2008 provided a fortuitous call-back to the little-known place of Oakholme Road in the history of medicine and warfare. It was next door to Oakholme Lodge, at 18 Oakholme Road, that the Sorby Research Institute (SRI) was founded in December 1940. Although today merely another student hall, during the Second World War the building functioned as a site of unprecedented medical experimentation on human volunteers drawn from Sheffield’s community of pacifists and conscientious objectors (COs). Over the following six years, these ‘human guinea pigs’ would subject their bodies to infectious diseases, deficient diets, shipwreck simulations, stab wounds, and even bouts of malaria and scurvy. 1

To understand why pacifists would volunteer for these unpleasant tasks, it is necessary to consider the ambiguous position of COs in 1940s Britain. Whereas the well-publicised brutality inflicted on COs during the First World War generated a great deal of sympathy and solidarity, the comparative tolerance shown to their successors in 1939 caused something of an existential crisis for many in the pacifist community about how best to serve humanity and resist war. 2

This anxiety was particularly pronounced among young, university-age pacifists who increasingly rejected overly ‘intellectual’ and ‘academic’ forms of protest and instead promoted more practical, grounded, and physical kinds of war work such as agricultural labour, humanitarian relief, and medical aid. As well as being spurred on by their political beliefs, this drive towards more taxing kinds of labour was shaped by the mockery and scorn often directed towards university-educated pacifists by military tribunals and the local press. Comments regarding the application of Richard Charles Clarke, a 20-year-old student at the University of Sheffield, for exemption from military service, were typical. “You are receiving your education from the State, and you are not prepared to do anything in return,” the tribunal chairman concluded, before registering Clarke for military service against his wishes. 3

From this perspective, serving as a ‘human guinea pig’ made perfect sense: it offered the young, eager pacifist a form of labour that was constructive and humanitarian, but at the same time offered painful and unpleasant trials through which they could prove their bravery and commitment. The SRI’s experiments, therefore, offered a rare opportunity to improve their standing within the local community from mere tolerance to (at least grudging) respect.

It was with this hope in mind that volunteers signed-up for the first major experimental programme at the SRI: a series of trials designed to investigate the transmission of scabies, an infectious skin disease caused by parasitic mites which had been rising in incidence since the late 1930s. 4 These experiments required the volunteers to adopt a range of transgressive behaviours: wearing dirty military uniforms, sleeping naked between soiled bedsheets, and even sharing beds with infected soldiers. By presenting these unusual labours as vital to the protection of national health, the volunteers were able to overcome suspicion and distrust about their CO status to secure praise from local newspapers, gain sympathy from tribunal panels, and even reconcile with previously estranged family members.

Many of these benefits were short-lived, however. In the later years of the war, a shift towards less ‘exciting’ nutritional experiments, which largely required volunteers to adopt monotonous diets for months and even years a time, restricted the SRI’s capacity to transform maligned pacifists into unlikely wartime heroes. 5 As such, when the SRI closed in February 1946 to make way for “a student hostel”, many of the volunteers returned to their pre-war lives with little more to show for their efforts than disrupted careers, diminished finances, and compromised bodies. Nevertheless, for a short time, the house on Oakholme Road provided a space where a young, marginalised group could remake its public image against a backdrop of hostility and suspicion. Future party-throwers, take note.

David Saunders is a PhD student at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. His research focuses on medical experimentation and the politics of citizenship in wartime Britain.

Notes:

  1. For an overview of the SRI, see Kenneth Mellanby, Human Guinea Pigs (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1945).
  2. See Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945: The Defining of a Faith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 301-305.
  3. “Pacifist Tells Tribunal He Loves Hitler,” Sheffield Telegraph, 24 November 1939, p.6.
  4. See Kenneth Mellanby, Scabies (London: Oxford University Press, 1943).
  5. See E.M. Hume and H.A. Krebs, Vitamin A Requirement of Human Adults: An Experimental Study of Vitamin A Deprivation in Man (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1949); W. Bartley, H.A. Krebs and J.R.P. O’Brien, Vitamin C Requirement of Human Adults: A Report by the Vitamin C Subcommittee of the Accessory Food Factors Committee (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1953).
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#WorldMentalHealthDay, Left-Wing Politics and Radical Histories of Mental Health

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Today is World Mental Health Day, and the theme for 2018 is ‘Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World’. In reading the coverage of the event, including the official Twitter feed, it is noticeable that the framework of debate has been kept studiously apolitical. Discussion has centred on ‘breaking down stigma’, with a poll on the best way to do this showing enthusiasm for ‘awareness/education’ massively outweighing support for research, extra funding, or policy change.

When it comes to raising awareness though, it is fair to ask exactly what it is we are being made aware of, and why. And these are inherently political questions. Definitions of ‘mental health’, and the relationship between various kinds of emotional or psychological distress and ‘illness’ have been constantly contested throughout history. Particularly since the mid-twentieth century, so called ‘medical’ models of mental health and illness have increasingly been called into question.

Rather than an accident of biology, heredity or neurochemistry, voices from across the political spectrum have argued, mental ‘illness’ is best understood either as a consequence of, or a reaction to, an individual’s social circumstances.

How we define mental health matters, because the solutions we propose to the problems associated with mental illness will differ according to what we think it is. Even within ‘social models’ of mental health and illness, prescriptions for solutions will vary widely according to political persuasion.

On the right, the removal of psychological problems from the scope of medical intervention might be used to justify cutting services available to sufferers, stressing individual responsibility for one’s situation over the state’s duty of care. Liberal critics of over-medicalisation, meanwhile, are largely constrained to offering remedial measures – focused again, in their own way, on individual development – that leave the broader structures of social injustice largely intact.

In my new research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, I look at groups for whom the solutions to the problems of mental health lay in a radical, revolutionary re-ordering of society as a whole. For these people and organisations, the psychological conditions designated as ‘illness’ by psychiatry, and regulated as such by the state, were in fact the necessary and inexorable result of capitalist social relations in an advanced industrial society. The only way to deal with the emotional distress experienced by large swathes of the population, they argued, was to empower them to resist – and eventually, to overthrow – the entire edifice of capitalism and its political institutions.

The origins of this radical strain of mental health activism, I hypothesise, can be found in two – on the face of it unrelated – developments in the mid-1950s. The first was the appointment of the Percy Commission in 1954 and the 1959 Mental Health Act which resulted from its recommendations, initiating the end of the Victorian asylum system, the expansion of community care, and the integration of psychiatric services within the NHS.

In the same period, disillusionment with Soviet-style communism following successive shocks to the international left over the course of 1956 saw the flourishing of a vibrant ‘New Left’ in Britain, opening up of new avenues of radical politics beyond the traditional domain of class struggle, embracing feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, the peace movement and other causes.

It is in this dual context, I argue, that a radical, anti-capitalist mental health activism was able to emerge. Outside of the asylum, like-minded mental health survivors were able to meet and organise more easily, while the flourishing of left-wing politics beyond purely economist horizons opened up mental illness as a potential field of struggle that could be usefully linked to other battles.

The Mental Patients’ Union (MPU), established in 1973, is a good example. Founded at the experimental, co-operatively run Paddington Day Hospital in London, the MPU articulated a wide-ranging social model of mental health that was unambiguously anti-capitalist, putting forward a programme that linked the struggles of mental health survivors to wider issues of poverty, unemployment and housing.

An early MPU publication argued that psychiatry ‘is one of the tools that capitalism uses to ensure that frustration and anger against the oppressive system is internalised. It is time the mental patient fought back and joined other oppressed groups in the class struggle.’

The 1960s and 70s saw similar movements emerging in United States and Europe – notably in West Germany and in Italy. While never dominant within mental health organisations in Britain – and often met with scepticism, or outright hostility, from a broader organised left – these groups nonetheless had an influence that has largely been overlooked by historians of both mental health and the left.

Over the last decade, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the UK has once again seen a resurgence of activity on the radical left, while at the same time, the stresses of the recession and the cuts to services by Conservative-led governments have seen mental health issues newly politicised. Not only has the MPU’s spirit of radical self-organisation been newly reignited in groups like Speak Out Against Psychiatry, Recovery in the Bin and the Mental Health Resistance Network, but – with the leftward turn in the Labour Party leadership, and the introduction of a new Shadow Ministry for Mental Health – the radicalisation of mental health discussions within the mainstream of British politics has become a genuine (if as yet underdeveloped) possibility.

Not only – as the literature accompanying today’s event notes – are adolescence and young adulthood often associated with life changes which bring particular vulnerability to psychological or emotional distress, but in the UK, young people have also been disproportionately affected by austerity, and – from the student movement to Corbynism – a significant motor of progressive and radical politics.

If the potential of this moment is to be grasped, it will require going beyond the paradigm of awareness-raising. It will mean re-learning the lessons of activists in the past, and listening to campaigners in the present. On the left, we will need to take mental health seriously as a field of contention, while as mental health campaigners we will need to go beyond a surface critique of stigmatisation to interrogate the structures of unhappiness, distress and injustice that undergird our society.

Steffan Blayney is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in History at the University of Sheffield. He is a member of the editorial team at History Workshop Online and a co-organiser of History Acts. Twitter: @SteffanBlayney

 

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